HC Deb 22 January 1942 vol 377 cc426-31
Colonel Arthur Evans

On a question of business, may I ask my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister what decision has been arrived at as to the procedure to be adopted in the Debate on aerodrome defence? Will the Debate be in public or in secret, or part in public and part in secret?

The Prime Minister (Mr. Churchill)

We have only one desire, and that is to meet the convenience of the House. I think it will be necessary for the Secretary of State to make his statement in public, because there has been a lot of discussion about the matter in the country, and, after all, the House has certain duties to the country. Public opinion is affronted if discussion on an important topic is withheld. After the speech of the Secretary of State representing the Government, it might be thought desirable that some speeches should be made by Members from the other side criticising it and so forth. I should have thought that after one or two of these speeches had been made it would be more convenient to go into Secret Session, in which case the operational side of this important matter could be more fully treated than in Public Session.

Mr. Maxton

I want to return to the matter I was trying to deal with when you, Sir, called me to Order. On Tuesday it was impossible, through circumstances over which Scottish Members had no control, for the majority of them to be present in the House during the hours of business. In spite of that fact, the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Patronage Secretary proceeded with the business of the day, which was a Scottish Education Bill. I want to ask whether steps could not have been taken, having regard to the circumstances, to defer that Bill until such time as Scottish Members could have been present. I put this point with more confidence because we have agreed to the suspension during this period of the Sittings of the Scottish Standing Committee, and when that Committee is not meeting it is more important that when Scottish legislation comes under discussion Scottish Members should have reasonable opportunity of being present, which they had not on Tuesday last.

The Prime Minister

The Business to which my hon. Friend refers was set down more than a month before. You could not have a more lengthy and full notice than that the first Business on our return from the Recess would be the Scottish Business. Everyone sympathises with the Scottish Members who unexpectedly were detained through traffic difficulties entailed by war conditions and other causes.

Mr. Maxton

My point remains. I know all about the notice. Everyone knew what the Business was to be on Tuesday, but we simply could not be here by adopting our ordinary travelling arrangements. My position was not so bad, for I came on a slow train and did the journey in 19 hours. Members who came on a fast train took 27 hours. The point I am putting is that when the Patronage Secretary saw the circumstances on Tuesday and found that Scottish Members were absent, why did he not take steps to postpone the Business until we could have been present?

The Prime Minister

It was not until more than an hour after the proceedings had started that knowledge of this great misfortune came to the notice of the Patronage Secretary. It was then too late to alter the Business. Moreover, a number of Members were in their places anxious to discuss this Bill. It is really a case where no blame attaches to anybody.

Mr. Garro Jones

I hope to make a contribution to the Debate on aerodrome defence, but it is not clear to me to what arrangements the House has assented. It is no concern to me whether it is a secret or a public Debate, but I think it should be one or the other. The Prime Minister's suggestion was that a representative of the Government should first state the Government's case, that then two or three critics of the Government should state the case for the criticism of the Goverment, and after that, the critics haling shot their bolts, they should be deprived of any further opportunity of taking part in the Debate. My position is that I have some remarks, if I have the opportunity of speaking, which I wish to make in public and some remarks which I wish to make in Secret Session. I hope that I shall have the opportunity of delivering one speech or the other. The Prime Minister said that the House had a public duty to the country in this matter. There was a Debate on this subject in another place the day before yesterday, and I believe that the Government case was ably stated by an Under-Secretary in the Department concerned, backed up by a Noble Lord who is not in the Government but who often assists the Government in stating their case. From what I know of the right hon. Gentleman, I think that we shall hear nothing new of the Government's case. Therefore, I want to put the point that the Debate should be held either in secret or in public and thus keep our proceedings in some sort of good order.

The Prime Minister

I still think that the suggestion I have made would be the most convenient, even if it should confront the hon. Gentleman with a hard dilemma and hard choosing between saying what he wishes to say in public or keeping his strongest weapons for the seclusion of a Secret Session. I think that after all the talk there has been we have a right to put our case; even the Government in time of war have some rights; then we thought it would be very nice that those who wished to say things against the policy of the Government and to point out in public how many opportunities there were for improvement in our course of action 'should have their full run, and then, after that, if it were the wish of the House, we should go into Secret Session, where something could be said which we should not like to say in the hearing of the enemy. I do not think we could have a better arrangement.

I must say, about this Secret Session business, that it is often difficult to interpret the wishes of the House. When there is a suggestion to have a Session in secret there is a demand that it should be in public, and when there is a suggestion for a Public Session there is a demand that it should be secret. Now, when one suggests that it should be both public and secret, there is objection to that also.

Mr. Pethick-Lawrence

I hope the right hon. Gentleman will not close his mind on this point. There are difficulties in connection with holding a hybrid Session, especially when there is only such a short time available. May I therefore ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he will not consider, on another occasion, holding one Debate on one day in open Session and another Debate on another day in Private Session?

The Prime Minister

Certainly, we will endeavour to watch the changing moods of the House as far as we can, but I did not gather from my right hon. Friend's statement whether he is in favour of public or private discussion.

Mr. Pethick-Lawrence

I think it is perfectly clear that there should be some Debates in public and some in private. This Debate should, obviously, be taken in public, because of the reasons which the Prime Minister has stated, but if the House wants to discuss the subject further in private, an opportunity should be given for that purpose instead of taking away a part of the already brief time which under present conditions is available to-day.

Sir Percy Harris

May I say that a great number of the Members of the House consider the Prime Minister's suggestion a very sensible and practical one?

Mr. Denman

May I inquire, Mr. Speaker, whether, in the circumstances which have been indicated, a Member would not be allowed to make a second speech by leave of the House?

Sir Irving Albery

Does not the statement of the Prime Minister emphasise the point that the only circumstance in which a secret Debate is desirable is when it takes place on the responsibility of the Government and when the Government have a statement to make to the House which cannot be made in public?

Mr. Gallacher

May I make a suggestion? [HON. MEMBERS: "Order."] Why should I not have an opportunity of making a suggestion, when others have done so? I will put it as a point of Order. May I draw your attention, Mr. Speaker, to the fact that when this Debate takes place, many Members will be cut out, particularly in connection with the secret part of the Debate? Would it be in order to suggest that the Rule should be suspended and that we should have an all-night Sitting and that the secret Debate should take place during the all-night Sitting?

Mr. Erskine Hill

May I say that I think the suggestion made by the Prime Minister represents the general feeling of the House and that the matter should be left as he has suggested?

Mr. Kenneth Lindsay

On the question of public Business, may I ask the Prime Minister whether it will be possible, in view of the fact that registration of the 16 to 18 age group will take place shortly, to have a Debate on that subject? I would point out that such a Debate has been promised, but owing to other matters the question has not yet been brought before the House.

The Prime Minister

The next Sittings are fully occupied.

Mr. Ness Edwards

May I ask the Prime Minister whether, in accordance with the pledge given by the Minister of Labour on behalf of the Government, he would arrange to give time in the near future for a discussion of the Motion standing in my name and the names of some of my hon. Friends in regard to a Ministry of Production?

[That, in the-view of this House it is imperative that a Minister of Production should be appointed with a seat in the War Cabinet, to centrally plan all production vital to the winning of the war, and to which the activities of the Ministry of Supply, the Ministry of Aircraft Production, and the Naval Supply Department should be subordinated.]

Would he regard it as more appropriate that that Question should fall within the scope of the Debate which is to take place during the next Sittings, or should it be taken separately?

The Prime Minister

The Debate at the next Sittings will range over the whole topic of the war, and, obviously, references to the sinews of war will be in Order. As to whether there should be a separate Debate on the proposals which have been several times advanced for the creation of a Ministry of Production, that is a matter which must be arranged at a later date, through the usual channels.

Mr. Ness Edwards

May I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that it would be very inconvenient and undesirable to have a Motion of the sort I have mentioned moved as an Amendment to a Motion of Confidence should such a Motion be put down, because in that case it would not receive the unbiased consideration to which it is entitled? We would like an assurance that time will be given subsequently for the consideration of the Motion.

The Prime Minister

I really cannot undertake now, on the spur of the moment, to mortgage the time of the House in advance. The object of the Government is to facilitate the fullest Debate on the most burning questions and to ascertain which are those burning questions, by the long established procedure of the House.