HC Deb 01 December 1942 vol 385 cc1014-9
Mr. Greenwood

May I ask the Leader of the House whether he has any statement to make about the Business, and in particular, whether he can give any indication as to whether the Government contemplate making a statement on events in North Africa?

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Eden)

As regards the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's Question, at the end of the Sitting to-day we hope that the House will agree to the Second Reading of the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill and the Committee stage of the necessary Money Resolution. These are usually, as the House know, formal stages.

In reply to the second part of the right hon. Gentleman's Question, the Government realise that the House would like to be informed at the earliest possible moment of developments in North Africa, both in the military and political sphere. This, of course, includes the position of Admiral Darlan. We expect to be in a position to make such a statement in the near future. It will, however, be necessary for the statement to be made in Secret Session, and an opportunity will be provided for a Debate, if desired. I shall be making the usual statement on Business on the Third Sitting Day and, if I am able to do so, I will then give the House further information as to the date of the statement.

Mr. A. Bevan

Will the right hon. Gentleman and the Government reconsider the decision to discuss the position of Admiral Darlan in Secret Session? We quite appreciate the necessity of reporting on the immediate military situation in Secret Session, although no demand has been made for that so far, but it would cause grave disquiet throughout the country if the position of Admiral Darlan were considered in Secret Session, as many people will think that the Government are up to some trickery in the matter." They are already deeply disturbed by our policy in regard to these Quislings.

Viscountess Aston

Are not the Government deeply disturbed by the questions that are being asked in Parliament?

Mr. Eden

As regards the attitude of the country, I should have thought myself that the country understood very well that at the present moment the first concern of the Government and of the House is to save time and to save life. Therefore, obviously I cannot commit myself to public statements which may have reactions on those events. What I have sought to do by this proposal is to give to hon. Members themselves, who are entitled to the information, as much information as we have at that time. I thought that would meet the desire of the House and would enable them to feel informed as the Government are themselves informed.

Earl Winterton

In view of the very great anxiety in all parts of the House on the subject of the chaining of prisoners, will my right hon. Friend consider whether the Secret Debate on military events in North Africa would not be an appropriate occasion for informing the House of the reasons for the delay in making an announcement?

Mr. Eden

Certainly I will consider my Noble Friend's suggestion. I had not thought of it, but I will examine it.

Mr. Henderson Stewart

With regard to the first part of the original statement, is it intended that the Second Reading of the Measure shall be taken before the normal time of rising of the House and that the House shall adjourn at the usual time?

Mr. Eden

We are taking the Committee stage formarlly, at the end of to-day's Business.

Mr. Stewart

I am sorry to press the point, but will it be merely a formal thing? I have a very important matter to raise on the Adjournment.

Mr. Eden

Yes, Sir. The Committee stage is merely a formal matter, and is so regarded by the House.

Mr. Boothby

Is there any truth in the information which has appeared in the Press that it is the intention of General de Gaulle to visit President Roosevelt in the near future?

Mr. Eden

My hon. Friend will understand that I cannot make an announcement on that subject. In the first place, if an announcement was to be made, it would be for the United States Government to make it.

Mr. Granville

Will the statement which is to be made include the subject of broadcasting by the Fighting French?

Mr. Eden

I understood that there were Questions on the Order Paper about that broadcasting. No doubt, they will be answered in the usual way.

Mr. McGovern

In view of old associations, is there any prospect of our Ambassador to Spain visiting Laval?

Mr. A. Sevan

When will the Beveridge Report be available to Members?

Mr. Eden

I understand, early this afternoon.

Mr. Bevan

Has it now become the established practice for the newspapers to be given information before hon. Members? On several occasions this has happened. Is it now to be regarded as the accepted practice?

Mr. Eden

No, Sir. I understand that these arrangements have been made to enable hon. Members to have copies this afternoon, whereas they would not have had them until to-morrow morning.

Mr. Bevan

It has been the practice in the past to have conferences with the Press to give them what is described as "background," but the actual proposals were never disclosed. It is a most unusual practice, in my submission, for the actual document which is to be presented to the House to be handed to the Press beforehand. I submit that the Government have so often abused this practice that it is time for you, Sir, to ask for the position to be regularised.

Mr. Stokes

Is it true that certain sections of the Press had copies yesterday?

Mr. Eden

If I am to blame in the matter, I accept the blame. What I understood to be the position was that the Report would be available to Members many hours before it appeared in the Press. It is entirely my fault if what has happened is wrong. I arranged for it to be available at 3 o'clock so that it would not appear in the evening papers and that Members should have it before it appeared in to-morrow morning's papers. As regards the wider aspect of the question, the House will realise that there were certain exceptional circumstances in connection with this Report; and it is not unreasonable to allow some of the Press to see it in time for them to make comment upon it?

Mr. Shinwell

Will the right hon. Gentleman answer a simple question? Is it the case that the Press have been furnished with copies of this Report before hon. Members have seen it?

Mr. Eden

Yes, Sir, I understand that copies have been made available to the Press; but nothing is in any circum-stances to be published before to-morrow morning.

Mr. Shinwell

Is it not invidious that the Press should have copies of this Report before hon. Members have an opportunity of seeing it?

Mr. Bartlett

Is it not a fact that this document contains well over 100,000 words, and that the Press cannot possibly give an accurate summary of it without having copies in advance?

Sir Geoffrey Shakespeare

Is my right hon. Friend not aware that the Government, in taking this course, have followed a procedure that has been perfectly common for 20 years, to my knowledge?

Mr. Bevan

My original submission, Sir, was not to the right hon. Gentleman, but to you. It has little to do with what the Government intend to do. Some time ago I raised this matter on another issue. At that time the House, which had long ceased to be jealous of its Privileges, jeered, and I was misrepresented in the public Press. Now, once more, people outside the House have been given the opportunity of seeing these documents. If this practice goes much further, Debates in this House will be rigged by private interests which have access to these documents. This is a matter of great public importance, and the time has come, Sir, for a direction from you.

Mr. Pickthorn

Can we have an assurance that this document will not be expounded on the wireless by people who have had an opportunity of seeing it before the rest of us?

Mr. Eden

I would like to consider this whole matter. It has to be examined from the point of view of the House. It is true, as my hon. Friend says, that this procedure has been followed in many cases before; but that does not necessarily mean that it is a good practice. Therefore, with your permission, Sir, I would like to look into the question so far as future practice is concerned.

Mr. Maxton

Can we have an assurance that when we get the document it will be worth reading?

Commander Locker-Lampson

Is not the Press to be trusted in every way?

Mr. Ivor Thomas

Was not the old practice to make a document available a few hours before publication; but has not this document been in the hands of, newspapers since Friday last?

Mr. Stokes

In view of the fact that it was thought necessary to pass the document over to the Press yesterday or the day before, surely it did not need a heaven-sent genius to decide that hon. Members should have it in their hands before the Debate in the present series of Sittings took place?

Mr. Shinwell

While appreciating the right hon. Gentleman's undertaking, might I ask whether, if he finds that the allegations made by hon. Members that this document was in the hands of the Press by Friday last is true, he will inform the House who was responsible for presenting the copies to the Press?

Mr. Eden

I will make inquiries. I accept the responsibility for anything that has occurred, and I will look into the matter and report again to the House.

Sir H. Williams

If this document is a Command Paper, as I presume it is, it has been presented to Parliament on the direction of His Majesty; and, therefore, it is not in the discretion of His Majesty's Government to decide in this matter, but it is a direction of His Majesty, which ought to be obeyed.