HC Deb 18 December 1941 vol 376 cc2102-12
Mr. Pethick-Lawrence (Edinburgh, East)

Can the Lord Privy Seal now announce the length of the Christmas Recess and the Business to be considered when the House meets again?

Mr. Attlee

We propose that the House should meet again after the Christmas Recess on Tuesday, 20th January. I shall move the Motion at a later stage in our proceedings to-day.

The Business for the first week after the Christmas Recess will be as follows:

First Sitting Day—Committee and remaining stages of the Education (Scotland) Bill; Second Reading of the War Orphans Bill, India (Federal Court Judges) Bill and the Patents and Designs Bill, both of which come from another place, and Committee stage of any necessary Money Resolutions.

Should a statement on the war situation be necessary, the Business could be rearranged to permit of this on the first Sitting Day.

Second Sitting Day—Second Reading of the Landlord and Tenant (Requistioned Land) Bill and Committee stage of the necessary Money Resolution.

Third Sitting Day—Second Reading of the Sugar Industry Bill, if reported upon by the Examiners, and Committee stage of the necessary Money Resolution.

Mr. Shinwell

Do I understand that the Lord Privy Seal proposes to move the Adjournment to communicate the length of the Recess in Public Session?

Sir Percy Harris (Bethnal Green, South-West)

Will the Lord Privy Seal give an undertaking on behalf of the Government that, if there is any serious fresh development in the war situation, the House will be called together without delay before the date mentioned?

Mr. Attlee

Certainly, Sir. I was proposing to state that on moving the Motion, but if I do it now, it will be as well. Of course, we now have the power to recall the House, and my right hon. Friend will realise that it is only a fortnight ago since we did recall the House at very short notice, and it is the intention of the Government, should the occasion require that the House should be summoned, to do it again.

Mr. A. Bevan (Ebbw Vale)

Will there be an opportunity given to the House to debate the Motion which the right hon. Gentleman intends to move?

Mr. Attlee

I propose to move it later.

Commander Sir Archibald Southby (Epsom)

In view of existing circumstances will the Lord Privy Seal consider the advisability of the House being called back earlier, and then, if necessary, it could go into Recess again until the date he has mentioned?

Mr. Gallacher (Fife, West)

Is not the Lord Privy Seal aware of the fact that there are serious fresh developments every day and that Parliament should be meeting every day?

Mr. Stokes (Ipswich)

May I ask the Lord Privy Seal whether, in view of the grave anxiety felt by the country as a result of the statement of the Prime Minister last week, he will reconsider the decision to hold the Debate in secret at the next Sitting and hold it in public instead?

Mr. Attlee

I think that the House agreed when the suggestion was put before them that there should be a Secret Session, and I do not think that it would be useful or advisable to discuss matters of that kind in public.

Mr. Stokes

Does the Lord Privy Seal recall that on 15th May this year the Prime Minister said he would not ask the House to go into Secret Session except when the Government had a statement of great importance to make? I understand that there is to be no statement on the next Sitting Day and therefore what is the necessity for a Secret Session?

Sir Irving Albery (Gravesend)

I wish to ask whether the Government do now assume the responsibility for recommending a Secret Session, and whether there is any use at all in the public interest in holding a Secret Session unless the Government have something to communicate to the House of such a nature that it cannot be communicated in public?

Captain Cunningham-Reid

In view of the fact that the Prime Minister said that this House is a recognised addition to the defences of Britain and the country is safer when the House is sitting, how can the Lord Privy Seal reconcile that statement with the fact that since August last including the coming Christmas holiday, the House will have been sent away on four different occasions for long periods?

Mr. Attlee

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did not say that the safety of the country would be helped by Parliament sitting the whole time without Recess. Obviously, the hon. and gallant Member knows that, when the House is up, it is not a holiday for Ministers and that it is not a holiday for most hon. Members either. It is very unfortunate to suggest that it is a holiday. The work of government is very heavy both for Ministers and for Members, and it is necessary to keep in touch with the country and to get on with the work of the war. Therefore, I think there is nothing whatever to be said on the Motion to be put down on the statement of the Prime Minister. In answer to the question put by my hon. Friend, the Government are always anxious to give the House the fullest opportunity of discussing any subject, and if it is represented to the Government that any Members wish to raise matters which they themselves realise are matters which should be raised in Secret Session, the Government will accede to their request, and I think that is a reasonable thing to do.

Sir A. Southby

May I have an answer to my question?

Commander Bower

The right hon. Gentleman said that there might be a statement on the War Situation, and can the House and the country have an assurance that if that statement is made it will be made on the Adjournment or on some Motion before the House in order that a Debate may take place?

Mr. Attlee

That is a matter for consideration in each particular instance, but, broadly speaking, the view is that, when there is a statement made, it should be made on the Adjournment. That did not happen the other day because of the rush of business which had to come before the House.

Mr. Stokes

Can the Lord Privy Seal say through what channels it was represented that the Debate should take place in secret at the next Sitting?

Mr. Attlee

It was represented by various Members and then, when I made a statement to that effect in the House, it seemed to me to meet with general acceptance.

Sir I. Albery

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether when he gained that impression it did not arise out of the fact that this House believed that the Government had something to communicate which should be communicated in secret?

Mr. Attlee

I do not know whether the hon. Member was present at the time, but what was said arose out of the statement which had been made and on which hon. Members wished to have a Debate.

Mr. Granville

According to the newspapers and to statements by right hon. Gentlemen there are tremendous and vitally important talks going on which will affect the whole direction and strategy of the war, and will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the House of Commons will not have to wait until 20th January before His Majesty's Government can make any statement that they can make to the people of this country on what has taken place?

Mr. Attlee

Whenever it is necessary a statement will be made. I was dealing merely with the question of the Debate at the next Sitting on which, I understand, Members have something to say which they intend to say in Secret Session. That does not in any way prevent a statement being made to the country, whether in this House or anywhere else, when it is necessary.

Sir A. Southby

May I have an answer to my question?

Mr. Speaker rose

Mr. Attlee

I beg to move, That this House at its rising upon the next Sitting Day do adjourn till Tuesday, 20th January, 1942.

Mr. Shinwell

I beg to move to leave out "Tuesday 20th," and to insert "Thursday 8th."

I believe that to be a reasonable proposal, and it will be a reasonable Recess. We need not discuss—this would not be the appropriate occasion to do so—the gravity of the situation or the new framework in which the war has to be conducted, but it must be obvious to every hon. Member that the new situation demands the closest attention of all hon. Members and the closest contact between this House and the Executive. It is true that the power is vested in you, Mr. Speaker, and the Government, or in you acting in understanding with the Government, to recall the House at any time but that does not seem to be fully satisfactory. On the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal as to the need for Members consulting with their constituents, I would venture the opinion that hon. Members will always consult with their constituents when it is necessary, at any time.

I have but one further point to make. It is maintained from time to time by the Government that it is essential to provide right hon. Gentlemen opposite with opportunities of thinking things out without being hard pressed by hon. Members at Question Time and in Debate. That is an argument which has been heard repeatedly in this House. Sir, we can only judge by results. Right hon. Gentlemen opposite were permitted a fairly long Recess on the last occasion when the House adjourned over a period and they had an opportunity then of thinking things out. We now discover—I cannot go into the matter in any detail—that there was inadequate preparation in the Far East. If that is the result of a prolonged Recess and thinking things out, it would, in my judgment, be infinitely preferable for hon. Members to maintain the closest contact with the Executive from day to day. I believe that some Recess is necessary. I believe, however, that a Recess of the duration which I have ventured to suggest is adequate for our purpose—adequate for the purposes of hon. Members and adequate for the purposes of right hon. Gentleman opposite. I do not propose to pursue the matter further, except to say that it is my intention, if hon. Members will support me, to Divide the House on this issue.

Sir John Wardlaw-Milne (Kidderminster)

I hope the Government will seriously consider accepting this Amendment. The situation in the country is such that I think it is in the interests of the Government themselves to accept an Amendment of this kind and give the House an opportunity of hearing any statement that may be necessary. I can hardly agree that in present circumstances a statement of some kind will not be necessary before the date which has been suggested and if, in fact, the Government find and the House of Commons is satisfied that nothing more is required than a formal meeting of the House on the earlier day, the House could then adjourn until the date which is indicated in the Motion. But I would impress upon the Government a fact with which I am not sure we are all fully conversant, namely, that there is deep interest in the country in this matter at the present time. It is easy to say that events at the moment are not going well, but that in a war of this kind there must be occasions when that will happen. Nobody will be surprised at ups and downs in our fortunes in a war of this magnitude, but in view of what has been said by Ministers themselves in this House, and in view of what has been stated by the Commander-in-Chief and others in the Far East regarding our readiness to meet possible enemies there, we cannot be surprised to find that the country is deeply disturbed. I suggest that it is in the interests of the Government themselves to accept the Amendment, and to give the House an opportunity of coming together. We should let the country know that the House is anxious to meet to carry out its duties, to follow the course of the war closely and to give what assistance it can.

Sir P. Harris

The Government will agree that there is no particular merit in the date in the Motion. Nor is there any particular merit in the date in the Amendment. Speaking for myself, I have a shrewd suspicion that it may be found necessary for us to meet even earlier than that. Things are moving very fast and there is almost bound to be a new development of some kind out in the Far. East which will involve summoning the House even before the date suggested in the Amendment. Earlier I put a supplementary question to the right hon. Gentleman the Lord Privy Seal. It was not put with the idea of helping the Government out of a difficulty but I would repeat the suggestion if the Government gave the House a definite assurance that, should anything serious transpire, the House would be called together at once, that might meet the situation. [HON. MEMBERS: "NO."] That is my personal view. I am not satisfied any more than any other hon. Members that the House should be put off until the date in the Motion but I repeat that if the Government gave a solemn undertaking that should there be any serious new development in the war in any part of the world, they would summon the House at once, that would probably meet the case.

Mr. Hore-Belisha (Devonport)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Sir J. Wardlaw-Milne), I address an appeal to the Government with complete good-will. There is a distinct difference between allowing Parliament to be called together at the behest of the Executive and allowing Parliament to remain in Session as of right. I believe that this Motion was conceived and decided upon in circumstances that were quite different from those which prevail to-day. I believe that, in normal circumstances, the House would have acquiesced in this Motion. But none of us can deny that the Empire is more closely encompassed by perils to-day than ever before in its history, and I do believe that it will create a false impression throughout the world if this Motion is carried in its present form. You cannot write Parliament off at a moment of great urgency, as if its remaining in Session did not matter, and as if it had nothing to contribute. Nor do I think it fair to deprive us of the opportunity of consultation. I am absolutely convinced that if any Minister were to put himself outside the contacts of the Front Bench and were to stand in this place from which I speak, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister used to do, he would see the matter in the light in which I am endeavouring to put it.

I believe that it is in the interests of the Government themselves to concede this Amendment and that it would be most embarrassing to the House if we had to divide upon it. I do ask the Government to refrain from putting the House in that position. They have nothing to lose by calling the House together for one day on the date mentioned in the Amendment, which is all that the Amendment implies. As my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) has said, it is very probable, or at least distinctly possible, in present contingencies, that we may have to come together before that date—it may be even on Christmas Day itself. Therefore, I would appeal to the Government to accept the Amendment on the understanding that, if nothing of importance has occurred by the date in the Amendment. we can then adjourn if necessary to the date mentioned in the Motion. But I feel that it will be injurious to the national interest to allow a Motion of this kind to be passed in present circumstances leaving it in the hands of the Executive to decide whether or not Parliament is to be called together.

Sir William Davison (Kensington, South)

I would like to reinforce the appeal which has been made to the Government to give consideration to the need for a Sitting of the House on a date earlier than that in the Motion. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Devonport (Mr. HoreBelisha) that the House will be placed in an embarrassing position if we have to vote on this question. The Prime Minister has repeatedly told the House of his conviction that it was of great assistance to the Government in times of peril to have the House of Commons in Session because it enabled the Government to hear the views expressed by the House of Commons as representing all shades of thought in the country. I think the Government do not realise that the country, as a whole, did receive a great shock when the people heard, through the Press, of recent events, especially in the Far East. There is also the great campaign that is being waged in Northern Africa. The country is taking a vital and urgent interest in all these matters and in my view it will not be in the best interests of Parliament or of democracy, and it will certainly not be in the interests of the Government if we are told that our advice, in a time of great urgency like this, is not wanted by the Government, and adjourn for such a long period as that suggested by the Motion without being called together in the normal way to be told the result of the epoch-making events now taking place and without an opportunity for the House of Commons to tell the Government what their feelings are on these matters.

Mr. Erskine Hill (Edinburgh, North)

I hope the Government will take into consideration, and give effect to, what I believe to be the general wishes of the House. There is very real anxiety in the House, and who can wonder? There is, too, real anxiety in the country, and although on other occasions I should have spoken to the opposite effect—because I think there is something to be said for a Parliamentary Recess for a considerable time—on this occasion I should like to add my voice to those who have spoken before me.

Commander Bower (Cleveland)

May I briefly add my plea to those which have already been made by other hon. Members? I feel that some Members of the Government are, perhaps, a little bit out of touch with the feeling in the country. After all, we go to our constituencies almost every week-end, and we are all in touch with opinion. I have never known the public in my constituency so stirred or so anxious, and in many ways so ill-informed, as it is now. We cannot say much and the Government cannot say much, but they will have to do so soon. If this House has to go away for so long a time, as if Parliament did not matter, that would be yet one more sign of the abdication of Parliament—an abdication which has become more visible in more ways than one. Parliament must assert itself, and I say that in no hostile manner, because I am a supporter of the Government. Although I am sometimes one of their critics, I try to be helpful. I think the views of the House to-day are absolutely unanimous.

Mr. Attlee

The Government are always desirous of meeting the House on these matters, and I strongly resent the suggestion made by the hon. and gallant Member for Cleveland (Commander Bower) that this House has become weaker through the war. I think it has become stronger, even more so than in any other period. The Government only desire to meet the House on this point. They perfectly well recognise that there is anxiety, and I regret that my hon. Friend the Member for Seaham (Mr. Shinwell), in the course of his remarks, should have made a statement, with regard to unpreparedness, that cannot be now answered, but the Government are perfectly willing to accede to the requests to meet on the date suggested in the Amendment, if that is the general wish. That does not mean that if the need arises, we shall not meet earlier. It is always difficult to pick on a particular date, early or late, but I think the House will agree that the Government, on other occasions when there has been the need for the House to meet, have shown a readiness to call Members together at once. That does not spring from feelings of apprehension in the House. As a matter of fact, the callings of the House earlier have been done by the Government because they realised that the House ought to be called together—as happened a fortnight ago. As I have said, I am quite willing, on behalf of the Government, to accept the Amendment and to meet on the new date suggested. Then we can see how the situation has gone and is going, and for how long it is necessary to sit.

Mr. McNeil (Greenock)

If the necessity arises for calling the House together, will my right hon. Friend give such notice as will enable Scottish Members to attend? I quite appreciate the difficulty, but the last time it became necessary to recall the House it was physically impossible for any of the Scottish Members to be present.

Mr. Attlee

Hon. Members will have notice of the new date, but, of course, we have no control over events. We cannot ask for notice from Hitler or the Japanese before they invade a country. The whole point of this Amendment is that the House must be called together at the earliest possible moment. One cannot delay on such occasions. I regret the inconvenience to some Members, but I think that is the view of the House.

Mr. R. J. Taylor (Morpeth)

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that on the last occasion notice of the recalling of the House was given by the B.B.C. on the 12 midnight news that the House was to meet the following afternoon. Would it not be possible, even in the circum- stances which he has mentioned, to give notice on the six o'clock news, because some people go to bed before midnight? If we had notice through the six o'clock news, we could make arrangements to travel next morning.

Mr. Attlee

I must point out to my hon. Friend that on the last occasion the event did not become known to us until after the six o'clock news.

Mr. Magnay (Gateshead)

Could there not be an understanding that we should have notice by telegram? On the last occasion I heard the midnight news, but it was only because I was seeking relief from jazz that I happened to be listening to the wireless. I should not have had it on except for that. I suggest that it is of national importance that every Member should have notice by telegram.

Amendment agreed to.

Question, as amended, agreed to.

Resolved, That this House, at its rising upon the next Sitting Day, do adjourn till Thursday, 8th January.