§ Lord H. CAVENDISH-BENTINCK
I beg to move to reduce Vote A by 100 men.
I have put this Motion down to draw attention to the dismissal of Miss Violet Douglas Pennant. I should like to explain that I am very sorry indeed to have to say anything that is disagreeable, firstly, to my right hon. and gallant Friend, and, secondly, that may seem to be derogatory to the Air Service. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman is a very old friend of mine, and nobody has a greater admiration for the distinguished services rendered to the nation by him or the Air Service. This question is not merely a personal one. The dismissal of Miss Douglas Pennant goes to the very root of the efficiency of the public service, and the treatment which was accorded to her really undermines that confidence which justice and fairness ought to inspire. Miss Pennant was ostensibly dismissed because of the exigencies of the public service, and the excuse given is because the efficiency of the Service demanded it. That is merely the ostensible reason, but the real reason is that she from the very first was the victim of a conspiracy and an intrigue, and Lord Weir, instead of supporting her in her efforts to secure the efficiency of the Service, got rid of her, and thereby supported and condoned the action of those who were obstructing the efficiency of the public service.
Miss Pennant was no untried person. She had a long and distinguished career of public service, and her efficiency and capacity as an Insurance Commissioner has won for her the affection and esteem of the whole of the people of Wales. On 22nd April she was invited to take the head of the Women's Royal Air Force, and she only consented if she might have an opportunity of looking round for a month. She found she was up against a corrupt clique of people who were running the Women's Air Force at that time, who 1579 were determined that it should be run in an inefficient way or not at all. For instance, she was refused all information as to the Service over which she was supposed to preside. She was even refused information as to what camps had women of the Royal Air Force working in them. She went to the Master-General of Personnel and told him that she could not possibly accept the post unless she had his support, and Sir Godfrey Paine promised her his support, and said she was to Save the sole command of the Air Force, and at all times to have access to himself. Therefore she accepted the post.
Soon after that she was asked to promote five most unsuitable and inexperienced women to high and responsible positions, but she refused to do so and said they must take subordinate positions in which they had proved their worth. Lord Weir upheld her decision, but this caused great discontent and animosity in the clique to which I have referred, and they made it their business to make her position impossible. She got messages to say that she would be very soon turned out of the place, and stating that highly-placed people were determined that she should not hold her position any longer. These people actually went to the length of issuing instructions in her name without her knowledge, and behind her back, with the sole object of making her out a most unreasonable person. Telephone messages were sent in her name of which she had not the slightest knowledge, and she went to Sir Godfrey Paine and said she could not possibly carry on her work unless a certain officer at the head of the men's department of the Women's Air Force was dismissed. Sir Godfrey Paine, who always supported her in the most loyal way, got rid of this officer, and for a time everything went smoothly and the Service made great progress.
Unfortunately, Sir Godfrey Paine took up a position in France, and General Brancker took his place, and he had not been in office more than three days, and had hardly had time to sec whether Miss Pennant was efficient or not, when he sent for her and dismissed her on the spot. I do not know whether he did so by Lord Weir's order or not, but she was dismissed in an extremely summary manner. I think probably my right hon. Friend will tell us that since Miss Pennant was dismissed, and since her successor has taken over her work, things have gone on 1580 much more smoothly than before. That may be the truth, but it is not the whole truth. The whole truth is that when Miss Pennant took up this post she found the Women's Royal Air Force was a perfect mess of corruption and intrigue, and the whole Service was in an utter state of disorganisation. Although there was a large staff they had done absolutely nothing. There was no register, no system of finding letters, and what is more important there was no clothing to be got for the women. There were actually 500 camps in which women were working, and only seventy-three women officers, and Miss Pennant fought against the difficulties placed in her way, and proceeded to put these things right.
She secured accommodation for training officers, and in eleven weeks she trained no less than 300 women officers, and, further than that, she started a training scheme for 12,000 cooks, and typists, and general servants. It would be more-honest to say, and I hope my right hon. Friend will say, that the efficiency of the Service of the present day, to a very large extent, is due to the excellent spade work put in by Miss Pennant when she was there. I think it is really deplorable that she was not allowed to carry on her work.
I know perfectly well that in war-time no officer has a vested interest in his post. We have seen officers got rid of, not for any misconduct, but simply and solely because the exigencies of the Service demanded that somebody else should have that position. I do say, however, that Miss Pennant was not dismissed for any inefficiency or unpopularity, but she was dismissed simply and solely because she was not allowed to have a fair chance, and because she was up against this corrupt clique of people who put every obstacle in her way. She was the victim, of malice, intrigue, and conspiracy, and I think it is a monstrous thing for a Department to say either that she was unpoular or inefficient, because she was neither one nor the other. Lord Londonderry, in another place, speaking for the Air Ministry, said that if charges of corruption and intrigue were made, Miss Pennant should have an inquiry. Well, she has brought charges of corruption and intrigue against members of the Ministry. I myself bring charges of corruption here and now, and it will be a monstrous thing if the pledge which Lord Londonderry has given in another place is not upheld and given by the Minister now.
§ Brigadier-General Sir OWEN THOMAS
I associate myself with all that has been said by my hon. and Noble Friend.
§ Lord H. CAVENDISH - BENTINCK
On a point of Order. Are we not to have the presence of the Air Minister?
§ Sir OWEN THOMAS
Anyone who has really considered this case and is aware of all the facts in connection with it can come to no other conclusion than that Miss Douglas Pennant has been cruelly treated. She was dismissed in an abrupt and, I should say, an insulting manner, and certainly contrary to Regulations. I should like to quote the Regulations which govern the Women's Royal Air Force:Provided that your service may be terminated forthwith, on the ground of misconduct, false answer on enrolling, or breach of conditions, on receipt of notice given by the Air Council, or, in the event of your services being no longer required, that they may be terminated by one month's notice in writing being given to you.There was no notice given to Miss Douglas Pennant; She was not given the option, as is generally the case, of resigning her position, although ten days before she had sent in her resignation. It was then refused, and she was begged to go on, as she was doing really good work. At that time a question was asked in this House as to whether Miss Douglas Pennant was giving satisfaction, and the answer given by the Parliamentary Secretary was that they had every confidence in this lady's ability and discretion. Ten days afterwards General Brancker was appointed to succeed General Sir Godfrey Paine. Miss Douglas Pennant worked one day with him, and on the following day he told her that she was not required any longer and that she could leave that moment. There have been so many reasons given by different heads of the Department in connection with this case that it is difficult to know what is meant, I asked a question in this House, and I was referred to what had taken place in the other House. Lord Londonderry there said:I am given to understand that there is an idea in Miss Violet Douglas Pennant's mind, and in the minds of the Noble Lords who are taking up the case, that she has been the victim of malice and the victim of conspiracy. I say on behalf of the Government that the Secretary of State will leave no stone unturned to probe this allegation to its uttermost limits. If Miss Douglas Pennant can bring forward a primâ facie case in which she will state the names of 1582 the individuals who are associated in the responsible action, giving us the dates, and details, and facts, an inquiry shall most certainty be held and all these facts brought to light, to the satisfaction not only of Miss Douglas Pennant and the Noble Lords who are supporting her, but also to the satisfaction of your Lordships' House and the other House of Parliament.Mention was made of an apology. If it were offered, after what has happened, it would be adding insult to injury. After Miss Douglas Pennant's dismissal she saw the Prime Minister, and he ordered an inquiry. He asked the hon. Gentleman the Member for Luton (Mr. Harmsworth) to inquire into the matter, and he did so. He made a Report, but Miss Douglas Pennant has never seen that Report. We know that the Report was favourable to Miss Douglas Pennant, and I think we have a right to ask for it, or that an inquiry shall be held—one or the other. It is possible that it will be denied that we can prove that a report was made. We want to know by whose authority General Brancker dismissed Miss Douglas Pennant. The Regulation provides for a month's notice in writing to any officer whose service is no longer required, except in specific cases of misconduct. How is it that Miss Douglas Pennant was dismissed three weeks after a statement was made in the House expressing confidence in her ability and discretion? We should like to know what new facts were brought to the attention of the Air Ministry during this period, and also what has become of the Report of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Luton. Lord Londonderry said that Lord Weir had written to Miss Douglas Pennant a fortnight before she was dismissed. In this letter he is supposed to have said that the time had come when certain arrangements were to be made, and he was preparing the way for her to go. Lord Londonderry was asked for the date of that letter He gave the date as 6th September, a fortnight after Miss Douglas Pennant had been dismissed. Miss Douglas Pennant, however, knows nothing at all about that letter. It is altogether an imaginary letter. This, therefore, is a very extraordinary case. Apparently, the officials have got somebody to shield. I do not think that the Air Ministry is noted for its good manners or its judgment, and we have a right, on behalf of Miss Pennant, to ask the Under-Secretary to consider this matter. What harm would be done to anyone if an inquiry were held? The innocent would not suffer. Miss Douglas Pennant has been dismissed with a stigma attaching to her, and that is unbearable 1583 to any lady who has done what she has done in the service of her country for the last twenty years. I appeal to you to grant an inquiry. There is no harm in doing so—absolutely no harm—and I feel certain, if the right hon. Gentleman will look on both sides of the question, he will come to the conclusion that in this case an inquiry is absolutely necessary.
§ Sir ROBERT THOMAS
My Noble Friend (Lord H. Cavendish-Bentinck) and my hon. Friend opposite (Sir O. Thomas) have gone very fully into this case, but there are one or two points I should like to refer to and emphasise. The Committee will observe that Miss Pennant was invited to leave the position of Commissioner on the Welsh Insurance Commission to take up the position as Commandant of the Women's Royal Air Force. Miss Pennant heard that there had been a good deal of disorder and irregularity in the Women's Royal Air Force, and she was very reluctant indeed to assume that very responsible position, and, as my Noble Friend has mentioned, she took, actually, a month before she accepted the invitation. Having accepted it, she applied herself with her usual energy and enthusiasm to her task. One of the first things she asked Sir Godfrey Paine: "May I have direct access to you the Master-General of Personnel?" She was very anxious, having regard to what she heard about her predecessor's disputes, that she should have direct access to the Master-General of Personnel. That request was acceded to, and this is the crux of the whole of this unfortunate affair. What happened after that? Brigadier-General Livingstone, who was head of a branch of this force called M 3, immediately took exception to the grant of Miss Pennant's request that she should have direct access to Sir Godfrey Paine, and he warned her that that would be the downfall and break up of the Women's Royal Air Force. That was the beginning of this malicious intrigue. That was the beginning of this intrigue because Miss Pennant was determined not to meet with the same experience as her predecessor. What was the position of this force as Miss Pennant found it? She had to settle during the period that she was commandant, namely from June to August, and she was dismissed in August, three strikes which broke out amongst these women because they could not get uniforms. They 1584 could not get overalls in which to do the work in the workshop, and notwithstanding every effort on her part those uniforms were not forthcoming. Those uniforms were to come from M 3, and Colonel (name inaudible) was in charge of that. This gentleman was also up against Miss Pennant for the same reason as General Livingstone, and obstructions were placed in the way so that she could not make any progress whatever. But, notwithstanding that, owing to her tact and ability, she was able to settle three strikes during that short period. This colonel may be a very competent man, but to give you an instance of what had taken place in the Air Force this colonel was made in one day from second-lieutenant to lieutenant-colonel.
§ Sir R. THOMAS
I think so, and that my right hon Friend will mid it to be correct that he was made lieutenant-colonel from second-lieutenant in one day, and I am advised he saw no experience of the War at all. That was the gentleman who obstructed, deliberately obstructed, and prevented this lady, who rendered such eminent service to her country, from performing her duty in the Air Service. What else did she find in the Air Service—absolute chaos. Some of the things have been referred to by my Noble Friend, but in addition to that there were grave things taking place, and serious things taking place which she ought to have had support in removing instead of being obstructed from removing. You heard of the case of those five women I referred to Brigadier-General Livingstone. Five of those women demanded to be placed in positions that they were unsuited for, and one of those women was the sister of this brigadier-general. They were women who had no experience of the positions that they were applying for. Miss Pennant said, "No, I am willing to train you, I am willing to make you suitable for those positions, but until you get that training I cannot place you in those positions." Those women threatened Miss Pennant. Their names are known. One is Mrs. Stevenson. Several of them said to her, "Look here, we warn you now we have friends, and unless you place us in those positions, then into the street you will go!" And verily the prophecy was verified and she was turned into the street, and by whom we want to find out, and for what we want to find out. Can anybody say—can any hon. Gentleman say there was not 1585 a conspiracy, a deep-rooted conspiracy, with malice behind it, to prevent this lady from performing her duty, and to uphold a system of corruption in the Air Service?
Those are a few of the things. There are other things which she found. For instance, unsuitable buildings which had been acquired by officers on behalf of the Government were palmed on to her for training purposes, buildings that were totally unsuitable for training, and that was one of the most important functions which Miss. Pennant had to perform, namely, the training of women for this service. Unsuitable buildings were bought and pressed upon her, and because she declined to take those buildings there was more persecution on that ground. What happened? There was a persistent determination upon everybody's part to get her out. Instructions were issued in her name that were never issued by her at all. She was prevented by all manner of means from attending conferences which it was vital for her to attend. Why? On the 16th August she notified General Paine that she could not put up with this any longer. She asked him would he relieve her of this position and appoint a successor? Sir Godfrey Paine begged and implored her to remain in her position. He stated that he had every possible confidence in her, that she was thoroughly efficient, and that there was nothing whatever against her. He asked her to remain. She did so. But on the 28th August, General Paine was promoted and General Brancker succeeded him. After one dayonly—he had only had one day's experience of Miss Pennant—he summarily dismissed her. She did not receive a week's notice. She asked him, "When must I go?" The answer was "Immediately." She was summarily dismissed. It is a gross injustice to a lady of her position to be spoken to in that way, after rendering such eminent service to the country, at all events, without some reason being given for that summary dismissal.
The matter was taken up with the Prime Minister. What happened then? The hon. Member for Luton (Mr. Cecil Harmsworth) was requested by the Prime Minister to make an inquiry into this matter, in order to advise him whether, in his opinion, a judicial inquiry should be held. The hon. Member for Luton made his inquiry, he gave his report to the Prime Minister and on that report the Prime Minister said he would grant a judicial inquiry. I suppose that that is 1586 not denied. If it is, I have letters here which support it. The Prime Minister said that Miss Pennant should have a judicial inquiry. Lord Weir intervened and the inquiry was stopped. Why? If the cause of this lady is not a just cause, if she has been guilty of an offence, if she has been guilty of misconduct involving instant dismissal, why all this mystery, why all this shuffling, and why ultimately should the Prime Minister be made to go back upon his pledged word to grant her an inquiry? It is a monstrous injustice. We intend to go to a Division upon the matter. I am a supporter of the Government, but on this matter I shall certainly vote against the Government. I hope we shall go to a Division unless the Government will give way on this inquiry. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has asked Miss Pennant to give him particulars of these charges. Miss Pennant has done so. Here [producing papers] they are. She sent in one statement. It was not specific enough. Another statement was sent in. That was not sufficiently specific. I am perfectly convinced that if she goes on sending in statements from now until Doomsday every one of them will meet with the same fate. I would like to make tins suggestion to the Air Minister, that a Committee of this House, drawn from all parties, should consider the statements made by Miss Pennant. Let a Committee of this House decide whether or not a judicial inquiry should be held. That is fair. What harm can there be in doing that? Why should we entrust the Minister for Air to be solo arbiter in this matter? Let a Committee of this House decide whether the facts as disclosed by Miss Pennant justify a judicial inquiry into her case.
§ Mr. HINDS
I desire to join in the appeal made by my hon. Friends in regard to this matter. It is a very fair appeal to make on behalf of Miss Pennant that an inquiry should be held. My hon. Friends have made out a good case for an inquiry. I support it because of the good services rendered in every Welsh matter by Miss Pennant in the past. We have evidence of what she has done. She has resigned from every committee with which she was connected in Wales because of the stigma which she feels is placed upon her at this time by the action of the Air Ministry. I support it because we are losing the services of a very able servant from Wales if that stigma is not removed. It is fair to ask that a Committee should go into the whole 1587 charge and I do not see how the Air Minister can refuse to grant it in common fairness. Many a poor soldier who has not had proper treatment has had his case brought before the House. Every citizen has a right to have his grievance brought before the House of Commons. Here is a lady who feels she has been wrongly treated by the Air Ministry. She is not conscious that she has done wrong. She has done her duty as well as she possibly could. No private firm would dismiss a servant at a moment's notice in this way. If it did, it would be held up to obliquy. On the ground of Miss Pennant's services in the past in Wales, I support the appeal.
Sir DAVID DAVIES
I rise for the first time in this House to support the appeal which has already been made by my hon. Friends. I have known Miss Douglas Pennant for some years in connection with the Insurance Commission. I have been and am chairman of the Insurance Commission of my county and I have met Miss Pennant often with the other Commissioners. I have no hesitation in saying that she is a very capable public servant. She is a lady of great tact, good judgment, and one with whom it is easy to get on with on all occasions—although it is not always easy to get on with the Insurance Commissioners. I remarked especially with what tact Miss Douglas Pennant manages a very difficult situation. From my own knowledge of this lady's work for many years, and from the statements that have been made, which I believe are absolutely true, a sufficient case has been made out for an inquiry. That is all we ask. Any servant is entitled to have an inquiry. I have heard Miss Pennant say,I cannot accept any position in Wales or anywhere else until my character is cleared.Her character is at stake in this matter. Summary dismissal is a very delicate matter. This House will honour itself by granting an inquiry into this case. I have read the statements myself, and I believe them to be true, but I do not want to refer to them now. It is a matter of such delicacy that perhaps the less you say about it the better. I am fully convinced from my knowledge of Miss Douglas Pennant's services that a full inquiry should be held. The Minister in charge will serve the House of Commons and the country in granting it. There is a great feeling in the country where she is known that she has not been fairly dealt with. I hope I 1588 have said enough to justify an inquiry into the circumstances of Miss Pennant's summary dismissal.
§ Mr. THOMAS DAVIES
I never heard anything about Miss Douglas Pennant's case until this evening, so that I am quite unprejudiced with regard to it, although I am a Welshman myself. After what has been said here to-night, in common justice to those people who are mixed up with the case, apart from Miss Douglas Pennant herself, there ought to be an inquiry. Accusations have been flung about here this evening, and the names of people have been mentioned. We are told that one man was promoted from second-lieutenant to a lieutenant-colonel at one bound, which I cannot believe is a fact, although it is practically vouched for. We have heard people's names mentioned as having been guilty of jealousy, and that alone, for the fair name of the Air Service, should justify an inquiry being held apart altogether from the case of Miss Douglas Pennant. I would like to say that if an inquiry is pressed for I shall vote for it.
§ 9.0 P.M.
§ Mr. HAROLD SMITH
I will intervene for a minute only. It occurs to me, as one who has no knowledge whatever of the details and facts of this case, that a very great deal of public fuss has been made over the dismissal of this lady. I do not complain of it. I think the matter, while deplorable, was entirely attributable to the secrecy of the Air Board. This lady is obviously a very distinguished lady, who has rendered very distinguished public service. She has demanded, so far as she in a position to demand, that an inquiry shall be held and publicity given to any charges that may be brought against her, and the only condition that she demands is a condition which must appeal to every fair-minded Englishman, namely, that the charges that shall be brought against her shall be brought in her presence, in public, and under circumstances which will give her an opportunity of meeting them. That is not an unreasonable request, but is the elementary right of every Englishman. I am a lawyer by profession, and therefore prone to revere the elementary idea that no such charge as is involved in this case should be brought against any person, and least of all against a very distinguished public servant, unless that person has an opportunity of meeting it. As to the particulars of the case, I have no knowledge, but I have heard sufficient 1589 of the speeches here to-night to justify me, I think, in the statement that hon. Members are themselves committing the very fault of which they made complaint against the Air Ministry. We have heard speeches to-night in which they have defended Miss. Douglas Pennant, although they themselves do not know the charge against her. But my complaint is of a very different character. I complain that the charges were not made public and that she has not had an opportunity of meeting them. I do not in any way make any charges against the Air Board that they have wrongfully dismissed her. I am prepared to believe that they had very full and proper grounds for their action. I do not, on the other hand, make any charges against Miss Douglas Pennant, because, there again, I have not had an opportunity of judging the facts. But I think, having regard to the lady's great public service, and the fact, above all, that she was dismissed, as she puts it, in the name of justice, that the facts should be made public. I think the Air Board cannot refrain from giving that publicity which the Committee obviously demands, and which she demands. I really think that a very great deal of harm is unwittingly done by Government Departments in casting a mantle of secrecy, often unnecessarily, over these cases; whereas, with publicity and frankness in regard to many of these complaints—which are really often only molehills in themselves, but grow into mountains entirely by the secrecy cast over them by Government Departments—I think we should hear very little of them. This House is, above all things chivalrous, but above all things just; and I want to qualify anything I say now by again repeating that I have no knowledge whatever of the rights or wrongs of this case. But we are a very chivalrous and just House, and those of us who know my right hon. and gallant Friend who is in charge to-night will say that those qualities are reflected in the Minister who is in charge of this Bill, each of them, and that in no Minister are they more highly reflected than in him. Having regard to the history of this case, and the demands of this lady, and to the publicity on which she has herself insisted and her friends in the Press and in this House. I hope that no rule of chivalry will restrain the Air Board and the right hon. Gentleman from stating the whole of the facts, whatever they are. Because it is only just, if there is anything against 1590 this lady, that it should be stated. Even if a casual observer were to think it un-chivalrous to say harsh things about this lady, I would say that the lady brought it on herself, and that she was the first to demand it. But let us have the facts, in order to silence the tongues of criticism, if the Air Board have done justice; and, if they cannot be silenced, then let us have an admission from the Air Board that the circumstances in which this lady was dismissed were such as were not justified.
§ Major-General SEELY
I have listened to all the speeches made on this subject, and I regret that my right hon. Friend the Member for Dundee (Mr. Churchill) is not here to answer them, as he has taken a very lively personal interest in this case during the time I was laid up with influenza. But I have full cognisance of his views on the subject, which I share, and I will endeavour to reply and to clear away some misapprehensions. Of course, we all want to see fair play to Miss Douglas Pennant. Nobody wants to see it more than myself. I was far away at the time when this episode took place, and I can clear away all misconception by saying at ones that, if I could choose, myself, whether we had a full inquiry or not, for my own convenience and peace of mind I would have an inquiry forthwith. But I must put the other side. Not because anybody in the Air Ministry has said to me, "Oh, you must not have an inquiry: it would be very unwise." There is not the least shadow of foundation for that, for nobody has ever suggested to me that it would be inconvenient to him to have an inquiry. What I am bound to say, and what my right hon. Friend would say, and what I think anybody on reflection would say, is this: You cannot have an inquiry into the action of a Secretary of State in superseding any individual, however highly placed, however competent for other purposes, in time of war, because, if you do, you immediately open the door to a demand for an inquiry into every similar case. I do rejoice that this matter has been brought on here to-night. I love the House of Commons, because you always get the truth.
§ Major-General SEELY
In the long run truth prevails. Truth prevails because all views are heard. The other day, when there were questions on this subject, there 1591 was a most dramatic proof of the statement I have just made. On the same day that questions were being put asking that an inquiry should be held into the case of Miss Douglas Pennant, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Christchurch (Brigadier-General Page Croft) was urging with equal vigour that there should be an inquiry into all the super sessions of general and other officers who were removed from their positions during the War. Now, there were hundreds of these cases. I myself have been present at a place which was known as Stellenbosch Corner, where, after an inquiry into their capabilities, three general officers, five highly-placed Staff officers, and six other officers, were deprived of their command without any reason given—the three generals in one day, and the rest in the two succeeding days.
§ Lord H. CAVENDISH-BENTINCK
Is that any reason why an injustice should be committed against Miss Pennant.
§ Major-General SEELY
I am glad my Noble Friend has asked the question. If this happened in the one case where I was, how many other cases does he suppose there were of officers, from generals downwards in rank, who were superseded during the War?
§ Major-General SEELY
No, it is an exactly similar case. You cannot have an inquiry into a case where a person is superseded by a competent authority unless it can be shown that there was malice or corruption on the part of the authority.
§ Mr. H. SMITH
Does my right hon. Friend recognise no distinction between supersession in the field in time of war and supersession from Whitehall?
§ Major-General SEELY
I recognise no distinction. There may be a distinction between men and women, but there can be no distinction between the field and hero because officers in the Army and in the Navy and officials of all kinds in Government Departments were ruthlessly superseded during the War.
An HON. MEMBER
Is it the fact that Miss Douglas Pennant was dismissed, not because she was inefficient, but because it was said she was unpopular?
§ Major-General SEELY
It was never said she was inefficient; in fact, it was expressly said she was most efficient.
An HON. MEMBER
Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us why in those circumstances the Prime Minister nevertheless promised an inquiry?
§ Major-General SEELY
I do not think the Prime Minister granted this inquiry, but as he is not here I cannot verify it. I am by no means a hostile witness. I am anxious to get at the truth, and I think we shall get it, but only in the right way, not in the wrong way. I am trying to show that you cannot, if you are to have proper government, have an inquiry whenever anyone is superseded who holds an important post, and if they are influential and important and rightly regarded as people of competence it is all the more reason why the ultimate authority must have power, especially in time of war, to supersede them without reason given. This case has been argued again and again for years past, and it has always been maintained by every Government, and I hope always will be maintained, that the State must have power to supersede important and influential people if it considers others can do the business better. Let me clear away one misconception about dismissal and supersession. Miss Douglas Pennant could have returned to the Welsh Insurance Committee. She did not do so because she thought her dismissal implied a slur upon her, but she was no more dismissed than the general officers to whom I have referred and the hundreds of other officials who have been superseded. She came, most generously and most patriotically, from the Welsh Insurance Commission in order to try to manage this most difficult business, and I pay my acknowledgments to the work she did from all I have heard. But when Lord Weir came to the conclusion that another lady would do it better he gave instructions to the officer referred to, General Brancker, that she should be informed that she could no longer hold the post, and had she accepted the statement so made to her, most abruptly, in a manner I do not in the least attempt to excuse—had she accepted that as hundreds of other people did, she would of course have gone back to the Welsh Insurance Committee.
§ Sir O. THOMAS
Why did not Lord Weir accept her resignation, which was 1593 tendered ten days before she was dismissed, or give her the option of putting in her resignation?
§ Major-General SEELY
If "we know" it should be stated. There is no mystery as far as I can ascertain, and I do not believe there is any. We have been asked two definite questions. The first was, Who told General Brancker to dismiss Miss Douglas Pennant? The answer is Lord Weirtold him to do so. He takes the full responsibility. He says that he carefully considered who was the best person. He thought Miss Violet Douglas Pennant was the best person until, as time went on, he came to the conclusion that, hard as she was trying to do her best, competent as she was in other respects, she was not the best fitted for this position. He was quite sure about that. He took the fullest responsibility. The next question is, What is the charge against Miss Douglas Pennant? There is no charge against her. There is the opinion of the competent authority of that day, long ago, that, although far from there being a charge against her she was one of the best and most patriotic, one of the most competent and efficient ladies in England or Wales, she was emphatically not the best fitted to be the head of the Women's Royal Air Force. I have said what I have said, not out of compliment to her, but because it is manifestly true. But I wish my hon. Friends around me would see that it really must be open to the Secretary of State to decide who are the best people to fill particular appointments. It cannot be said that if anyone is told, "You must go back to your other position" you must have an immediate inquiry. It would be utterly subversive of all discipline. I ask the House to support me in saying you cannot allow that to be said. If I had replied, "There are charges against Miss Douglas Pennant, but I will not say what they are"—if I had said, "There are reasons why there should not be an inquiry," it would be different. But I do not say that. There are not words strong enough to say how highly I regard Miss Douglas Pennant and the services she has rendered to the State, and I know Lord Weir would say the same if he were standing in my place. In the most difficult, and very peculiar job of administering this Women's Royal Air Force 1594 we came to the conclusion that she was not the best fitted for it, in the same way as the Secretary of State for War or the Home Secretary or the First Lord of the Admiralty constantly, without reason given, says, "This most excellent officer is not best suited to be," whatever it may be—second Sea Lord, or Master of the Horse—and he is sent back to his regiment. The State must have power to do that. If there is to be an inquiry as to whether Lord Weir was right in superseding this most admirable lady because he believed another lady could do it better, and we would get on with the War better, I say No. If, on the other hand, it be said, and I think it is said, "We grant you that," and if it is said, "That is all very well; we do not question the right or power of the Secretary of State to supersede any one, especially in time of war, unless it is shown—
§ Mr. HAYDAY
Assuming the Minister abuses his power, surely this House has the right to demand inquiry.
§ Major-General SEELY
I was going on to say, unless malice or corruption be shown. Of course, if malice or corruption be alleged against the late Secretary of State—[Hon. Members: "It is alleged!"]—that makes it all the more urgent and necessary that his conduct should be inquired into. On that I may say at once that the idea that Lord Weir, whose disinterested services to this country during the War it would be impossible to exaggerate, would fear any such inquiry is ridiculous in the extreme. He has no reason to fear it. What we cannot do is to inquire whether the Secretary of State had the right and power—whether he was right or wrong in his consideration, and whether it is alleged that this lady was or was not best fitted for that particular job—to supersede this lady. On that I cannot proceed, and on behalf of the Government I say that I will not proceed, and if there is going to be a Division, so let it be. But I hope the House understands that if I insist on that I may be allowed now to continue what I was saying when I was interrupted by the hon. Member opposite (Mr. Hayday). If a specific charge is made that this lady was best fitted for the job, and that there was malice or corruption on the part of anybody from the Secretary of State downward, and if a primâ facie, case is made out we will at once order an inquiry into that specific allegation. But be it clearly understood 1595 that the question of the right of the Secretary of State in his unfettered discretion to remove anyone at any time, and especially at a time of war, to supersede anyone, we cannot have inquired into. The true answer to that is to bring the Secretary of State to the Bar of justice in this House, or, if there be malice or corruption shown, to bring him to the Bar of an appropriate tribunal; but to inquire into his right to supersede anyone would be fatal to good government.
§ Major-General SEELY
Far from being Prussian rule, it has been the rule under which this highly democratic England has prospered while Prussian institutions have been brought to ruin. It is not Prussian rule, but the exact opposite. The Secretary of State is responsible to this House, and if this House does not like him they can turn him out at a moment's notice. He is the man in whom power and responsibility is reposed in order that everything may be brought home. I hope I have made myself quite clear. Into any specific allegation of malice or corruption against any official, from the Secretary of State of that date downward, the fullest inquiry will be made by an appropriate tribunal, and on that I think it would be well to adopt the suggestion of the hon. Gentleman opposite, that we should get the advice of this House as to the kind of tribunal that it would be best to set up, and which, if a primâ facie case is set up, will satisfy all reasonable men. But on the question as to whether the Secretary of State has the right to supersede anyone in time of war, without reason given, we cannot agree to an inquiry, because it would open the door to an endless series of inquiries, involving hundreds in this War and involving many in the future. I trust that this frank statement will satisfy hon. Members. [HON. MEMBERS: "No, no!"] If not, I know that my right hon. Friend will be very glad to make a further statement if hon. Members are not satisfied and can give reasons why they dissent from the views I have put forward.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
The right hon. Gentleman commenced his speech by stating that any number of generals highly placed in command and any number of Staff officers highly placed in command had been dismissed at a moment's notice without any reason being given. I should be the last person to challenge that right, 1596 but may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether in making that statement he was not alluding to dismissals in the face of the enemy?
§ Major-General SEELY
No. I did not say dismissals. I said they were superseded, and not in the face of the enemy, but during manœuvres.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
I am sure the right hon. and gallant Gentleman does not wish in any kind of way to quibble. My point is that these gallant officers were superseded during the campaign, and I still say in the face of the enemy, because a campaign is practically in the face of the enemy, though you may be fifty or sixty miles off. The conduct of affairs even at the base is very important and when war is going on it is absolutely necessary that if the General in Command thinks that certain generals ought to be dismissed, they have to be dismissed. But that is a very different thing from this case. This is a lady sitting in Whitehall. It did not make any difference, in regard to the enemy or success in the War, whether Miss Pennant was dismissed or superseded, or whether some other lady was put in her place. I would point out that the real argument must be very weak if the right hon. and gallant Gentleman has to fall back upon an argument of that sort. An undertaking was given in another place that if a primâ facie case was established that an inquiry would be made. A primâ facie case has been made, I am informed. I do not know whether Miss Pennant was right or wrong, but an undertaking was given in another place—I will leave out the question of the Prime Minister for the moment—that if a primâ facie case was established an inquiry would be given. What has happened I am informed that a primâ facie case has been made out but an inquiry has been refused, and when the case is raised in this House the right hon. Gentleman tries to ride off on what happened in a foreign country when we were at war and when certain generals were superseded. That has nothing to do with the case of this lady in Whitehall. Whether Miss Smith, or Miss Jones, or Miss Pennant was in charge of a certain number of women in Whitehall does not affect the campaign either in France or in any other part of the world. 1597 Having advanced what I consider to be a very futile argument the right hon. Gentleman then falls back upon another argument and says that if a primâ facie case is made out that there has been malice or corruption he will grant an inquiry. Everybody who has sat in the House with me knows that I am the last person to decry discipline or to say that an officer in command or a Secretary of State cannot if he chooses supersede or dismiss any person who he thinks is incompetent. But my right hon. and gallant Friend goes out of his way to say that this is a most competent lady.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
That is what we want to find out. How is it that such a very exceptional person who is so competent is not particularly competent for this job in which unfortunately she has been superseded? I do not know the rights or wrongs of the case, but it is perfectly clear that an inquiry is justified. What has the right hon. and gallant Gentleman to be afraid of? If it turns out that this lady was not competent for this post, that is an end of the matter. If, on the other hand, it turns out that she was, is it not right that we should find that out? Everybody knows that there have been changes of favouritism and malice, and probably with correctness. In this particular case it is open to the Government to show that the lady has taken an exaggerated view in thinking that she has been dismissed for unfair reasons, and, if that be so, the Government will come out with flying colours; and, if it is not so, I am quite certain that my right hon. and gallant Friend, who is a fair-minded man, does not wish to shield anybody from the effects of his action. In these circumstances, I trust that this Committee will insist upon an inquiry. We have had quite enough about a primâ facie case. What we want is a very simple thing. Here is a lady who has been superseded—it is generally thought without any ostensible cause—and in those circumstances there should be an inquiry.
§ Mr. THOMAS
I am sorry that I was unable to hear the whole of my right hon. Friend's statement. I followed the case with interest. I was one of the Members of this House originally responsible for sending a letter to the Press with a view 1598 of demanding an inquiry, and as evidence of the kind of pressure that was applied by someone—whom we do not know—that letter was refused publication. The issue that the Committee have to consider is a very simple one. There is common agreement that Miss Douglas Pennant was not only a capable but an efficient administrator. My right hon. Friend has admitted that this evening. But she herself only a few days prior to her dismissal offered her resignation because she felt that she was put to this work not because she was Miss Douglas Pennant, but because of her previously known ability in another Government Department, and her own object was to render the best service to the State. Who is responsible for refusing her resignation? The same people who were ultimately responsible for her dismissal. They cannot have it both ways. If, when she offered her resignation, they said, "No; in our judgment you will be serving the best interests of the country by remaining at your post," we can only conclude that they made that statement and expressed that wish because in their considered judgment she was of value in the work she was doing. If that was the reason we are now entitled to ask what happened in the interval of refusing the resignation and dismissing her without question?
So far there have been excuses made, but there has been no explanation. The excuse made has been that Miss Pennant could not get on with other members of the staff, and we are now entitled to ask if she could not get on with these same members of the staff five days after her resignation was refused, how was it that not being able to get on with these people five days before did not weigh with those in authority? Therefore we have got to hear her side of the case. She says that the first cause of the trouble was that she was asked to promote five ladies, and she said, "Yes, I will promote them only after I am satisfied that they are fit for the position." Surely, if we are going to talk about the purity of public life and about efficiency, if a Minister defends himself by saying that the efficiency of this Department must be his only consideration—that is what my right hon. Friend says—is she not entitled to say that the efficiency of an officer must be her only consideration? But because she says this, and because she carried out the very principle that you yourself lay down, she is dismissed. The Prime Minister was asked to intervene, 1599 because it is quite fair to know that Miss Pennant was the Prime Minister's original nominee for the post. It is no secret, and the question of class, or that she is a lady in any station of life, has nothing whatever to do with it. The Prime Minister was altogether too busy, naturally, but he was so satisfied on the evidence submitted to him, that he said to one of his private secretaries, "I am too busy. There is something in this case. Go and investigate it for me." That is what he said to the hon. Member for Luton (Mr. Harmsworth). The hon. Member investigated it, and it is implied, but has never been said, that the investigation was a superficial one. I am assured that it was nothing of the kind. I am assured that great pains were taken by the hon. Member for Luton to try if possible to give effect to the Prime Minister's own wish and to present to him a fair and impartial statement of the case. He does it, and we have strong grounds for knowing that that report was entirely in favour of Miss Pennant. I have no hesitation in declaring across the floor that I am certain it was and that it exonerated her from all blame, but, curiously enough, whatever questions were asked in this House by hon. Members, and though all manner of pressure was applied in order that that Report should be published, up till now it has been positively refused.
Supposing for a moment that that Report condemned the lady and justified the action of the Department, I venture to assert that there would not be a second question in this House but that the Department would produce the Report in order to prove their own action. But, on the other hand, what did the Prime Minister have in his mind by asking for a Report? I submit it was clearly to get an impartial view of the whole of the facts, and if that was his view, are we not entitled to say now that, just as he felt an inquiry was then necessary, so this House of Commons is entitled to-day at least to see that Report, and that Report so far is not forthcoming. Therefore, it appears to me that there is one course only open for my right hon. Friend, because it will be a very dangerous situation for him. This is not one lady. there is a principle affecting everybody under the jurisdiction of the War Office involved in this, and there is a question of justice, whether it be to an officer or a private, involved, and after all, when we talk of discipline, no one, and 1600 rightly, endeavours to enforce it more than the War Office. I do not complain of that, because I recognise how necessary it is, but curiously enough the complaint against this lady is that she was too strict in discipline—the very virtue that is claimed in other connections as condemned in her particular case. Therefore, on all those grounds I submit that the War Office course is clear. Let it be observed that both my right hon. Friends are defending something they are not responsible for—neither of them is responsible—and, therefore, I put it to them that their brief is only after all a brief and not something that affects them personally, but it does affect the honour of this lady. It strikes absolutely at the fundamental principle of our public life that justice must be done at the top and at the bottom. Here is a woman who positively refuses to go back to her position in the Insurance Commission, and why? Because she says, "No, here is a stain on my character which, if it is true, renders me incapable of discharging my other public duties." That is her answer, and she is entitled to have that removed, and it can only be removed by a free, full, and impartial inquiry. If there is some evidence we know nothing about, let it come out. If there is something that the War Office feel that at the moment they are not prepared to reveal, let them reveal it in an inquiry, but so far there is no suggestion of that kind. Surely, having regard to the public testimony paid by my right hon. Friend, having regard to the apology that was made for this case in the House of Lords by the Noble Lord speaking on behalf of the War Office, and having regard to the fact that the public that know something of this case believe that it is a scandal, I submit to my right hon. Friend that he ought frankly to say, "Yes, we will have an inquiry; we will have the whole of the facts brought out, and then Parliament will be able to judge as to whether justice has been done or not."
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
The House has taken a great interest in this important personal case, and one can easily see by the attitude of many of those who are present that they have already, to a very large extent, made up their minds as to what is the proper course for the Government to take. I have heard a lot of personal cases debated in this House at one time and another, and I have often noticed how keen is the interest in those cases, and how very distressing they are to hon. Members who hear the whole 1601 story unfolded rapidly to them of some wrong which has been done, some injustice which has been, committed. They hear strong partisan statements put forward by Members who honestly, ardently, earnestly believe in the sincerity and truth of what they are saying, and they cannot help feeling very much influenced by what they hear. One tale is good until another is told, and one of the difficulties of Parliamentary Debate on personal cases is that there is not time and not the means to tell all the tale. They are too long, too complicated. I have taken the trouble to read the large number of documents bearing on this subject, and I am quits certain it would be possible to discuss their various aspects and significations at indefinite length without arriving at any final conclusion. It is not, I think, upon details, but only upon general principles that the House should consider how it will deal with a matter of this kind, and I fully admit that my right hon. Friend, in the speech which he has just made, did confine himself in the main to general principles.
Let us just see what are the main principles which are involved. In the first place, there is the question whether the discretionary power was rightly used. In the second place, there is the question whether there is any allegation that the discretionary power was corruptly used. Let me take the first aspect. There are, it seems to me, three matters which are more or less common ground on both sides of the House. First of all, it is common ground that the condition of affairs in the Women's Royal Air Force in the six weeks or month preceding Miss Douglas Pennant's departure was not at all satisfactory. That is common ground. Secondly, there was a good deal of friction between Miss Douglas Pennant and some of her subordinates, between her Department of the Ministry and other Departments of it, and between the Air Ministry as a whole and the Ministry of National Service, with which the affairs of the Air Ministry were greatly intermingled, because, as most hon. Members know, the Air Ministry was dependent upon the Ministry of National Service for the recruiting of the Women's Royal Air Force, in the same way as the Army and Navy were for the other two branches of the Women's Auxiliary Force. There was a good deal of friction over the whole of that area. Things were not going well. That also is common ground. If it is not common 1602 ground, it is indisputable But the fact is that, after Miss Douglas Pennant had been superseded and certain changes in the organisation had been made, there was a swift and marked improvement all round in the condition of the Women's Royal Air Force, in the smooth working of the Air Ministry, and in the relations between the Air Ministry and the Ministry of National Service. That, again, I should suppose, was common ground. Of course, all these basic facts are capable of being viewed in perfectly different lights. The condition of affairs may have been bad! Miss Douglas Pennant was putting them right! There was friction in these efforts, but this was inseparable from her measures of reform.
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
The improvement which followed her departure was the results of the efforts she had made!
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
I know, and I am sure my Noble Friend would never bring forward a case of this kind unless he felt earnestly and even passionately the justice of it. I say all that is a perfectly conceivable hypothesis.
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
It is a perfectly conceivable reading of the facts. It is to my mind improbable. It is certainly not the view which Lord Weir took.
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
I am coming in a moment to deal with Lord Weir's credentials to express an opinion on this matter. After all, he has rights as well as Miss Douglas Pennant. Do not let us be earned away too much into accepting one view and assuming that every person who stands for anything in contra-distinction to that view is necessarily corrupt, malicious, incompetent, and unworthy. Certainly not. My right hon. Friend said if she had been a factory girl he would have defended her with every vigour. I am sure he would, but Lord Weir is a human being. He has a reputation to save. He is entitled to respect as well as anybody.
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
Certainly, we are all human beings. [Laughter.] I gladly give that information. We are all human beings. [Hon. Members:" Hear, hear!"] Then let us all endeavour to keep good-humoured human beings. I say the view to which I have referred is what is sincerely held by a great many hon. Members on these benches. I do not reproach them for it in the least. It is a perfectly reasonable hypothesis. But Lord Weir took an exactly opposite view. He took the view that Miss Douglas Pennant, whatever her qualities and gifts might be, was not the best official to bring the Women's Royal Air Force into good order. He thought that her methods were not the best, and that her relations with her subordinates and other branches of the Ministry were an impediment to reform.
§ Colonel ASHLEY
Then why, if those are the right hon. Gentleman's views, did he, through the mouth of Sir Godfrey Paine four days before she was dismissed, ask her to stay on?
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
I am not in a position to state from day to day what Lord Weir's views on this subject may have been, but it does seem to me a perfectly comprehensible course of action that a Minister carrying on a great Department and having relations with high officials, man or woman, a high official of consequence, and engaged in measuring from day to day what is the best course and the best policy in the interests of the Department, may in the event of a great deal of friction uphold that official to a certain point, and then, on further information coming in, or on further consideration of the subject, decide that after all it is better to make a change. That happens even in political circles. Ministers are held up to a certain point, and I have seen, even in my brief experience, that further information comes to hand and a, change is made.
§ Sir R. THOMAS
Was not the right hon. Gentleman superseded, and not summarily dismissed? I think he would object to that.
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
I have experienced both. I do feel that it is a perfectly reasonable assumption that Lord Weir found himself confronted with a succession of difficulties, people complaining, and so forth, and he supported those people until at last he said, "I shall not support them any more, and I am going to make a change." That may have been a harsh 1604 decision, but it is a perfectly reasonable and comprehensible one in time of peace or in time of war. Lord Weir, after informing himself personally, as he was bound to do in an important matter like this, through every channel he could, decided that Miss Douglas Pennant should be superseded. He did that in the interests of the Women's Royal Air Force, and he put somebody in her place in order that the interests of the force might be advanced, and that we might get on with the War as quickly as we could. That is the view Lord Weir took. It is most important that the Committee, at the outset of this Parliament, should proceed on sound principles in regard to these cases, which are so very numerous.
Lord Weir was the person responsible. He was the man who ought to decide, had a right to decide, in fact it was his duty to decide, and he was bound to do what he thought was right and best at the time in the interests of the force. He had no choice except to do his duty according to his lights, and if he had shrunk from this duty, however unpleasant; if he had shrunk from doing his duty in respect of a person serving in a high station under him, he would have been guilty of cowardice, which would have been reprehensible in a time of peace and even criminal in time of war. If he honestly formed the opinion that she was not the best person to hold that appointment, it was his duty to move her and to put someone else in her place. That, I think, must really be accepted by the House, and I do not gather that it is challenged. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] I know that I am dealing with Members who if they differ from me are very fair in controversy and face a reasonable and logical fact, and I submit that there is nothing that is false in my argument. I say that the discretion rested with him, and that it was complete and final. It makes no difference to the argument whether Lord Weir's exercise of this discretion was right or wrong. Everyone may make mistakes. War itself is a mistake. All war at every stage is full of mistakes, errors, blunders, disasters, uncertainties, maiming one and making another rich. Personally, I think that Lord Weir was right in this matter on the merits, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of National Service, who was acquainted with all that took place, thoroughly concurred at the time in Lord Weir's action, and thought that it was necessary in the interests of the Women's Royal Air Force.
1605 But whether the exercise of Lord Weir's discretion was wise or mistaken is not vital to the issue—indeed, I believe I may justly say that it is irrelevant to the issue which is now before the House. We cannot possibly re-try the exercise of Lord Weir's discretion. We cannot at the end of so many months recreate and reconstruct all that set of circumstances which existed in the Women's Royal Air Force in July and August of last year. No tribunal which you could set up could possibly sit in judgment upon the exercise of Lord Weir's discretion. A rambling, roving inquiry into all the circumstances, into all the personal disputes and differences which prevailed in this Department at that time among people, all of whom were probably doing their very best according to their lights to help their country, and who were all working under circumstances of great strain—a rambling, roving inquiry of that kind could not possibly arrive at any conclusion comparable in authority with the decision taken at the time in the public interest by the responsible Minister. Personally, I could not take the responsibility of advising the House to institute such an inquiry. I am not, nor is my right hon. Friend here, concerned personally in these events, but I have had nearly fourteen years' experience of the public service, and I cannot conceive anything more futile or anything more unsatisfactory than an inquiry of this kind into the circumstances prevailing in the Women's Royal Air Force, and the relations of those circumstances to Miss Douglas Pennant's supercession. I say that you will get no result of any kind which is of real value or guidance or of utility to the public service. I do not see how anyone can possibly get round the fact that it was a matter for Lord Weir to settle whether Miss Douglas Pennant should stay or go, and he decided that she should go. That is the first ground of principle, that it rested in the discretion of the Minister responsible.
The second point by which the House should test this question is this: Is there any reason to suppose that this discretion was corruptly or maliciously exercised? If there is, let us have an inquiry by all means, however long, and let us have out the facts and do justice and mete censure and punishment to those responsible. Of course, if it is alleged that Lord 1606 Weir's decision was not an honest one, and that the exercise of his discretion was malicious or corrupt, or if it is alleged that those persons whose duty it was to advise him on this matter, brought untruthful statements to his notice, and misled him, and exercised undue influence on him, and perverted his judgment so that it was a corrupt and malicious judgment, that is an entirely different matter, and not for one moment would I obstruct or resist an inquiry into that, and if the case is such as primâ facie would commend itself to reasonable people, the Government will be delighted to facilitate the trying and testing of that matter to the full. But does anyone in any quarter of the House, does anyone anywhere here, even the most convinced supporter of Miss Douglas Pennant, make such an allegation as that against Lord Weir, and is he prepared to prefer and substantiate a charge of that kind? I pause for a reply to the question I have asked.
§ Lord H. CAVENDISH-BENTINCK
I do assert most confidently that Miss Pennant was the victim of a corrupt intrigue by men who were obstructing her in the performance of her duty and in her efforts to make the Air Force efficient, and that Lord Weir, instead of supporting her, threw his influence on the Bide of the people who obstructed her. Will you kindly give an inquiry into that now or not?
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
My Noble Friend has, instead of answering the precise question [An Hon. Member: "Shuffling!"] If we are to use an expression of that kind it might have been very ready to my tongue, in view of the lengthy answer which my Noble Friend gave to the perfectly precise question which I put. Is he prepared to give the circumstances of the allegation of malice and corruption against Lord Weir?
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
I am in possession of the Committee, and I submit I am entitled to an answer from my Noble Friend—
§ Mr. THOMAS
No one has made that charge against Lord Weir. The charge 1607 that is made is that those responsible for advising Lord Weir were influenced by corrupt motives.
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
Now I have got an answer to my question. There is no charge. The right hon. Gentleman, with more readiness than my Noble Friend, has answered directly and plainly. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, Oh!"]
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
The Noble Lord did not answer the question I put, but the right hon. Gentleman opposite did. He said he made no such charge of malice and corruption against Lord Weir, but he said there were people whose duty it was to advise him had advised him with malicious and corrupt motives. I imagine the Noble Lord associates himself with them, but who were they?
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
I say no. Here is a Debate which has occupied the attention of the House of Commons and the Committee. We are all gathered together. I am asked to give an inquiry and no name is mentioned by those who put forward this demand as the person who is accused of malice or corruption in this matter.
§ Mr. H. SMITH
If the names are forthcoming will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to grant an inquiry?
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
I have said—[Hon. Members: "Oh, oh!"]It is very difficult, and it is disorderly to greet with this sort of boos and groans, which we are accustomed to listen to in some political meetings, those who have the honour to address the Committee, even if they happen to be Ministers. I speak entirely from my own point of view. If a primâ facie case of malice or corruption is deployed by responsible people against any person concerned in this matter, and a definite charge is made against a named 1608 person, we will have the matter thoroughly investigated and sifted. But when I see these benches crowded and not a Member will rise in his place to state a charge against any person mentioned by name, I say, no, let us get a little further before we commit ourselves to an inquiry. Let us know the accusation. Let us know what the crime is, who the criminal is, and who is the accused person against whom that crime is brought. I should like to say, in support of what my right hon. Friend said, a word about Lord Weir. The charge of malice or corruption against Lord Weir is dropped. I do not wonder at it. [Hon. Members: "It was never made!"]Then the only suggestion is that he is so simple-minded that he was twisted away from the facts by any person who had low motives, and that his judgment was perverted. You could not possibly find a more disinterested Minister than Lord Weir or a man more exclusively devoted to the prosecution of the War. He left his business and he worked in the Ministry of Munitions for a long time. He directed so much energy and attention to his work and his proved capabilities and industry were such that he was chosen to be the head of the Aeronautical Production Department, and in that position he raised at any rate the whole production of aeroplanes in this country until it reached an enormous pitch. From that post he went to be Secretary of State for Air. He was selected by the Prime Minister. I venture to say it was an appointment thoroughly concurred in by the public, by Parliament, and by the Press. It was universally accepted. The collapse of the enemy alone prevented the full results of Lord Weir's administration of the Royal Air Force from being apparent in this present year, 1919.
The moment the War was over, what did Lord Weir do? He wanted to go back to his business. He would not stay in office. He had no further interest in public life, and would not seek political advancement or advantage of any kind. All that he desired was to take his part in the War, and when his work was done to go back to Glasgow. He went back to Glasgow. A man like that is entitled to credence and confidence in the exercise of his legitimate function. I say it would be wrong for the House of Commons to challenge the legitimate exercise of his discretionary power. I cannot conceive what interest he had except in coming to a right decision. I 1609 should like to point out that this is a matter which he gave his closest personal attention to. He did not merely sign, like is sometimes done, a document put up to him by an official subordinate; he went through the whole of the case himself, with all the facts at his disposal, and he did the best that could be done to get round the immediate difficulty with which he was confronted. Lord Weir takes the fullest responsibility for what he has done, and I must say I should feel the very gravest doubts, if I were not acquainted with all the facts, of the wisdom of challenging this use of discretionary power by a Minister of this character. But I feel still more the absurdity as I know—I have had an opportunity of reading the papers on the case, and I know the very slight pretexts which are advanced—that the House should practically wish to carry a vote of censure of Lord Weir for his conduct in the case.
I thought it right to ask Lord Weir to express his views on this question in view of the Debate. I received this letter from him, and, with the permission of the Committee, I should like to read it:My dear Churchill,—I have received from Sir Arthur Robinson your Minute of the 7th March, asking for my views and attitude with regard to Miss Douglas Pennant.I have gone carefully over the case, so far as my recollection stands, and with the documents in front of me, and I cannot see anything to cause me to regard my letter of the 4th December to the Prime Minister as not covering the entire situation.There is one point which might be made clearer in view of the discussion in the House of Lords. General Brancker had practically nothing to do with Miss Pennant's supersession other than as my instrument in informing her of our decision to replace her. His opinion was not asked, as he had only just taken up his position, and any belief that General Brancker brought about the supersession is unfounded.If Sir Godfrey Paine had still been in office my decision would have been the same, but General Paine would have drawn my attention to his verbal promise of the further months' trial which has been referred to and as regards which I have expressed my regret.General Brancker simply did what he was told, although I am, of course, not aware of the exact wording of his statement to Miss Pennant.I wish to make it quite clear that I was in every way personally responsible for this decision to supersede Miss Pennant, and the whole circumstances are given in my letter of the 4th December. I utterly fail to see what more there is to inquire into. An inquiry into the conditions of the Women's Royal Air Force at the time would only show that it was not going well. It might even possibly show that Miss Pennant had been doing good work, but that would not alter the facts, which are that, rightly 1610 or wrongly, I came to the conclusion that she was not the right woman to pull the show round quickly, and accordingly she was superseded. I cannot see any mystery about that.I am very sorry indeed that you should be worried with this legacy, but speaking very frankly, I feel that I did the right thing for the Air Force, and I would do the same to-morrow in the same circumstances, with the single exception that I would have expressed my regret to Miss Pennant at breaking the verbal arrangement which Sir Godfrey Paine proposed as regards the month. In regard to this, I have already expressed my regret at my omission.I do ask the House to support the Government in the position we take up. There are thousands of cases, as my right hon. Friend (Major-General Seely) has said, where people in this War have left the public service or have been removed from their appointments with a feeling of intolerable injustice, and I have no doubt, ill a very large number of these cases, if all the circumstances could be reviewed before some supreme, august tribunal, and if all the facts at the time had been known, it would be admitted that they had had very hard treatment and very painful usage. But we had to get on with the War. Generals of division, generals of army corps, and generals of armies, have been told to go at ten minutes' notice out of their command. Their successors have arrived, and they have walked out, without power, at that short hint. We were always in the presence of the enemy. The right hon. Baronet tried to draw a distinction between what was going on hero and, we will say, at headquarters in France and at the Dardanelles. The need of organising this Women's Air Force in a satisfactory manner was a vital operation of war at a time when we were short of men and it had to be dealt with as if it was a rough, hard, crude operation of war. There is no charge of any kind whatever against Miss Douglas Pennant. Every possible compliment had been paid to her character and to her capacity. Nothing has happened and nothing has been said on behalf of the Government that prevents her from being regarded in her proper sphere as a competent and capable administrator, and there is not the slightest reflection upon her character. There was no reason whatever why she should not resume her public work or should not now resume it. At that particular moment she had, in the opinion of the sole man whose duty it was to judge for the time being, lost her usefulness in that sphere of the public service. On the other hand, I cannot, on 1611 behalf of the Government, agree to any inquiry except within the limits and under the conditions which I have specified, namely, that definite charges of malice and corruption are brought on reasonable grounds against named persons who take real responsibility for her supersession.
§ Mr. THOMAS
If the right hon. Gentleman has the Report of the hon. Member (Mr. Harmsworth) can the House have that Report?
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
I cannot say anything, but I will inquire. I have read the Report and I do not, myself, see any reason from the point of view of the Government, but it is a private and confidential Report made to the Prime Minister, and I cannot say anything without an opportunity of finding out what the Prime Minister says. That Report recommended that there should be a judicial inquiry, but the Prime Minister, after hearing what Lord Weir had to say about it in his letter of 4th December, decided that it was not right or necessary to press the inquiry, and he accepted the views put forward by the Secretary of State for the Royal Air Force. That is the position, but without making any pledge on the subject I should be quite ready to inquire of the Prime Minister whether he would allow a document, essentially of a private nature, only written to oblige him personally in the course of his public work, to be published.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Original question put, and agreed to.