HC Deb 18 July 1944 vol 402 cc29-34
The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Eden)

I undertook, on Friday last, to make a statement to-day to the House on the subject of a Secret Session. The War Cabinet have given careful consideration to the question of a secret Debate on the effects of the flying-bomb attacks and on our preparations for dealing with this form of attack, in both the military and the civil spheres, and we have also sought information from all quarters of the House. As a result, the War Cabinet have come to the conclusion that no good purpose would be served by debating this matter in secret. Our view is that the best and most useful method of handling this is on the lines adopted last week, with one or two alterations which I would like to propose to the House.

A further meeting, we suggest, should be held, shortly, upstairs, at which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Home Security would preside, to deal with questions of organisation on the civil side. He would have with him other Ministers concerned—for instance, the Minister of Health, the Minister of War Transport, and the Minister of Food. But we also suggest that a separate meeting should be held for dealing with operational aspects, as suggested by the hon. Member for Seaham (Mr. Shinwell) on Friday, and that that meeting should be attended by the Secretary of State for Air, and the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply. From the reports I have received I understand that the meeting last week was of help to hon. Members. I must make it plain that the War Cabinet desire to have the assistance of hon. Members, particularly those whose constituencies are most closely affected, and it is our opinion that this new procedure, with the alterations which I have just suggested to the House, will be an improvement on our original suggestion and will be the best way of giving effect to that desire.

Mr. Shinwell

While the proposal is certainly welcome, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman, regarding the operational side, whether it is possible to have present at the meeting the operational chiefs, who would not, of course, take part in the discussions, but would, at any rate, listen to what was being said, just as, in the case of other Committees, members of a Minister's staff are present, not to participate in the discussions, but to hear what is said?

Mr. Eden

I have considered the suggestion which my hon. Friend made last Friday. I am afraid we could not agree to that. The House will remember that we have been extremely concerned, throughout this war, and we think it a good plan, that Ministers should deal with questions, but we cannot take the course of agreeing to expert or Service personnel. All that could be done would be to take careful note, but we do not think Service personnel should be present.

Sir H. Williams

I want to raise a constitutional point. My right hon. Friend is organising a meeting of the House of Commons at which apparently everybody will be entitled to be present, except, possibly, you, Mr. Speaker. On the grounds of general security, a secret meeting of Members of Parliament and a meeting of the House in secret, have no difference in their influence on opinion outside the House or in the country, but there are great disadvantages in organising a meeting upstairs, and presided over by a Minister, where the discussion is brought to an end before a very large number of hon. Members have had an opportunity of saying what they wish to say. I think this idea of the House of Commons retiring to a meeting upstairs and leaving you, Mr. Speaker, alone with the Clerks at the Table, is a violation of the Constitution, against which I protest.

Mr. Edgar Granville

In view of the fact that the Home Secretary and the Minister of Health both made public statements on this subject at the weekend, does the right hon. Gentleman's reply entirely preclude the possibility of a public Debate on this subject at some time in the future?

Mr. Eden

I certainly cannot speak about some time in the future. I think it would not be right to do anything of the kind. I was only submitting to the House itself a way of handling our affairs. If I may say so, I think the hon. Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams) is quite wrong in suggesting that there is any innovation in this. It is quite a common practice for Ministers to meet hon. Members upstairs, and it would be a great mistake if that practice were stopped.

Sir Hugh O'Neill

May I ask whether, in such a meeting as that suggested, hon. Members would be bound to secrecy in the same way as they are in the case of a Secret Session of the House?

Mr. Eden

It is a matter for hon. Members themselves and their own consciences. Certainly, the meetings were secret last time, and would be this time. I should also like to mention to the House that there are obvious advantages in this procedure. Whereas in Secret Session only a certain number of speeches can be made, in a meeting of this kind, any number of questions can be put, and answered by Ministers.

Sir H. Williams

On the same point of Order. This is the first time that, from that Box, the Leader of the House has announced a meeting of hon. Members in secret to which all hon. Members are entitled to go while the House is in Session. It is a complete innovation.

Mr. A. Bevan

One of the purposes of having a meeting upstairs—which is very often quite desirable on matters of this kind—is that Ministers are able to reinforce themselves with administrative officials, and even Service personnel who can help to answer questions, and can listen to what is being said. It is, I think, quite untrue to say that we have not done that in this war already. We did it in 1940 on several occasions, and hon. Members from all sides of the House met members of the Services and discussed matters with them. The only point in having meetings upstairs, is that Ministers can have that assistance. Otherwise, if we are merely going to have Ministers, we may as well have a Secret Session of the House.

Mr. Eden

I am quite sure, from the feeling of the House, that they do not desire a Secret Session. We do desire the help of hon. Members who have special interest and special knowledge of these matters and we think what I have suggested is the best way to do it. I do not know about the 1940 procedure. Neither the Prime Minister nor I have heard of it. We maintain the view that Service personnel, in particular, should not attend.

Mr. Manningham-Buller

Are we to be given any opportunity of discussing this matter as it affects reception areas on the Floor of the House as well as upstairs, or will the discussion be confined to the meeting upstairs?

Mr. Eden

I think it will, probably, be discussed at the meeting which I suggest, but that would not preclude it being discussed on the Floor of the House.

Mrs. Cazalet Keir

Will this meeting be this week or next week?

Mr. Eden

I would like to consult with those who make the necessary arrangements. We will not have the meetings on the same day. They will probably be Tuesday and Wednesday of next week.

Rear-Admiral Beamish

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the meeting held last week was, perhaps, one of the most informative ever held in this House, and that the new arrangement will still further allow information to be given to all hon. Members? The only defect, if it is a defect, is that it will separate the practical considerations from political aspirations.

Mr. Reakes

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, at the meeting held last week, some very highly confidential statements were made which, if allowed to go out, would be against the interests of security? Will my right hon. Friend, therefore, ask that any speaker giving this highly confidential information should be made aware of the secrecy bar being still in operation?

Mr. Eden

I really think that we must have confidence in ourselves. Hon. Members have carried many burdens of secrecy in this war, and I am quite confident that they can carry this one.

Mr. Bellenger

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, at the meeting last week, quite a number of hon. Members were unable to ask questions, or put their point of view, because, rightly, the Home Secretary, who was in the Chair, gave preference to the London Members? If we are to use this procedure in a co-operative manner, it must be possible for hon. Members to put their views on defence matters, on which some are able to speak with knowledge, and on other matters of that nature.

Mr. Eden

I hope there will be such opportunities. The object was primarily to help those hon. Members whose constituencies were affected.

Mr. Stokes

Further to the point of Order raised by the hon. Member for Croydon (Sir H. Williams), does this not mean that we are now going to have a Secret Session upstairs, and, if a Secret Session is against the interests of public morale, will not this meeting have exactly the same effect?

Mr. Eden

All we have been trying to do is to find a practical way of handling this business, and I think the suggestion of a meeting which I have made has the general approval of the House.

Mr. Buchanan

May I also refer to the points raised by the hon. Member for South Croydon? This is, in a measure, a challenge to the House of Commons, in this sense—that there is to be a meeting of the full House held upstairs, with the Minister responsible presiding over it, and determining who is to be called. One can see the difficulties which exist at the present and recognise the Government's desire to meet the views of hon. Members, but I trust that you, Mr. Speaker, will say that this is not to be taken as a future guide as to the conduct of this House of Commons.

Mr. Speaker

This is a matter, I think, for the House itself. I will take note of what the hon. Member has said, but I can give no Ruling. The suggestion made seems to me quite reasonable in the circumstances.