HC Deb 24 December 1929 vol 233 cc2215-36

I am sorry to distract the attention of the House from the battle of financial giants, but I deem it to be my duty to raise a matter of a somewhat different kind; I refer to the Douglas Pennant case, which I gave notice to the Prime Minister some few weeks ago I would raise at a suitable opportunity. Older Members of the House will be familiar with the broad facts of the Douglas Pennant case. Newer Members will not be so familiar with them, and I therefore propose to begin by reciting, as briefly as possible, the facts of the case; I propose then to look at the steps which have been taken to deal with the case, to suggest to the House that the steps so far taken are in- adequate, and to ask the Government to appoint a small committee of investigation into that case.

In April, 1918, Miss Douglas Pennant, who for 6½ years previously had been a member of the Insurance Commission for Wales, was asked by Lord Rothermere, then the Secretary of State for Air, to take on the post of Commandant of the Women's Royal Air Force. She undertook to come to the Air Ministry and to look round for a month before finally taking a decision on that offer. It became evident to her during that month's investigation that she was asked to take on an extraordinarily difficult proposition. In the first place, the Air Ministry had only recently been created as an independent unit, and its creation as an independent unit had given rise to some resentment. In the second place, there was resentment within the Air Ministry at the taking away of the Women's Royal Air Force from the charge of the Equipment Section of the Air Ministry and its constitution as a separate unit. In the third place, the force itself was in a very unsatisfactory state. Unlike the "Wrens" and the "Waacs," which had grown naturally from small beginnings and whose organisation had expanded naturally, the Women's Royal Air Force was created by the transfer of large numbers of women from the "Waacs," inadequately officered and inadequately accommodated; and, indeed, at the time when Miss Douglas Pennant took over, for some 16,000 members of the force there were only 75 officers available, and in the appointment of at least some of those officers there had been room for grave complaint that persons had been selected on grounds other than their natural capacity for the job which they were required to perform. In spite of those facts, Miss Douglas Pennant, in the belief that she could render good public service, agreed, on pressure from Lord Rothermere, to take on the post, and she became the Commandant of the Women's Royal Air Force in June, 1918.

The anticipation of trouble which she had formed in the month's preliminary survey was not disappointed. Within a fortnight of her taking office as Commandant, she was warned by disappointed candidates for appointment to various posts that, unless she recom- mended that they should be given posts, she would be disgraced and dismissed, because of the powerful influences which would be brought into operation against her. Within a fortnight of taking office, she received a similar warning from a General in the Air Force, to the effect that members of her immediate entourage were engaged in a conspiracy to prevent the reform of the conditions which still existed in the Women's Royal Air Force, and to force her own resignation. Within a fortnight of her taking office there was a collective resignation on the part of three of those who were working immediately under her, designed to force her own resignation, or, alternatively, to compel her to accept the nomination of unsatisfactory candidates for posts.

When that collective resignation took place, her then General, General Paine, investigated very fully the circumstances of those resignations, decided that in the interests of the public service they should be accepted, backed Miss Pennant, and ordered the officers who were in mutiny to remain in their posts until such time as substitutes were found for them. In spite of that, the officers who had mutinied left their posts in disobedience to orders and shook the dust of the Air Ministry off their feet. After that preliminary trouble Miss Douglas Pennant had no further difficulty with her immediate entourage. She had tremendous difficulty, however, with the state in which the Women's Royal Air Force was at that time. I have explained that the great need at that time in the force was officers. The conditions existing in the camps, the expansion of the Air Force, the development of the corps, all depended upon an adequate supply of trained officers, and the first essential for getting that supply was the provision of premises and equipment for the training of officers in officers' training centres.

When Miss Pennant had been appointed she had superseded another officer, Colonel Bersey, who was in charge of the equipment department—from the control of which department the Women's Royal Air Force was removed. But Colonel Bersey and the equipment department continued to be responsible for the provision of accommodation and equipment which the force had to use. In other words, Miss Pennant could only do her job provided that the utmost co- operation was forthcoming from an officer of another branch whom she had superseded. In fact, from the beginning and during the whole of her 10 weeks' stay in the Air Ministry, nothing but obstruction and difficulty was experienced by Miss Pennant in regard to the supply of premises and equipment which alone could make possible the successful performance of her duties.

Now comes a remarkable thing. On 26th August, some 10 weeks after her appointment, Miss Pennant's immediate chief, General Paine, was promoted. General Paine had stood by her in all the difficulties which she had experienced up to that time. Two days later General Brancker was appointed to succeed General Paine, and two days after his appointment, without making any kind of charge against her and without giving her any opportunity for a reply to any charge, General Brancker dismissed Miss Pennant without even 24 hours' notice.

3.0 p.m.

King's Regulations provide that an officer may not be dismissed save after the fullest possible investigation and the fullest opportunity on his part to answer any charges made against him. Civil Service regulations provide that before disciplinary action was taken against any civil servant, the charge shall be stated in writing and an opportunity afforded of making a reply in writing. In this case there was no charge, no opportunity of replying to a charge, no notice, but a summary dismissal which would only have been justified on the assumption that she had been detected in theft or was some kind of moral leper not fit to be retained in the department. Indeed, the circumstances under which her connection with the Air Ministry ended, gave rise on a widespread scale to the assumption that she must be a moral leper or that incident would not have occurred. On her dismissal Miss Pennant applied to Lord Weir, who had succeeded Lord Rothermere at the Air Ministry, for an inquiry. The inquiry was refused, and she turned to the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) He appointed one of his secretaries to make an investigation, and the investigation was made by that secretary (Mr. Cecil Harmsworth), and it is known by those who have seen his report that it was entirely in Miss Pennant's favour, and that Mr. Cecil Harmsworth recommended the Prime Minister to hold a formal inquiry into the circumstances in which Miss Pennant had been dismissed. Indeed, the then Prime Minister promised that such an inquiry should be held, but under pressure from Lord Weir, the promise was not fulfilled. The Harms-worth report was suppressed, and has never seen the light of day from then until now. Miss Pennant then turned to the House of Commons, and efforts were made in this House to get an inquiry. These were resisted by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill), who was then responsible for the Air Ministry in this House.

Disappointed here, Miss Pennant turned to another place, and it was there decided by a majority of three to one to appoint a Select Committee. Then an astonishing thing happened. The very Government which had refused to hold an inquiry on its own initiative, faced with the decision in another place said, "We will appoint the personnel of that Select Committee. We will confine our choice to Members of the other place, who voted against an inquiry, or did not vote, and exclude any Member who voted for the inquiry." This amazing decision was followed by the still more amazing decision to appoint on the committee the father-in-law of the Secretary to the Air Ministry, Sir John Baird, who was intimately acquainted with the details of the case. But, indeed, there is no end to the farce and the tragedy which surround this case. The committee having thus been constituted, the chairman ruled that the terms of reference should be so interpreted as to place on Miss Pennant the onus of proving that she had been wrongfully dismissed. The onus really rested on the Air Ministry to show why they had dismissed a responsible officer in almost unexampled circumstances, but the terms of reference were so interpreted by Lord Wrenbury, the chairman of the committee as to put Miss Pennant in the position of proving a case for wrongful dismissal. Worse still, it put her in that position, although she had no knowledge of the charges made against her and had no access to the files of the Air Ministry upon which so much might depend.

The third amazing thing that happened was that the committee itself made no effort to extract the nature of the charges made against Miss Pennant, and it was not until after the inquiry had closed that she became familiar with what those charges were. It is known that on the day when General Brancker took over in place of General Paine he had been seen by Lady Rhondda. It is known also that Lady Rhondda had seen the Air Minister, and the head of the Ministry of National Service, Sir Auckland Geddes, prior to seeing General Brancker, and dismissing Miss Pennant. The presumption was that something had come from Lady Rhondda via Sir Auckland Geddes to Lord Weir, the Air Minister, which had caused Lord Weir to instruct General Brancker to dismiss Miss Pennant in the way in which she was dismissed. Indeed, that presumption was confirmed in 1919, a year later, when Lady Rhondda wrote to the "Times" and declared publicly that she had advised Lord Weir to dismiss Miss Pennant from her post. Will it be believed that, in spite of those circumstances, the Select Committee made no effort to extract from Lady Rhondda or from the Air Ministry itself the nature of the charges which had passed by that channel and, having reached the Air Minister, had resulted in the dismissal of this lady.

Worse still, it was known that Sir Auckland Geddes had written to Lord Weir on the subject. The Select Committee inquired where that letter was. The Air Ministry could not produce it, and the Ministry of National Service, from which it had come, could not find the carbon copy. A responsible public servant—and I am personally very much concerned with the public service of this country—had been ruined and dismissed on the strength of a written communication and on the strength of oral communications in line with the written communication, and yet, when the Select Committee of the House of Lords inquires into the matter, neither the letter nor the carbon copy of the letter can be found. Lawyers tell me that when an action for wrongful dismissal is taken in the Courts, it is obligatory on the employer who resists that action to make public the grounds upon which he has dismissed the employé, in order that the latter may have the fullest opportunity of trying to prove his case. In the case of the Select Committee of the House of Lords, that was never done, and indeed the very documents which were understood to formulate the charges could not be found when asked for by the Select Committee.

But I am prepared to assume for the purpose of this discussion that the Select Committee was right in placing the onus upon Miss Pennant rather than upon the Air Ministry. The terms of reference to the Select Committee were to inquire into and report upon the circumstances connected with Miss Douglas Pennant's dismissal. Those circumstances were alleged by Miss Pennant to be that she had come into the Air Ministry at the request of the Minister, that she had cleared up an extraordinarily difficult situation, that she had experienced obstruction, in the effort to clear up that situation, that she had run up against vested interests in her effort to clear up the situation, and that those vested interests had conspired with people outside the Department to bring about her dismissal. If the Select Committee were right in their avenue of approach, the very least that they might have done was to probe the truth of those accusations to the bottom. I want to give two or three examples to the House to show how far they discharged the duty that was imposed upon them. One of Miss Douglas Pennant's complaints had been that the officer whom she had superseded, Colonel Bersey, who was responsible for the supply and equipment to the training centres in which she wanted to train officers, had obstructed the supply of furniture and equipment to these centres. Early in June she had asked for indents to be put through for furniture and equipment for a training centre that she had established in Berridge House. These indents were finally put through on 17th July, some six weeks after she had asked that they should be put through. That was only done after complaints by responsible officers in the Air Ministry other than Miss Douglas Pennant. These facts were brought out in evidence, but the only counter-evidence that the Air Ministry produced took the form of minutes, which showed that indents had been put forward in respect of depot hostels—depot hostels being an entirely different thing from officers' training centres. Yet this amazing Committee included in their Report a paragraph to the effect that the indents for the furniture were issued on 17th July, and in our opinion, these minutes completely destroy Miss Douglas Pennant's story of obstruction by Colonel Bersey in respect of Berridge House. They were all put to her in cross-examination. She had no answer to make to them, and we thought that her charges of obstruction were not substantiated. Will any lawyer in the House believe me when I say that the minutes which the Select Committee refer to are minutes which relate to an entirely different thing, namely, depot hostels and not officers' training centres? Miss Douglas Pennant had made no complaint in regard to depot hostels. Besides that, as every civil servant knows, there is all the difference in the world between a minute from one officer to another and an indent for goods, upon which alone the supplying department is able to act.

I could keep the House for a very long time analysing some of the amazing things which this Committee did, but I confine myself to one other illustration. The suggestion was that Miss Douglas Pennant really had no cause for complaint at being dismissed from her post as commandant because she had never held the post at all. It so happens that prior to her appointment, there had been no post as commandant. At the time of her appointment, new rules were in draft which provided for a post of commandant, but there had been protracted delay in getting these new regulations printed and issued, and at the time of Miss Douglas Pennant's dismissal, they had still not actually been issued, and were not in fact issued until the following November. The Select Committee actually took advantage of that suggestion to argue that Miss Douglas Pennant held no post to which King's Regulations applied, and, therefore, had no complaint as to the way in which she had been dismissed. She had been offered the post of commandant, she had accepted it, she had worn the uniform, she had issued instructions as commandant, she was known from one end of the country to another as commandant, she was referred to as commandant in all the official minutes and papers, and yet, because of the delay in issuing regulations, this amazing Select Committee discovered that really she held no post to which King's Regulations applied, and therefore had no complaint about the way in which she was dismissed. From my point of view, it does not matter whether her post was a military post to which King's Regulations applied or whether it was a Civil Service post to which Civil Service Regulations applied. One of those two it must have been, and, whichever it was, the same broad principle that a public servant shall not be discharged without the charges being formulated against him and a formal opportunity for reply being given applies.

But the thing that put the climax on the work of that Committee was one other circumstance. Whenever large bodies of men and women are taken away from natural conditions of life, and are concentrated together in camps during a time of war, cases of irregular sex relations are bound to arise. They are the inevitable result of the abnormal conditions prevailing in war time. Lord Stanhope, in giving evidence before the Select Committee of the House of Lords, had drawn attention to the conditions that existed in that respect in certain of the camps and had specified the case particularly of Hurst Park. He was pressed by the chairman of the Committee to say who was his informant in regard to the conditions at Hurst Park, and he replied that he thought it had either been Miss Douglas Pennant or, alternatively, a gentleman by the name of Colonel de Frece. Pressed still further, he had replied that it was not Miss Douglas Pennant, but Colonel de Frece. On his return home he had written to the chairman of the Committee and told the chairman that since giving evidence he had seen the woman in charge at Hurst Park and three other witnesses, who were prepared to testify to the truth of what he had said in regard to the conditions prevailing in that particular camp. One would have assumed that that Select Committee, charged to inquire into the circumstances surrounding Miss Douglas Pennant's dismissal, would have called those witnesses and probed the truth of those things to the bottom.

The chairman refused to call those witnesses. He did a still more amazing thing. He warned Miss Douglas Pennant's counsel that if he called them then, from the moment that they were called, Miss Douglas Pennant herself would be personally financially responsible for the whole of the subsequent costs of that Committee of Inquiry. That was an impossible burden for Miss Douglas Pennant to assume, and the inquiry came to an end, and came to an end because she could not afford the money to carry the thing further; and yet in their Report, the Committee first of all fasten Lord Stanhope's charges upon Miss Pennant, hold her responsible for them and then use the fact that she did not call certain people as witnesses as a ground for supposing that the charges were baseless and that therefore Miss Pennant's complaint, was unfounded in that respect. I have seen a good deal of this kind of work, and I have seen many judicial decisions, but I have never read anything which so little resembles justice as the Report of that Committee. It is special pleading from beginning to end, and it cannot be regarded as settling the Douglas Pennant case, or supporting the refusal to reconsider the case in regard to her dismissal to which Miss Pennant is justly entitled.

In 1924, when the Labour Government came into office, an attempt was made to get the matter dealt with, and the present Prime Minister instructed one of his secretaries to establish contact with Miss Pennant to consult with her as to how the case might be disposed of, and the intention was to submit to her the draft of any letter which was drawn up dealing with the case. Discussions took place and they culminated in a letter being sent to Miss Pennant, but which still left the matter in the same unsatisfactory position. Last year a tremendous petition containing thousands of signatures was presented to the House of Commons, but from 1918 to 1929 Miss Douglas Pennant has remained in the same position in which she was left when she was dismissed. She has since that time been debarred from taking up any kind of public work and from all kinds of social circles in which she would move under ordinary circumstances. She has been denied the right of joining the Old Comrades Association until such time as the inquiry demanded by her and her friends and by many Members of this House into the circumstances of her dismissal is granted.

I want to say, in conclusion, that I spent a great many years in the Civil Service of this country in much more obscure capacities than Miss Pennant. I have also spent many years in trade union activities in the Civil Service, and I have had abundant opportunities of observing how responsible officers have frequently been condemned behind their backs without having the opportunity of meeting their accusers, and answering the charges made against them. It is known that what happened in the Douglas Pennant case was that the three women who mutinied in the first fortnight of her tenure of office had established contact with Lady Rhondda, that Lady Rhondda had operated through Sir Auckland Geddes, that Sir Auckland Geddes had gone to Lord Weir, and that Lord Weir had instructed General Brancker to dismiss her. At no stage was this woman given the opportunity of knowing what she was charged with or of meeting the charge when it had been made.

Civil Service trade unionism has fought for years, and has succeeded in establishing the principle in the Army, the Navy and the Air Force that no disciplinary action shall be taken against an officer without a categorical charge being made and without an opportunity being afforded for replying to that charge. So long as the Douglas Pennant case stands where it now is, it is an everlasting warning to any straight and honest person, called upon to clear up a difficult mess, to refrain from clearing it up, in case the necessary backing from his political chiefs is not forthcoming when trouble results from trying to clear it. It is an everlasting warning to Civil Servants and officers in other forces to make friends with the Mammon of Unrighteousness, to avoid doing the straight thing, to turn a blind eye to corruption and wrong influences, and to play for safety rather than to do one's duty by the State of which one is the employé. So long as that case stands where it is, no public servant in this country can feel assured that, if he or she does his or her job as he or she ought to, they are going to be protected against the consequences of playing the game.

There was a boy clerk—and I also at one time was a boy clerk in the Civil Service—who had served with Miss Douglas Pennant at the Welsh Insurance Commission, and he said to her, after these things had happened, what I say to the House now. He said, "Miss Pennant, when we were at the Welsh Insurance Commission you did your best to teach us that we had got to play the game by the State. In those days I would never have believed that you could have experienced the treatment that you have experienced as the result of trying to do your job in the Air Ministry. Hereafter, I do not believe in playing the game in the State service." That cannot but be the impression when a woman with a long record of public service, called in to clear up a corrupt mess, does her best to clear it up, comes into conflict with the vested interests that existed there, fights those interests in a clean and straight way, and then, at the end of it, is allowed to be manoeuvred out of her job in circumstances which are calculated to cast a stigma upon her and to prevent her from engaging in public work ever again until that stigma is cleared away.

It is suggested that nothing should be done in this case because it is 10 years old. My reply is that the fact that this injustice has gone for 10 years without-being put right makes it imperative that not another day should be lost before we try to put it right. It is suggested that we cannot look at this case, without resurrecting all the scandals that existed in war time. If that were true, my reply would be that I would sooner rake over a dozen scandals affecting dishonest people than see one honest person suffer as the result of having gone straight. But it is not the case that what is contemplated is an in descriminate roving commission into the scandals that existed at that time. What is contemplated is the appointment of two or three men of affairs to investigate that single point—how was it that an honourable and responsible officer, whose resignation, when she tendered it 10 days earlier as a protect against the obstruction with which she was meeting, was declined, to whom tributes had been paid a fortnight earlier by the Under-Secretary of State for Air in this House, was suddenly dismissed without a word of charge against her and without a single opportunity of replying to the charge if one had been made?

Another suggestion, which may be repeated here to-day, is that all kinds of people were superseded during the War period inevitably under war conditions. I do not deny that that is true. A lot of poor people suffered from that kind of thing as well as relatively well-connected and well-to-do people like Miss Pennant. But this is not an ordinary case of an officer being transferred from one post to another because of a rearrangement of duty, not a case of an officer being found all right from an efficiency point of view but difficult from a personal point of view, and therefore whose resignation or transfer was facilitated. It is a case of a woman against whom no charge has been made, who is dismissed under circumstances which would only be conceivable if she were a common thief or a moral leper. The public service, for which the House is finally responsible, the officers of the Army and Navy, for whom this House is also finally responsible, can feel no sense of assurance so long as the Douglas Pennant case remains undealt with, as it remains undealt with at present.

I do not believe in the long run you can stop the truth coming to the surface. If the Government turns me down to-day, the case will come up again and again and again until at last justice is done, and every Government that turns it down incurs a moral responsibility that I should like to see our Government free of. There are some things their position in this House prevents them doing. It may be that they cannot embark upon the kind of policy that many of us would like to see them follow, but they can deal with cases like Miss Pennant's and others I could mention who have been victimised, and disgraced because of their loyalty and their fidelity to their duty and say, whether they are five or 10 years old, "We are concerned as a Government to establish the principle that men and women shall not suffer or be victimised for doing their job and, therefore, we will appoint the Committee for which you are asking." I earnestly ask the Government to give us that inquiry, not a roving commission but a small committee of two or three men of affairs who can deal with the single issue affecting Miss Pennant with a view to a wrong act of 1918 being wiped out, the stigma withdrawn from her, and a public servant who has been disgracefully treated restored to her rightful position in the public estimate.

The ATTORNEY-GENERAL (Sir William Jowitt)

I am sure everybody who has listened to this Debate will agree at any rate that Miss Pennant is to be congratulated upon her advocate here to-day in the sincere, and I may add enthusiastic, way in which he has put her case. An experience extending over a great many years of courts of justice has taught me that there is nothing more likely, I am afraid, to do harm than a sense of grievance. I do not suppose anything I say to-day can remove the grievance which Miss Pennant undoubtedly felt and I have no doubt still feels, but I would add this word of caution, which we all know to be true, that, once you get a person brooding over a grievance, the grievance tends to become magnified out of all proportion, until at long last the person cannot judge what the real facts of the case were. I would earnestly hope the words I say to-day may, in the interest of Miss Pennant, end this matter, because it is perfectly certain, in her own interests, that it is not desirable that the wound should be kept open a day longer than is necessary.

The circumstances attending Miss Pennant's discharge from the post she occupied have been clearly stated, shortly after the occasion, and by a number of Prime Ministers and successive Secretaries of State for Air. We have to throw our minds back to August, 1918. The War was then on and was still in a not uncritical phase. The number of men available for enlistment in the Royal Air Force was strictly limited. It was therefore necessary to supplement the men as far as possible by women. Unfortunately, the organisation of the "Wrafs," as they were called—the Women's Royal Air Force—was not satisfactory; it was eminently unsatisfactory, and in August, 1918, the matter came to a head and steps had to be taken.

Lord Weir was Secretary of State for Air, and there is not the shadow of a doubt that he changed his mind. On 7th August an answer was given in this House to the effect that Miss Douglas Pennant was giving every satisfaction, but between that date and 27th August Sir Auckland Geddes had caused to be written a letter to Lord Weir which called attention in most striking terms to the thoroughly bad organisation of the Women's Royal Air Force. The hon. Member may say that this letter was missing. It is quite true that the letter was not found, but a draft was found on the file, and Lord Weir agreed that he had received a letter in the terms of the draft. That draft is actually set out in the Committee's Report. It called attention to the fact that the organisation was very bad and to the immediate steps to be taken to improve them. Lord Weir had to consider what were the best steps to take and who was the best person to take them. He received the letter about 23rd August; 24th August, 1918, was a Saturday, and he went to the country for a week-end. On 25th August he made up his mind that he would replace Miss Pennant as head of the Women's Royal Air Force by somebody else. When he came to that decision he had seen nobody and received no document except the letter from Sir Auckland Geddes which is set out in the Report. He subsequently did see Lady Rhondda.


I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but, if I understand him aright, it comes to this, that Lord Weir, the political head of the Air Ministry, came to this conclusion on a statement from somebody outside the Ministry without any kind of reference to the individual concerned.


Of course, that is so, and necessarily must be so. When you are at war, the one thing that matters is the defeat of your enemy by having the best organisation that you can, and I suggest it as elementary common sense to every part of the House that it would be disastrous if any person, though you may call him a political leader, who is the head of a fighting service, were to hesitate about putting the best person in charge of a job because personal considerations might enter into it. Lord Weir had to do his duty regardless of personal considerations and select the best occupant for a very responsible post. He came to the conclusion—I am not concerned to argue whether rightly or wrongly, more than to say that it was honest—that Miss Douglas Pennant was not the person best fitted for that particular job at that particular time, and, acting upon that conclusion, he did that which any honest man would have done and would have had to do; he took steps to replace her. I entirely agree that the manner of her discharge was regrettable. I think it is a matter for great regret, and I would remind the House that for that Lord Weir apologised. He could do no less, and we could ask him to do no more. If he came to the honest conclusion that it was necessary to replace Miss Pennant by someone else, he was in duty bound to this country to see that that was carried out.

It was made perfectly plain to Miss Pennant—and I desire to make it perfectly plain again, because really if she feels, as she says she feels, social ostracism, possibly these words of mine may have some effect—that there is not, and there never has been, the slightest ground for suggesting that Miss Pennant was guilty of any kind of moral turpitude or any moral fault or moral obliquity, or that she, at any time, was doing anything other than the very best she possibly could in the interests of the Women's Royal Air Force. Let that be plainly understood. Let it equally be plainly understood that there is no charge made against Miss Pennant's general efficiency. Her long record of honourable public service shows that she was a most efficient person in organisation and in other respects. The sole reason why Lord Weir decided to make an alteration in the head of the Women's Royal Air Force was because he thought that for this particular job at this particular time Miss Pennant was not the best person. That really is the end of the case. I think that it is a very great pity, in Miss Pennant's interests, that the matter was not allowed to rest there when the apology was obtained from Lord Weir with regard to the gross manner of her dismissal. But what followed? The question, of course, was not simply the question, "Was this an honest exercise by Lord Weir of his discretion?" It was at once said that there had been here a very serious intrigue—[Interruption]. My hon. Friend says, "So there was." My hon. Friend has played the part of advocate well, and he should not also play the part of judge.




I do not intend to give way to the hon. Member about that, because I know full well that no person at the same time can be both. Judge and advocate. An advocate trying to be a Judge would be a bad Judge. Charges were made, and, having read through most of the papers in this matter, let me say, charges of perhaps the most grave and serious nature with which I have ever had to deal. It was said that there had been an intrigue set on foot. The hon. Member repeated it in his speech to-day. An intrigue set on foot. Why? An intrigue set on foot by various officers in the Air Force and various other persons who were interested in seeing that certain immorality which was alleged to be taking place did not come to an end. Hon. Members in every part of the House will agree that it is difficult to conceive any more serious charge being made against an officer on the active list than that he was anxious that these things which were said to be going on should go on. The Committee therefore investigated perfectly specific charges, which were made, not by Miss Douglas Pennant alone, with regard to certain persons. It was alleged that these persons had, for the reasons that I have indicated, entered into some kind of intrigue against her.

With regard to what the hon. Member has said about the Select Committee which was set up, I content myself by saying that I profoundly disagree with him. I have read not only the findings of the Committee but I have read the whole of the evidence. The Committee was presided over by Lord Wrenbury who, as Lord Justice Buckley, was well known to every lawyer. They investigated the specific charges that had been made. Reading the Report one must be surprised at the lengths to which those who made the charges went in investigating isolated charges in regard to misconduct which was not alleged to have taken place until months after Miss Douglas Pennant's dismissal, because, as her counsel said, proof that misconduct took place afterwards would make it more likely that it also took place before. All these charges were investigated by the Select Committee, and the Committee came unanimously to the conclusion that there was no substance whatever in the charges, that the charges ought never to have been made, and they expressed their deep regret that the charges had been made.


Were not the facts, as stated by my hon. Friend the Member for West Wolverhampton (Mr. W. J. Brown) in regard to Lord Stanhope's evidence, admitted.


The facts in regard to Lord Stanhope's evidence are set out in the Report. It is too lengthy a matter to be dealt with by question and answer. They state that Lord Stanhope's statement in regard to certain evidence was based on information supplied to him by Miss Douglas Pennant. I have considered the matter most anxiously to see how far I could advise those responsible that we might deal with this case even now, after 11 years, by appointing some other Committee to investigate it, but I have come to the conclusion that it would be, I say so quite candidly, grossly unjust to the other people who were closely concerned and had these charges made against them, if we were to re-open this matter. It is not that there is any charge made against Miss Douglas Pennant.


indicated dissent.


The hon. Member has done me the courtesy of listening to me so far. He will realise that I have tried to make it plain that there is no charge against Miss Douglas Pennant, and that in the mind of any reasonable person there ought not to be any charge either as to her moral character, her conduct or her efficiency.


This is a little difficult to endure. I put this point to the Attorney-General, that when you dismiss a woman in circumstances which appear to make her a perfectly moral leper, you do not subsequently vindicate that woman by getting up and paying verbal tributes to her. You can only vindicate her by inquiring into the root of the matter, and putting it straight.


What is a perfectly moral leper? Suppose that a responsible Government desired to supersede some general in the field, because they thought he was not fit to command, and they demurred from so doing because it was said: "If you supersede General A, you are treating him like a moral leper, and he will be socially ostracised for the rest of her life."


The cases are not analogous.


Whether the reason is good or bad, once Lord Weir had decided that she was not the best woman for these duties, I should have advised him that he had no option but to get rid of her. We were engaged in a war with the Germans, and we had to beat the Germans, and beating the Germans could be best accomplished by having the best organisation in the men's and in the women's forces. What I want to do is to heal the wound, as far as I can. I have said what has been said by successive Prime Ministers—the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George), the late Mr. Bonar Law, the present Leader of the Opposition and the present Prime Minister. I have made and they have made it perfectly plain that there is no charge whatever against Miss Douglas Pennant. If we were to reopen this matter and have a further inquiry to go into the question of intrigue again, the hon. Member says it would not much matter as it would only mean raking over scandals affecting dishonest persons. But that begs the whole question.

Are these persons dishonest? The scandal has been raked over. One woman in particular had to submit herself to the indignity of a physical examination. If these scandals are to be raked over again you put all these people who have vindicated themselves completely from these charges in peril once more, and it is an elementary principle of justice that when a person has been tried and acquitted you never try that person again on the same charge. The reason I have come to the conclusion that it is quite impossible to accede to the request is this. The hon. Member has considered this from one point of view, the point of view of Miss Douglas Pennant, but it seems to me that you cannot isolate this case and put it into a completely watertight compartment. There are innumerable points at which it inevitably touches other people. The question whether this was a dishonest exercise of discretion depends on whether or not there was an intrigue. You cannot investigate whether there was an intrigue or not without going over once more the self-same ground covered by the Committee when they considered whether certain specifically named persons had or had not been guilty of an intrigue, and they came to the conclusion that they had not been guilty of any intrigue at all. They summed up their Report in this way: We find that in acting as he did Lord Weir was free from improper influence altogether. As Minister of Air Service it was wholly and solely for him, if he acted honestly, to supersede Miss Douglas Pennant if in his judgment it was in the interests of the public service so to do. In our judgment he acted honestly and superseded her because in the interests of the public service he thought it right to do so. That sums up the whole matter. As far as I am concerned, having read a vast number of leaflets and pamphlets and appeals, and having read the Harms-worth Report, 'which the hon. Member refers to as having been suppressed, I am convinced that that is the sum of the whole matter. Let me say a word with regard to the Harms-worth Report. It was a confidential document, sent by one of his private secretaries to the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs. I have the document in my room and, personally, I should not have the smallest objection to showing it to the hon. Member. If I did so I think he would realise that he has not quite accurately stated what is in it. But it seems to me important that the confidential nature of this document should be preserved, otherwise if such documents are going to be dragged out you may arrive at a stage when a private secretary would hesitate as to what be should put in a report to the Prime Minister on account of what may be published afterwards. If they are dragged out in one case it will create a precedent, and it may be said, you did it in one case, why not in another?

The Courts of law and the traditions of this House make it undesirable that a document like this should be disclosed. The hon. Member referred to it as being suppressed, but I can assure him that there is no suppression whatever if he means anything in the sinister sense, and, if he presses me, I will gladly take the opportunity of asking the Prime Minister and the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs to break a precedent and show it to the hon. Member— not that I really hope that by so doing, I shall remove the grievance; but I would seriously urge the hon. Member for West Wolverhampton (Mr. W. J. Brown) to use all the influence that he can with Miss Douglas Pennant not to let this matter become an obsession with her. I am quite certain that it is not in her interests. There is no reason whatever why any honest person in this world should have any hesitation in dealing with Miss Douglas Pennant, and anybody may be proud to know such a woman as Miss Douglas Pennant, who has rendered many years most valuable service to the State.

There does come a time in the lives of most of us when from time to time we wonder whether we are peculiarly fitted for the particular job which we are called upon to do. We frequently feel, with regard to other people, a doubt whether they are so fitted—more so perhaps than with regard to ourselves. Without saying anything in the smallest degree derogatory to Miss Douglas Pennant, I would ask her to consider this: It may be—it is conceivable—that she was not the person best fitted to deal with the state of difficulty existing at that particular time. I do not pretend to know why; I do not pretend to express any opinion of my own as to whether that is right or wrong. I do not even go so far as to say that Lord Weir acted wisely. As this Report says he certainly vacillated; he certainly changed his mind; but what does matter is this: I do desire to say that there is not the slightest ground for suggesting that Lord Weir acted dishonestly. After all, in time of war, even more possibly than in time of peace, appointments to great offices such as that which Miss Douglas Pennant held must be subject to the exercise of discretion by a responsible authority. If the fact is, as the Committee says, that Lord Weir acted honestly, there is really no more to be said. I venture to express the opinion, in which the Prime Minister concurs, that the idea of going once more, after 11 years, into this whole matter, which must inevitably involve dealing with grave questions in which a number of people who have vindicated their honour are concerned, should not now be entertained; and I would urge that Miss Douglas Pennant should rest content with the explanations which I have given, and with my telling her, quite frankly, that there is not, and never has been, the slightest charge against her honour.


In a case such as this, when the Motion for the Adjournment permits of the review of outstanding questions by the House of Commons, inevitably a number of most divergent subjects have to be reviewed; and already to-day the House has reviewed the question of naval strategy in the Far East, has reviewed the position of our national finances, has heard a Chancellor of the Exchequer wish his predecessor a Merry Christmas while assuring him of his personal love and apparently undying political hostility, and has listened again to a review of a case which has more than once come before this House. I ask the House to turn its attention for a moment or two to a further subject, which is also within its competence at this moment.