HC Deb 19 December 1941 vol 376 cc2242-6
The Secretary of State for War (Captain Margesson)

On Wednesday evening I became aware that there was a Question on the Order Paper for answer on the first Sitting Day after 21st December which reflected upon the conduct of an officer serving under my authority: [To ask the Secretary of State for War, whether he is aware that Mrs. Knox, Commandant of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, recently addressed 14 Auxiliary Territorial Service officers in Edinburgh; that she was insulting in her attitude; that, when officers asked questions, they were told to shut up; and what disciplinary steps he proposes to take.] I am aware that it is contrary to the practice of this House to anticipate Answers to Questions which may be put by hon. Members, and I therefore communicated with the hon. Member for Dumbartonshire (Mr. McKinlay) who had put this particular Question on the Paper, and he has been good enough to withdraw it, thus enabling me to make a statement this morning. I took the view that a charge of this sort ought to be answered immediately, and that it is not only fair to the officer concerned, but, what is more important, necessary in the interest of the magnificent Service of which Mrs. Knox is the Director, that the matter should be disposed of before the Recess.

It is, in my view, contrary to the general interest that individual officers in the employment of the State should be pilloried by name without the opportunity of defending themselves or of being defended. I would remind the House that it is open to the Press to give publicity to such charges once a Question appears on the Order Paper. In this case wide publicity has been given to this Question. I desire to say with all the emphasis at my command that I have the fullest confidence in the Director of the Auxiliary Territorial Service and that I accept, without qualification, her personal assurance that the words alleged to have been used were not, to the best of her recollection, ever used.

After what I have said I do not believe that any sensible person will attach the least importance to a story of this kind. I therefore do not propose to inquire into the question whether the words were actually used, or into any other aspect of the hon. Member's Question, nor do I intend to take any disciplinary action against the Director herself or against the officers, who must, I am sure, have been the unwilling source of this frivolous allegation.

Sir Patrick Hannon

May I ask whether the time has not come when these malign rumours against the A.T.S. should be squelched once and for all?

Mrs. Tate

Is the right hon. and gallant Gentleman aware that all those interested in the women's Services will be deeply grateful for his prompt action in revealing the truth regarding these allegations? Also, anyone who has had dealings with Mrs. Knox will realise immediately that it is quite impossible that she should, under any circumstances, be insulting or rude.

Mr. Shinwell

Without casting any reflection on the Commandant referred to, or the Services generally, or the officers who are alleged to be implicated in this matter, do I understand from what the right hon. and gallant Gentleman said, that on no occasion will he consider a statement which is made reflecting on the conduct of officers under his command, that any allegation of that kind will not receive his consideration?

Captain Margesson

Most certainly not. I should certainly consider any reflection made, examine it from every angle, and satisfy myself with regard to it.

Mr. Rhys Davies

Did the right hon. and gallant Gentleman give notice to the hon. Member who put down the Question?

Captain Margesson

I said so.

Mr. Silverman

Would the right hon. and gallant Gentleman not agree that the very worst way to kill an unfounded rumour is to refuse to inquire into a specific allegation merely on the assurance of the person concerned that, to the best of her recollection, those words were not used?

Captain Margesson

I have said that I am completely satisfied with the assurance given.

Mr. Silverman

The question is not whether the right hon. and gallant Gentleman is perfectly satisfied but whether everyone else is. Does he realise that before the Question was put down it is probable that someone made that allegation and believed it to be true? If he now accepts, without evidence, someone's assurance to the contrary, that is casting a reflection on others, which is bound to have a very bad effect in the Force itself.

Captain Margesson

The hon. Member will see that it is not a substantiated charge. It is merely repeating in the form of a Question something that has been said.

Mr. Silverman

The question is whether it was said or not.

Captain Strickland

On a point of Order. Seeing that Members of this House are supposed to have in their possession enough information to warrant the putting down of a Question, may I ask you, Sir, whether there is any means of calling upon any Member of this House to vouch, in front of a Committee or otherwise, for his reasons or grounds for supposing such a Question to be true?

Mr. Speaker

I have often been asked, not exactly that question, but about allegations being made in Questions. I have always maintained that the Rule is, that any Member putting a Question which contains allegations should satisfy himself of and take the responsibility for the accuracy of his charge. I do not think I can go further that that.

Mr. Garro Jones

On that point of Order. May I put before you, Sir, this aspect of the matter? The Answer which the Secretary of State for War has just given casts, by implication, a reflection upon the hon. Member who put this Question on the Paper. Therefore, I should like to ask whether the right hon. and gallant Gentleman has acquainted himself with the grounds upon which the hon. Member acted, or whether he has merely taken, as against the hon. Member's Question, the ex-parte assurance of the officer against whom the charge is made?

Captain Margesson

I have also seen the record of the meeting to which I believe this refers. There is no suggestion in that record that those words were used.

Mr. Molson

On a point of Order. On an occasion like this is it not the duty of the hon. Member who has put down a Question of this kind to attend the House when the matter is under discussion?

Mr. Speaker

The Question is down for the first Sitting of the House after 21st December, not for to-day.

Mr. Silverman

On a point of Order. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman has said he has seen the record of the meeting. Is not that now a document which the House is entitled to have?

Mr. Gallacher

Further to the point of Order. A very serious allegation has been made against the Commandant of the A.T.S., and in reply to that very serious allegation the Secretary of State has made a serious allegation against the Member of this House responsible for the Question. I ask whether it is not absolutely essential that an inquiry of some kind should take place, in order to exonerate either the hon. Member or the Commandant of the A.T.S.?

Mr. Speaker

That is not a question for me to answer.

Dr. Russell Thomas

Further to the point of Order. May I ask whether the Minister is aware that he has produced no more evidence than the hon. Member who put down the Question?