HC Deb 19 December 1945 vol 417 cc1437-47

Order (18th June, 1942) relative to the Report from the Committee of Privileges on the matter of the complaint referred to their consideration on 5th May, 1942, read.

8.15 p.m.

The Lord President of the Council (Mr. Herbert Morrison)

I beg to move, That so much of the Order [18th June, 1942] as relates to the disclosure, or purported disclosure, of the contents of the Report of the proceedings of, or evidence taken before, the Committee in reference to such complaint, or any portion or the substance thereof, be discharged.

Mr. Bowles (Nuneaton)

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether there is really any need for him to move this Motion? I think it is quite a different thing, and perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will not commit himself by moving it.

Mr. Morrison

I move the Motion because I think it is an act of justice to an hon. Member of the House. I think so, but, of course, I will listen to any observations that may be made upon it. I think it is right. The Motion is consequential upon that to which the House has just agreed, and I do not think it raises any new issue. It refers to the Report of the Committee of Privileges presented on 23rd June, 1942, and the proceedings leading up to that Report. It refers to Mr. Speaker's report of what took place in the Secret Session of 25th June, 1942, which was reported in Hansard in column 2173: The House considered the Report of the Committee of Privileges presented on the 23rd June upon the matter of the complaint referred to it on 5th May, in respect of a Member charged with having committed a breach of Privilege by disclosing a portion of the proceedings of the Secret Session of 23rd April. The House agreed with the Report of the Committee of Privileges that the charge had not been proved and in the result absolved the hon. Member of the charge."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th June, 1942; Vol. 380, c. 2173.] As I have said, the hon. Member concerned was absolved of the charge against him, but we felt that it was only fair to ask the House to agree to publication in full of the Report of the Committee of Privileges in the case. This Motion is necessary because the Journal only records the fact that the House agreed with the Committee of Privileges in their Report on the charge brought, but it does not say what the finding of the Committee was, and that seems to us to be unfair, as a record, in relation to the hon. Member concerned. While the Motion which the House has just passed will make it possible to disclose anything said in the Debate on the Report, it will still be forbidden, unless the Motion which I am now moving is passed, to disclose anything about the contents of the Report accepted in Secret Session. We are satisfied that there are no security objections to publication, and we think, further, for the reasons that I gave when I spoke on the previous Motion, that it is right, for the sake of the public and the country, that, when the risks to security have passed, the secrecy ban should be lifted. I hope that this Motion, which is really consequential on the one which has just been adopted by the House, will be accepted.

Mr. Bowles (Nuneaton)

On a point of Order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. May I ask you to ask hon. Members not to refer to this in any detail in case we do not pass the Motion? I think it will be quite clear to hon. Members what I mean. The Lord President referred to an hon. Member. Surely we do not want to refer to him by his constituency until this Motion is passed.

Mr. Morrison

I thought so.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

I think that would be desirable. I doubt if I have any authority to enforce it upon hon. Members but I hope they will be good enough to abide by that suggestion.

8.21 p.m.

Earl Winterton (Horsham)

The right hon. Gentleman, as he was fully entitled to do, said in reply to a question which I put on the previous Motion that I was both hasty and inquisitive. I am sure he will not mind my telling him that it is unfortunately the case that the Leader of the House, however great the position he occupies in this House, in the world outside—and for all I know, in the next world—has to put up with both haste and inquisitiveness in those who disagree with him. Surely, therefore, he will forgive my haste and inquisitiveness in putting a few questions now.

I do not in the least agree that this Motion follows on the previous Motion, although I agree entirely with the right hon. Gentleman that the matter of whether justice is or is not done to a certain hon. Member, whose constituency I do not propose to specify, raises one or two rather serious questions. I have to tell hon. Gentlemen opposite—no doubt they will think me a most improper person to be a Member of it—that I am a Member of the Committee of Privileges. Purely by way of parenthesis, I am also a Member of two Select Committees. For the moment, at any rate, Committees are staffed by Tories as well as Socialists, although how long that will continue under the present Government, I do not know; it may be that all Committees in future will have only Socialists on them. Having made that confession, may I, with the greatest respect, through you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, make to hon. Gentlemen opposite and to the Leader of the House a few observations with which I think some of my colleagues on the Committee of Privilege would be in agreement?

In the first place, I think I am right in saying that this is the first time that there has been any Motion which took away from the Committee of Privileges the right that it had at the time of meeting in secret; that is to say, I think there has been no other case of deleting the right of secrecy which the Committee of Privileges had at the time by right of Resolution of this House. Perhaps I am asking for something which is unnecessary, but will the right hon. Gentleman make it plain that this ought not, in any way, to be taken as a precedent? There are all sorts of matters which, for various reasons, it might be desirable that the Committee of Privileges should consider in secret, and it would be undesirable if, in the future, we were told, "Oh, no, it is quite true that on such and such a date the Committee of Privileges considered the thing in secret, but the subsequent Parliament has decided that the secrecy should be abandoned." Therefore, my first point is a valid one, which I hope will be supported on both sides of the House, that the right hon. Gentleman should make it very clear that this is not a precedent, but is merely intended, as he claimed, to do justice to a certain hon. Member.

Though the right hon. Gentleman has had the best available advice on the subject, and I am prepared to be told I am wrong, I suggest, in the second place, that this Motion goes much further than it need have done. In order to do justice to this hon. Member, all that it is necessary to do, surely, is for the House to pass the following: That so much of the Order [18th June, 1942] as relates to the disclosure, or purported disclosure, of the contents of the Report of the Committee of Privileges on the matter of the complaint referred to their consideration on 5th May, 1942, be discharged. The Motion goes much further than that. It says: "or of the Proceedings of." I do not know, and I do not propose to trouble the Chair with a rather tortuous point of Order which it might be difficult to answer offhand, what are the Proceedings of the Committee of Privileges. If one were making use of the ordinary meaning of language, it would mean that everything we discussed in private—and we discuss matters of the most secret character in private, as the right hon. Gentleman is well aware, being Chairman of the Committee of Privileges—could, under this Motion, be made public. I hope we can have an assurance that that is not so, and I cannot for the life of me see why it is not possible to pass the Order in the terms I have suggested.

Again, I do not know what is meant by "or evidence." I must not, of course, disclose what the evidence was, but I would say to those who had doubts on the previous Motion that I think their doubts would be increased on this one. What right have we to publish evidence of witnesses before the Committee when they were told that their evidence was secret? Have the witnesses who gave evidence been consulted as to whether they have any objection to the evidence being made public? May I ask the right hon. Gentleman, therefore, why it is necessary to make their evidence public, and will he interpret what is the meaning of the words "or of the proceedings of "? I should have thought it would have been far better merely to publish the Report, which would be amply sufficient to show that any hon. Member accused in any way in connection with these matters has been discharged as not guilty, of the offence.

Mr. H. Morrison

I do not know whether there is any misunderstanding, but I think the Noble Lord's point is met in the last line of the Motion: That the Report (without the Minutes of Evidence) be reprinted.

Earl Winterton

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman; that does, I think, meet my point, although there is a reference in the paragraph above to the evidence taken before the Committee, and on its strict interpretation by the courts of law—whose interpretation of the meaning of English would be quite different from the interpretation put upon the meaning of English by the remarkable Procedure of this House because, in this House, everything means something quite different from what it means in ordinary English—I think it would be held that while it was not possible to publish the Minutes of Evidence, one might disclose what the evidence was.

Mr. Morrison

I think that is right.

Earl Winterton

As I say, when we get into the realms of what English means as interpreted by successive occupants of the Chair—with great respect, Mr. Deputy-Speaker—and by the lower Chair, we are on very dangerous ground. Something will be said about it, perhaps, when the Committee on Procedure reports. I should have thought that the ordinary meaning of the Motion was that it was possible to state what was the evidence. I think we all want to see justice done to this particular hon. Member, but I hope the right hon. Gentleman will make it very clear that this is not a precedent and will answer at once as to why it is necessary to have the Motion in the form in which it is.

8.30 p.m.

Mr. Bowles

The right hon. Gentleman will remember that there were two hon. Members, one within a month of the other, who were taken before the Committee of Privileges. One of them—not this one of course—was referred to by a certain right hon. Gentleman by his constituency, and as the result of that the Committee of Privileges sat in public, and when their report was presented to this House it was debated, in this House, in public. In other words, the hon. Gentleman in question, who is still a Member of this House, was able to stand up in the House—I heard him myself—to justify himself in a long and very able speech. So far as that case is concerned, the country knew who it was, and there was no further question about his being guilty of disclosing secrets, and the result was that he was cleared. He had the opportunity to clear himself in public debate in this House.

The other hon. Gentleman was not in quite the same position. He was never referred to by name, when the question was put to Mr. Speaker as to whether there had been a breach of Privilege. I think that I am right in saying that the House went into Secret Session, and no one, except the Members of the last Parliament and officials of the House, knew to whom we were referring. Therefore, the whole matter touching this hon. Member was kept secret from beginning to end and is still a secret today, except, of course, that it can now be disclosed under the Motion which we passed a few minutes ago. I cannot see the point in disclosing or calling any public attention, or the attention of any hon. Member of this House, new or old, to the fact that this man was, at any time, in trouble. Albeit, he got out of the trouble, and it seems gratuitous that we should bring this matter up again. Why do it? As we get older, we know that there is some justification for the old saying, "No smoke without fire." I hope, having regard to the difference of the two cases, and the fact that the hon. Gentleman's name is still secret, that my right hon. Friend will pay some regard to what I am saying.

I was interested in what the Noble Lord was saying, and I tried to say, on the last Motion, what he has just said on this Motion. I still do not think that it is right for this House to reveal, without their permission, the names of persons who were parties to these proceedings. It seems immoral. I say quite frankly to the right hon. Gentleman: Would he be prepared to disclose to the public the Cabinet Minutes of 15, 20 or 30 years ago? Surely, Cabinet Ministers meet in the real belief that always will their Cabinet conversations be kept secret. Would the right hon. Gentleman ever consider it fair that a subsequent Government, 15 years hence, should disclose speeches, decisions and conversations which he had with his Cabinet colleagues at the present time and during last year? He indicates that he would not. I therefore see no reason why we should depart from that principle. I still feel very strongly about this, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will agree with me that this is quite gratuitous. It is not a logical conclusion to the earlier Motion which we passed. I am sure that the Cabinet has given this matter serious consideration, but I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will bear in mind what I have said by way of comparison with the other case, with which he is equally familiar. The hon. Gentleman's name is still unknown to the world, and why should he be dragged through the mud again, because it is thought that it may be a logical thing to do?

8.35 p.m.

Mr. Marlowe (Brighton)

I do not like this Motion at all, and I ask the right hon. Gentleman to reconsider it. He appears to think that this is, as it were, consequential on the preceding Motion. That is really not so. It is a different matter altogether. Here, there is a question affecting the hon. Member about whom an inquiry has been made in circumstances under which, it was understood at the time, were to be secret. The right hon. Gentleman—I am sorry that he is so busily engaged; I realise that of course he has to work as well as listen. I wish that he would bear in mind that he did say that he felt that it was doing an injustice to the hon. Member concerned, and I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider whether the best judge of that is not the hon. Member himself. I do not know, but perhaps he would be able to tell us, whether the hon. Member concerned has been consulted and whether he has expressed his wish that this course should be taken.

Mr. H. Morrison

There are three points involved. The decision which the House has just reached will cause the name of the hon. Member concerned to appear on the Journals of the House with certain implications of improper conduct on his part—implications, that is all. Unless this Report of the Committee of Privileges, which clearly on its recommendations came out in his favour, is now released from the ban, the hon. Gentleman is without proper clearance and, therefore, there will be implications against him in the Journals without the Report of the Committee which clears him. At any rate, I have an agreement with the hon. Gentleman who was himself a bit worried about the first Motion if something was not done on the lines of the second. Therefore, I cannot see that there is anything but the greatest liberal feeling on the part of the Government in this matter and I was shocked that the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles) held such conservative views tonight.

Mr. Marlowe

The right hon. Gentleman has made three very good points. I see the strength of the case which he has made, and I certainly think that it is a good one. Before leaving this matter, however, I should like to support the Noble Lord with regard to the publishing of the evidence. In spite of the words that appear at the end of the Motion, the Motion as it now stands amounts to a publication of the evidence of the Committee of Privileges. The first position as that there is a ban on the publication of evidence, and this Motion suggests that the ban should be lifted, and, therefore, permits publication of the evidence. The words which the right hon. Gentleman referred to, and drew attention to, at the end of the Motion are merely an affirmative and substantive Motion that they be now printed. That is a separate Motion which really forms part of this Motion. It seems, as the Motion stands at the moment that the evidence is also to be disclosed, and I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to reconsider the wording with regard to that.

8.40 p.m.

Mr. Stokes (Ipswich)

I must express my surprise that the Noble Lord should not recognise that this Motion must follow the previous one that has just been passed.

Earl Winterton

The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood me. I said all that was necessary, in order to follow the last Motion, was to publish the Report and not the Motion in the form in which it stood.

Mr. Stokes

I beg the noble Lord's pardon. The point I wish to make is that in the case where the hon. Gentleman's name was mentioned, and which subsequently went before the Committee of Privileges, the case was heard in public and there was a Debate in public on the merits of the case. The views expressed by hon. Members as to whether the matter should be referred to the Committee of Privileges or not are on the records of the House. In this particular case there is no such record. There was a Debate in secret as to whether it should go to the Committee of Privileges or not. Certain people expressed their views, but they are not on the record. My recollection is that several people were violently opposed to the matter being taken there at all. It is of the utmost importance that it should be recognised that, whereas there is a record in the case of the first hon. Gentleman, there is no record of what was said in secret on the other case before it was referred to the Committee of Privileges. I think it desirable to have it on record now.

8.43 p.m.

Mr. Messer (Tottenham, South)

I cannot quite understand where the confusion arises. It seems to me that, after having carried the first Motion, we are now placed in the position, in consequence of it, that the name of the hon. Member in the second instance will be made public. What will then be known is that he was found not guilty. But the Committee of Privileges itself will be protected if it is known on what that decision was based. Unless this second Motion is carried, we shall then only know the name.

Mr. Morrison

It is worse than that, it will be revealed that there was, so to speak, a charge against the hon. Gentleman, and it will not be known that the tribunal, namely, the Committee of Privileges, to which it was referred found him not guilty. It seems to me that would be monstrous.

Mr. Messer

I was going to develop the point to show that the Committee of Privileges will be protected because by the second Motion the evidence on which their decision was based will be made public. I think that is fair.

8.44 p.m.

Mr. Morrison

In a way, the intervention I made when interrupting the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Brighton (Mr. Marlowe) is my case. In the House on 18th June, 1942, my right hon. Friend the present Prime Minister moved quite a long Motion of a most exceptional order fettering the ordinary process of publication of a Report of the Committee of Privileges with regard to this case. I am speaking from memory, but my recollection is that the Committee of Privileges was fettered in the matter of publication because the whole thing was bound up with what had happened in Secret Session. Therefore, if a Secret Session had followed, the Report would have had to be secret also. All this was most exceptional, and, on grounds of general principle, thoroughly objectionable. The purpose of this Motion is to get rid of this exceptional interference with the Committee of Privileges.

With regard to the observations of the Noble Lord I do not think I accused him of inquisitiveness. Although I may have used some other adjective, I do not think I used one as hard as that. As he knows, he and I have a high regard for each other. The arguments of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles) were really shockingly Conservative tonight. I think he swung right to the Right. I am very sad about it, but I have no doubt he will bob up on the Left some other day and be even more embarrassing on that account than he was tonight. The Noble Lord and I do manage to quarrel almost every time we have an interchange in the House, but there is no bad feeling behind it at all and, if I may say so, I think he made a fair request when he asked that what we are doing tonight should not in itself be regarded as a precedent. I quite agree with him. I justify this case on its merits and, as I have said, I quite agree it should not be held to be a precedent as to future conduct. In this case, we do not propose to print the Minutes of Evidence, although I admit that we are proposing to lift the privilege ban from the proceedings of the Committee and the evidence taken before the Committee. To that extent it might, in some way and at some time, find public quotation, but that is exceedingly unlikely, and I do not think there would be any embarrassment to the witnesses or others concerned. The documents are in the possession of the officers of the House and no doubt they would exercise a proper discretion as to whom they would be made available. I do not think there is much need to have apprehension on that point.

The simple issue is that the original Motion will put the name of the hon. Member concerned in a certain light on the journals of the House. It is not fair that we should leave it there. In fairness to the hon. Member, we must publish the Report. He was going to be here, and he might have taken part in the Debate. No doubt he has had to go, but it was weeks, if not months ago, that I had a conversation with him about the first Motion which I knew would raise this issue, and, in fairness to him, I had a talk with him about it. The second Motion I am now moving was a result of that conversation and is a concession to what I thought was a fair point made on his behalf. I assure the House that this Motion is moved out of a sheer sense of justice to the hon. Member, to whom, otherwise, an injustice would be done.

Resolved: That so much of the Order [18th June, 1942] as relates to the disclosure, or purported disclosure, of the contents of the Report or of the proceedings of, or evidence taken before, the Committee in reference to such complaint, or any portion or the substance thereof, be discharged."—[Mr. H. Morrison.]

Report (without the Minutes of Evidence) to be reprinted.—[No. 47.] [Mr. H. Morrison.]