HC Deb 15 May 1930 vol 238 cc2205-12

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Kennedy.]


I will occupy the House for about five minutes in answer to a question put to me by the First Lord of the Admiralty. The question was perfectly legitimate and he understood the gravity of it by not demanding an answer on the spot, which I certainly would not have given, for it is a question which deserves some moments for a reply; and there is a good deal more in it than hon. Members imagine who call with such avidity for me and offered me such a hearty welcome. The question really is what rules, if any, do regulate the use in the House of Commons of Cabinet papers and, arising out of that question, what are Cabinet papers and the limits within which those rights apply. There are certain things which are perfectly clear and some which are less clear. It is perfectly clear that with regard to all discussions in a Cabinet these are absolutely secret and can only be given away by permission of the King, a permission which, when a Minister resigns, is always given freely. He may give his explanation why he has resigned, but no Minister has a right to say, for instance, he was a dissenting party from action taken by the Cabinet. That by the way, for that only bears indirectly on what I am discussing, the practice of my Government was, of course, exactly the same as that of what the First Lord declared was the practice of the Government to which he belonged. He put it more briefly because he had not envisaged all the circumstances. When a Government was in office, and this is true of all Governments I have known, no documents were published that belonged to any predecessor of that Government without the consent of the Minister who was responsible for that Government during its lifetime. Here again doubt has existed, because I remember quite well a single case during the term of my own Government. If my memory serves me, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Birmingham (Sir A. Chamberlain), who was then Foreign Secretary, read from a paper which had been written by Lord Haldane, who was Lord Chancellor in the Labour Government of 1924. My right hon. Friend had had Lord Haldane's ready consent. Lord Haldane, of course, was one of the most experienced Cabinet Ministers living. He had been in office on and off over a term of 20 years. The present Prime Minister, if I remember aright, took exception—and, I think, correctly—and my right hon. Friend and I discussed the matter, and we came to the conclusion that perhaps it would have been better had we not only got Lord Haldane's consent, but also mentioned it to the right hon. Gentleman who had been Lord Haldane's Chief in the Cabinet. No other question of the kind occurred during our term of office.

The position out of office is rather different. An ex-Minister's right to quote from his own documents, by which I mean a document that he himself has composed, is in some doubt. I have never heard any clear ruling on that point. A Minister must be guided by circumstances, by the time that has elapsed, and so forth. There has been an alteration in practice in this regard since the War, owing to the number of documents that have been published in memoirs, in diaries, and in histories, documents of the most confidential kind; and, more than that, the whole situation has been complicated by the revelation of the most secret documents in publications that have been made by foreign Governments. The position as regards an ex-Minister's right to quote, as I say, from one of his own documents is not clear, and the right of a Government to utilise documents in its possession I do not think is wholly clear either.

There would be, of course, absolute and general agreement that no communications between members of a Government and the Civil Service, for instance, ought in any circumstances to be betrayed, and they never are, and there are many documents of that kind, it is perfectly obvious, which are confidential, and must remain confidential, as between one Government and another, whatever the complexion of that Government may be, or it would make all working together absolutely impossible. But then, on the other hand, in the compilation of blue books and particularly of blue books which have reference to foreign affairs, certainly in any short time after a Government coming into power, extracts must be made from documents of the previous Governments to get the whole story, and in fairness very often to the Ministers who wrote those documents; and in my view in both these questions there is no clear ruling.

I should like to submit to the Prime Minister what I think I submitted in the last Parliament, though I cannot remember, I confess, why it was that nothing came of it. I think it is really very desirable that, for example, he and I and the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George), and possibly, if he thinks fit, one or two more Cabinet Ministers of long experience, should meet together at some time to clear up some of these points that are doubtful, and I am perfectly certain that whatever should be agreed to by such a committee as that would be held to absolutely and strictly by any Government which might be in power and in opposition. I put the matter so far as I see it in perfect frankness to the House. I do not think there is anything I can possibly add on the subject. I would just summarise what I have said. As far as the Government are concerned, the practice is clear and has always been observed in my knowledge of Governments. With a party in opposition, the practice is not so clear. I should only be too glad to help to take steps to help to clarify the position.


I should be very glad to assist in clarifying any doubtful points as to the use of these documents. If I respond to the invitation of the Leader of the Opposition to assist in that, the House must clearly understand that I do not agree that what happened to-day covers a doubtful point. I do not want to press it too far, but if there is any justification to be based on the fact that the right hon. Gentleman himself wrote that telegram, and that therefore the telegram is his own production, I make this observation. If an ex-Minister has a right to do that, then a Minister of the Government against whom he has used a very partial quotation from a document has a perfect right not only to publish the whole of the document, but to publish any other documents from the whole group of documents to which it belongs, so that the House of Commons and the country may know the whole truth.

There is another point. Before the right hon. Gentleman saw that document, I had to give my consent. It is perfectly true that in these circumstances the Prime Minister's consent is purely formal, or at least the request made to me is purely formal, for a Prime Minister would never think for a moment of putting an obstacle in the way of an ex-Minister seeing a Cabinet document or a Committee of Imperial Defence document or a document of the nature which has been quoted in order to refresh his memory or even to take notes. The mere fact that the liberty is asked for indicates that there is a certain preservation of these documents, and that the Prime Minister is supposed to exercise his judgment as to whether these documents should be kept absolutely secret, even from ex-Ministers or whether they should be revealed. I say that I do not want to press the matter any further, or at any rate, too far. I do hope it will not be understood, whether this consultation is going to take place or not, that the doctrine laid down by the right hon. Gentleman in the course of conversations he had with the right hon Member for Carnarvon (Mr. Lloyd George) is going to be accepted by the Conservative party, or even that the Conservative party thinks that doctrine to be of such lightness of consequence, as not to express a view upon it. I leave it there. I repeat, if there is any doubt as to how a certain class of document can be used or not, I should be only too glad to join with those who have been Prime Ministers or old, experienced Cabinet Ministers, in order that a clear rule of practice might be established.


I should like to say a word, if the House will allow me. I was certainly not trying, in answer to the unexpected attack of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George), to lay down any doctrine on these matters which, even when they are compressed into a state of definition, are not such as can be dealt with on the spur of the moment. But I must say this in fair play to the House. I was a Member of the Government which sent these instructions. I was one of those most closely connected with that part of the policy. The fact is, though I did not disclose it myself, that I actually made the draft which I submitted to the Prime Minister of the time. If I, during the tenure of office of that Government, in the course of my duties as a Minister in the very centre of this policy, had been called upon to defend or explain the policy of the Government, I should have explained it in those very words or almost those very words. I should have said this: "These are the instructions we have sent; this is the sense in which we have acted"; and I must say that I cannot feel, so far as I am concerned, that the lapse of time prevents me from saying what was the policy of the Government in those days, what were the stipulations we made, and what were the limitations. Still less do I feel that I should be inhibited in this matter when I know that the facts have been stated a hundred times, and stated twenty times by me.

On every platform here and in America I have said, "You made a great mistake in saying that we have played you false because we have not the universal parity which you expected at Washington." Twenty times I said we always excluded the cruisers and small craft. There is nothing new in that; it has been stated again and again. When we come to the question of how far these matters are affected by the lapse of time I would point out that it is nearly 10 years ago. That is a very long time, and I certainly do not consider that a Minister deeply concerned with a particular policy is not entitled, after 10 years, to explain in general terms what his view was, and what the course of the Government was.

Now I come to the question of whether I ought to have paraphrased this statement or not. It is true, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, that I could not have had access to the document without his permission. I remember perfectly well the course I took and my action with the Prime Minister in those days in the matter. Instead of rummaging among my archives, I asked that he should supply it to me. It never occurred to me for a moment that there would be all this story about the difference between my reading a perfectly innocent paragraph, the whole substance of which has been published for four or five years, and my paraphrasing it, as I could so easily have done, and perhaps as I ought to have done. I am ready, in the absence of any close definition, to admit that perhaps I ought to have paraphrased it. Instead of saying, "This is what we said," I should have said, "Our instructions to Lord Balfour at Washington were to the effect that he should do so-and-so, but that he was not to do this or that." It would have-been quite easy. I think it is possible, on the point of form, that I am in fault, and to that extent, if I am in fault, I am glad to be corrected—and no one can doubt that I have been corrected. It has been the subject of expressions of opinion from almost every quarter in the House, but I ask in fairness, appealing to my fellow Members of the House of Commons, that they should look at the text of the words which I read out and see how completely innocent they are of anything that could have the slightest injurious effect upon our affairs. In order to make them innocuous I did, in fact, leave out deliberately references to certain countries. If hon. Members will do that they will see that in this matter there is no grave and serious breach of the foundations of our public proceedings, but that, on the contrary, a statement has been made which was necessary and relevant to the actual Debate.

I must admit, so far as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) was concerned, that he had a ground of complaint against me, in that I did not say to him beforehand, "I shall have to mention the line we took at Washington in 1921." That is the sort of thing that I should have said—that I ought to have said—but I did not happen to see the right hon. Gentleman, and it never occurred to me for one moment that he could have objected. However, if it is his desire to define these matters more precisely, I certainly think that would be very advantageous; but, however you define it, there must be some statute of limitations imposed. After 10 years have passed, or after 20 years, or after 50 years, some freedom must be permitted in the statement of what actually happened, and why it happened, and in this case I rest myself upon a perfectly innocent use of a document which had ceased to have validity for 10 years, and which represented my statement of a course of policy which I had taken a grave and general responsibility in propounding.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-two Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.