HC Deb 27 May 1941 vol 371 cc1719-20
Mr. Rhys Davies

I wish to ask for your guidance, Mr. Speaker, on a matter which, I think, affects the Privileges of the House. Last Wednesday the House went into Secret Session, and in the newspaper called the "Observer," dated Sunday, 25th May, there is an article entitled "Parliament and the War Output." I venture to suggest that, although the article merely purports to give a report, in brief form, of our proceedings, to do even that may affect the Privileges of the House.

The Clerk (Sir Gilbert Campion) read the article complained of as followeth

Without divulging anything that passed behind closed doors, one can say that Members generally were well satisfied with the progress reported by Sir Andrew Duncan. He gave a clear and convincing account of his work at the Ministry of Supply, impressed even those who came to criticise and undoubtedly heightened his prestige. Production of material of all kinds has, in fact, increased by leaps and bounds, and still is increasing. Last quarter the number of tanks and guns delivered was half as great again as in the preceding quarter. The rate of increase cannot be maintained at this level, but a steady rise in output is looked for from quarter to quarter. In recent months the training schemes have supplied factories both old and new with the personnel needed and the number of new factories coming into production is considerable. Sometimes one hears people ask when the maximum production will be reached. Sir Andrew Duncan does not admit a maximum. He believes there is scarcely a limit to expansion—by new factories, additional labour and by getting a little more out of the machines. Some machines are being run at 40 and even 50 per cent. above their rated capacity, but this can be done safely only under expert guidance to ensure that a machine shall not be strained to a point at which it will break down.

Mr. Speaker

This is a novel subject of complaint which does not appear to have arisen in connection with any of the Secret Sittings held during the last war. In the absence of any guidance from precedent, I must base myself upon Rules which the House has repeatedly laid down with regard to the publication of its Debates, and which are explained in May's "Parliamentary Practice," pages 82 and 83.

Stated briefly, it is the undoubted right of the House to forbid the publication of reports of its Debates and to punish such publication as a disobedience of its Rules and a breach of its Privileges. It is true that, normally, this right is waived, but it is open to the House to insist upon it at any time, as, for instance, when its proceedings are wilfully distorted or misrepresented, or when, as in the present case, the House, by ordering the withdrawal of strangers and by express Resolution, has plainly signified its intention of treating certain proceedings as secret.

The extract from the newspaper of which complaint has been made seems designed to produce the impression that it is giving the substance of a speech delivered in the course of a Secret Sitting. And, whether or not the views and statements apparently attributed to the right hon. Gentleman were actually expressed by him on that occasion, if, in the view of the House, the newspaper purports to disclose that they were so made, that fact would, of itself, render the newspaper guilty of a contempt of this House and of a breach of its Privileges. I have no hesitation in ruling that the hon. Member has made out a prima facie case.

The Prime Minister

In view of the Ruling which you, Sir, have given, it is my duty, in accordance with precedent, to move: That the Matter of the Complaint be referred to the Committee of Privileges.

Question put, and agreed to.

Mr. Gallacher

May I ask a question with reference to the Committee of Privileges?

Mr. Speaker

I have already put the Question and the House has decided.