HC Deb 13 August 1919 vol 119 cc1582-6

(2) Before exercising any of the powers under Sub-section (1) (b) of Section three of this Act, to the exercise of which the owners of the undertaking concerned object, or directing the establishment of new transport services by land or water, the Minister shall refer the matter to a committee selected by him from the said panel.

(4) Any member of the advisory panel, or any committee thereof, or of any other committee established under this Act, for giving advice and assistance to the Minister. shall be considered to be acting entirely in a confidential capacity.

Lords Amendment:

In Sub-section (2), leave out the words. "directing the establishment of," and insert instead thereof the word" establishing."—Agreed to.

Lords Amendment:

At end, add the words in respect of any matter coming to his knowledge in the exercise of his duties under this Act which it would be contrary to the interests of any private individual or trader to make public.


I beg to move, "That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said Amendment."

The Bill originally said: Any member of the advisory panel, or any committee thereof, or of any other committee established under this Act for giving advice and assistance to the Minister, shall be considered to be acting entirely in a confidential capacity. The words sought to be added by the Lords put a limit to that confidential action in matters affecting the interests of any private individual or trader. That is not sufficient. That limit does away with all the good of Clause 6, Sub-section (4), of the Bill. May I just remind the House what is the position of the various committees under this Bill. Take the advisory committee. The members are experts in the first place, and impartial persons with wide commercial and trading experience for the purpose of advising the Minister. In all cases they are to give the honest opinion they are sent for to give as impartial persons and experts. They are to give the Minister the benefit of their honest expert opinion. If anyone reads the OFFICIAL REPORT he will see that the other House sought to limit this confidential capacity and wanted to insert these words in order that those called to and represented on the advisory committees should know what advice was given by the members to the Minister who had them called there. If the expert gave honest expert advice which did not happen to suit the convenience of certain interests, they would be able to attack him or criticise him outside. That is what we wanted to avoid. It is for the direction of these committees that they are called there, and they have also to assist the Minister. You may get an expert to give advice which is unfavourable to particular interests. If he is to be able to give his full and honest advice, we must have the knowledge that it will be confidential and will not be known outside. And suppose the Minister in the exercise of his honest opinion as an official, on which he is bound to act primarily, knew that what he did was not confidential, what a disadvantage it would be if it were known what his decision was. It is essential that these committees should be absolutely judicial, because they have the right to make inquiries and take evidence, call for documents, and make examinations of various kinds. They are entitled to get evidence and to use their practical knowledge in the advice they give. That should be confidential, because the advice they give should be thoroughly honest and thoroughly just.


This is a simple matter. I never pretended to be in sympathy, and I do not pretend now to be in sympathy, with a great part of this Bill. I believe it is a thoroughly bad conception of a Bill. I do not believe in creating little dictators-to do exactly as they like without any check or control, and therefore, of course, I quite recognise that perhaps I am not a very good person to argue this matter, in view of the fact that the House has apparently swallowed wholesale the conception of this Bill put forward by the Government. I quite admit that. But this Amendment appears to me to be a sound one. The whole object of bureaucracy is to enshroud their operations in secrecy as much as possible. The whole guarantee of liberty in this country has always been that we have insisted on publicity. That is the whole of our history. It is a case that we have argued over and over again, and bureaucracy always wants secrecy, but the public outside do gradually more and more insist on publicity.


Publicity in the public interest, and not in private interests.


Publicity is always in the public interest, or almost always, and this Amendment says there is only one reason why you ought not to prosecute public affairs in public, and that is when in doing so you would inflict an injury on the private interests which have been confided to you, forcibly, by the operations of the Statute. That is the sole exception, and it is a right exception. But beyond that every public matter ought to be made public. That is my conception of the principles upon which we have gone in erecting the whole structure and fabric of liberty in this country. That is the whole question—whether you do desire secrecy in the operations of this Advisory Committee. I do not at all agree with my right hon. Friend's views of what would be the result—that you would have messages sent to the representatives of the interests as to how they were to act. That is not the case at all. In this Bill originally the Government tried to make them subject to the Official Secrets Act, so that anyone who ventured to say a word about it would become liable to imprisonment. They were driven gradually out of that. Even this House of Commons was not prepared to swallow that, even the Labour party would not have that—it was too strong even for them—and gradually the Government had to abandon that, but they are still clinging to the rags of secrecy which remain in this Bill, and the Lords have suggested a further diminution of the secrecy. For my part, I am quite clear that in this matter the Lords are perfectly right, that a certain amount of publicity in the advice given by these committees can do no harm. It is absurd to say that it can do any more harm than the publication of the Debates in this House, which the bureaucracy fought against, sending people to prison for venturing to publish what had passed in this House. Sooner or later the Member for Cambridge (Sir Eric Geddes) will learn the elements of public liberty.


I confess to have been amazed at finding one with so logical and so statesmanlike a mind as that of my Noble Friend opposite arriving at such conclusions as he has expressed, and arriving at them by such processes as he has explained. He refers to the Official Secrets Act. Does he remember that every Government Department—the Admiralty, the War Office, and every Department of the Civil Service—is under the Official Secrets Act, and that every Civil servant is bound in the public interest not to disclose the transactions of the Department to which he belongs? That provision was made by the Legislature in two Acts, because there are two Acts known as the Official Secrets Acts, at intervals of ten years. Is that provision in the public interest, or is it not? I am sure the Noble Lord will admit that it is in the public interest. It has never been challenged, and I am proud to say that it has never been disgraced by the Civil servants who act under it. With that as our standard, let us inquire into the difference between what was proposed in this House and what is now proposed by the House of Lords. The Clause as it left this House after a Third Reading in which there was not a single dissentient vote in the Division, was to the effect that the advisory panel shall be considered to be acting in an entirely confidential capacity—that is to say, this advisory panel when acting officially in the Ministry shall be considered to be acting in a confidential capacity. That is the same kind of obligation that Civil servants on the full establishment of a Government Department take. What is it that the Lords have put in! What is their change, and what is the reason of their change? Let me read it: "In a confidential capacity," says the House of Commons, and then the Lords add: "In respect of any matter coming to his knowledge in the exercise of his duties under this Act which it would be contrary to the interests.—"The interests of whom? Of the public? Of the Ministry? Oh no! Not at all. Contrary "to the interests of any private individual or trader to make public." Here is a House of Commons providing that the members of the advisory committee shall be confidential in the public interest, and there is the House of Lords suggesting that the public interest is not to be safeguarded, but that if the private interests of traders are affected, then the seal of confidence is-broken, though the members of the advisory committee may speak in public of what has happened in the course of their own work officially. I do not think this House need consider that matter for many moments longer. I sincerely hope that the House will not agree to this suggestion in the interests of the private trader.


I think the Noble Lord was away when the Second Reading of this Bill was under consideration, engaged upon higher duties in Paris, and I think it is due to him to explain that we shall have the undertaking of the Government running side by side with the Select Committee on Transport, and for that reason I think he will see that it is better that we should have the confidential character of the Amendment of the House of Commons rather than the Amendment that is brought down to us. We are to have a reconstitution of the Select Committee on Transport, and the Minister during those two years is to consider the whole question with the assistance of the Select Committee, so that these Committees will be able in a confidential manner to advise not only the Minister but also the Select Committee which is working side by side with the Ministry. With that explanation I hope that the Amendment as brought from the Lords will not be accepted.