HL Deb 15 December 1919 vol 38 cc3-15

LORD HYLTON rose to move that the Women's Royal Air Force (Inquiry on Miss Violet Douglas-Pennant) Report be considered. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I submit the Motion that stands in my name in order to give those of your Lordships who may wish to speak upon this matter an opportunity—I hope a convenient opportunity—of doing so. I trust that your Lordships will not think it presumptuous of me if I add that I believe the whole House watched with admiration the patience and dignity with which the noble and learned Lord sitting on the Cross Benches (Lord Wrenbury) conducted the business of the Committee dining the rather protracted sittings over which the Inquiry lasted.

Moved, That the Women's Royal Air Force (Inquiry on Miss Violet Douglas-Pennant) Report be considered.—(Lord Hylton.)


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission I desire to make a statement of an entirely personal nature. Your Lordships may remember that on the second occasion on which I brought the case of Miss Violet Douglas-Pennant's dismissal from the Women's Royal Air Force before your Lordships' House, on July 30 last, in speaking of alleged scandals in the Air Force I used these words— I will give your Lordships only one instance, but it happens to be an instance of which I have seen almost the whole of the evidence and several of the witnesses. My Lords, at the time that I made that speech I had been having interviews with and receiving information from a number of persons as regards conditions in the Air Force generally. The impression left upon my mind as regards the particular instance to which I proceeded to refer was that I was justified in using those words. My Lords, I was not so justified, and I can only express my profound regret to the House for having made an incorrect statement.

As regards my more general references to grave irregularities which I was informed had occurred at some of the camps, these were based on information which I considered trustworthy and definite, but I now desire, so far as I am concerned, un reservedly to withdraw any imputations against individuals which may be contained in what I said. Your Lordships will do me the justice to remember that I have never at any time made charges of general immorality against the Women's Royal Air Force. There were many thousands of women in that Force, and such a charge would be as absurd as it would be cruel and untrue.

There is, however, one statement which I made to your Lordships to which I ought particularly to allude. In speaking on July 30 I used words which contained a specific allegation of immorality between a certain colonel and a certain lady. I desire entirely to withdraw that statement and that allegation, and in doing so to apologise profoundly to your Lordships for having made it.

There are others besides your Lordships to whom I desire to apologise. In making my remarks in your Lordships' House I mentioned no names either of individuals or places, but in the course of the Inquiry these names have necessarily been made public. I desire, therefore, in as public a manner as possible, to express my regret to Colonel Janson and to Miss Glubb, the two persons in question, for having made any allegations against them. I have already communicated with their respective solicitors apologising for my statement, and I have paid the whole of Miss Glubb's costs in connection with the Inquiry, and an agreed sum to Colonel Janson in respect of such extra costs and trouble as he may have incurred by reason of my statements.

There is one other matter to which I desire to refer, and that is my letter to the Committee which appears as an Appendix to the Report. At the time that I wrote that letter I was profoundly disappointed that Mrs. Kitto and certain other witnesses who I believed might have given material evidence had not been called before the Committee, and I felt very strongly that it was my duty to inform the Committee that these witnesses were available, and that quite irrespective of whether they would support Miss Douglas-Pennant's case or not. In writing that letter, however, I had no intention of reviving any imputations against the persons referred to in my speech in your Lordships' House.

My Lords, in bringing this case before your Lordships' House, I was actuated by no personal motives or prejudices. In common with every member, I believe, of your Lordships' House I desired that the State should be a model employer, and, rightly or wrongly, it seemed to me that as regards general conditions and as regards the observance of contract between employer and employed, the State in this case, had not set that example which is expected of it. I regret that on the second occasion on which I brought this matter before your Lordships' House I made statements that were inaccurate and therefore misleading, and I trust that your Lordships will realise how sincere is the apology I desire to tender to your Lordships for having made incorrect statements in this House.


My Lords, the House will have listened with sympathy and with respect to the ample and the obviously sincere apology which has been offered by the noble Earl, and I certainly do not desire, by anything that I may have to say, to acid to the difficulty and delicacy of the position which he occupies. In a moment or two I shall allude more specifically to the case to which he has referred, but your Lordships will realise, and indeed the noble Lord has himself realised, that this is not a personal matter alone. He prefaced his remarks by saying that he was going to offer a personal explanation to your Lordships' House; and so he did. But the personal explanation, fully as we accept it, does not dispose of the case. Because, as your Lordships will remember, it was your Lordship' House who, by a considerable, one might almost say overwhelming, majority assumed a special responsibility in this matter. Therefore it is not only the attitude or the conduct of an individual Peer, but the conduct and reputation of your Lordships' House are also involved.

Will you permit me briefly to recall to you the Parliamentary history of this case, or rather that portion of it only which concerns your Lordships' House? I need not here allude to what passed in another place, although it is fair to remark that the House of Commons showed a juster perception of the proportions and character of this case than some of us did in your Lordships' House. Neither need I allude to the several White Papers that were circulated at different stages of this controversy; nor to the abundant correspondence that appeared in the Press. I will confine my attention to the occasions upon which the matter came before this House. They were three in number.

The first was on February 27 of the present year, and the discussion was inaugurated on that occasion by a number of questions put by the noble Lord, Lord Ampthill. Lord Stanhope was content with observing in his speech that the Government had a very weak case; but the noble Lord, Lord Ampthill, who was always far ahead of his colleague in imputation, told us that the answers given from this Bench were palpably evasive and incorrect. The second occasion was on May 29, and it was then that the noble Earl moved for a Judicial Inquiry. On that occasion his charges were more precise. He said that there was a regular conspiracy against Miss Douglas-Pennant; he declared that a grave injustice had been inflicted upon her; and he further said that every conceivable regulation and instruction had been over-ridden. He was supported in his demand for this Inquiry by two noble Lords who sit upon the Bench opposite me, Lord Buckmaster and Lord Salisbury, although in pressing for an Inquiry they refrained from in any degree sustaining the particular charges that had been made.

It was in that debate that the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack—who had been consulted at each stage of this case, who had himself taken an enormous amount of trouble about it, and who had advised the Secretary of State throughout—issued to your Lordships a solemn warning, that you were about to take a course which could lead to nothing but disaster and failure. That warning, coming from that authoritative quarter, was ignored, and your Lordships decided by a majority of 69 to 20 to insist upon this Judicial Inquiry; the minority of 20, I may remark in passing, consisting of few beyond those who are the regular supporters of His Majesty's Government upon this Bench. Therefore it mould be true to say that practically the whole House of Lords who were then present, except those who were under an official obligation, supported my noble friend Lord Stanhope in his action.


A good many walked out.


I am talking only of those who voted. For reasons into which I need not now enter, the Government declined to grant that Inquiry, and accordingly on July 30 Lord Stanhope re-appeared upon the scene. He now moved for the appointment of a Select Committee, and in making that Motion he used these words— The House of Commons—the elected House—is totally uninterested in safeguarding the rights of people to a trial; it is left to the Peers of this Realm to take action against oppressions, this time of a tyrannical bureaucracy, in order that they should insist on a right of trial. And it was upon this occasion that the noble Earl came with additional information to your Lordships, and he added those charges, both of specific and of general immorality, which he has now so amply withdrawn.

In this debate my noble friend Lord Ampthill, whose vocabulary had not suffered by the respite it had enjoyed, used these terms. He spoke of the "subtleties and evasions and equivocations and misrepresentations of the case which have been made by the spokesmen of the Government "; he denounced all those "miserable quibbles" by which it had been sought to evade the real issue and to escape inquiry; and he described the dismissal (as he called it) of Miss Douglas-Pennant as "an absolutely unprecedented and arbitrary act." The Motion of the noble Earl for a Select Committee was then carried, again by the overwhelming majority of 69 to 42.

At this stage I became, for the first time, directly associated with this case. I might, I think, have dissevered myself altogether from it. I thought then, and most of us think now, that a very profound mistake had been made. But nevertheless your Lordships' House had taken upon yourselves the responsibility of setting up this Committee, and I felt it to be my duty, in the post which I happened to occupy, to do everything in my power to render your action effective, and to invest it, in its consequences, with the requisite dignity and impartiality. Therefore on behalf of the Government I promised every assistance to my noble friend Lord Stanhope. I attached only two conditions to the setting up of this Select Committee. One was that it should be presided over by a noble Lord with judicial experience and authority; the other was that there should only be placed upon it Peers who had taken no part, either by speech or by vote, in the discussions that had already occurred. These conditions were accepted, and the Committee was set up.

Your Lordships will, I am sure, agree with my noble friend Lord Hylton in the few remarks that he made upon the services rendered by the Chairman of that Committee. We were fortunate in persuading Lord Wrenbury to occupy that post. He is one of the most experienced, the fairest, and the most learned Judges who have sat upon the Bench, and we all of us know, from his contributions to our debates from time to time, that he is a distinguished ornament of this House. The tribunal over which he presided was a capable and impartial tribunal. It took an immense deal of trouble about the case. I do not know on how many occasions it sat—




It sat on no fewer than eighteen occasions, and finally presented the House with a unanimous Report. What do we find in that Report? I am not going to summarise its findings, extending as they do over so wide a field. I will merely on minor points, relatively minor points as compared with the grosser charges, read just. a few passages from the Report. The Committee state at different times in their Report: "These Minutes completely destroy Miss Douglas-Pennant's charge of obstruction"; "Miss Douglas-Pennant's charges of obstruction are not substantiated"; "the stories brought forward are mostly absurd, without point, trivial, and groundless"; "the alleged intrigues against Miss Douglas-Pennant are due to her distorted vision, and there is no truth in them." The evidence of one witness—I am alluding to Turnbull now—"as a substratum for the vast superstructure of immorality, connivance, and encouragement is contemptible." "To have launched these accusations and to support them by no evidence other than the above is, in our opinion, deserving of the gravest censure."

As to the charges about Hurst Park, the Committee say: "All the accusations of immorality and conniving at immorality are wholly unsupported by evidence." Again they say of them that: "They are grossly defamatory and untrue." Therefore it comes to this—because these sentences are a fair summary of the whole of the Report—that these charges which were so recklessly flung about, and which spared neither authority, position, nor sex completely broke down. Not one of the imputations which were made was sustained. Rarely, if ever, has an attack been made by responsible persons which rested on such flimsy foundations, and rarely, if ever, has such an attack met with such complete refutation and exposure.

I pass to the particular incident to which the noble Earl has referred. I pass to it not in the least degree with any idea of adding to the feelings of natural mortification and self-reproach to which he has just given expression. I mention it only because it has a wider implication and meaning. We none of as can conceal from ourselves that the main reason why your Lordships' House acted in the mailer you did was that they relied implicitly upon the character and the asseverations of a noble Lord possessing the reputation which Earl Stanhope in our midst enjoys. It seemed scarcely possible to us to believe that charges made upon the word, and let this be added, under the protection, of a Peer who declared himself with regard to the most serious of them that he had seen almost the whole of the evidence and several of the witnesses, could be untrue.

If the noble Earl will allow me I cannot help alluding, in passing, to one incident to which he did not refer but which appears in the Report of the Committee. It is this. The particular charge to which we are alluding is that concerning the relations of a military officer and a young lady, and it appears from the Report that after his speech in this House the noble Earl was asked by the solicitor for the colonel, who thought his name had been directly implicated, if that was the case, and the noble Earl, I think he will now admit, acting in grave error, sheltered himself behind the privilege of your Lordships' House and declined to reply. What was the result? We have to look at it in its wider aspect. This young lady, the daughter of a major-general, herself a young woman who had, I believe, rendered not inconspicuous war service, was left to lie for months under the cloud of a disgraceful charge. She was compelled to submit to the indelicacy of a medical examination; she was subjected in the witness box to a most dishonouring cross-examination by counsel for Miss Douglas-Pennant; and it turns out at the end, as the noble Earl has himself admitted, that he had not seen a single witness, he did not even know who told him. He thought, he said, before the Committee that it was Miss Douglas-Pennant, and when she was questioned and disputed that assertion on his part he said somebody else had told somebody else who had told him. So much for the specific charge of immorality against these two unfortunate persons.

As to the general charges of immorality at Hurst Park, they were equally deplorable, and they turned out—and I am glad the noble Earl recognises it—to be equally unfounded. These charges were scattered wholesale by Miss Douglas-Pennant, and the only evidence she could produce was one Turnbull, a man to whom I have referred and who proved nothing at all. That such charges should have been made, based on such evidence or lack of evidence, is a proof of the length to which in this case recklessness and malice were allowed to go.

I turn away with pleasure from that particular aspect of the case. I would like, after what the noble Earl has said, to pass a sponge over these particular incidents and charges. But let your Lordships remember that the Committee was set up not to consider charges of immorality, specific or general, alone, although the victims of these charges were undoubtedly the persons who suffered most. Scarcely anybody who could be brought within the purview of this matter was spared. Persons who had rendered invaluable service were defamed as dishonest intriguers. The most wounding charges were aimed against ladies like Lady Rhondda and Dame Katherine Furse, against eminent politicians such as Sir Auckland Geddes, and against distinguished soldiers such as General Brancker. If these charges had not been made under privileged conditions Miss Douglas-Pennant would have been answerable in damages and costs amounting to many thousands of pounds. As the Committee say in almost the concluding words of their Report— It has compelled the Committee in substance to try the issues in what ought to have been some half-dozen or more actions for libel before some half-dozen or more juries, and to do so when this Committee have no power to give effect to their findings by awarding damages against the libeller or even to give costs to the parties libelled. As it is, my Lords, the total expenses to the State in preparing this case, in paying legal expenses to the persons who were implicated, in respect of printing, and paying the shorthand-writers, will have amounted before the bill is complete to considerably over £10,000. Of this sum only £220, that for the cost of the shorthand writers, can be charged upon the Vote of your Lordships' House.

Such, my Lords, is the financial consequence of this proceeding. I fail for my part to see any single compensating advantage. I earnestly hope that no noble Lord, if any speak after me in this discussion, will endeavour to make the point that the Committee was justified because of the complete exposure of the charges which were made, since that would be tantamount to saying that charges have only to be made sufficiently scandalous and sufficiently numerous in order to justify your Lordships in setting up a Select Committee to enquire into them.

I desire to say only one more sentence in conclusion, and it is a sentence which I utter with every possible feeling of respect. I speak of the position in the matter taken up by your Lordships' House as a whole. I doubt not, indeed I am convinced, that the majority of your Lordships acted from perfectly honourable motives in this matter. You thought that this lady, who had many friends, who was undoubtedly an able woman, and who had herself rendered distinguished services in many fields connected with the war and otherwise, was the victim of personal injustice. You were led to think that a discreditable state of affairs existed in one of the branches of the Public Service—namely, the Royal Air Force, and particularly the women's portion of it. You believed, or were led to believe, that a conspiracy existed to hush up this condition of affairs; and, my Lords, led by these motives, which in themselves were entirely honourable, however mistaken, you took the law into your own hands and three times rejected the advice offered to you by responsible Ministers of the Crown. You acted, I have no doubt, in the interests of justice, but you undoubtedly gave the impression, and this was not the least unfortunate aspect of the case, that you were doing for one who was connected with your own order, what you would have been less eager to do for one of more humble circumstances.


No, No! and Oh, Oh!


I do not say it is a correct impression, but it was the impression which was conveyed. You have only to look at the papers.


An utterly false impression.


An uterly false impression, I agree; but it existed and was commented upon in the public Press. The result is that a large sum of public money has been expended, an immense amount of personal suffering has been caused, most inadequately compensated by the vindication that has been received, and a precedent has been set which I entirely concur with the Chairman and the members of the Committee in saying they earnestly trust will not form a precedent ever to be followed in the future.

I hope, my Lords, that this experience will lead every one of us—because, never mind on which side of the House we sit, we are all liable to act upon the same motives—to be less quick and impulsive in our suspicions, more moderate in the censures that we are sometimes too ready to pass upon public servants, more scrupulous in the evidence which we require in the support of charges of a very defamatory character and; above all—and this affects the House alone—more jealous how we guard and more careful how we set in motion the great prerogatives which, as the Upper House in the Parliament of this country, we enjoy.


My Lords, I am quite sure that your Lordships will echo the words of the noble Earl opposite, that we respect and sympathise with my noble friend Lord Stanhope in the very ample words which he used, and which he ought to have used, in respect of the misinformation which he gave to your Lordships' House, and for the deplorable wrong it inflicted upon an innocent woman. My noble friend made the apology which a gentleman would wish to make, and which as a gentleman he did make, and every one of us respect him for the attitude which he has adopted in your Lordships' House this afternoon.

I agree with much of what the noble Earl opposite has said. I agree that it is not only deplorable that charges should have been made against this lady, but also against the high public servants, men and women, who came within the purview of the charges. I quite agree that that was a very unfortunate and deplorable thing, and I am very glad that they have been vindicated. The noble Earl opposite, however, did not confine himself to speaking with respect of my noble friend's apology, nor to reciting what the Committee had found. He also found considerable fault with your Lordships' House for the action which the majority saw fit to take. I am afraid that I cannot go with my noble friend in all he said in that respect, and I speak to some extent from an impartial point of view, because, as the House and the noble Earl opposite are aware, I did not vote for the Inquiry which has been the subject of this Report.

But, my Lords, was it so very odd that an Inquiry was asked for? After all, the Prime Minister himself said that an Inquiry ought to be held. The House must remember that, and that was the strongest ground which was put forward during the first of the two debates which were held in your Lordships' House to discuss this matter. The noble Earl opposite says that he hopes no one will say that the Inquiry is justified by the result. I deplore that the Inquiry was held upon information which was incorrect, and which ought not to have been incorrect; but I do not think it is unfortunate that the suspicions which the previous history of this question had engendered were cleared away. After all, there was a long history—the noble Earl went into a great deal of it—but there was a long private history beyond what he recited, of goings and comings between the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister's Secretary and the parties, and a whole cloud of suspicion was engendered. I think it was a good thing, and not a bad thing, that that should be cleared away, and that all persons implicated should be found to be entirely innocent; and I do not think my noble friend is right in saying it is immaterial that the result of the Inquiry turned out to be what it did turn out to be.

The whole point is, upon what information did your Lordships think fit to order an Inquiry. The information was wrong. Of course, that is agreed. The information was not only wrong but it ought not to have been wrong. But, given information presented to your Lordships as it was, although I did not vote for the Inquiry and was not satisfied personally that an Inquiry ought to be held, I am not prepared to criticise the majority of the House because they took a different view. The noble Earl has reproved your Lordships. Honestly, that is an unusual thing for a member of your Lordships' House to do. What the majority decide we generally accept and submit to and may I say that I did regret in the noble Earl's speech that he should have suggested that in the action which the majority of your Lordships' House took there was a suspicion abroad that we should not have so acted if the lady in question had not been connected with our own order.


Hear, hear.


I will characterise such an impression as an absolute falsehood. I do not believe that there was a single member of your Lordships' House who voted in the majority but was inspired with a pure desire to see justice done and to see an abuse righted, absolutely irrespective of what the position of this lady was.


I accepted that. I did not deny for one moment what the noble Marquess has said. All that I said was—and I repeat it—that it was unfortunate that the impression existed and that the conduct of your Lordships' House gave justification to it. And that impression was more than once stated in this House in the course of the debate.


I think that it is to be regretted that the noble Earl, with his authority, should have given some sort of advertisement to a suggestion such as that. All that I have to say, in conclusion, is that I earnestly hope that the history of this case will not act as a restraint upon your Lordships' House in doing your duty to investigate and apply remedies to abuses wherever you think they exist. It all depends upon the information on which your Lordships think fit to act, which in this case was of course wholly incorrect, but it would be a deplorable thing if as a result of this Inquiry and as a result of the speech of the noble Earl your Lordships did not, wherever you see fit, have what inquiries seem good to you made in order to investigate abuses and do your best to remedy them. After all, the path of the reformer is a very hard one. He has all the vested interests of the Government against him, and he has all those who command all the best information against him, and has to do his best Sometimes he makes mistakes Some- times, as in the case of my noble friend, his zeal outruns his discretion, but I am quite certain that on the whole it is a good thing that abuses should be inquired into, and I earnestly hope that the result of this Inquiry may not restrain your Lordships from doing your duty whenever the occasion arises.