HC Deb 19 December 1941 vol 376 cc2246-50
Commander Sir Archibald Southby

I ask for your consideration, Mr. Speaker, of a suggestion relative to Secret Sessions. Would it not be desirable that there should be a record taken by an appropriate number of Official Reporters, sworn to secrecy, of the proceedings of Secret Sessions, and that the record made should remain in your custody and be available to Members of the House of Commons if they desired to refer to it, under conditions of secrecy, of course? I bring this suggestion to your notice because I understand it is the practice that, for secret Government conferences at the present time, there is a note taken which is kept in secret custody.

Further, I understood, as I suppose most hon. Members understood, that it was open to a Member who was present at a Secret Session to discuss what had occurred at that Secret Session with another hon. Member who did not happen to be present. I understand now that that is not so, that it is not strictly in order for a Member who was present to discuss what has taken place with another Member who was not. It is important that Members of Parliament and members of the Government who may perhaps, for one reason or another, not be able to be present at Secret Sessions should have an accurate account of what occurred. At present, they must rely upon a possibly incomplete report of what has been remembered by a Minister who has been in the House. No written report may be made by any Member of this House. It is obviously essential that absent Cabinet Ministers, or Members of the Government, should have an accurate report of what took place. Would it not be possible for this report to be taken, for it to remain in your custody, and for it to be available for reference at any time, under conditions of secrecy?

Mr. Thorne

Is it true that any Member takes either a longhand note or a shorthand note for anyone's information?

Mr. Speaker

It is not an accredited report of the Debate. With regard to the question raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Epsom (Sir A. Southby), this matter of Secret Sessions was fully debated in the House some time ago, and most of these questions were then considered by the House. If the hon. and gallant Member asks my opinion, I should say that a Secret Session ought to be really secret. My experience of secrets is that the fewer loopholes there are, the better, and the more likely the matters are to remain secret. As regards the actual procedure which the hon. and gallant Member suggests, that is not for me but for the House to decide; and it is certainly not a matter which the House could decide on the spur of the moment.

Sir A. Southby

In order to clear up doubts, in my own mind, at any rate, can you say whether it is in order for a Member who was present to discuss what happened with another Member who was not present? That is very important.

Mr. Speaker

If I remember accurately, that question was discussed when the subject was raised in the House previously, and I believe that it was understood that a Member should not discuss what happened.

Sir A. Southby

With great respect, does that not create a position of great difficulty for Members of the Government, who might, for reasons which they were unable to control, be absent from a Secret Session at which matters were discussed of which it might be essential that they should be told? Under that Ruling, it would not be in order for anything which took place to be reported to an absent member of the Government.

Mr. Maxton

I understand, Sir, that you have now the responsibility of making some record of the proceedings at a Secret Session of the House, and of making some report. Is there any limit to the extent of that report which you may make on the proceedings?

Mr. Speaker

It has been decided that on special occasions it is my duty to make a special report, after consultation with certain Members of the House. I am reminded that that is so in the case of a Division taking place in Secret Session. The House has put upon me the burden of making a statement as to what the Division was about.

Sir Henry Morris-Jones

When we discussed the whole basis of Secret Sessions two years ago, in the earlier stages of the war, you gave a Ruling, Sir, that it was quite competent for a Member of this House to disclose to another Member what had taken place at a Secret Sitting. If that is not the position, I see great difficulties. If the Prime Minister cannot attend to-day, how will the Lord Privy Seal inform him of what took place? Perhaps you would be good enough to give a definite Ruling on that matter?

Mr. Leslie Boyce

Would it be possible, on an important occasion like this, for those Front Bench statesmen who are making references to what we are discussing to speak a little louder, as we cannot hear anything that they say?

Mr. Speaker

There appears to be a record of what I said on 12th December, 1939, on the question of Secret Sessions. The question was then put to me: What would be the position of a Member who was present in the House if he conversed with a Member who was not present in a tone of voice loud enough to be heard by somebody else?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th December, 1939; col. 1033, Vol. 355.] The answer was that that was a question which I could not answer.

Major Vyvyan Adams

This question is very important to some of us who cannot be here frequently nowadays. May I be informed whether it is in order for a Member who was present at a Secret Session to discuss what has passed with a Member who was not present? As far as I recollect, Sir, you gave a further Ruling on that occasion that it was in order for a Member of this House to discuss with a Member of the other House what had passed during a Secret Session of the House of Commons. That being so, I should have thought that there was certainly Privilege existing in a Member who had been present to reveal privately to another Member who had not been present what had passed in the course of a Secret Session.

Mr. Speaker

The Member has a right to be present, but he does not exercise that right, and is not present. The hon. and gallant Member asks me whether an hon. Member who was present could discuss what took place with another Member who was not present. I said that I thought that the fewer loopholes there were for making a Secret Session not secret, the better. Personally, I should say that it would be much better that we should not discuss what took place at a Secret Session with anyone who was not present, although he might be, a Member of this House.

The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. Attlee)

I understood, from our former discussions on this subject, that the essential point was to keep these matters secret to Members of this House, as against members of the general public, and that they were not secret between Members of the House, provided that they took all precautions to ensure that no one else should hear them; because it is impossible at times for Members of the Government to be present, and, for the effect of the Debate to be apprehended by Ministers, and the points raised to be brought before them, it is essential that there should be communication between Ministers on these subjects. I submit, therefore, that, subject to all proper precautions, it should be held that it is open to Members to discuss these matters among themselves, and to tell other Members what has taken place.

Sir A. Southby

Might I ask my right hon. Friend whether, in view of Mr. Speaker's Ruling, the Government would give consideration to the proposal that there should be a shorthand note taken and kept in secret? A very important point arises. It is essential that absent members of the Government should have an accurate account of what happens in Secret Session, and in no other way can they get it.

Mr. Granville

In view of the fact that we are having a very important Debate, covering a number of subjects and suggestions for the various Service Ministers, will a member of the War Cabinet be here to take an accurate note and to report what has happened to Ministers who may not be present?

Mr. R. C. Morrison

Do all these preliminaries mean that something secret is going to be said in a Secret Session?

Rear-Admiral Beamish

I want to ask this question, Mr. Speaker. I understand that communications should not take place between Members who are present at a Secret Session in the Chamber and those who are not.

Hon. Members


Rear-Admiral Beamish

Is not that your Ruling, Sir, as it stands?

Mr. Speaker

I was asked my opinion on this matter, and I gave it. I understand that it is certainly the wish of the House that Members who have not been present can discuss what took place with Members who have been present. If that is the wish of the House, I have no objection.

Major Adams

This is a different point, Mr. Speaker. Is your earlier Ruling confirmed or cancelled that Members of this House who are present at a Secret Session enjoy the Privilege of discussing that which takes place with Members of another place?

Mr. Speaker

That is enlarging the subject. I think we had better leave it at that.

Mr. Mander

Does not it really follow from what the Lord Privy Seal said just now that, if members of the Government who are in another place are to be informed of what takes place in Secret Session, permission must be granted for communication between Members of this House and Members of another place?

Mr. Speaker

I am quite agreeable that the House should have its own way in this matter.