HC Deb 19 January 1937 vol 319 cc35-8
Mr. Attlee

(by Private Notice) asked the First Lord of the Admiralty whether he can now give the reasons for the recent summary dismissals of dockyard workmen, under what Regulations they were so dismissed, and if, with a view to preventing unrest and dissatisfaction among dockyard workers, the Regulations will be amended so as to ensure that, in similar cases, a man will be informed of the grounds of his dismissal and be given an opportunity to reply to any charges against his character or conduct?

The First Lord of the Admiralty (Sir Samuel Hoare)

As the question of the right hon. Member deals with an exceptional and important case, the House will, I hope, permit me to deal with it in a somewhat lengthy answer. The men connected with this question have not been discharged because of their political views. Any employé in the dockyards can hold what political views he wishes. His opinions are his personal affair. As long as his work is satisfactory and his politics neither interfere with it nor lead to courses that will endanger the Navy and the State, there never has been, nor should there be, any interference with him. Secondly, the discharges do not imply that the spirit of the great majority of the dockyard workers is not excellent.

There do, however, arise cases, very rarely, I am happy to say, in which individuals throw discredit upon their fellow-workers by grave departure from the uniform high standard of loyal conduct which the dockyard personnel themselves have set up. The House will appreciate that cases of this nature in a Royal Dockyard involve risks, dangers and anxieties of a very serious kind. In the course of the autumn, information came to my knowledge of subversive activities on the part of certain men. They were activities calculated to endanger the safety and welfare of the State. I went personally into the matter. The information at my disposal seemed to me to confirm completely the serious view that was taken of the conduct of these men. In a matter, however, that involved the careers of five men, one of whom was an established workman of many years service, I was anxious not to rely upon my sole judgment. I, therefore, had the cases exhaustively investigated by a body composed of highly-placed, responsible and experienced permanent officials, and, I may add, officials not restricted to the Admiralty. All of them were civilians; all of them, as I know, were most anxious to do the fullest and most impartial justice to the men concerned. All of them took careful account of the nature of the procedure that was inevitable in cases of this kind. When it is impossible in the interests of national security to disclose the sources of information and to adopt the procedure of a court of law or of a normal Government inquiry, it is particularly necessary to give the fullest possible weight to the points in favour of the individuals whose conduct is being considered. I have been personally assured by each of the investigators that if they had a bias, it was a bias in favour of exoneration. Their investigation, however, forced them to the unanimous view that in the interests of the safety of the Navy these five men should not remain in employment in His Majesty's Dockyards.

I have a heavy responsibility upon my shoulders. I am responsible to this House for the safety of the men and the ships in His Majesty's Navy. If I am convinced after the fullest investigation, not only by myself but by senior and responsible civilian advisers, that the retention of certain individuals may endanger the safety of the men and ships of the Royal Navy, my course is clear. The Admiralty can no longer continue to keep these men in their employment, and in accordance with the undoubted right, which the Board of Admiralty shares with other employers of labour, of discharging any employés whose services it is not desired to retain, these men have been discharged. No loyal man in the Dockyards need on this account feel the least anxiety. The cases of disloyalty are altogether exceptional. In the interests, however, not only of the Navy but also of the overwhelming majority of the men in the Dockyards, I am convinced that these five men must leave the employment of the State.

Mr. Attlee

May I ask whether these men were informed of what the charge against them was, whether they were given any opportunity whatever of making their defence and whether there was any reason why men accused of a crime of this nature should not be allowed legal advice?

Mr. Thorne

Were the men in question brought before the investigators so that they could answer the charges made against them?

Sir S. Hoare

The answer to all those questions is in the negative. It is impossible to state the reasons publicly, for the same reason, that, in the interests of of the security of the State, it is impossible to have a public inquiry.

Mr. Attlee

In view of the unsatisfactory nature of that statement and in view of the fact that we are responsible for the liberty of the subject—[Interruption] I always understood that this House was responsible—I beg to give notice that I will take an early opportunity of raising this matter.