§ 4.6 p.m.
§ The Prime Minister (Mr. Chamberlain)
I beg to move,That a Select Committee be appointed to enquire into the substance of the statement made on 27th June in this House by the hon. Member for Norwood and the action of the Ministers concerned, and generally into the question of the applicability of the Official Secrets Acts to Members of this House in the discharge of their Parliamentary duties.The Motion, I think hon. Members will see, naturally falls into two parts. The first part directs the Select Committeeto inquire into the substance of the statement made on 27th June in this House by the hon. Member for Norwood and the action of the Ministers concerned.The House has heard the statement of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Sandys) and it has also heard the statement of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General. This afternoon it will hear the statement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War, who has not hitherto had an opportunity of making such a statement. I do not myself propose to offer any comments upon the statements that have been made upon this part of the subject, because that is the matter which is to be referred to the Select Committee, and it appears to me that it would be altogether improper on my part to attempt to prejudge any comments they may desire to make.
The second part of the Motion, perhaps the more important part, is that which directs the Committee to inquiregenerally into the question of the applicability of the Official Secrets Acts to Members of this House in the discharge of their Parliamentary duties.That is, obviously, a matter of the first importance. It is one which is concerned not merely with any recent events but with the future position of Members of Parliament in relation to the Official Secrets Acts.
The other day the Leader of the Opposition invited me to state on this occasion, at the beginning of the Debate, what was the attitude of the Government towards this question, on the ground, I think, that unless such a statement were made hon. Members would not know what the practice of the Government would ultimately be, and would feel 2156 themselves in some position of embarrassment, and perhaps even of anxiety. In reply to the right hon. Gentleman's invitation I said that I must have time to consider that proposal before giving a reply. I have considered it and I have taken the opportunity of consulting my colleagues in the Government also. The conclusion at which His Majesty's Government have arrived is that this is not an opportunity which His Majesty's Government can take to state a view upon that subject. We are asking the Select Committee to report. That Committee will in due course make its report, and that, it seems to us, will be the moment when the Government should state their attitude towards anything that the Committee may have to say. I think it is clear that this question may cover a very wide range of cases. I can conceive of cases where information obtained by a Member of Parliament, information of a secret character the disclosure of which might be an offence under the Official Secrets Acts, might nevertheless be used by such an hon. Member in such a way as to be of great benefit to the nation. On the other hand, I can also conceive of cases where such information, however it were obtained, might be used in such a way as seriously to affect the safety of the realm.
There are here two different interests, the interests and privileges of the House of Commons, the right of free speech on the one hand, and the safety of the country on the other. The matter was put perhaps compendiously a long time ago, at a period in the history of our country when a very considerable disturbance of constitutional practices was taking place, and is to be found in the Journals of the House of Lords of 1641. We learn that it was laid down that:Privilege of Parliament is granted in regard of the service of the Commonwealth and is not to be used to the danger of the Commonwealth.In those circumstances it seems to His Majesty's Government that the Select Committee for which I am moving, and which I think it will be agreed is as representative of all sections of the House as one can very well make it, ought to be left unhampered in the execution of its task by any dictum laid down in advance as to the attitude of His Majesty's Government. Whilst, of course, it is not for me to say what are to be the limits and 2157 the Rules of Order in the Debate this afternoon, I think that perhaps as Leader of the House it is not inappropriate for me to suggest that I hope that hon. Members, in the discussion which is to take place this afternoon, will, at any rate, not try themselves to do the work which they are going subsequently to ask the Committee to do.
The Committee will have power to take evidence. They will have the opportunity of ascertaining all the facts of the case. It may well be that all the facts of the case are not yet before this House, and in those circumstances it surely would be desirable, as far as possible at any rate, to let the Committee make their investigation before we attempt to form any judgment upon what the results which that investigation may disclose. I do not think that in the absence of any statement by the Government as to what their attitude is at present on the point which the right hon. Gentleman opposite put to me, any hon. Member of the House need feel that he is under any menace or has any need for anxiety. As far as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood is concerned, he has already received assurances in that respect which completely free him from any threat, and, as far as I know, there is no other Member of the House who is in any similar or analogous position; and I think, therefore, that we can well afford to wait, without any further declaration on the part of His Majesty's Government, until the Select Committee which is to be set up has given us its report.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Speaker
The House will realise that on this matter, which concerns this House very intimately, the discussion must be limited in extent. On previous occasions on the question of the setting up and the appointment of a Select Committee, the Ruling from the Chair has been that it would not be in order to deal with the merits of the case or to criticise the action of the various persons concerned as that would be anticipating the work of the Committee which it was proposed to set up. I think that the House will see that there is a great deal in that, and I think they will perhaps sympathise with me if I try to the best of my ability to keep the Debate on these lines. The Select Committee which it is proposed to set up has to consider, first of all, the substance of the statement which was made 2158 by the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Sandys) and the action of Ministers. So far the hon. Member for Norwood has stated his case, and the right hon. Gentleman the learned Attorney-General has stated his case, but the other Minister who is concerned in this affair—the Secretary of State for War—has not had an opportunity of stating his case. I feel sure that the House would not like him to be treated unfairly if he was not allowed to state his case, but I do not think that these statements ought to be made the chief subject of debate on this occasion. Clearly, it would be unwise and irregular to move a Motion that a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into a question of facts if the House took it out of its hands, prejudiced any findings and anticipated the work which it was asked to do.
§ Mr. Attlee
On a point of Order. While I think that everyone must agree that we should not prejudice the work of the Committee we are setting up, I would like to ask you, Mr. Speaker, to make clear exactly how far this Ruling goes. I have a recollection of other Committees in which there has been a proposal to set up a Select Committee, in which the House did, as a matter of fact, discuss the whole substance of the matter. I would refer to the Marconi inquiry, and particularly to the Amendment, which, I think, was moved by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Spen Valley (Sir J. Simon) on what is known as the Campbell case. When he moved that Amendment the Debate did not alter its character, but continued to be a discussion of the incidents and the rights and wrongs of the case.
§ Mr. Speaker
In making the statement I did make and in dealing with the matter I did not say definitely that I was going to rule anything out of order. All I asked was that the House would assist me in not allowing the Debate to go beyond what it should do, and so prejudice the finding of the Committee it is proposed to set up.
§ Mr. Bellenger
I understand that the Secretary of State for War is going to be called and will make a statement touching upon one of the points which is being referred to the Select Committee. Therefore, Mr. Speaker, I ask whether it will be in order for any hon. Member who may catch your eye to refer specifically to some of those statements which the right hon. Gentleman may make in the course of his speech.
§ Mr. Speaker
The House will remember that I only referred to the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War, saying that it would only be fair to allow him to make a statement considering that the other persons concerned had already been allowed to make a statement to the House. I must leave it to the right hon. Gentleman.
§ 4.21 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for War (Mr. Hore-Belisha)
The general matters, matters of great public importance, in which the House is interested will be referred to the Select Committee, and the only statement that I propose to make with your leave, Mr. Speaker, and with the leave of the House, is a brief one concerned with the facts as I became aware of them and with the action that I took at each particular stage. I should have been quite ready to make this statement before the Committee, but, as you have said, other statements have been made. I think that it might be the wish of the House that, these statements having been made public, I should be put into the same position as my hon. Friends who have already spoken. I propose accordingly to make precise and concise remarks.
On Wednesday evening, 22nd June, I received a minute from the General Staff. Attached to it was a letter and a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Sandys) which had been sent to me at the War Office in the ordinary way, not marked "Private" or "Personal" or "Secret" or "Confidential." After acknowledgment, it had been passed to the appropriate department to be dealt with, so that I could be given the material for a reply.
The minute from the General Staff was in the following terms:We are greatly concerned that Mr. Sandys should have been in possession of such information. Not only does it appear that he was conversant with the details of a secret scheme, but that he was kept up to date in the subsequent changes agreed to by the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, such as the diversion of guns. It was quite unnecessary to impart such information to a junior officer, and, further, it is obviously not in the public interest that a question of this nature should be asked.I must inform the House of the nature of the document from which certain facts mentioned in the Question has been extracted, and could only have been extracted. The document was the emer- 2160 gency plan of Defence of the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief drawn up at a date in April last. It contained emergency directions showing the exact dispositions to be taken by our guns and the exact numbers and the sources from which they were to be provided. It was a document of the highest secrecy. It was marked "Secret." The instructions were that it was to be kept under lock and key, and, further, that subordinate officers should be informed only of such details in it as was necessary for them to take appropriate action. The proposed question of my hon. Friend showed not only knowledge of the secret scheme, but of a modification that had subsequently been made.
The General Staff were naturally concerned to discover how the disclosure to my hon. Friend had come about. They proceeded to make their own inquiries. In these serious circumstances I sent the relevant papers to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, asking for his advice, and I saw the Prime Minister on the morning of Thursday, 23rd June. He told me, in view of the grave importance of the matter, to lay the facts before the Attorney-General. The concern was not merely to ask my hon. Friend to withdraw his Question. It was to discover how the information contained in a secret document could have been divulged. For me to ask my hon. Friend to withdraw his Question, which was only one aspect of the necessary action to be taken, would have placed me in a difficulty. My hon. Friend has told the House, and I will quote his exact words:The purpose of this letter"—his letter to me—was to draw the Secretary of State's personal attention to the facts referred to in the Question and to give him the opportunity"—that is, to give me the opportunity—if he thought fit, of asking me not to put down my Question.I think it right to read my hon. Friend's letter in full to the House. This is the letter:When we had a talk the other day about the anti-aircraft defence position I told you that before taking any further action in the matter I would consult with you again. I am accordingly sending you a copy of a question which I am thinking of putting down for answer on Tuesday, 28th June. As, however, I do not wish unnecessarily to create alarm, I am anxious, before doing so, to give you an opportunity privately to contradict the statements contained in this question.2161 I was unable to contradict the statement contained in this question, privately or otherwise. The facts in the question were true. I saw the Attorney-General later in the day on Thursday. I told him it was my desire to see my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood myself and this, although I felt some difficulty in doing so, because of the terms of his letter to me, which, as the House will recall, virtually made it a condition of the withdrawal of the question that I could deny the facts. The Attorney-General said that as the communication from the General Staff disclosed the commission by someone of a serious breach of the law he thought he probably ought to see my hon. Friend himself. He could put the position as disclosed in the General Staff's communication before him and deal with any legal points and ask him whether he was prepared to assist in the investigation of this breach of the law. The position of other people, not in this House, was involved.
After discussing it, I asked the Attorney-General to see my hon. Friend and to tell him of my own readiness to see him, which he did. On Monday last, the General Staff having completed their preliminary inquiries relating to the circumstances of the disclosure, the normal procedure was followed and a Court of Inquiry was ordered to be assembled. I may say, incidentally, that that decision was taken before any Debate had arisen in this House. The fullest information on these matters will he laid before the Select Committee. I think it will be wrong for me to go into any further detail at this juncture. At no stage has any suggestion been made that criticism of the Government's activities or inactivities should be suppressed. Members of this House have their duties in that regard. The General Staff also has a duty, which must be safeguarded. They are entrusted with the safe guardianship of our plans of defence.
§ 4.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Attlee
I rise to support the Motion moved by the Prime Minister, and I am very glad that the Government have accepted the proposal, that first came from the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Sandys), of a Select Committee to deal with this matter, because the matter involves very important issues. It is, I think, fundamentally a House of Com 2162 mons matter, and we are fortunate that on this occasion we have not had that party division which sometimes makes discussion on the setting up of a Select Committee somewhat acrimonious. Here we have an issue arising which concerns the rights of the whole of the Members of this House. The issues are very far-reaching and are of the utmost importance to this House, this country and to democracies throughout the whole world. They involve the liberties and the rights of the Members of this House acting in the performance of their duty to their constituencies. They involve the practice of our Parliamentary institutions, and they raise questions as to the relationship between the Executive and the Members of this House, and also the question of the relationship of the Executive to the Law Officers of the Crown.
I do not intend, in view of the fact that it is pretty clear that this proposal will be accepted by the House, to attempt in any way to anticipate the findings of the Select Committee or to go at any length into the actions of the Ministers of the Crown involved. There is, as a matter of fact, obviously some controversy as to the exact facts. We have merely had ex paste statements, and the Committee will have to investigate those statements. In my view, quite apart from the statement of the hon. Member for Norwood, there are in the statements of the Ministers themselves matters which give ground for some disquiet and warrant for an inquiry. I should like to say here that I think the hon. Member for Norwood in bringing these matters before the House did his duty as a Member of this House, responsible, as we all are, for the rights of the Members of the House. I do not think he could have done otherwise. There are certain matters which might very well be discussed this afternoon, and that is the kind of issue that will come before the Committee.
I do not want to go into the questions particularly concerning Ministers, although I think, perhaps, some of us may have been struck by the procedure that was actually followed by the Minister concerned. I would, however, raise one point which we shall expect the Committee to look into, and that is the exact position in this matter of the Attorney-General. The Attorney-General is a Minister and a Member of the Government, and he also holds a semi-judicial position. He has, in his functions, the 2163 initiation of prosecutions; he is the officer who gives his fiat for actions under the Official Secrets Acts. Therefore, he is in a very special position, and it seems to me that there might he some question as to why he was the agent of the Secretary of State for War in approaching the hon. Member for Norwood.
I indicated when this matter was first raised that it seemed to me to involve some of the principles that we discussed in this House in the Campbell case. The position to-day is not exactly the same. In that case a prosecution was initiated and then withdrawn in circumstances which the majority of the House thought needed inquiry. There were allegations of undue influence and of pressure, and the House was concerned as to whether the Attorney-General was in fact carrying out his functions in that judicial manner which is required of him. I am not alleging that the Attorney-General has not done so in this case, but I do say that that is a matter on which we ought to have an assurance. In the discussion on the Campbell case the position was very well put by the present Lord Horne:If the administration of the law should become subject to any considerations of political expediency then justice, as we have known it in this country for centuries, would disappear. Civilised communities can only enjoy full liberty if the political executive is excluded from interference with the mechanism of the administration of justice. It is for this reason that the very salutary rule has been observed in this country that the Attorney-General, in forming his opinion on matters of prosecution, is entirely free from any political influence whatsoever. He acts in a judicial capacity, and no Minister and no political party is entitled to interfere with him."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th October, 1924; cols. 581-2, Vol. 177.]I suggest that those considerations also apply to the Attorney-General when he has to consider the initiation of a prosecution. He has, of course, to consider whether it is in the public interest that a prosecution should be initiated or action should be taken, and what he must not do is to take into account political or other outside considerations. It will be one of the functions of the Select Committee to see that those principles have been observed. I think that is important because I have noticed the tendency increasingly manifested since 1931 to confuse the interests of the nation with the interests of the political party in office, and to confound the Government of the 2164 country with the body of persons for the time being holding office. That is an error which is quite often made by those who do not understand Parliamentary institutions, and that that should be done at all is a very grave danger to our liberties.
The idea that the interests of any political party are the same as those of the Government or the nation is a very dangerous one. It is an approximation, I think, to that false conception of the State which obtains in Fascist countries. What we want to be sure of always in these matters is that where action is taken there is a genuine apprehension of danger to the State, and not merely to the interests of Ministers or of a political Government. We cannot be too careful in guarding our country from these pernicious doctrines of the totalitarian States, where liberty has been suppressed. But there is a much larger issue, indeed I think the main issue which will come before the Select Committee, and that is the possible use of the Official Secrets Acts against a Member of this House, acting in pursuance of his Parliamentary duties. I should like to make it plain that on this matter we are considering the privilege of a Member of this House in pursuance of his Parliamentary duties. We as Members of this House do not claim to be free and above the law, but we are entitled to that protection which is necessary for us in order that we may carry out those functions with which we have been charged.
There can be no greater blow to democracy than the admission of any right of the Executive to hamper, hinder or restrain Members of this House from carrying out their duties to the nation. We claim our right in this House to be free from molestation. The freedom of Members from pressure by the Executive was fought for and won years ago, and it must be defended against attack, even if that attack should be cloaked under anxiety for national safety. That is not to disregard national safety, but let us remember that liberty has on occasions been attacked under pretence about the safety of the people. Also we should remember that Members of this House, acting in pursuance of their Parliamentary duties, are responsible to this House alone, and not to any other court. That is well established.
2165 Looking for a moment at the issues raised by the possible use of the Official Secrets Act, the real danger is that it gives the Government the power to interrogate persons and to force them to state the source of their information if it is thought that that information has been obtained by a breach of that Act. The successive Acts that were passed were to deal with one thing, and that was with spying. We find that they deal mainly with the question of the protection of fortresses and public buildings, and this power of interrogation was intended to be ancillary to dealing with the spy menace and for the protection of the country against spies. These Acts passed through this House with surprisingly little debate, because the House was assured of the extremely narrow scope of the Official Secrets Acts. If it had been suggested that the Acts could be used, or might be used, to restrain the Members of this House from fulfilling their functions, it would have been vehemently rejected. These Acts were directed against people who were acting against the interests of this country. The Acts allow the assumption that persons are acting wrongly, but we cannot have the assumption that Members of this House are deliberately acting against the interests of this country. We claim the right to have the most favourable construction put upon all our actions.
No one will deny that the Government mut be armed with powers under the Official Secrets Act to deal with spying. No one will deny the obligation of all public servants to preserve inviolate official secrets. Such provision is essential to the carrying on of government, and we are proud of the integrity of our Civil Service and of their readiness to serve any Government. We are proud of the loyalty of our soldiers, our sailors and our airmen. We should think it intolerable if in any way there was a relaxation of the obligations of honour and of law that bound them; if there was any suggestion that they could intrigue against the Government of the day by giving information away. We must all stand absolutely firm on that. We on these benches would be the last to suggest any breach in that tradition, but even on occasion this obligation cannot be absolute. There is a borderline where you get a conflict of loyalties. There have been cases where members of the public service, 2166 having exhausted all efforts to get reforms through Ministers, have had to resort to Members of Parliament, and it is far better for them to resort to Members of Parliament than to newspapers. When that does happen members of the public service or of the fighting forces are faced with a painful dilemma, but, after all, in coming to Members of this House they come to hon. Members who have been chosen by the nation for a particular purpose, and it is Parliament which is ultimately responsible for the administration of this country.
Ministers are not the masters of Parliament; they are its servants; and every one of us has a duty to make himself acquainted with the subject-matter with which we have to deal. It is our duty to understand all the Departments of State, and it would be an extraordinarily dangerous thing if anything were done which would impair the efficiency of this House. That is where I see the danger of the application of the Official Secrets Act to Members of this House. I am not judging whether that occurred in this case, but the fact that it has been applied to Members of Parliament shows the possibilities. It is not so much the actual application of the inquisitorial powers of this Act to Members of Parliament, as the apprehension. If it is once thought that Members of this House can be brought up and interrogated and obliged to give up the sources of their information when they speak in this House, on the ground that it was suspected they were using official information improperly got, there would soon come a cutting away of Members of this House from the public service, and there would be apprehension among members of the public service when mixing with Members of Parliament. They might easily say something which a Member might use afterwards, and it might be traced to them.
You have to check the dangers early, and I think there would be danger in this way. Under this Act, not merely used as a means of interrogation to try and find out whether there has been a breach, an hon. Member would be obliged to state the sources of his information, and he would be cut off then from nonofficial sources who might not like to give information. We should get a most undesirable situation in which there would be two lots of people in this House, those able to find out things, and know, and 2167 those people who were not. There would be a wide breach between Ministers and the rest of lion. Members. Unless Members of Parliament can have reasonable access to knowledge they cannot criticise Ministers effectively. It is our duty to criticise Ministers who are in charge of the administration. It would draw an artificial distinction between Members who had been in office and Members who had not. That is an issue raised by the use of the Official Secrets Act and this power of interrogation.
I am not going to anticipate in any way what will be the recommendations of the Committee, but I do say that the supreme issue raised, on which the House will expect guidance, is the reconciliation between the exercise by the Government of powers which it is necessary they should have for the safety of the country, and the exercise by hon. Members of rights essential for preserving the liberties of a free and democratic people. That is the issue, and I think an avoidance of conflict will be effected less by any hard-and-fast line of theory than by actual practice. Mostly in our constitutional matters we settle these things in practice rather than in theory. In practice Members of Parliament do not abuse their privileges; we are not a House of spies and traitors, and the House has its own method of dealing with hon. Members and of keeping them within bounds. I think it is essential for the life of this House that this House itself should make itself responsible for hon. Members. There is a danger in any suggestion that there should be some outside court or sanction brought in.
I have tried to deal with this matter from a rather broad standpoint, the point of view of what is the real welfare of this country in this matter. It is wrong to try and draw an artificial distinction whether it is between this House and the people or whether it is between the safety of the State and the preservation of our Parliamentary rights. We need the safety of the State and we need the preservation of our Parliamentary rights. I have tried to indicate some of the issues which have come out of this incident on which we require guidance. I beg all hon. Members, irrespective of party, to realise that this is not a light matter, It is a very big matter, and involves rights 2168 which we have had from our forefathers, which we have to protect and hand down to our successors. In these days, when liberty is challenged and derided in other countries, we should be specially vigilant to set an example to the world of the preservation of our Parliamentary rights.
§ 4.54 p.m.
§ Sir Archibald Sinclair
I shall endeavour to imitate previous speakers by preserving the non-partisan atmosphere of this discussion and to keep my remarks as short as possible. This is a very serious question because it touches the rights and privileges and, therefore, the opportunities of Members of Parliament to serve the people. The Leader of the Opposition has said that the present safeguards for the security of the country and the rights and privileges of Parliament are by common-sense practice rather than by laying down hard-and-fast rules of procedure. Therefore, the first point to which I wish to draw the attention of the House is the novelty of the practice which has been followed on this occasion. There is nothing novel in hon. Members of this House being in the possession of information which has been obtained from official sources, but the novelty lies in the endeavour to put pressure on an hon. Member to reveal the sources of his information. I support the Motion now before the House because I believe that Parliament is on firm and hallowed ground in protecting its Members from obstruction or molestation in the discharge of their duties.
Never has it been thought improper that Members of Parliament should inform themselves fully on all matters concerned with the interests of the State and their constituents. In the eighteenth century this House was largely composed of hon. Members who were in fact employed in the service of the State, Generals, Admirals, Ambassadors, Governors, and people in high positions in great public Departments. Gradually there came a division of the functions, but all through the nineteenth century there was still close contact, which has remained until to-day, between Members of Parliament and servants of the Crown. All through the nineteenth century and in the present century there have been a series of great and useful Debates which would have been impossible if Members had not been free to obtain the relevant information. I need not go as far back as the investigation 2169 into the Crimean War. One of the first cases in which I took an interest when I was a boy was the building up of our young Air Force before the War, and I remember, although I was not a Member of the House, the late Lord Brentford, who was then Mr. Joynson-Hicks, declaring that he knew how many aeroplanes we had and told the then Secretary of State for War that he had sent people to find out. He said quite frankly that he thought it was his duty as a Member of Parliament to inform himself of the state of our air defences at that time, and no Minister of the Crown ventured to gainsay his action. During the War we had inquiries into the shell shortage and many other similar things; the Dardanelles—
§ Sir A. Sinclair
—and then came the passing of the Official Secrets Act of 1920, amending and strengthening the provisions of the Official Secrets Acts, 1889 and 1911. The Act of 1920 gave power to the Commissioner of Police and certain other officers to submit to interrogation anyone who was believed to possess information about an offence or a suspected offence under any of the Official Secrets Acts. Since then, 18 years ago, many speeches have been made in this House, many Parliamentary questions have been put, and many letters have been written to the Secretaries of State and Ministers of the Crown which have been based on information which has undoubtedly come, and was within the knowledge of Ministers as having come, from official sources. I myself have had correspondence with the War Office on more than one occasion from which the head of that Department must have known that I got my information from official sources. There was a great controversy in the last Parliament between the right hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) and the then Prime Minister about the state of our defences and the right hon. Gentleman used a great deal of information which must have come to him from official sources, and which everybody knew, which the Government knew, had come to him from official sources; but nobody criticised his action.
More recently, a few weeks ago, we had most important and fruitful Debates in which striking speeches were made on 2170 the air problem. One was started by the hon. Member for Berwick (Sir H. Seely) and the other by a most impressive speech by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton). Every Member of this House, and every Minister of the Government, knows perfectly well that those speeches were in part based upon information which was received from official sources. They were most fruitful Debates, and they have, in fact, resulted in great and substantial reforms in the Services which were then under criticism. But do not let us think that this matter applies only to the Defence Departments, and that it is only Members who are interested in the Defence Departments who are exposed to these dangers. The Official Secrets Act covers equally all the activities of the Government. The Member who raises the question of the Unemployment Regulations and happens to have received from some source an official circular which he is able to quote in the House will be just as liable to be called up and asked for the source of his information.
As the Leader of the Opposition said, it is not only official sources which will be dried up, but unofficial sources as well. People would think that they would be injured, that they would invite the disfavour of the Government, if they gave to Members of Parliament information of which Members of Parliament might be compelled, by threat of prosecution, to divulge the source. I think that the very useful Debate which was initiated by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Perkins) would probably have been impossible, or at any rate would not have been carried through, if it had not been for the belief of the people who gave him the information that there was no fear he would be called up and subjected to pressure to reveal the sources from which he had obtained his facts. Until now, nobody has attempted during the last 18 years since the last Official Secrets Act was passed, to use the Official Secrets Act to molest or obstruct Members of Parliament in the discharge of their duties. I remember well that when my hon. Friend the junior Member for Dundee (Mr. Foot), in introducing a Bill to amend the Official Secrets Act, said that under the present powers of that Act. Members of Parliament could be requested to reveal the sources of their information, hon. Members opposite almost with one voice 2171 shouted "No." That is recorded in the OFFICIAL REPORT. There were gusts of laughter at the apparently ridiculous nature of the suggestion which he made.
Certainly, the Government have the right to exact strict loyalty, discretion and obedience from their servants, but Members of Parliament are responsible to the people whom they represent in this House. They are not responsible to the Attorney-General or to any Minister of the Government. It would be deplorable if all sources of information were dried up. There may be some dangers, but there are great safeguards. There is the power of Mr. Speaker to disallow questions. There are great safeguards, and there are still graver dangers in the encroachment of the Executive upon the rights of Parliament. Governments are too apt to confuse danger to themselves with danger to the State. It is my submission that free Parliamentary criticism and the ventilation of grievances is a vital safeguard for the security of the State. Secrecy is no safeguard either politically or militarily. The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition said that we have to combine and reconcile the safety of the State with Parliamentary rights. I believe we shall combine them best by having the greatest possible freedom in our Parliamentary discussions.
When the generals of Napoleon III declared to him that his Army was ready to the last gaiter button, it was on the eve of one of the greatest military disasters in history. It would have been far better for France if the French deputies had been free to probe the official assurances. It would be no security to the State to deprive Members of Parliament of the right, the duty and the opportunity to probe into these matters in this House. That is not to question the duty owed to the Government by the Government's servants; but if irresponsible public servants are giving away information to the detriment of the State—and no case has yet been proved that public servants are giving away information irresponsibly and indiscreetly to the detriment of the State —the remedy is not to threaten Members of Parliament with pains and penalties. Let the Services discipline themselves.
We have had, so far, good relations between Parliament and the Services. 2172 What detriment has occurred to the public interest by the freedom which Members of Parliament have enjoyed? The Prime Minister, or the Secretary of State for War, said that this freedom might be used in such a way as to affect the safety of the Realm, but it has not yet been so used. Therefore, do not let that freedom be tampered with now. Parliament is, and must remain, supreme over the Services—the Navy, the Army and the Air Force—and over the Government of the day. We see in other countries the danger which comes when armies arrogate to themselves powers which they ought not to possess within the framework of a free country. There was an occasion before the War, in 1914, when the Army in this country was believed to be arrogating to itself the right to take independent action; and it is rather remarkable to observe that that was on the eve of a great international crisis, and it probably was one of the factors which gave to foreign countries the idea that we were not so strong as we appeared and that there was a dangerous weakness in the free constitutional system of this country. We must protect the constitution of this country against that weakness, and ensure the supremacy of Parliament.
In view of what you said, Mr. Speaker, I do not want to comment at length on the statement which the Secretary of State has made. I will say, however, that I was glad he made the statement, and that he had an opportunity to make it. But I do not think the House will be prepared to consider that he treated the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Sandys) with the courtesy that he had a right to expect. The right hon. Gentleman has always treated me with great courtesy, and I have no complaint myself; but to make a point of the fact his letter was not marked "secret," or "confidential" or "private," and to suggest that because it was worded in such a way as to indicate that he proposed to put these questions unless he received an assurance that the information which he had sent was not true, to suggest that such an intimation, in so far as it was expressed in the letter, could not possibly have been removed by a personal interview and personal discussion with his colleague, seems to me to go far beyond the bounds of courtesy. It also seems to me to be sheer nonsense 2173 to suggest that an invitation to an interview with the Attorney-General, at which the Official Secrets Act is a subject of discussion, is not clearly putting pressure upon a Member of Parliament to reveal the sources of his information.
In conclusion, I am not at all sure that the Select Committee will not have to request that its terms of reference may be widened. The powers in Section 6 of the Official Secrets Act, 1920, affect not only Parliament, but the Press. Free discussion and criticism are the lifeblood of dynamic democracy, and unless we stand up for our faith in our ideals, then certainly those who believe in totalitarian systems of government in the world will win. We have got to show an equal faith to theirs in the ideals in which we believe. I hope, therefore, the Select Committee will not only uphold the privileges of Parliament and the freedom of Members in the exercise of their duties, but also recommend certain modifications in these new powers which Parliament gave to the Executive 18 years ago, and which have proved capable of dangerous abuse at the expense both of the Press and now of Parliament itself, and which are therefore injurious to the free working of democratic institutions.
§ 5.12 p.m.
§ Mr. Churchill
I shall certainly endeavour to fulfil in the spirit as well as in the letter the obligation which you, Mr. Speaker, indicated to us at the beginning of this discussion, and certainly I agreed with the Prime Minister when he said that it would be very foolish for us to attempt to do the work of the Select Committee for them. It is quite certain that in this House we could not go into the personal issues involved. Each one of these cases which have been presented to us represents only the most abridged form in which the Member or Minister concerned would state his points, and in order to form any judgment upon the merits, it would be necessary to have a far longer statement and to have it thrashed out by examination and cross-examination. Therefore, I can assure you, Sir, that you will not find that I shall endeavour to open in any detailed way the personal question involved; though I consider that the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Liberal Opposition, in certain remarks which he made upon the minor aspects of this case, the question of the usage of 2174 Members by Ministers, was fully justified in saying what he did. I propose to confine myself to a comparatively small number of general observations which I believe it is appropriate to make on such occasions, as they are intended to have a suggestive effect to the Committee which very soon will begin its labours, and also because there are certain points at the present time which are of real importance and on which it is really important that opinion should be expressed in this House.
Of course the Select Committee will certainly consider the position and dual character of a Member of Parliament who is also a Territorial Force officer. There are a good many, I am glad to say a great many, in this House who also render that other form of service. This arises from long custom. Admittedly it raises sometimes difficult cases, but the House has always wished its Members to serve in the forces—in the auxiliary forces, not of course in the regular forces—and those coats of arms which we see upon the panels of the Gallery, arouse in our breasts treasured memories of those who made that service good to the end. My long experience, not only as a Member but as having been head of all the fighting Departments in peace and war, for I think a longer time than anyone else, will perhaps induce the House to allow me to say a few words upon what I suppose to be the usual practice in these matters.
Again and again I have heard yeomanry and militia officers belabour the Government in this House with material which they had derived from the fact that they were serving in units of the Territorial Force. During the War and in later years I must recognise that more technical characteristics have crept into our armaments, and the issues are not as simple as they were in the days of the militia and the yeomanry before the War. But I must say this. I have never known in my experience any Minister who would have resented information given to him by a Parliamentary colleague even though that information came to him through that Parliamentary colleague being an officer in the Territorial Force. We all have different duties to discharge according to the station which we occupy. A Member of Parliament has a duty to discharge. If he has information he must try his best to make that information effective 2175 upon the Government. He must make sure that a Minister knows the truth. He has not only the right, but the duty, to force an unpalatable truth upon the consideration of a Minister, and the vehicle and the instrument which he can use for that purpose—the only instrument which he can use—is the possibility that, in the ultimate issue, he may, subject to his discretion, at the last moment utilise the procedure and opportunities of Debate and Question Time in this House.
The responsibility of Members for National Defence at the present time is a very real one. It is a prime duty to keep up to the mark a Government which has been repeatedly found in error and default, a Government which has a bad record in this matter, a Government which has admitted woeful miscalculations and mistakes. The intervention of the House of Commons, the basis upon which such discussion starts, has been vindicated as, step my step and year by year, the measures have been taken which are now recognised as necessary, and as they have been extorted one by one from His Majesty's Government. I say that the House must guard this liberty of Members above all things, because it affects the safety of the country. Conversations with Ministers and correspondence with Ministers play a great part in the inner life of the House of Commons. When such correspondence refers to the possibility of future Parliamentary action, such as a question, a speech or a Motion, I am inclined to hold the opinion that it is in fact a privilege. Otherwise it is covered by friendly confidence.
I take my own case. I have on several occasions written to the Prime Minister upon matters connected with the air. I have even sent him documents and I have given him information which I think he has found out afterwards not to have been incorrect. I have always received the utmost courtesy from the right hon. Gentleman and he has always written back to thank me for this information. But I am bound to say that it came to me with a shock of astonishment to learn that he would have been entitled to send the Attorney-General to me to ask me where I got that information. The most remarkable case that I can recollect was when over two years ago we had a deputation to the late Prime Minister, Mr. 2176 Baldwin, as he then was, to which about a dozen Members of both Houses who were Privy Councillors went. For two long sessions, on two successive days, we unfolded a vast mass of complicated detail relating to the bad conditions of the defences of the country and made recommendations to improve them in the future. I need scarcely say that if we had been asked where we got this material, we should have refused, certainly, to offer any assistance to the Government in that matter. I have been trying to calculate what our collective liability would have been to punishment on the maximum scale. It certainly would not have fallen far short of 800 years. But the late Prime Minister, like his sucessor, received us with the utmost consideration and never ventured to ask any questions which it would be improper to put to hon. Gentlemen serving this House, and the only complaint I have to make about what happened on that occasion, is that although what was said eventually proved to be true, very little effective action was taken.
All this is part of the inner life of the House of Commons from which Ministers would be mad to cut themselves off, and they would be mad to divorce themselves from the Members of the House, as they will certainly do, if they attempt to hold over the heads of Members the powers of the Official Secrets Act. I remember that I was Secretary of State for War at the time this Act was passed. I therefore looked up the previous records in order to make sure that I had not left anything unexpected behind me, as one may well do in the course of a long and busy life. But I do remember now, very strongly and very clearly, how this Act was never intended to be put to the purposes for which it is now being used, and I see that the then Attorney-General, now Lord Chief Justice of England, in moving the Bill in the House opened with these words:Unfortunately one of the things which increase and develop in an imperfect world is the ingenuity of spies, and another is the elaboration of the systems and methods of spying."—[OFFICIAL, REPORT, 2nd December, 1920; col. 1537, Vol. 135.]Later on he entirely disclaimed any suggestion that it was intended to apply the Measure in its penal aspects to the Press. Evidently there has been a completely new interpretation of this Measure and it 2177 is that interpretation which has played a part in involving us in these very lengthy discussions. The Government clearly consider themselves—or they did a few days ago—possessed of hitherto unsuspected powers under the Official Secrets Act, and as far as one can judge they have not by any means excluded from their minds the possibility of using these against Members for statements made in the discharge of their Parliamentary duties It is perfectly clear that the decision to which the House is coming, to support the Prime Minister's Motion, will bring that question forward as a most grave and urgent matter, which must be settled one way or the other and which I have no doubt can be settled only in the sense that the obligations of the Official Secrets Act shall not extend beyond the interpretation which was always put upon them up to a few years ago.
Many Members have brought themselves within the scope of this new interpretation of the Act. In every part of the House they sit. There was scarcely, as has been well said, a speech made in the long and successive Debates on Defence, which would not, if the Government chose to use these powers—and apparently they have still not entirely banished from their minds the prospect—come under them. There is scarcely one Member who has taken part in those Debates who might not be invited to give the answer to what I think the Attorney-General called a request to co-operate with him—that is to say to betray the confidence of his informant. There is another serious objection to this Act in its new interpretation—in the extended and novel interpretation which has crept in, and is now I think going to walk out. That is that the Ministry claim to be and become in such a marked way the judges in their own case. They are able to say, "This is an official secret," and very often without, as in the present case, it being disclosed at all to the House, they can plead that the public safety requires a matter to be kept secret.
The Official Secrets Act was devised to protect the national defences and ought not to be used to shield Ministers who may have neglected the national defences. It ought not to be used to shield Ministers who have strong personal interests in concealing the truth about matters from the country. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] 2178 I am choosing my words with care. I am not saying that is so at the moment. I am taking the case that if there were a Minister who had strong reasons to believe that he would be convicted of inefficiency, he would have a strong interest in preventing the disclosure of facts which would support that charge. The Nazi and Fascist States exercise such powers over their Parliaments or what is left of their Parliaments, but at least they use them to strengthen the defensive energies of their countries. We must be careful that these powers are in no way used to keep public opinion quiet, or to prolong inaction or neglect. You may blame a Member who commits the indiscretion of making our weaknesses public, but how much more must you blame a Minister or an administration which has prepared the conditions of that weakness beforehand!
§ Mr. Churchill
I am not concerned as to whether what I say is liked in any quarter of the House. I am concerned in stating a case which I believe it is my duty to state. I do trust that the Committee—I do not intend to go at all into the personal issues—will examine the action of the Attorney-General, whose well meaning, upright character endears him to all of us, but nevertheless it does seem to me that a mixing-up of functions is very much to be deprecated and that informal discussions upon matters which may take a criminal turn are not consonant either with the standard of British justice or with the propriety of Parliamentary life.
There is another series of questions which arise, upon the military aspect, which I trust will be borne in mind by the Committee in the course of their examination. No one must attempt to exonerate officers who make unauthorised disclosures of official information, even from the highest motives—no one should condone or defend that—but it is still true, as I think the Prime Minister mentioned in his brief remarks, that sometimes great advantages have been derived from irregular and improper action. There was the shell shortage in the War, in time of war, which was obviously brought to the public notice by a grave breach of trust, a breach of faith, and a disclosure of confidential materials, not to Parliament, but to the Press. That 2179 was deplorable, but we got, as a result of it, the Ministry of Munitions, and eventually the troops got their shells. There was a case in the War where a man, a spectator, leapt from the Gallery on to the Floor of this House, and when picked up in an injured condition explained that it was his protest against the delay in supplying the troops with steel helmets. He was seriously injured, but the troops got their steel helmets.
The most remarkable case of irregular action, which I think I must mention, because this aspect must be borne in mind by the Committee as part of the general atmosphere in which they consider these matters, was, of course, the convoy system. Here were junior officers in the Admiralty who went behind the backs of their superiors, through the Committee of Imperial Defence, to the Prime Minister and to Mr. Bonar Law, and convinced those Ministers in charge of our safety that their chiefs at the Admiralty were wrong about the convoy system. Of course, they took their lives in their hands, but they saved ours. And while I am of opinion that any person in official employment who in any circumstances departs from his strict duty cannot have his action condoned, nevertheless he does it at his own risk, and good results have sometimes followed.
But the House must not underrate the strain which is put upon persons who know the facts when they see that an altogether misleading impression is being given to the country by Cabinet Ministers. It is a strain which in certain circumstances and with certain temperaments becomes unendurable, and I am bound to say that I think the answers which the Secretary of State has given must be considered to arouse that sense of strain.
§ Mr. Churchill
I am endeavouring to deal with the question in a general way, and I say that we have had statements or speeches about the anti-aircraft artillery which are misleading, which I have characterised in this House as misleading, and which are in some ways more to be criticised because very often they are verbally and literally true. The point that I am approaching is this: It may be that 2180 such statements do comfort the country, even if they deceive it, but the question which I think the Committee should turn its attention to, dwell upon, and weigh carefully is whether this kind of statements deceive possible foreign adversaries. I should have thought there was no branch of our defence upon which it was more easy for information to be obtained than about the state of our anti-aircraft artillery. There are thousands of men in the units. They know perfectly well what the main facts are, what are the weapons they have and what are the weapons they have not. They are, I have no doubt, indignant at the misleading statements which they consider are made about them.
In the days when I was at the War Office and the Admiralty, before and after the War, we never had any great difficulty in acquiring information about the equipment of foreign forces nor about the size of the munitions plants which supplied them. The scale and the rate of production can be judged by the simplest of all tests, namely, what is the number of men proceeding to and from work in any particular plant, and there are many other cross-checks, but that is one. No doubt many things can be kept secret, but the general condition of equipment of armies and the general scale of the plants by which that equipment is supplied are, I am sure, well known to all the War Offices in Europe. Therefore, if the Secretary of State's speeches give an impression which misleads the country, I fear that they do not mislead foreign staffs who know already the true facts only too well.
Here I must point out that if any further confirmation were needed, it has been supplied in a statement which was issued two days ago on the authority of the War Office, where we are told that the final design of the 3.7-inch gun was only approved a year ago. We are also told that the factory at Nottingham, which was a bare site a year ago, is now producing a regular supply of 3.7-inch guns. I say that that statement, added to other facts, would enable any foreign intelligence service to make a complete picture of the output of the 3.7-inch gun. I make these points, which I think I am justified in slowly elaborating to the House because they are highly relevant, and I hope the Committee will not exclude this aspect from their examination. The 2181 world is told that there is a factory at Nottingham, and it is told that it was a bare field a year ago. The general size of the plant can be observed by passersby, and from those data and others which are available from this point and that there seems to be no difficulty in establishing a very fair opinion of what the output of those guns is and is likely to be in the immediate future.
I trust—naturally I am not going to attempt any challenge to the statement which the Secretary of State made of a specific character—that the Committee will pay particular attention as to whether the facts which were adduced in the question of the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Sandys) really represent an important revelation of matters which are not known abroad. We have not the terms of the question before us—we cannot judge—but the Committee should certainly make it one of the essential elements of their inquiry, because it is very easy for us to get the idea that there is some great public interest which requires these facts not to be stated, whereas, as a matter of fact, the harm is already done in the knowledge which is possessed abroad; and what is needed is a greater effort here and greater vigour in proceeding with our defence.
I have only one more general observation to make, and I think it will be one which will not raise controversial feeling in any quarter. People say, "Why should Members of Parliament, of the House of Commons, have a special privilege? Why do not they take their change with the rest of their fellow-countrymen?" The answer is that we in this House are exposed to special liabilities. It has not been necessary to use these powers for a long time, but the House accepts fully the position that it has the power to discipline its Members itself. We have the power—the House has—by a majority to send any Member to prison, not to the Clock Tower but to Brixton Gaol, and keep him there at any rate as long as the House is sitting, a very formidable power, which can be exercised without any law, but simply because the House is dissatisfied with something that some Member has done or said. That is the answer to be made by Members of Parliament to the country when it is suggested that they are asking for some special favour. For the discharge of our Parliamentary duties we are 2182 prepared to accept our self-disciplinary powers, but we cannot tolerate the intrusion of any external authority whatever.
§ 5.42 p.m.
§ Colonel Wedgwood
I have no criticism to make of the action of the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Sandys); indeed I think that throughout he has set a model for every other Member of this House, and I hope that, whatever happens as the result of this Committee, other Members of Parliament will act in future with no less courage and independence. Before I touch on the question of the Official Secrets Act, there were two things in the statement of the right hon. Gentleman that I hope he will correct before this Debate ends. We must not have it on record that any Member on the Treasury Bench, in any circumstances whatever, expects letters to him from Members of this House to be marked "Private" or "Secret." The essence of the superiority of the British Parliament over every other Parliament is that we treat each other as equals and with confidence. What we say to each other in this House is not repeated outside, and it would be inconceivable that any Minister should treat a letter written to him by an ordinary Member of this House, one of his colleagues or one of the Opposition, as being anything which he could possibly use to the detriment of that Member. When Ministers write to me it is right that they should put "Confidential" on letters that they do not want me to pass on to complainants, but letters that I write to a Minister are letters that he will have to pass on to his permanent officials, and if they were marked "Private" or anything of that sort, it would mean that you did not trust the Minister. We must preserve the absolute equality of all Members of this House, both those in office and those who are bank benchers.
The second matter to be cleared up is this. We are still having this military inquiry. What is this board of officers inquiring into? Is it inquiring into who has committed the crime of giving information to a Member of Parliament or into who has committed the crime of giving information to a foreign Power? If it were a question of giving information to a foreign Power I would have no objection to the court being held, but that the War Office or the Army should now hold an inquiry into whether one 2183 of the Members of that Service had betrayed information to a Member of Parliament is not permissible. Giving information to a Member of Parliament in the interests of the country is no crime. Whatever that is under the Official Secrets Act, it is not a moral crime and it is not an unpatriotic service.
This is only one phase of the eternal war between the bureaucracy and a free Parliament. The bureaucracy naturally tries constantly to strengthen its position as being the servants of the Government, and weighs down the balance, against democracy in its favour. When it comes to the Army holding an inquiry into whether some of its subordinates, acting as they believe in the interests of this country, have given information to a Member of Parliament, it becomes ominously near protecting, not the country, but the honour of the Army. I am old enough to remember all the crimes committed by the L'etat major in Paris, the persecution and imprisonment of Dreyfus, the denial of justice because that justice would have injured the honour of the Army. All that was done once in France and we do not want to have it here. We are not going to have the Government setting up a fetish of the honour of the Army and to keep absolutely secret, not that which will injure this country if it becomes known, but what may injure the honour of the Army or the Government.
This question goes beyond the question of Privilege of Members of this House. The essential strength of the democratic system of government is that while the totalitarian state may be more efficient by making everybody more disciplined, more docile and more silent, the one thing the democratic state has to balance against that machine-like efficiency is free criticism through Parliament and Press, the spread of information and knowledge, and the courage to use that knowledge in improving the government, even a National Government. All over the Continent the governments in the different countries and the bureaucracies behind them have abrogated to themselves the power and the name of being themselves the State. The party has become the State. Here the party has not become the State and never will. We are not discussing a question of party. This is 2184 a question of how we can save this country from danger in future, the danger of being beaten by a foreign Power. I say that the best safeguard against that is that Members should still have the courage to find out and to bring to the notice of the Government what they think is wrong, and that members of the services, not only the fighting services, but all the services, should treat Members of Parliament as though they were colleagues in a great enterprise and not as a danger to be avoided and to be kept in ignorance.
I speak as one who has practical experience of giving information to the Government. All through the War there were going from this House people who were temporarily in the Army. There were at least 60 or 70 Members of this House who were fighting all over the world. Many of them were killed, and many are now dead or have left the House. There are still two or three in the House. I do not believe there was one of those Members who was not writing letters to the Prime Minister or the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) or the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill). They were sending special information which they had collected on the spot, over the heads of their military superiors, to rnembers of the Government. It was done by Aubrey Herbert, by Freddie Guest, and by Godfrey Collins above all. Godfrey Collins actually telegraphed at his own expense direct from Mesopotamia to Sir Austen Chamberlain, who was Secretary of State for India, and revealed the horrible state of affairs in Mesopotamia, which was then put right. In that particular case the military authorities tried to make trouble about it, but they were suppressed at once. Godfrey Collins was a Member of Parliament and was entitled to communicate directly with any other Member of Parliament, and more particularly with Ministers free from censorship. We all of us did that and we were not merely approved of, but urged to do it. Freddie Guest, as a result of his communications, was summoned back and made. Chief Whip, and a very good thing too. There we have actions exactly similar to that which the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Sandys) has been taking, which was not only approved of by the Government, but which performed 2185 a useful service in strengthening this country in time of war. If we ever get back into that state of affairs I hope that every Member of Parliament will follow the actions of their predecessors and help in the same way, but not by marking their letters "Private" when they send them to the right hon. Gentleman.
§ 5.54 P.m.
§ Mr. Sandys
I only intervene for a moment with apologies to the House in order to correct an impression which may have been created unintentionally by the Secretary of State in his statement. Before making the statement which I read to the House on Monday, I showed it to the Attorney-General in order that he might know exactly what I was going to say and be able to reply to it. If I had seen the Secretary of State's statement I would have asked him, not to alter anything, but to clarify one or two points. With the permission of the House I would like to do that. I shall be asked to give evidence before the Select Committee and I am reluctant, therefore, to speak to the House. But I do not know how far the evidence of the Committee will be published and I do not want a false impression to go out. My right hon. Friend, referring to my draft question, said that the document from which this information had come contained a reference to the disposition of guns. That means, I presume, the sites where the guns are placed, and it would obviously be a very secret and important matter. My right hon. Friend, no doubt, knows all about that document. I do not. I do not know anything about the emplacement or disposition of guns, and my question contained no reference to it whatever. My right hon. Friend did not say that the question contained that reference, but the impression might have been created that it did. My question referred, as I think he said, to the number of guns. My right hon. Friend also made reference to my letter and drew special attention to the last sentence, in which I said:I am anxious before doing so to give you the opportunity privately to contradict the statement contained in this question.My right hon. Friend emphasised the word "contradict." As the statements were, he said, true, he could not contradict them. The reason why, as I thought I explained in my statement on Monday, I said to him that I was anxious that he should have an opportunity to contradict 2186 them, was because in our previous conversation, to which I referred in my statement, I had mentioned to him approximate figures, which were very close to the actual figures which I subsequently sent him in the draft question. He had then denied that those figures were correct. That is why, when I sent the precise figures, I asked him to contradict them if they were not correct. That is how the word "contradict" came into the letter.
I would like to ask my right hon. Friend a question on another matter. I was expecting him to ask me not to put the question on the Paper, because it contained more precise figures than I myself would have cared to put on the Paper. The reason why I included these precise figures was because my right hon. Friend had denied in our previous conversation the more general figures. The question I want to ask him is this: Does he suggest for one moment that if he had asked me not to put that question on the Paper in the public interest, I would ever for a moment have thought of putting it on the Paper? This is not the first time I would have withheld or withdrawn questions at the request of a Minister. Naturally in this case, more particularly as I am concerned with the Service in question, it would never have occurred to me not to have complied with his request. That is all I wish to say to the House, and I apologise for having intervened in a Debate in which I should have preferred not to take part.
§ 6.0 p.m.
§ Major Macnamara
I hope to adhere to your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, and not to trespass into the region of personalities or the past. My right hon. Friend thought it necessary to ask us to produce the atmosphere in which the Select Committee should work later on, and it is because of certain very grave matters that affect a number of hon. Members in this House that I propose to say one or two words about that atmosphere. There was one sentence in the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition which I should like to take up. He made, if I may humbly say so, what I considered to be a most admirable speech, and if the Debate had ended there neither I nor, I think, certain others of my friends on this side of the House would have wished to add 2187 one word to it. In the circumstances, however, I think there are one or two things which we shall have to try to say. He said in his speech that we must not confound the interests of the Government with the interests of the country. Are we not apt to confound interests of this House with the interests of the country?
§ Major Macnamara
Yes, there are. In spite of what the right hon. Gentleman said, this is not fundamentally a House of Commons issue. It is an issue in which a great Service, among other things, is interested, as well as the House of Commons. He talked about spies, and said no one would deny that the Government should be enabled to defeat spies. It will be necessary soon for no foreign nation to pay one single spy to come to this country. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why."] I shall explain why in the course of my speech. Our first object must be the best interests of the country, and one's first reaction to this whole matter, if I may say so as a serving Territorial Army officer, is that it is all a very great pity. All of us who have taken an interest in Army matters were beginning to feel that the War Office was tackling fundamentally the Army's problems, and I do not think anyone can deny that a very great change, a very great impetus, has been inculcated into the War Office since my right hon. Friend the new War Minister has taken charge. Another factor in the situation which I am afraid will have to be discussed before the Select Committee is that Territorial officers are serving in the Territorial Army and in the House of Commons. All that was to the good. It was perfectly well understood by those in that dual capacity, and I hope nothing will be done to hinder it in future. We have also to face the factors that there is an Official Secrets Act and that there are Members of Parliament. Supposing the Official Secrets Act did not apply to information given to hon. Members. What would then be the situation? All Civil Servants, all officers in the Army, would then be immune from prosecution if they gave information.
§ Mr. Dingle Foot
Why would it not still be an offence, under Section 2 of the Act 2188 of 1911, to make an unauthorised disclosure?
§ Major Macnamara
I am assuming—I am not arguing as a lawyer; I am arguing from the commonsense point of view —that if this House decides that its hon. Members are to be allowed to be given information by civil servants and officers, and that hon. Members do not give their names away when secret information is given, that it means that civil servants or officers in the Forces will be at liberty to give secret infoimation—[HON. MEMBERS: "No!"]—well, will be able to give information to Members of Parliament and know that, providing they can trust those Members of Parliament not to give their names away, they will he safe. That will mean that there will be no secret information at all in the end. It does not take long to work out how Members of Parliament will get at civil servants or officers. There will be no secret information at all, and I personally cannot see how the Government can be expected to govern unless they can keep secrets in their Departments, and unless Members of Parliament have to respect the Official Secrets Acts in the same way as other people. Some will argue that the State will not be served unless Members of Parliament are unbridled, but Members of Parliament can always deduce things in the same way as the right hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) has so often deduced them, by looking at figures, facts, and programmes, and so on, and civil servants or officers, if they feel that their consciences demand that they cannot go on serving while knowing that certain things are going wrong, will always have the traditional way of dealing with such a position, that is, to resign as a protest.
We have had the question of the Territorial Army raised in the House this afternoon. I beg hon. Members not to make too much fuss about or to exaggerate too much the importance in connection with this matter of the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Sandys) having been a Territorial officer, because I think that is only incidental. I think he will agree with me that the secret information came to him because he was a Member of Parliament and not a second-lieutenant in an artillery battery. The two matters are quite distinct. I do not know what he does in his unit as a gunner officer. 2189 If he were in my unit, under my command, in my company, he would still be drilling with the recruits. [HON. MEMBERS: "Cheap." "Play the game."] My point is that it is quite wrong to exaggerate the importance of the fact that he is a Territorial officer, and I very much hope, for the sake of the Territorial Army, that that point will not be considered or come up for too much discussion, because this whole matter arises out of his being a Member of Parliament and not a member of the Territorial Army.
There are several courses open. We can exclude Territorial officers from being Members of the House of Commons, or we can exclude Members of the House of Commons from being Territorial officers in the future, as a result of this Select Committee. I very much hope that no such decision will be arrived at, and that the point will not even be discussed by the Select Committee. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] Because there are other people in this House possessing secrets besides Territorial officers, who may know some of the very minor secrets. We might as well exclude members of secret committees, or for that matter exclude all Cabinet Ministers, who have a dual loyalty. After all, Territorial officers have up to now understood perfectly well their dual functions and have always been able to draw the line satisfactorily between the two; and I may say that this whole matter is very much regretted in the Territorial Army, which feels it very much.
The second course is to make the Official Secrets Act applicable as much to hon. Members as it is to the man-in-the-street, and I for one cannot see why that should not be so, in spite of the fact that people have talked of Privileges and so on. I have asked myself time and again—What is the real point? Is this House really thinking of the country or is it more jealous of itself and its own privileges in this connection? The man-in-the-street wishes to be governed efficiently, but he understands the line that can be drawn between efficiency and licence. He does not see why a Member of Parliament should be exempt frm the law in this matter and be able to bandy information about in this House, with all the publicity that means, when he is not allowed to do so at a street meeting or in 2190 the Press. There is, of course, the possibility of making Territorial officers who serve in this House give an undertaking that so long as they are Territorial officers they will respect the military discipline which they voluntarily serve under, and if they find they are unable to do so they can resign from the Territorial Army and be only Members of Parliament.
I think it will be a very great pity, as I said before, to exaggerate the facts that the hon. Member for Norwood was in the Territorials, but as the matter has been mentioned I should like to reiterate that Territorial officers have understood their position before in this House and the Territorial Army hopes they will continue to do so.
I hope that the Government will put as their view, and that the Select Committee will decide, that hon. Members have no privileges which will excuse them from divulging the names of those who give to them information which they have taken on oath not to give to anyone. That would solve all the difficulties. [Laughter.] Hon. Members may laugh at my suggestion, but it is a strong point of view which I personally hold and have put the whole way through my speech. I consider that it would be very much better if hon. Members were brought into line with the common law of the country in this respect. I do not think that will make the slightest difference to our being able to deduce facts from the programmes and figures and general information which we have been able to get in the ordinary way in the past. If our generation does not begin to realise that our peculiar task or job is that of a link to build a bridge between the past and the future, a strong bridge, with unshakable foundations, across the anarchical torrent of unloosed science, I think that our generation deserves to sink and go under in that very slough which, in its ignorance, it thinks is freedom and is really licence.
§ 6.16 p.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Henderson
The hon. and gallant Gentleman who has just spoken will forgive me if I suggest that he is about 300 years too late in the speech which he has delivered. It may also interest him to know that the Privileges of this House have been long established as part of the constitutional law of this country and are recognised as such by all courts of law. He said that it was a very 2191 great pity that this Debate had to take place; I agree with that, and I hope that the Secretary of State will also forgive me when I suggest that he has blundered for once in connection with this matter. I suggest to him that he has been guilty of an error of judgment on a comparatively small matter and that as a result the House and the country are now faced with a major issue, raising questions of fundamental importance to the political life of this country.
As the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Sandys) has said, it is the practice in this House for Ministers to communicate with Members of Parliament when they desire them not to raise particular questions. The opportunity was given to the Secretary of State for War, but, unfortunately, he thought fit to call in the Attorney-General. I can assure the hon. and gallant Gentleman who has just spoken that those who support the Motion have no desire to condone any breach of trust on the part of a civil servant or of any one else in the public employment of this country. What we do say is that no pressure should be brought to bear upon Members of Parliament in the execution of their Parliamentary duties. We are entitled to feel strongly on the matter when we gaze around Europe and witness almost daily Parliament after Parliament either being closed down or their members being treated as trained robots merely to re-echo their master's voice. That is not the position of a Member of this House, and I hope that it will be a long time before that position is accepted.
In regard to the Attorney-General, one salient fact confronts us to-day, and it is that, according to the Attorney-General himself, he sent for the hon. Member for Norwood. He said:I was asked if I would see him and put the legal position before him, and ask him whether he was prepared to assist in tracing the disclosure by giving either to me or the Secretary of State the source of his information.Later on he said:I put the legal position before him and asked him the above question."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th June, 1938; col. 1537, Vol. 337.]That is clearly an intervention on the part of the senior Law Officer of the Crown, seeking to influence the mind and action of an hon. Member of this House, 2192 in relation to a matter which concerned his Parliamentary duty. I suggest that the Committee which is to sit will be in a position to recommend to the House that the Section to which the Attorney-General referred and the powers conferred by that Section smack somewhat of the third-degree method of interrogation.
May I point out to the House, as was suggested by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) that it is very doubtful whether Section 6 of the Official Secrets Act, 1920, should have been brought into the discussion at all by the Attorney-General? The right hon. Member for Epping referred to the statement made by the then AttorneyGeneral—now the Lord Chief Justice—during the Second Reading of the 1920 Act, when he suggested that the purpose of the Act was to deal with questions of spies and spying. I also have been engaged in some research work during the last two or three days, and I have discovered something much more specific than the statement of the then Attorney-General during the Second Reading. During the Committee stage of the Bill there was a discussion on Section 6 itself, and the late Sir Donald Maclean, who moved an Amendment, expressed very serious misgivings about the operation of Section 6. The then Attorney-General made this statement:I am not sure that my right hon. Friend has quite done justice to the limitations of the provision which this Clause contains. We are dealing only with offences or suspected offences under the principal Act or this Act. In other words, to put it shortly, we are dealing with spying and attempts at spying. What is it that the Clause provides? It is the moral duty already of every good citizen, if he has information about spying or attempted spying, to communicate that information to the authorities."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th December, 1920; col. 966, Vol. 136.]I respectfully suggest to the House that at the time this Act was placed on the Statute Book it was the view of His Majesty's Government, and certainly of their Law Officers, that Section 6, which confers these powers of interrogation upon chiefs of police and other senior police officers, in a way which is not allowed in any other connection in this country, was aimed at spying. Any hon. Member who has had the experience which, for example, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has had, in the law courts of this country 2193 will, I think, agree with me that, in the ordinary criminal case, no police officer is permitted to take a man into a private room and subject him to the interrogation which is permitted by Section 6 of this Act. The explanation of the existence of this power is to be found in that statement of the Law Officer of the Crown in 1920, that this Section had to be restricted in use to dealing only with spies and spying.
The right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War has dealt with the facts surrounding the question that was sent to him by the hon. Member. I hope that he will forgive me once more if I point out that many of us are entitled to be more than suspicious with regard to the Court of Inquiry. I do not propose to go into that aspect of the matter tonight because it will probably be out of order, but the Secretary of State, who is also a member of the legal profession, knows that a Court of Inquiry has no power to compel civilians to give evidence. It is a curious coincidence that the hon. Member for Norwood is an officer of the Territorial Army and was called upon to give evidence by reason of the fact that he was an officer of His Majesty's Forces. If he had been only a Member of Parliament he could not have been subpoenaed to give evidence before that Court of Inquiry. There is a suspicion that His Majesty's Government are inclined to suppress any activities on the part of hon. Members of this House which are inconvenient and liable to raise matters which they prefer to keep under cover.
§ Mr. Henderson
The hon. and gallant Member speaks with authority; I merely said that there was an impression. We know that there has been no previous case in the history of this country, so far as the records go, in which an hon. Member has been invited to interview the Attorney-General in relation to a speech or to a question which he desired to put in the House of Commons. It is without precedent and, having regard to the background of events throughout the civilised world, we are entitled to be very suspicious of an Executive when it seeks to hamstring and restrict the activities of private Members. I hope that, as a result of the deliberations of the Select Committee, it will be placed beyond all doubt 2194 that private Members of this House will be able to make their speeches and put their questions to Ministers without fear or anxiety on their part as to the operation of an Act of Parliament such as the Official Secrets Act.
To the hon. and gallant Gentleman who spoke last I would say that he has raised matters of fundamental importance to this House. It is no use his suggesting that this Motion seeks to place Members of Parliament above the law; nothing of the kind. There is no suggestion that any Member of Parliament should not be subject to liability under any Act of Parliament if he breaks the law of this country, but we say that pressure should not be brought to bear upon a Member of Parliament who receives information in his capacity as a Member of Parliament, without prejudice to the right of the Executive or of the courts of this country to punish his informant if that informant has broken the law. Once you destroy Parliamentary privilege and make it impossible for Members of Parliament to listen to anyone who comes to them with information which, rightly or wrongly, is conceived to be in the public interest and which that Member of Parliament should receive, issues will be raised which will strike at the very foundations of Parliament. I hope that it will now be decided beyond a peradventure that the privileges of this House are still to be maintained and will be enforced, in order to protect any hon. Member in relation to his Parliamentary duties.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Sir Arnold Wilson
I propose to conform very closely to the suggestion which you, Mr. Speaker, have made as to the limits of the discussion on this Motion. I congratulate the Secretary of State for War on his statement. He made it quite clear that the first initiative in this matter came from the Army Council. Edmund Burke, in his "Thoughts on Present Discontents," says:Public life is a situation of power and energy; he trespasses against his duty who sleeps upon his watch, as well as he that goes over to the enemy.The Army Council have shown themselves vigilant, and have not slept upon their watch. Whatever the decision of the Select Committee on the general issue may be, the Army Council were vigilant 2195 and took immediate action, and their chairman is the Secretary of State for War. Apart from that, I find in Erskine May a passage which, I venture to suggest, deserves careful consideration, possibly by the Select Committee, and certainly by the Government:Thus far the course adopted by the House has led for the present to a fortunate termination of its contests with the courts of law; but it must be acknowledged that the position of Privilege is unsatisfactory. Assertions of Privilege are made in Parliament and denied in the courts…a well considered Statute…is the only mode by which collisions between Parliament and the courts of law can be prevented for the future. It is not desired that Parliament should, on the one hand, surrender any Privilege that is essential to its dignity and to the proper exercise of its authority; nor, on the other, that its Privileges should be enlarged.My submission is that this trouble would probably not have occurred had there existed a Statute embodying the Statutes passed in the fourth year of Henry VIII and the thirteenth of Charles II, and the other enactments which are the statutory basis of our privilege of free speech. All our privileges, except the right of access to the Crown direct through you, Mr. Speaker, and that of drinking at our leisure in this building at any hour, are, I gather from Erskine May, statutory privileges, and nothing but advantage could be gained by preparing a single Statute making the position of Members of Parliament perfectly clear. At the present moment the Index to the Statutes shows some 20 or 30 Acts of Parliament all of which may be invoked. Let us make the position clear as soon as possible after the Select Committee has been set up.
This discussion has tended to suggest that Members of Parliament are likely to be put in fear by the mere suggestion of the possibility of action under the Official Secrets Act. We are not people of that sort. We are unlikely to give way to any threat if we are conscientiously convinced that we are performing a public duty. I know of no Member of this House who would not be content in an emergency to say, "Very well, I will go to the Courts and will make my defence before the Judge, and let him be the judge of Privilege." My hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Sandys) would not have hesitated. We are not likely to give way to threats. Far more disabilities were imposed upon the public 2196 generally and, incidentally, upon Members of Parliament, by the Defence of the Realm Acts, but, as far as I know, they never had the slightest effect on Members of Parliament. When I was a servant of the Crown I had frequent communications with and from Members of Parliament. The risk I took depended upon the use to which Members of Parliament (such as the late Sir Godfrey Collins) would put such information as I gave them but no evil result ensued. Apprehensions expressed to-day have no justification in history.
The Leader of the Opposition, in a speech with most of which I thoroughly agreed, mentioned a conflict of loyalties. I was reminded of a dialogue in Galsworthy's play "Loyalties," One man says to another, "I hate half-hearted friends. Loyalty comes before everything"; and the other replies, "Ye-es, but loyalties cut up against each other sometimes." This is not an unusual case of a conflict of overlapping loyalties. We have loyalties to the Church and to the nation to which we belong. Not long ago there was a conflict of loyalties, between Ireland and the Kingdom as a whole. There have been conflicts at times between one group in this House and another group, based upon matters wholly foreign to the Legislature.
These conflicts of loyalties, on which Mr. G. D. H. Cole wrote a magnificent paper in the "Aristotelean Society's Proceedings" which profoundly interested me at the time, we have to harmonise as best we can in this House, but let us regard it as one to be resolved by the Select Committee and not by analysing Section 6 of the Official Secrets Act. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswinford (Mr. Henderson) will forgive me if a say that he has quite overdone, at this stage of our proceedings, his detailed references to that Act. The proceedings of this House are based on the assumption that those concerned on either Front Bench, and on all the back benches, are gentlemen, and behave as such. Once that assumption proves false, the system breaks down. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwood is the victim of a conflict of loyalties, which has to be resolved, between his duty as a Member of this House and his duty as an officer of the Territorial Army. That resolves itself into a question between his duty as a servant of the Crown in Council and as a servant of the 2197 Crown in Parliament, for be it remembered that the Army is not subject to Parliament in the same way as some other services. The Army is subject to the Crown in Council. We can withhold supplies, but we cannot dismiss or disrate an officer. The pay of the Army is settled, not by Acts of Parliament, but by Royal Warrants which are not laid before Parliament, but are issued proprio motu by the King in Council. The distinction has been blurred lately, but there is a real difference between the Crown in Parliament and the Crown in Council; and the Crown in Council controls the armed forces of the Crown.
We have heard much—perhaps too much—of the dangers to which Parliament might be subjected by the Executive. We have to consider, also, the dangers to which the country and Parliament might be subjected if the Executive felt that they were being unduly hampered by Parliament. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] It is more difficult to-day than ever before to separate times of war or emergency from a time of peace. We must trust our Executive to use with discretion the powers placed in their hands. Whatever Government may be in power, we may do so with confidence. Burke, speaking to his constituents in 1780, said:It is not to be imagined how much of service is lost from spirits full of activity and full of energy who are pressing forward to great and capital objects when you oblige them to be continually looking back. Whilst they are defending one service they defraud you of a hundred. Applaud us when we run; console us when we fall; cheer us when we recover; but let us pass on—for God's sake let us pass on.We have been in trouble over this matter for the past week. I hope it will be disposed of before long. But meanwhile, when it is disposed of and a solution has been reached do not let us under-rate the extent of the anxiety that has been caused throughout the country and throughout the Territorial Army. Let us get a settlement, and as quickly as possible.
§ 6.41 p.m.
§ Mr. Foot
It is rather remarkable that within the last half-hour we have heard two speeches on the subject of a possible conflict of loyalties where a Member of this House is also a member of the Territorial Army, and that any Members of this House should have suggested that in 2198 such a situation there can be any doubt as to where a man's first loyalty should be. The hon. and gallant Member for Chelmsford (Major Macnamara), who endeavoured to belittle this matter and who represents a certain school of thought on the benches opposite, put forward, as I thought, one of the most remarkable arguments I have ever heard. He endeavoured to persuade the House that there would be no secrecy, and that no official secrets in the possession of civil servants would be safe, if Section 6 did not apply to Members of Parliament. He said that he was not a lawyer, but I thought he might perhaps have looked up the terms of the Official Secrets Acts before coming to this House, and the dates of those Acts. If he had, he would have observed that this power of interrogation never existed, and nothing like it ever existed, before 1920; and I do not suppose that even he would maintain that no official secrets were kept, or that there was no official secrecy, before 1920. The hon. Member for Hitchin (Sir A. Wilson) made the very remarkable statement that we, as Members of Parliament, are most unlikely to be threatened with the machinery of Section 6. If that be so, one wonders what we have been debating all the afternoon.
§ Sir A. Wilson
Surely it has been made perfectly clear, by the statements which have already been made in this House, that no threat was in fact made.
§ Mr. Foot
I should have thought that the words used by the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Sandys) and by the Attorney-General were perfectly clear. The hon. Member for Norwood said on Monday:When I inquired what would be the consequences were I to refuse to comply with his request, he read to me the text of Section 6 of the Official Secrets Act, and pointed out that I might render myself liable to a term of imprisonment not exceeding two years.Then the Attorney-General, in his statement, said:I put the legal position before him, and asked him the above question."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th June, 1938; cols. 1535–7, Vol. 337.]To what Act of Parliament do the words "the legal position" refer?
§ The Attorney-General (Sir Donald Somervell)
Perhaps I might be allowed to correct a misapprehension under which, I think, the hon. Member is labouring. I 2199 quite see how it has arisen. When I used the words "I put the legal position before him," I was not referring in any way to Section 6. I put before him the position which arises out of the other parts of the Act if a breach has been committed. When I put the legal position before him, I asked him if he was willing to cooperate. In drawing the inference that he did from certain words that I used, he was drawing a false inference.
§ Mr. Sandys
I do not quite clearly understand what the Attorney-General has said. Surely he does not suggest that he did not read Section 6 to me?
§ The Attorney-General
No. I said that quite clearly in my statement. Another part of my statement has been read and it was suggested that the words "the legal position" included, at that stage, Section 6. All I rose to point out was that when I used those words "the legal position" at that stage in my statement I made no reference to Section 6—at that stage.
§ Mr. Foot
The right hon. and learned Gentleman will appreciate that I was answering an interruption by the hon. Member for Hitchin. It is abundantly clear that the existence of Section 6 was very much in the minds of both the hon. Member for Norwood and the Attorney-General. I do not suppose that it will be maintained for a moment that the question of the use of the powers in Section 6 had not been considered by the Government before the interview took place. The hon. Member for Hitchin said that we were most unlikely to be threatened, and suggested that if we are, Members of Parliament would be able to say, "We will have it taken to the courts, and see what the courts will say." We know what the courts are bound to say if there is a refusal to give information when it is required under Section 6. The courts have no option. But a Member of Parliament, if Section 6 be invoked in his case, is put in this position: Either he must reveal the source of his information or take the risk of making a martyr of himself. There may be cases in which he is prepared to take that risk; but is it not clear that if this Section is used it will limit the number of subjects on which Members will feel willing to put questions in this House?
2200 There has not been any discussion, I think, about the terms of reference of the Select Committee. It appears to me that those terms of reference are rather narrower than they need be. It would be open to the Committee, of course, to recommend that the powers contained in Section 6 of the Act of 1920 should never apply to Members of Parliament in any circumstances, or at any rate when they are doing anything in connection with their duties as Members of this House. But we can imagine that the Committee may not be able to go so far as that. Suppose they come to the conclusion that the use of the powers contained in Section 6 against Members of Parliament would only be justified in extreme cases, where the safety of the State was clearly involved. They might reach that conclusion. Then they would have to decide whether this is such a case. They cannot decide that without examining the terms of the question that was put down by the hon. Member for Norwood, and also probably the terms of the documents about which it was alleged there has been a leakage. It will be necessary that they should go into that subject if they are to decide this particular question. Can we be told by whoever answers on behalf of the Government, whether it is the intention of the Government in moving this Motion that the terms of reference should cover those subjects and that it shall be open to the Select Committee, under the terms of reference, to go into the actual terms of the question and the documents in respect of which it is alleged that there has been a leakage?
The hon Member for Hitchin and the hon. and gallant Member for Chelmsford referred in this connection to Parliamentary Privilege. As I pointed out to this House on 24th May, no question of Parliamentary Privilege can, as I see it, possibly arise where a Member is interrogated in pursuance of Section 6, and at any rate if he is interrogated outside the walls of this building. The Committee is not being set up, as I see it, to consider a question of Privilege. If that were the question involved, it would be another issue that we should have to refer to the Committee of Privileges. We are sending it to a Select Committee. That Committee will have to consider a much wider question, as to what the effect will be on the normal activities of Members of Parliament if 2201 there is to be the constant threat, or the constant idea in their minds, that in certain circumstances these powers may be used against them. This is a criticism that I have to make of the terms of reference of the Select Committee. Suppose the Committee come to the conclusion that the use of these powers is only justified in cases of great public importance.
That will be a conclusion not so very different, after all, from the conclusion reached by the Home Secretary a short time ago, when he assured the House, in dealing not with Members of Parliament but with Pressmen that the permission to use this power would be given only in cases which the Attorney-General considered to be of first-class public importance. Suppose the Committee came to a similar conclusion, and also to the conclusion that the only way to make certain that that would apply in future would be to amend the Official Secrets Acts. It is doubtful whether they could make such a recommendation under the terms of reference. No doubt they could do so in reference to Members of Parliament, but only in reference to Members of Parliament. That would be, indeed, to create an entirely new form of Parliamentary Privilege, which no Member of this House has ever desired.
It is not unlikely that this Committee would wish to recommend some drastic amendment—let it he hoped that they will—of the 1920 Act. It seems a little doubtful whether, under these terms of reference, they will be able to make any recommendation to that effect. I put this question only because it is necessary that we should be quite clear about these terms of reference. I think this inquiry is exceedingly necessary, and not only because of the instance which has given rise to it. I hope that it will lead not only to elucidation of the events of the last few days, but to a very thorough, drastic and far-reaching amendment of the outrageous powers conferred by the Official Secrets Act, 1920.
§ 6.54 p.m.
§ Mr. Stephen
I do not want to take part in doing the work of the Select Committee which has been set up, as some hon. Members to-day seem disposed to do. I simply take part in this Debate to say, on behalf of my hon. Friends, that we support the Motion for the setting up of this Committee. I might say to the hon. 2202 Gentleman who has preceded me that perhaps the terms of reference are not as wide as they ought to be, but I would not be disposed to agree with him that the interpretation of those terms of reference should be left to the Government or the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I think it is for the Select Committee themselves to interpret the terms of reference, and I have not sufficient faith in the Government to take their interpretation. As I see the question that is before us, the Government have interpreted the working of the Official Secrets Act in such a way as to cause misgivings to all the Members in this House, and I am not anxious to add to their work of interpretation.
We realise that the issues here are of very great importance with regard to the maintenance of liberty in this country. I was surprised to hear the remarks of the hon. Member for Hitchin (Sir A. Wilson), who seemed to take the attitude that there should be no Select Committee at all, that there was nothing to inquire into, and that the one thing we had to be careful of to-day was not to do anything that would shake the confidence of the members of the Territorial Forces. There was really no question in his mind that if a Member of Parliament came into jeopardy hereafter he would be quite prepared to go into Court without any question of Privilege at all. There is a matter of very great importance involved in this question of the Privilege of Members of Parliament. The Prime Minister referred to a principle that was laid down in connection with the question of Privilege which was referred to in the Journals of the Lords in 1641. My mind also went back to the same period and I recalled that the very question at issue here was of such great importance then that it resulted in the head of a king rolling in the dust. On this occasion, perhaps fortunately, the question of the King and his head does not enter into it, but there may be other heads available—those of the Secretary of State for War and the Attorney-General. It may be just as well that there should be a few heads available for us.
The question before us now is the setting up of a Select Committee in which the House has confidence when it appoints it. It is given terms of reference to enable it to go into the matter, to discuss the principal circumstances which brought the question into the foreground again, and 2203 also the general questions resulting from this particular incident. I think that that procedure is an appropriate one for this House to adopt, and I hope that, as a result, this Committee will be in a position to arrive at a proper finding with regard to the proper Privilege that should extend to Members of Parliament in carrying on their work.
§ 6.59 p.m.
§ Lieut.-Commander Agnew
I want to make a remark about the powers of the Committee with regard to its terms of reference. I see that it is to inquire into the allegations of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Sandys). I think it should have power also—and I hope it will be found that it has—to inquire into the position of the hon. Member for Norwood in another way. It is believed that an improper disclosure has been made of a State secret. There appears to be no body which has the power, or at least which is going to exercise the power, to inquire of the hon. Member himself into the exact circumstances in which he ascertained the information which formed the subject of his proposed Question. It may well be that while the military Court of Inquiry is, for its part, finding out how the disclosure took place, some person or persons may find themselves the subject of an accusation of having improperly disclosed a secret. In that case I think it is vital, in the interest of any person or persons who may in this way subsequently be accused, that it should be known by someone—and the only body possible seems to be the Select Committee that we are moving to set up—whether the hon. Member for Norwood himself asked for the information which he in some way obtained, or whether, on the other hand, that information was volunteered to him, because it seems that it will be vital, if the ends of justice are to be met and the interests of any accused person safeguarded, that that information should, in fact, be made available.
The Committee is not asked to find on the general question of Privilege. The Committee of Privileges has decided that to summon the hon. Member for Norwood to a military court at a time when the matter was sub judice in another way in the House was a breach of Privilege, but the Select Committee presumably 2204 will not be asked to decide whether or not this House is going to be above the laws which it has helped to make. It surely must be the case that until Parliament shall decide, if it should decide, to amend the Official Secrets Act, Members of this House are just as much subject to its provisions as any other citizens of the land. Again, it appears that there can be no question of a conflict of loyalties. If a Member is also an officer in the Territorial Army, it is surely possible, without amending any Acts or discontinuing any practices which have prevailed in recent years, for those two duties to be carried on without any conflict at all. There are no two loyalties, for two loyalties would be treason. The only loyalty must be to His Majesty.
§ 7.4 P.m.
§ The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Sir John Simon)
There are indications that the House is getting to a point when it might be ready to agree—
§ Mr. Gallacher
On a point of Order. Am I to understand that the Debate is to be finished? I have been here from the beginning and have been trying to get in.
§ Sir J. Simon
You warned us, Sir, at the beginning that there might be a danger, or the possibility of danger, of some impropriety or inconvenience to-day in discussing the merits of the matters that are to be referred to the Committee. It seemed to me that the Leader of the Opposition showed exactly how it was possible to make a speech on this subject without in the least transgressing your guidance or running into those dangers. It seemed to me that he discussed with complete appropriateness not the merits which will hereafter have to be looked into and reported upon, but the sort of question which the Committee, when appointed, might be expected to address its mind to. That, I should think, is a perfectly proper thing for us to discuss to-day. There must be many in all parts of the House who felt sincere admiration for his speech. I agree with a great deal of what he said. He did throughout discuss the nature of the difficulties and the sort of problems which he thought this Select Committee would have to face and 2205 deal with. So far so good. When they have done it and have made their report, the opportunity will arise, and will certainly have to be provided, of considering what it says, and the House will determine what sort of action it will take. There was a great deal of difficulty in steering the course which he so successfully steered, and that is illustrated by some of the speeches which have followed. The right hon. Baronet the Member for Caithness (Sir A. Sinclair) began, as he often does, by saying he wished to follow more or less along the lines indicated by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, which no doubt he wished to do, but in the course of about five minutes all his good resolutions went by the board, and we had a very rhetorical demonstration as to what was his judgment on these matters. I looked with some anxiety to see whether he was going to be a member of the Committee. Fortunately in the circumstances, it cannot be said that he prejudged anything that he is going hereafter to pronounce upon, although he expressed very strong opinions on certain points.
I do not want to add anything to what has been said on the definition of the issue, except on one point to which I will refer later, but one or two questions have been asked me with which I should like to deal. First of all the hon. Member for Camlachie (Mr. Stephen) was quite right when he said that it is not for the Government to say what the Committee will or will not consider. The Committee will construe, as every Committee does, its terms of reference, and we may assume that they will construe them with sufficient generosity, and will not be too technical or too narrow, and, therefore, I should expect that the sort of questions that the hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Foot) was anxious to mention may well be matters that will come within the consideration of the Committee. I should not have thought necessarily that the Committee would consider it within its function to recommend the outline of a revision of a Statute from one end to the other, but even that is a matter which it will be for the Committee to say, and certainly not for the House of Commons or the Government to debate about now.
§ Sir J. Simon
The words are pretty plain. They are, I think, the words of the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Sandys). He himself is content with them and the Government are content with them. I have not heard generally any objection to them, and we may safely leave the matter in the hands of the Select Committee to deal with.
The hon. Member for Norwood put two questions to the Secretary of State for War. I should like to say on my right hon. Friend's behalf that it is not want of courtesy or of attention which has led to his not again intervening and dealing with the point raised. It is merely that he feels, as we should all feel, that it is very desirable that we should not get led into personal controversy on some of the detailed incidents at this stage. No doubt, the Secretary of State and the hon. Member will be giving evidence before the Committee and, when the Committee has heard it and everyone has asked all the questions that he thinks right, we shall, no doubt, get an orderly and impartial report from our colleagues on the Committee. That will be the time to go into these matters.
There is one exception that I would make to my resolve not to add any observations of my own. It really arises from a remark made by the Leader of the Opposition. He said—and almost every speaker in all parts of the House has confirmed this in one way or the other—that, of course, no one would ever dream of denying that officials charged with secrets must keep those secrets. They must not disclose them to critics of the Government, and must not intrigue against the Government of the day—this applies to all Governments, whatever their composition—and no one must condone what would be in those officials an undoubted breach of their duty. In connection with that point the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Chelmsford (Major Macnamara) put his finger on the real difficulty. I do not pronounce upon it—I do not think any of us ought to—but I think it is one of the issues with which the Committee will have to deal. If we really mean, as we do, that officials must keep secrets and that it is a grave breach of their duty if they do not keep them—and Members 2207 of Parliament all know that if they disclosed secrets they would be breaking their trust and their oath—it follows that a very serious responsibility would follow to anybody—I am not referring to the hon. Member for Norwood; I do not know the circumstances—who provides himself with information from such officials on the assurance that he will not give the officials away. It seems to me that that is a very great difficulty and, no doubt, it is one which will be considered in due course by the Select Committee. It does not seem to me that it is much use our putting on record that of course we would never condone any official breaking his trust, and all the rest of it, if at the same time it is alleged that public service can be rendered in certain circumstances by inducing officials to break their trust on the terms that they shall be seen safely through it. That is plainly a matter which will have to be considered closely and carefully by the Committee. I do not know, and I do not seek to know now, what the answer to it is, but it is a very considerable difficulty which will have to be solved by the Committee.
§ Mr. A. V. Alexander
In the 27 years since the Act of 1911, when has this difficulty even been projected in this form?
§ Sir J. Simon
I do not differ from that reflection. But, if you are going to have a committee analysing these things, that is one of the matters that they will not be able to overlook. There should be no doubt about all this being on record. Someone said—I think the right hon. Gentleman opposite—that until now no one had attempted to use the Official Secrets Act against a Member of Parliament. I do not think, at this stage at any rate, that is a fair way of stating the matter. My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General has heard the facts, as he ought to hear them, and acted with due responsibility, and those of us who know him have great confidence that he will be shown to have acted in this matter with his usual discretion. He has told the House perfectly plainly that he has not done anything of the kind that is suggested. This is one of the matters, no doubt, which will have to be investigated by the Committee, and at any rate, do not let us, in setting up the Committee, take it as an agreed 2208 proposition that that has happened at the present time.
§ Sir J. Simon
No, I am not. I took the liberty of saying, I hope, without impertinence, that it seemed to me that the Leader of the Opposition was most scrupulous and careful throughout in stating what were the issues to be considered, and never at any stage pronounced any judgment on any of the facts.
I will venture one speculation at the end, and it is only a speculation. I must say that I would not expect, as a result of all this, that we should get some cut-and-dried code. All our Parliamentary traditions go to show, as has been said by an hon. Member during the Debate, that we are really carrying on our work here on the basis of good sense and mutual understanding without trying, to set up too many rules and regulations. That is really, if I may say so, the nature of the law of Privilege of this House. You cannot buy a book and read in it paragraph after paragraph what the law of Privilege is. That is not the way it is done at all. What is done is, that early in our history the House of Commons has claimed certain liberties for itself and its Members. We do that in November when you, Mr. Speaker, at the beginning of every Parliament, claim certain liberties because we have developed a whole series of Parliamentary traditions. You cannot find it anywhere in the book. I think it is pretty well laid down nowadays, and accepted, that we ought not at any rate to extend our claims for Members' Privileges in all sorts of novel directions. We are the interpreters of our Privilege, and nobody else can interpret it. No court of law in the land can say, "I will lay down what Parliament shall do." That puts a very great responsibility upon those who happen to be Members of Parliament at any particular time.
We here are the guardians of our Parliamentary institutions, which will pass on long after we have gone, and what we have to do is to guard them, and, it may be, in certain cases, to interpret them and give them a more precise application. This is a tremendous responsibility which every one of us has to discharge as far as we can without partisanship and without any desire to 2209 score a point about some current controversy. I am very confident that the hon. Gentlemen whose names are proposed to serve on this Select Committee will discharge their duty in that spirit, and I expect that when their report is brought back to the House, we shall find that it is in that spirit that the House as a whole will desire to discuss it.
§ 7.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Gallacher
I want to make one or two observations in connection with this very important matter. I have asked myself the question, what would have been the attitude of the Attorney-General had it been myself or a back bencher on this side of the House who had been involved? I am quite certain that he would have been prepared to go much further than he has on this occasion. There is another point to which I want to draw attention. The Secretary of State for War is getting the heavy weight of the blame. Almost everyone who has directed attention to this "unfortunate affair" has concentrated upon the Secretary of State for War. I would remind the Members of this House—and I am not going to discuss what the Select Committee should do—of the actual tendency of mind which has been developed recently on the part of the Leader of the Government. The Prime Minister recently paid a high tribute to Mussolini and to the Fascist system in Italy. When the Secretary of State for War goes to the Prime Minister and reports this case, it is the Prime Minister who advises calling in the Attorney-General, showing the natural development of the very great friendship between himself and Mussolini, and this should not be forgotten. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister made one sensible remark in the course of his short talk. He said that he could conceive of information of a very secret character being given and as a result great good resulting to the nation, but the converse also would apply. Obviously, if very secret information is given and results in great good to the nation, if such information had not been given the consequence to the nation might have been very bad. We have a case in point here.
The hon. Member for Hitchin (Sir A. Wilson), speaking with all the weight and lack of penetration of the brass hats, says that he is proud of the promptitude with which the Army Council acted. What is 2210 it upon which they have acted? A very serious evil has been revealed. The whole character of the discussions which took place between the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Sandys) and the Secretary of State for War was in connection with very terrible weaknesses in our defences. That was the subject of discussion. The Army Council has acted with great promptitude. What to do? To repair the serious weaknesses? No, that is the last thing that the Army Council would think of doing. It has not acted with great promptitude to repair the serious weaknesses; it has acted with great promptitude to attack whoever was responsible for revealing the fact that there were serious weaknesses. A week or two ago I produced in this House a photostatic copy of Employment Exchange documents referring to the report of an inspector about one of the unemployed. I was advised by certain legal men that I was running a risk of being brought under the Official Secrets Act. There was also the case of a member of the Press not very long ago.
We are discussing here privileges of Members of the House of Commons, but as Members of the House of Commons we are only entitled to have privileges while serving the people. Although we are above the brass hats and are responsible to ourselves only so far as the various Governmental administrations are concerned, we are not above the people. Our privileges come from the people, and our privileges are also their privileges. I mean by that—and this is the kernel of the question which is not understood by the Chancellor of the Exchequer—that, if a Member of Parliament is to do his duty and to serve the people of the country in the way that they should be served, whatever passes between a constituent and his Member, no matter what position he is in or what oath he has taken, that should be privileged. That is the only way in which this problem can be solved. It has always worked that way. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) gave case after case, and the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Colonel Wedgwood) gave instance after instance during the War of Members of Parliament getting all kinds of information and taking it up with the responsible Minister. The important issue that 2211 should always be before us is the cause for which the information is given and is being used.
We had the famous case five years ago of Compton Mackenzie the great novelist. He wrote a book. There was information in that book in connection with matters that had happened 20 years before, but the brass hats got at him and he came under the Official Secrets Act. Under the Official Secrets Act the question is not asked, Was this information given and used for a good purpose? Once you come under the Official Secrets Act all that the court has to do is to decide the question, Has this man published a secret, and does this particular secret come under such and such a section? And the Court decides, "Aye" or "No." That happened to Compton Mackenzie. Nobody ever suggested that he was doing anything that could do any serious harm to anybody. They got at him and said that if he tried to defend himself, the prosecution and the judge would be very annoyed and all the rest of it, and he would probably get a year or two years' imprisonment, but if he pleaded guilty he would get off with a fine. That is what he was persuaded to do, and he pleaded guilty. Nobody can tell what offence he had committed in the sense of having done any harm to anybody. Not only do they use the Official Secrets Act in such a manner, but the very book, with the parts taken out that were complained about, is still under the ban and not allowed to be published.
When discussing the question of Privilege, let us remember the Privileges of the Members of the House of Commons in relation to the people of the country. If we have a proper understanding as to the position between Members of this House and the military on one side and the people of the country on the other, we shall be able to escape much of the difficulty that is confronting us at the present time. The Prime Minister is responsible for the Attorney-General being called in. It has been suggested that we should not discuss what the Select Committee will have to consider, and I do not want to bias the findings of the Committee, but if I could be assured that an adverse decision on the part of the Committee so far as the actions of the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for War and the 2212 Attorney-General are concerned, would mean their resignation, anything that I could possibly do to bias the Committee would be done. I am certain—and I say this as a result of the experience that I have had of the Government since I came to the House, and especially since the present Prime Minister took office—that while we have the present Prime Minister and the present Government the menace will always be there to Members of this House, to the people of the country and the nation as a whole.
§ 7.32 p.m.
§ Lieut.-Commander Fletcher
I had not intended to take part in the Debate but for some remarks made by the hon. and gallant Member for Camborne (Lieut.-Commander Agnew) and the hon. and gallant Member for Chelmsford (Major Macnamara). I regret they are not present, but what I have to say in regard to their speeches will be said in no captious spirit of criticism or with any desire to give offence. I understood the hon. and gallant Member for Camborne to express some fear that as the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Sandys) has successfully claimed Privilege, officers who may come under suspicion in the course of the military Court of Inquiry may suffer because the hon. Member has not attended the inquiry. I am not in the confidence of the hon. Member for Norwood but I think it may be safely said that if there was any fear that some officer or official was going to be unfairly accused or to suffer in any way unjustly, the hon. Member for Norwood would be the first to take the necessary steps in order to see that no injustice of that sort was done. Therefore, the fears expressed by the hon. and gallant Member for Camborne were groundless.
I listened with great attention to the speech of the hon. and gallant Member for Chelmsford, and I regret that he did not develop the theme that if such action as the hon. Member for Norwood has taken goes unreproved, in future no foreign country need employ spies. I am at a loss to understand what the hon. and gallant Member meant by that remark, and I regret that he did not develop it. It was going far beyond the mark for him to suggest, as he did, that if the Official Secrets Act is not applied to Members of Parliament, officers and civil servants will become perfectly immune in regard to 2213 giving away secrets and official information, and that in consequence there will in future be no such thing as secret information. So far as I am aware, the Official Secrets Act has never yet been invoked or applied against a Member of Parliament and the terrible consequences which the hon. and gallant Member foreshadowed have not yet occurred.
The point to which I wish particularly to call attention is this. The hon. and gallant Member has, quite obviously, with great sincerity and great honesty been seriously thinking on the question of his dual responsibility as an officer and a Member of Parliament. From his remarks he appeared to me to have decided that his duty as an officer comes first. I think he went completely contrary to the spirit and the feeling of this House in suggesting that Members of this House ought not to enjoy such privileges as have been successfully claimed by the hon. Member for Norwood, and also in suggesting that Members of Parliament ought to be brought into line with the common law of the land in these matters. He claims to speak on behalf of the man-in-the-street. The man-in-the-street would lose one of the main defences of his liberty if Members of Parliament were reduced to the position which the hon. and gallant Member suggests they ought to hold in this matter.
Since I have been a Member of this House I, too, have considered very seriously the question of duty and responsibility as a retired naval officer and as a Member of Parliament. As far as I am concerned I have no hesitation in saying that the officer or the retired officer who becomes a Member of this House accepts a far larger and graver responsibility to the country, which comes before his opinions and his responsibilities as an officer. The position of a Member of Parliament in receiving information is one of very great difficulty, especially so when a Member of Parliament has been an officer, or is an officer. He finds very particular difficulty when a serving officer comes to him with information. The situation puts him into a position of great difficulty. I see the First Lord of the Admiralty present. Perhaps he will allow me to say that I found myself in such a difficulty in regard to my action in raising matters concerning motor boats for the Navy. I felt it right and proper 2214 to refrain from using a great deal of information which I had, because it had been put at my disposal by serving officers, and, therefore, I felt, rightly or wrongly, that I should not use it.
We must stick to the position that officers and civil servants must understand that they are not as a general rule entitled to disclose secret and official information. If they do so to a Member of Parliament they are undertaking a very grave responsibility, which can only be justified if national security or national interests are at stake. In my opinion they are not justified in disclosing information about awkward Departmental matters, or in order to gratify feelings of irritation against superior officers, or in revenge for slights which they may think they have suffered, or because of thwarted ambitions. They should only disclose information if they feel that by remaining silent detriment will result to the Service or to national security.
The practice in these matters has justified itself on the whole; the proof of the pudding is in the eating. We must not forget that if questions are put on the Order Paper and the Minister feels that it is not in the public interest to reply, he has always the power to say so. If the Minister does not feel justified in giving the information asked for, he also has the power to ask the Member concerned to take the question off the Order Paper, and I should think there are extremely few cases on record where a Minister has asked a Member to take a question off the Order Paper where that request has not been immediately complied with. The other side of the matter deserves consideration. Information is given from time to time as a result of which we have found that good results have accrued to the public service. We have had the two instances of recent changes at the Air Ministry, which many of us think are going to work out to the advantage of the Air Service and of the country, and we have also had the report of the Cadman Committee. In both those cases good has resulted to the country and the public service through certain information being given to Members of Parliament. It will be a bad day for our public liberties and bad for national security if civil servants and officers cannot feel that in the last resort, if all proper representations to their departmental and service chiefs have been made and have failed, they cannot 2215 resort to Parliament through the agency of a Member of Parliament.
It is perfectly true that the Prime Minister dislikes opposition. In the "Manchester Guardian" the other day, in a leading article, it was stated that the Prime Minister always displays petulance whenever the Opposition benches oppose. There is very little doubt that the Government have been rattled by a good deal of the just criticism over their many failures in relation to rearmament. They have realised that many of the speeches made on this subject, and especially those delivered by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) have shown clearly that officers and others have spoken to Members of Parliament about weaknesses and failures in our rearmament programme, that have perturbed them. It is undoubtedly the case that that is so, and I think the Government wanted to put an end to a practice which inconveniences them. They have turned on the hon. Member for Norwood but, with great respect to him, I think that they have been flying at higher game in taking the action that they have done. They have shot at a pigeon hoping to bring down a crow. In what they have done they have shown great ineptitude. It was very inept to put the Attorney-General on to the hon. Member for Norwood in the way they did. It was extraordinarily inept that he should have been summoned to appear before the military Court of Inquiry wearing his uniform.
§ Lieut.-Commander Fletcher
By their ineptitude they have taken the most effectual course that they could take in order to arouse sympathy on behalf of the hon. Member whom they wished to attack. I feel sure that the result of these proceedings will be to confirm afresh the privileges which Members of Parliament enjoy in these matters to enforce recognition of the fact that the power to give information to Members of Parliament is a valuable safeguard of our liberties and our security, and to give a check to the drift towards totalitarian theories of Government which have been becoming very apparent in this House in recent days. As so often happens, I believe that our liberties and our 2216 privileges will in the end be extended by this ill-judged and maladroit attempt to curtail them.
§ 7.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Emmott
With a good deal that has fallen from the hon. and gallant Member for Nuneaton (Lieut.-Commander Fletcher) I agree, but it seems to me that there was possibly a latent contradiction between two parts of the interesting argument which he addressed to the House. At one moment he appeared to be arguing that there was a wide range of matters which serving officers should not disclose to Members of Parliament. With that the whole House will agree, but a little later he argued that officers should always feel that they can properly approach Members of Parliament for the purpose of putting them in possession of information which they think should be disclosed to them.
§ Lieut.-Commander Fletcher
I am sure the hon. Member does not want to do me an injustice. In fact, I said nothing of the sort. I said that civil servants should feel that if they really believe national security or the interests of their service were at stake they can approach Members of Parliament, but I said that in doing so they undertake a grave responsibility which can be justified only by the national security being at stake.
I am obliged to the hon. and gallant Member for his correction, but it seems to me that the correction really reveals the latent difficulty and contradiction in the whole of this subject. I confess that I find it difficult to address to the House any detailed argument which shall not conflict with your Ruling that Members participating in the Debate should as far as possible avoid that kind of argument which will be more suitable to the consideration of the Select Committee than to this occasion; but I cannot help thinking that the Select Committee which is about to be set up will welcome illumination by this House of the subject which it will have to consider, and will, in fact, welcome any indication of the opinions of hon. Members which may be available to them. Therefore, I should like—and I propose to be brief—to offer one or two comments upon arguments which have been addressed to the House to-night.
2217 The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Caithness (Sir A. Sinclair) suggested that the present position of the Government is that it is improper for hon. Members to inform themselves on certain subjects. He actually said that "never before has it been thought improper for Members of Parliament to inform themselves on the subjects with which they are concerned." Nor is it now considered improper for Members of Parliament to inform themselves on such subjects. The right hon. Gentleman went on to suggest that information from official sources has always been properly disclosed to hon. Members. Of course it has, and the present complaint is not that information has been made available to an hon. Member from official sources. The complaint is quite different: it is that a certain kind of information which it was improper to disclose has been made available from official sources to an hon. Member. In that argument the right hon. Member for Caithness appeared to me to be seriously misrepresenting the position of His Majesty's Government. Then he went on to suggest, as did other hon. Members, that the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Sandys) had been threatened with pains and penalties. That again, I submit, is a complete misrepresentation of the position. The hon. Member for Norwood was not really threatened with pains and penalties, and anyone who reads carefully the statement made by the hon. Member and the statement made by the Attorney-General on Monday will agree that that is so.
I come now to make a few observations on the speech of the right hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill). He addressed a powerful and interesting argument to the House, and in the course of it he urged that it is the duty of Members of Parliament to give information to Ministers. Certainly, but here there is no question of giving information to a Minister; the Minister already had the information. The right hon. Gentleman went on to say that he could never have imagined any Minister refusing to receive it. But the Minister did not refuse to receive it.
§ Mr. Gallacher
Is it not conceivable that the officials in a particular Department might keep the real condition of affairs from the Minister?
§ Mr. Emmott
It is conceivable, possibly, to the hon. Member, but not to 2218 me, Really the whole argument of the right hop. Member for Epping seemed to ignore this fundamental circumstance,that the question proposed to be put by the hon. Member for Norwood revealed an improper disclosure of information. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwood intervened during the Debate and pointed out very properly, or rather informed the House, that his question did not contain any reference to the disposition of guns, but only to certain other matters. But it was not necessary for the question proposed to be put by the hon. Member for Norwood to refer to the disposition of guns, to reveal that in fact there had been an improper disclosure of information. Then the right hon. Member for Epping used it as an argument against the Government that Ministers must not be judges in their own case; it was not for them, he suggested, to say, "This is a secret thing; this is secret information, and must not be disclosed." I suggest to the House that in this connection the argument that Ministers must not be judges in their own case is really, with all respect to the right hon. Gentleman, a misuse of words. Who else, I ask, is to determine these matters except Ministers? Who else is to determine what are the secrets of the State, if not the Ministers? This is surely one of the most important, one of the most essential, functions of the Executive.
I come finally to the particular questions, which are also general questions, raised by this incident. The informant of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood appears to have considered—one must say this in ignorance of the precise terms of the question he proposed to ask, and in ignorance of the precise information disclosed to him—that certain circumstances of which he was aware were detrimental to the interests of this country. He disclosed these circumstances to my hon. Friend. My hon. Friend considered it his duty to use this information in the normal course of his Parliamentary activity. But how was this information obtained? It was obtained in my hon. Friend's capacity as an officer in the Territorial Army. That seems to be an essential point.
§ Mr. Sandys
May I interrupt the hon. Member? I feel that he is putting me in an impossible position. I cannot answer, either to confirm or contradict the statement which he is making. The hon. 2219 Member is making statements not of opinion but of fact, of which he knows nothing, and I would suggest to him that as the matter is coming before not only a Select Committee of this House but possibly also before a military court of inquiry he should not make statements of this kind upon wholly insufficient information.
§ Mr. Emmott
I will willingly accept the suggestion of the hon. Member, and will pursue this part of my argument no further. In fact, though, I assumed that I was on ground which was not disputed, and I merely wanted to follow arguments which had already been addressed to the House by hon. Members in the course of this Debate, and I think that if he had been willing to hear what I intended to say my hon. Friend would not have quarrelled with it. I conclude by observing that the Attorney-General was, in my opinion, bound to take notice of the matter which was brought to his cognisance, and that the charges which have been brought against the Government this afternoon in relation to the action of the Law Officers are wholly unjust. But all these are questions which will properly be considered by the Select Committee that the House is now about to appoint.
§ 7.59 P.m.
§ Mr. Bellenger
I am afraid it has been impossible for hon. Members to take part in the Debate without giving a different interpretation to the suggestions which were made by Mr. Speaker at the beginning of the discussion. I have a few points to put on this matter with which, in my opinion, private Members are very much concerned. The right hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) in his speech referred to the action which he, in company with several Privy Councillors, took when they approached the late Prime Minister, Mr. Baldwin, and in the course of conversations placed before him very secret information, and the right hon. Member for Epping told us the late Prime Minister must have been aware of the source from which they drew their knowledge. Speaking as a private Member of this House I say quite confidently that right hon. Members like the right hon. Member for Epping and Privy Councillors are well able to look after themselves. I am very much concerned, as a private Member, that whatever rules or orders are to be laid down as a result of the 2220 deliberations of the Select Committee shall be applied equally and fairly to every hon. Member, whatever may be his prominence or his insignificance.
The Debate has taken an unusual course, because, although we were asked to keep strictly to the terms of the Motion which is before the House, we listened first of all to what I might call the deposition of one of the chief defendants, the Secretary of State for War, and the right hon. Gentleman merely followed in the footsteps of the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Sandys) and the Attorney-General. I suggest to the House that this is a rather unusual procedure, but apparently it is one which the House desired. In listening to the Secretary of State for War, I was struck by something which he said as to the action taken by the Attorney-General, and as in the course of the Debate certain hon. Members took it upon themselves to make suggestions to the Select Committee, perhaps I may also make a suggestion, namely, that the Select Committee should inquire into the action of the Attorney-General when he interviewed the hon. Member for Norwood.
We were told earlier this week that when the hon. Member for Norwood saw the Attorney-General at the latter's request, the Attorney-General did not see him in his legal capacity as a Law Officer of the Crown, but as a colleague, and had what I believe was termed a friendly conversation. But it has since transpired that the Prime Minister himself was so impressed by the seriousness, or apparent seriousness, of the situation which had arisen that he instructed the Secretary of State for War to approach the Attorney-General and put the matter in the hands of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. In those circumstances, I submit that it was not a friendly discussion as between one colleague and another that took place between the hon. Member for Norwood and the Attorney-General. Something apparently happened there which indicated that the Attorney-General might have to take certain proceedings later on, and from things which we have learned from the Attorney-General, evidently that was in his mind, for otherwise I presume that the Official Secrets Act would not have been mentioned. We learned from the hon. Member for Norwood that an undertaking was given by the Attorney-General not to take any action against 2221 him at present, and further, we learned that, at the request of the hon. Member for Norwood, the words "at present" were struck out. I suggest that the Select Committee might inquire as to whether the Attorney-General himself has not committed a serious dereliction of duty in allowing his judgment to be warped by political considerations.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer suggested that out of the deliberations of the Select Committee there should emerge no cut and dried code. I must say that I am entirely in agreement with the right hon. Gentleman. I believe that if matters affecting the conduct of Members of Parliament in the course of their Parliamentary duties are left in the hands of the House of Commons itself, hon. Members, wherever they sit, need not be afraid of the consequences to themselves. Hon. Members must realise, wherever they sit, that they have responsibilities and duties to the State just as much as any humble individual in the State who is not protected by priviliges as we are; but I am sure that those who rise to the position of Member of Parliament realise what are their duties to the State just as much as any Minister of the Crown. Therefore, when hon. Members, in the course of their Parliamentary duties, obtain certain information, I am sure that they would not use that information in any way likely to affect the true interests of the State.
I would like to tell the House of my own experience—quite a small one—in this direction. I was interested in the manner in which Bren machine guns, which I am given to understand are the most modern weapons and the most potent weapons which the infantry can use nowadays, were being provided. I was concerned as to whether those Bren machine guns were being provided with sufficient speed and in sufficient numbers, and I was also concerned as to whether the Army was adequately provided with anti-tank guns. I attended the manoeuvres in company with other hon. Members last year, and it was painfully obvious to us, to the general public and to the foreign military attaches, who also attended the manoeuvres, that the Army was seriously short of Bren machine guns and anti-tank guns. At those manoeuvres, anybody who was not entirely blind must have observed the long pieces of wood that were being used 2222 to represent Bren machine guns and the large boards used by the Guards to represent anti-tank guns.
I do not think it is a breach of secrecy to say that even an eminent French general, the French Commander-in-Chief, I think, who was over here, had to walk, as we Members of Parliament also had to walk, all over the place before we could find an anti-tank gun. That was common knowledge. I followed up my experience by putting a question in the House, which was allowed by the Table, asking the Secretary of State for War what was the state of provision of that equipment to the Army. The right hon. Gentleman replied that it was not in the public interest to give an answer in the House to that question. Thereupon I wrote to him telling him that I thought it was necessary for Members of Parliament, if they were constructively to criticise the Government, to have that information, and I further suggested that the information was in possession of our competitors abroad. The right hon. Gentleman asked me to go to see him, and I may say—and here again I do not think it is any breach of confidence—that the right hon. Gentleman gave me more than the information for which I had asked. He gave it to me freely. I have had that information, which was given me by the Secretary of State himself, in my possession, but it was obvious that I would not use it in the House of Commons or in other places. Nevertheless, the Secretary of State realised that it was permissible that Members of Parliament interested in this matter should have that vital information.
§ Mr. Bellenger
Perhaps it is because I have not the associations which the hon. Member for Norwood has.
§ Mr. Bellenger
I give this case to the House only to show that supposedly secret information is sometimes given even by a Minister of the Crown. It is true that it is given in confidence, but what is the difference between information of this 2223 secret character which is given by the Secretary of State himself to an hon. Member who requests such information and that which is derived by an hon. Member in a different way, but which is nevertheless in the same secret category? It seems to me that the whole matter turns on the question how the hon. Member uses the information.
§ Sir John Haslam
Does the hon. Member mean to infer that the Secretary of State is not allowed to give information and that any member of the Army Council or any serving officer can give any information he desires to a Member of Parliament? Surely, the Secretary of State is in a different position from an ordinary servant of the Crown.
§ Mr. Bellenger
I do not know how the hon. Member for Norwood got his information. We are assuming a great deal in this Debate. It may be that he got it in a perfectly legitimate manner, but the whole complaint about the hon. Member is that he had in his possession certain secret information which was against the best interest of the State. I suggest that that is not the crime, but that if any crime be committed, it is in using the information against the interests of the State. Nobody suggests that the hon. Member for Norwood has done that. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, in his speech this afternoon, laid down a general proposition which the Chancellor of the Exchequer commended and with which I think all hon. Members agree, namely, that no excuse can be found for servants of the State who break their oath of secrecy. That is not the point at issue. It is quite within the Army Council's power, and quite within their right, to set up a Court of Inquiry to ascertain whether any Army officer has broken his oath of secrecy. That is a matter entirely for the Army Council and the Secretary of State. But that is not the only issue which has appeared in this affair, because undoubtedly pressure was brought to bear—as many of us think, illegal pressure—on the hon. Member for Norwood to divulge the source of his information.
There is a moral to be drawn from all these discussions. Although it is not within the terms of reference of the Select Committee, it is this, that Members of Parliament are ipso facto responsible people, just as much concerned as 2224 Ministers of the Crown in the proper conduct of the State's affairs. Therefore, it seems to me to be necessary that Members of Parliament should be adequately provided with information on which they can make up their minds as to whether the course of the Government is a right one or wrong one. The Government have appealed to all parties in the House, in the matter of National Defence, to assist them in their efforts to make the State safe. How is it possible for hon. Members to judge whether the Government are genuine in their intentions unless they have in their hands the information by which they can judge the Government's actions?
§ Sir Patrick Hannon
Does that statement mean that the Defence organisation of this country, with all its complexities and intricacies, affecting the welfare and safety of our people, could be divulged indiscriminately?
§ Mr. Bellenger
It does not mean anything of the sort, and I have not suggested that it does. I do not think that even the hon. Member for Norwood wanted to know the disposition of antiaircraft guns, their location, and so forth. What we are concerned with is whether the anti-aircraft guns and various other weapons of defence with which the Government say this country should be provided are being adequately provided. That is all the hon. Member for Norwood was concerned about and it is the only thing about which hon. Members are entitled to ask. Obviously, it is no part of our duty to go into matters which are for the General Staff, in regard to the placing of our defences. We must have sufficient confidence in the General Staff to know that they will deal with those questions, and we do not want to know about such matters. But when it comes to a question of the equipment of our Defence forces, a matter with which the Government are concerned, then, I maintain, it is our duty to have more than the meagre and indeed, sometimes—as hon. Members have suggested—inaccurate information which is given to the House by Ministers of the Crown.
Therefore the moral of these proceedings is that hon. Members should be more adequately equipped with information if they are to take an effective part in vital Debates which affect the safety of the 2225 country, a subject in which hon. Members of all parties are concerned. It is no monopoly of one party, although that if often assumed by the Government. It might be in the interests of the Government. It might be in the interests of the Government, and it would certainly be in the interests of hon. Members, if information could be provided for Members under suitable guarantees and in suitable circumstances, both on Defence and on foreign policy, so that hon. Members, who are a responsible body of individuals, can make up their minds on those subjects. Possibly then the Government might receive more co-operation in dealing with those matters, if they supplied us with this information.
§ 8.17 p.m.
§ Sir P. Hannon
I believe that this incident in relation to the Official Secrets Act has been magnified far too much. I believe the country outside is thinking much more of national problems affecting the nation's welfare than of this incident, which is occupying so much of the time of the House. To think that the question of safeguarding secrets affecting the defence of the country is to be subjected to the processes of Debate in this House, in the manner which we have seen during the last three or four days, will cause serious reflection among the people of the country. The privileges of this House are on a very high level and must always be guarded and preserved, but the defence organisation of the nation and the secrets relating to it, are of even greater importance for the welfare of our people and the maintenance of their liberties, than even the privileges of this House. I believe that in this Debate we have been making mountains out of molehills.
§ Sir P. Hannon
No, I mean that those who want to attack the Government are doing so. I have watched carefully the attitude of hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite on this matter. They say, "Here is an opportunity to shy some bricks at the Government." When the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander) was First Lord of the Admiralty there.vas no Minister whom I can remember during the years I have been in this House, who was more anxious to safeguard the interest of the State. But now he regards 2226 the incident as an opportunity of making an attack on the Government, [HON. MEMBERS: "He has not said a word."] I have watched the constant consultations which have been going on during the last few days on the Opposition Front Bench and those who know the right hon. Gentleman, and the faculty which he has of developing and expanding incidents to the largest possible measure, know that he was in his element yesterday, because he felt that something had been done to put the Government in a difficult position. I would only say that I hope that in the minds of the people in the country outside, this incident will be estimated in its true proportions and in its correct perspective. There are great problems to be solved in this country and I feel that the time of Parliament is being wasted in dealing with a question of this king instead of continuing to dispose of our ordinary business. Here we have had all these speeches made about this question—
§ Sir P. Hannon
Those of us who have been concerned for many years about the Defence problems of this country—and we do not owe much to the hon. Gentleman opposite in relation to the defence of this country—know that the preservation of the secrets of our Defence organisation is of more importance to the nation than even the Privileges of Parliament.
§ 8.22 p.m.
§ Mr. Kelly
The speech to which we have just listened, if it is read at all in the country, will amaze the people. It is interesting to hear that the hon. Member is one of those who have been endeavouring in recent years to preserve the secrets of Defence. That will surprise many people, and I hope his remark will be noted. We are also told by him that Parliament is wasting time in discussing this question. If so, who is responsible? We did not raise the question. It was raised by His Majesty's Government and, therefore, according to the hon. Member, His Majesty's Government are wasting the time of the House. The hon. Member referred to secrets affecting the safety of the country. I have not heard yet that the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Sandys) has made known any secret to anybody, except the 2227 Minister. Do I understand from the hon. Member that it is a danger to the safety of the country to make known to a Minister that there is something wanting in guns or munitions? Really, the hon. Member for Moseley (Sir P. Hannon) ought to think more than once before he delivers a speech such as that to which we have had to listen. He would do well to confine his attention to the manufacture of guns upon which he is engaged, and to leave the other side of the matter to other people. I hope he knows and that he will be able to tell us at any time what his particular people are engaged upon in this connection.
I want to know how far the Government intend to carry this matter. There are many Members here who have been engaged for years in the various Service departments. Recently I sat on a committee at the War Office under the chairmanship of the Financial Secretary. Information with regard to these guns, and with regard to much other material, is known to Members of the House. Many Members could tell His Majesty's Ministers of shortages which are dangerous to the country and also matters concerning the allocation of guns and other materials more important than guns. Are we to understand, that any hon. Member who possesses such information, without having had to go to an officer of His Majesty's forces for it, is liable to these proceedings. I do not say that the hon. Member for Norwood went to an officer for information. Probably he did not—he had no need to do so. The information could have been given to him by hon. Members on this side of the House.
§ Sir P. Hannon
On a point of Order. Do I understand that details of Defence preparations, guns and so forth, are being discussed in this Debate, or are we discussing the appointment of a Select Committee?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Dennis Herbert)
Yes. We are supposed to be discussing a Motion for the appointment of a Select Committee, but I do not think the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Kelly) has so far made it necessary for me to say he is out of order.
§ Mr. Kelly
I am not taking the matter any further. I am not surprised that the 2228 hon. Member for Moseley does not wish the subject to be discussed in view of his own statements made a little earlier. The suggestion is now made that someone has made known that there is a shortage of a particular type of guns. Am I to understand that if the hon. Member had pointed out that there was a shortage of machine tools or gun cotton, or that the Departments were not making enough preparation for the production of that particular product, he would be liable to be hauled up before some tribunal and have it hurled at him that he was acting against the interests of the country? Am I to understand that this concerns not only with regard to the 3.7-inch gun, but that if an hon. Member of this House happens to point out that the factories which the War Office, the Admiralty, and other Government Departments promised would be ready within two years are not to be ready within four years, that Member is to be hauled up? That has happened. The Minister for the Coordination of Defence had it placed before him, told to him and written to him, but at least he had a great deal more appreciation of the position than had the Secretary of State for War, and he did not call in the Attorney-General to cross-examine and threaten the particular Member who called his attention to the matter.
I hope this inquiry will take place, and will take place quickly, and that we can get to questions which are of real concern to the life of the people; and I hope that for once we shall have the assistance of the hon. Member for the Moseley Division of Birmingham. It will be new to think of him helping us with regard to the problems that bear so heavily upon the people of this country.
§ Sir P. Hannon
I do not know why the hon. Member says it will be new. I have been in this House for a good many years, and I have taken a share in every problem that has been discussed, and I do not know of any occasion on which I have not made my modest contribution to the Debate in the same direction as that in which the hon. Member is interested.
§ Mr. Kelly
Exactly. I have been saved the trouble of answering the hon. Member by the reference to the means test 2229 and other matters of that kind against the interests of this country supported by the hon. Member. I hope this inquiry will speedily take place and that the hon. Member for Norwood will be cleared of this charge that appears to be levelled against him at this time. I hope there will be freedom for Members of this House to be able to deal with all matters affecting the life of this country, and that there will be no threat of the Official Secrets Act being hurled against them if they attempt to do their duty to the people of the country.
§ 8.29 p.m.
§ Mr. Sexton
Statements were made by the Front Bench, and they were in a somewhat tabloid form, so that I do not think it would be wise to endeavour to criticise them, but I wonder whether it is conducive to the safety of the realm, of which we hear so much, if secrecy is to stifle investigation. It is far better that Ministers shauld be curbed than that a Member should lose his rights and privileges in this House. It seems to me very unfortunate that the Attorney-General undertook the task of cross-examination which he did, because I find that Section 8 of the principal Act, the Official Secrets Act, 1911, states that a prosecution under the Act can only be instituted by or with the consent of the Attorney-General himself. In the 1920 Act, which was an, amending Act, Section 6 states who are authorised to interrogate a person suspected of committing an offence. Those persons area chief officer of police, or…a superintendent or other officer of police not below the rank of inspector appointed by a chief officer for the purpose, or…any member of His Majesty's forces engaged on guard, sentry, patrol, or other similar duty.Therefore, I complain that under the Act of 1920 the only persons who can apply this test of questioning are those specified there, and that by implication those who are not mentioned there are not authorised to ask any questions at all; and in my submission the Attorney-General had no right to question the hon. Member on this matter or to bring to his notice that if he refused to answer, he might be guilty of a misdemeanour and imprisonment for a period not exceeding two years.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
I hope the hon. Member will bear in mind the request 2230 which Mr. Speaker made to the House as to matters which will he the subject of the inquiry by the Select Committee.
§ Mr. Sexton
This battle between various sides of the House and the Government side has been going on for years. We on this side thought that the conflict between the Commons and the Crown had been finally settled years ago, but now there seems to be another conflict arising between the Commons and the executive power of the Government. We, as individual Members who are not in the Government, are very jealous of our rights and privileges, because we are jealous of democratic rule. In these days of the decline of democracy we in this House must be ever on our guard against invasions, whether from persons or from Executives, because such invasions are really attacks on the ancient and precious rights which were won by our forefathers. Therefore, I say that there are still John Hampdens in this country, and there are still hon. Members of this House who are prepared to stand up boldly for the rights and privileges of the Members of this House. We on this side and, I believe, on all sides of the House are so jealous of those rights and privileges that we believe this inquiry to be a right and proper thing.
§ 8.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Alexander
I should like to say in the first instance, in speaking to this Motion, that the Opposition feel that they have considerable ground of complaint at the manner in which the later stages of this Debate have been conducted. When we are discussing the Privileges of Members of this House at large, it is just as well to remind the Government that the Opposition also have privileges in the arrangement of the conduct of Debate, and that it is nothing short of an insult on such an occasion for the Government, in their arrangements for the conduct of the Debate, to act as if they could close down the Debate without a word of consultation with the Oppostiion. If the Government think they can facilitate their business in that way, they are very much mistaken. This Debate would perhaps have been brought to a conclusion very much earlier if they had had the ordinary courtesy that is expected of a Government to engage in proper consultations with the Opposition. Now I come to the subject of this Debate, and in the first place—I 2231 see the Chief Whip has just entered the House, and I need not say what I have said again, because he will be able to read it in the OFFICIAL REPORT to-morrow, but I will just repeat that the Government will not in any sense get facilitation of business from this side unless they observe a reasonable and decent courtesy.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Captain Margesson)
The moment I realised that I had made an error—I admit that the error was mine—in not having had the full consultation that I usually have, I did the first thing which it was proper and right to do, and that was to offer a full apology to the right hon. Gentleman; and I regret that a mistake has been made.
§ Mr. Alexander
We accept the apology, but it does not mean that we do not make a public protest. We put it on record that we warn the Government that we are not going to have that kind of treatment. With regard to the matter we are discussing, I noticed that towards the end of his speech the Chancellor of the Exchequer referred to the position of the Attorney-General and said that he had little doubt, because of his knowledge of his colleague, that he would come out of this inquiry completely justified. If testimonials in advance are to be given, Members of the House, speaking in their individual capacity, might give a testimonial in the other direction. May I say about the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Sandys), who certainly does not represent my political views, that I am confident he will come out of this inquiry as completely justified as the Attorney-General. I look back with some pleasure to 30 years ago when I used to organise the political opposition to the father of the hon. Member. He himself sat in this House and rendered distinguished service to his party, and I am confident that his son, who is sitting in the House to-day and is the subject of much of this Debate, will, from what I know of him, come out of the inquiry with great satisfaction to the House and to himself.
I feel that the constitutional issues and the special issues which are likely to be raised in the inquiry were dealt with by the Leader of the Opposition better than by any other Member in the Debate to-day. It would not be reasonable to 2232 ask the House to listen again to some of the points that were covered in that extraordinarily lucid and comprehensive speech, but there are one or two things which need to be said from this side of the House. Those of my hon. Friends who have protested, in common with the hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Foot), about the present situation in relation to the Official Secrets Act have not driven home this point as it should be driven home, that if we consider what were the actual statements made to the House on Monday and again yesterday, and the statement to-day of the Secretary of State for War, we find that we have for the first time had it revealed to-day that the actual advice, or the initiation of the procedure, which has been followed in the case of the hon. Member for Norwood was made by the Prime Minister. Surely every private Member of the House has good reason to be extremely suspicious of the attitude of the whole of the Executive in this case, especially as in his statement to-day the Prime Minister himself has indicated that the general question of Privilege and other matters have been the subject by him of consultation with his colleagues. Therefore, instead of the situation being as we understood from the statement of the Attorney-General on the first day on which the matter was raised, that he was acting only under instructions from the Secretary of State for War, although of course that statement in itself is quite true, we now find that those instructions from the Secretary of State for War were made directly upon the initiative of the Prime Minister, and the Cabinet, the Executive of the day, have confirmed that action.
The Official Secrets Act has been on the Statute Book since 1911, and not once in 27 years has any action of this kind been taken by any executive Government against a Member of the House on such a ground. We are to infer from the speeches to-day that we are in a somewhat difficult period, a period when the House is asked to make provision from time to time for heavy expenditure in respect of armaments, aircraft defence, and the like. The period through which we are passing is not by any means the first period of the kind. It was the kind of thing that had to be discussed week after week in the period immediately preceding the outbreak of the War in 1914. The Leader of the Liberal party this afternoon made 2233 a brief reference to a passage which I had looked up this morning and which I will quote. What was the position in 1914? It was that the Official Secrets Act had been on the Statute Book for three years, and that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who addressed the House this afternoon, was in March, 1914, either Attorney-General or Home Secretary. He would, therefore, be cognisant of the position usually adopted by the Executive of that day in relation to the Official Secrets Act which they had put on the Statute Book three years before. Let me read a passage from the Debate on the Army Estimates on 24th March, 1914. The hon. Member who is speaking was afterwards Lord Brentford, one of the most loyal House of Commons men whom I remember in my experience of the House, and he put the position very plainly as to the line he took in regard to the preparations for war at that time. There was, he said, a very grave shortage in aircraft provisions, and in referring to a previous Debate, he stated:Let us see what we have really got for the five squadrons, or, rather, what we had within a week of 25th February this year. I will admit that the right hon. Gentleman has been getting more machines during the last fortnight, but when he made his statement he led the House absolutely to believe that we had 161 efficient machines and five squadrons on a war footing. I am going to give—I feel that I must give to the House—details as to the conditions of the five squaddrons. I have received the details from his own officers. I think it only fair to say that I have not spied on the right hon. Gentleman's machines this year. We had a controversy last year on this matter, and I admitted to the House perfectly frankly that I had sent people down to find out the condition of our aeroplanes, and I justified my position to the House. This year things are such that officers who are total strangers to myself have, without any communication from me, come to me and have written to me since 25th February with regard to the right hon. Gentleman's statement. I have been supplied with descriptions of the machines, and I propose to read them in order that the House may realise the condition of the squadrons within 10 days of the right hon. Gentleman's speech.''—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th March, 1914; col. 235, Vol. 50.]That, I suggest, is a typical excerpt from speeches criticising the Liberal Government of that day, of which the present Chancellor of the Exchequer was a member, as to the lack of the provision of armaments, in bulk or in quality. The right hon. Gentleman had had behind him for three years the main body of the legislation which is on the Statute Book 2234 for the safeguarding of official secrets, but there is no record that at any time action was taken of the kind which is now taken, apparently, on the advice of the Prime Minister and with the full support of the Executive, against the hon. Member for Norwood.
While this is a matter for all Members of the House to consider in relation to Privilege, I cannot help feeling that there has been more in this case than the mere point put by the Secretary of State for War about safeguarding a secret in a particular document. I think there has been a great deal more of resentment in the action which he has taken, because of the line of criticism adopted in the last few weeks towards his public statements, both inside and outside the House, in relation to the progress of rearmament. I could quote a whole lot of those speeches, but I will mention only this one. It was thought so much of that the "Times," on 16th May, printed it with the heading:Explanation of A.A. defences. Men, guns and lights.It was an almost bombastic defence of the marvellous way in which the situation was being changed since the present Secretary of State for War had been in office, and from the wording of it one would imagine that there was no immediate difficulty with regard to anti-aircraft defence. I will quote one sentence from the middle of it:They had started to reinforce those 3-inch guns in appropriate districts with 3.7 guns. A little over a year ago the final development of the 3.7 gun had not been approved, yet although the difficulties of manufacture were well known production was in ecess of any estimates that he had seen reported.That was being done with the idea, as was suggested by the right hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill), of misleading the British public into a false sense of security, and we cannot quite get away from the feeling that the action which has been taken by the Secretary of State for War against a member of his own party, on the advice of the Prime Minister—
§ Mr. Alexander
—has been resentment at the questions and general criticism levied at the Secretary of State for War, who ought to be here now listening to what I have to say. After the exchanges in the Debate to-night between the hon. 2235 Member for Norwood and the Secretary of State for War it is necessary for us to remind the House of the position of the Secretary of State. I know that he is very able in many ways; one of the principal is his great flair for publicity. I have no doubt at all that when there has been anything which could be acclaimed as a success on his part nobody has been so able as he in making the fullest possible broadcast of the facts, but there is always the Ganger that the reflex may be that if you make a failure you can be equally clever, and perhaps equally unscrupulous, m the steps you take to cover up the failure. That is the feeling which has been left in the minds of many of us who have listened to the various steps taken—the requests to the Speaker, the explanations, the answers—by Ministers on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.
The actual facts of the case will be dealt with by the Select Committee, and I do not need to say anything about them, but I must say that when I listened to the interjections by the Attorney-General at an earlier stage to-night and during the speech of the hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Foot) I felt there was a growing rather than a lessening doubt in the minds of hon. Members as to what was the true position of the Attorney-General in this matter. The doubt is certainly not got over by the generous tribute which the Chancellor was good enough to pay to his right hon. and learned colleague; he has been loyal to him and given him a good pat on the back; but when one makes a comparison of the statement of the Attorney-General to the House the other day with what he has said to-night it seems to me that he is shifting about from point to point so that he cannot be fastened down, as it were. I cannot believe that anybody will deny that in this situation, with the full authority of the leader of the Executive Government, through the channel of the Secretary of State for War, the Attorney-General, who ought to have been in a completely judicial position, was sent to the hon. Member for Norwood to put, as he said, the legal position before him. What for? [Interruption.] Well, I do not think the hon. Member for Norwood would be so easily frightened. It was to persuade him by a sort of explanation of the legal position to realise that under the Act there 2236 would be grave danger if actual help were not given by the hon. Member by disclosing the source of the information which he had given.
That is a most reprehensible position, and whatever comes out of the Committee of Inquiry about the facts of the case on which the Government took action we have to stand fast for the hardly won rights and privileges of the Members of this House. The matter upon which the Committee of Privileges has reported today we cannot debate further to-night, but I think an exceedingly difficult position has arisen when we find that a military court of inquiry has been sitting this day upon the details, the facts, of a case which the High Court of Parliament has referred to its own Select Committee, and that we ought not at any time to have tolerated that position. If in the present circumstances the Executive Government of the day show a tendency to favour this policy, this use of the Official Secrets Act and we as a House give into that, what will become of the wider precious element of political liberty of the individual citizen? Some people have been inclined to apologise for the amount of privilege that hon. Members of this House claim, but what is often forgotten, it seemed to me as the Debate went on, is that this House has the right, when necessary, not only to punish its own Members, but to do so sometimes more severely than in a court of law.
That very privilege of the Members of this House is the best guarantee for the individual freedom, in the political sense, of our wider citizenship. Every time we receive a message from the other place, through the instrumentality of the visit of Black Rod, those doors are slammed in the face of the messenger, who comes with a Message from the Crown, and we demonstrate in that way the Sovereignty of the people over the Sovereignty of the Crown. That does not mean that we do not acknowledge the Sovereignty of the constitutional Monarch. It means that, in the light of our constitution and of our history, we refuse to give up any of the rights of the common people. We ought never, in the course of the development of the history of this House, concede to the Executive Government what we are not, and have not been for hundreds of years, prepared to concede to the Sovereignty of the Monarch.
That a Select Committee be appointed to enquire into the substance of the statement made on 27th June in this House by the hon. Member for Norwood and the action of the Ministers concerned, and generally into the question of the applicability of the Official Secrets Acts to Members of this House in the discharge of their Parliamentary duties.
§ Committee nominated of: Mr. Assheton, Colonel Clifton Brown, Mr. Wedgwood Benn, Mr. Maxwell Fyfe, Sir John Gilmour, Mr. Kingsley Griffith, Mr. Mabane, Mr. Maxton, Mr. Peake, Mr. Petherick, Sir Assheton Pownall, Mr. Raikes, Mr. Lees-Smith, and Mr. Walk-den.
That the Committee have power to send for persons, papers, and records.
That Seven be the quorum."—(The Prime Minister.)