HC Deb 19 February 1917 vol 90 cc1077-81

Resolution reported, "That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £120,000, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1917, for His Majesty's Foreign and other Secret Services."

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."


I think so large a sum as this requires an explanation and some justification. As there are no less than ten right hon. Gentlemen on the Treasury Bench I hope that one of them, at any rate, will be able to give a little information upon this subject. It is perfectly obvious that there has been an enormous increase in the amount spent on secret service. I do not object to that—in this sense, that in a time of war a great deal must be kept from the eyes of the public which Parliament and the public have a perfect right to ask about and to know in times of peace. When the War broke out I think our annual Vote for Secret Service was about £40,000. I suppose it is fifteen times as much as that to-day. I want an assurance—if it can be given—and let me remind right hon. Gentlemen that it was given by their predecessors, the last Government—that after the War the amount of the Secret Service Fund shall go back to this pre-war figure. We do not want to have saddled upon us in time of war a large Vote, the reason for, the way in which, and the possibilities upon which it may be spent quite unknown—we do not want this system of a huge secret police thrust upon us in time of war. It is the mention of this huge secret police that we have about us at the present time that gives ground in my mind for some suspicion and alarm. I hear on quite a number of hands that secret agents are being employed, not necessarily to track out the enemy and to obtain in foreign countries information that we desire, but actually in our own land. It is stated that they are being employed among our own workers to support and to foment discontent, suspicion, and disunion amongst the workers who ought to stand together, and who otherwise would stand together against the profiteer and the persecutions that are put upon them.

Quite a number of cases have been brought to my notice. Some may be rather suspicious, because in a day where there is so much secret agency going about there must of necessity be a great deal of suspicion, more or less unfounded, or more or less well founded. I very much regret, therefore, that it has been necessary to increase this Vote. I hope that the Estimate which will be presented for the coming year will go back to the old figure of £400,000 and that we shall have no Supplementary Estimate. There is another question in connection with the secret service to which I must call attention. A great deal of secret service money is being em- ployed in ways that are not at all secret. There are at least two Departments carrying on their work in offices which are perfectly well known, not only to Members of Parliament—because there has been repeated questions put and answered in this House about them—which have all indicated that certain persons are doing certain work, in certain ways, with certain objects, all supported on the Secret Service Vote. I suppose everyone of us knows several persons of this description. There are former Members of this House doing work for the secret service, and making no sort of secret whatever about it. That is a very new and a very unfortunate development of the Government of the day.

They send men to do work that is not secret. Instead of having a report of their work laid before the public, instead of their activities being open to criticism as they would be if their payment or salaries and expenses were put upon the ordinary Estimates of the House, certain persons and certain departments of the work are withdrawn from the criticism of this House by having them put on the Secret Service Vote. There are many ways in which this House has in time of war given up its control. I am sorry to see the advantage taken by the Government of this tendency that the House has very properly shown not to inquire very deeply into some of these matters, but to take as much as possible for granted. The Government have withdrawn from the public gaze certain activities of their members or their services. I greatly hope that in future we shall not have any increase of this Secret Service Vote, and that those people who perform secret service, and are paid by this Vote, will not go about London and other places proclaiming that the work that they are doing is secret service work. I should like to make it a condition—and I should do so if I were at the Treasury—that these people who do secret service should work in secret, should not blaze forth their activities in public, and should not go about telling people how they are paid. My suggestions may not be very well received, I dare say, but I believe they are worth something or I should not make them. There are a good many remarks I might make upon this subject, but I had the opportunity of speaking on some of these matters in Committee, and therefore I shall content myself with what I have now said.


I should rather be inclined to criticise this matter from the opposite standpoint to that of the hon. Gentleman who has just spoken, though I do not propose to do so. I hope the House will never begrudge anything under this head. It we cease on both sides to trust the Government of the day in matters of this kind, I think it is all over with the Empire. The fact is there is a large increase— much larger than the hon. Member seems to think. I think it will be an increase of £420,000 per annum—the original Estimate being £200,000— thus making the total £620,000. The fact is one on which I would rather commend the Government. I am rather glad that the Government are waking up to the fact that they are fighting an unscrupulous enemy, who will stick at nothing. The utmost length to which you can get the Government to stretch the Secret Service Vote is not anything comparable to the diabolical inventions of which our enemy is capable. I presume the hon. Member knew, when he spoke, that he would not be successful in influencing the policy of the Government. At any rate, I do not want his to be the only voice put forward in this matter.

I should like to throw out a suggestion to the Government. It turns upon a point which I feel I rather expressed badly on a former occasion. There is an exceptional opportunity now for our secret service if they take as a starting point some of the exposures of the German firm's machinations in this country. I think the results will show that the money has been well spent. There is no doubt at all about it that the German commercial people here were largely secret service men of the German Government. If you tear the veil aside and get into the inside of the German firms you will establish the fact of the lengths to which they would go, and have gone, with bribery, corruption, and the teaching of particular knowledge of British Acts of Parliament—so as to evade them— and the procedure of our Law Courts. The Government have an opportunity in the winding up of these enemy firms. If they would put some of their secret service men on to the records which are for the first time available, I think some of the contentions I put forward in a former Debate would rather be found to be true—that a great deal of the corruption in British commercial life has been forced upon Britishers by the competition of these German firms, who were so unscrupulous that sometimes weak competitors gave way and tried to meet them in their own fashion. I feel that a great deal of the corruption aimed at by the legislation, of which I spoke before, has been fostered and encouraged by the German contingent in this country. I think if our secret service men could get access to the records which are now available in the Board of Trade control of these firms, and examine the books, and some of the payments, and then connect them with politics—as I think they would be able to do—a very great deal of valuable information would be obtained. This increased vigilance on the part of the Government should have, I think, the hearty support of the House.

Question put, and agreed to.