§ LORD AMPTHILL had the following Questions on the Paper—
§ To ask His Majesty's Government whether it is the fact—
- 1. That Miss Violet Douglas Pennant was summarily dismissed from her post of Commandant as well as from the Women's Royal Air Force by Major-General Sir W. S. Brancker only a few days after Major-General Sir Godfrey Paine (the predecessor of the former in the office of Master-General of Personnel) had assured her, upon her tendering her resignation, that the Air Ministry had complete confidence in her and begged that she should not resign her appointment.
- 2. That the Prime Minister appointed Mr. Cecil Harmsworth to inquire into the matter.
- 3. That Mr. Cecil Harmsworth recommended that in justice to Miss Pennant a full judicial inquiry should be held.
- 4. That the Prime Minister promised that such an inquiry should be held.
- 5. That the inquiry has not yet been held and that the Air Ministry declines to have it held; and to move for Papers.
§ THE PARLIAMENTARY UNDERSECRETARY OF STATE FOR AIR (THE MARQUESS OF LONDONDERRY)
My Lords, in rising to reply to the Questions which the noble Lord has put on the Paper, may I take this opportunity of expressing my gratitude to him for his courtesy in giving me notice longer than is usually allowed by the rules of the House of his intention to raise this matter. It is certainly not for me to criticise the Wisdom of the noble Lord in bringing this matter before your Lordships, and as to the length of the noble Lord's speech I feel I have no sort of ground for complaint. The noble Lord has occupied responsible positions in the service of the Government, and he knows perfectly well the requirements of the Public Service, and so I feel that he has considered this matter very closely in all its vital aspects before taking the responsibility of raising this subject and asking your Lordships to consider it.
My Lords, a question of this description is always a very difficult one to deal with, and when there is a suggestion that anyone labours under a grievance; real or unreal, it always finds a sympathetic audience in your Lordships' House; and when the central figure of the matter is a lady, it naturally arouses those chivalrous instincts in your Lordships' minds which we are glad should and do exist. But Miss Violet Douglas Pennant has no need to take advantage of any assistance of this kind. She has a career behind her in the public service to which I am only too glad to be able to pay a high tribute. She has been a member of the London County Council, and also a member of the Welsh Insurance Commission, and when I speak of these two bodies we know well what degree of efficiency and capacity was required to discharge those duties well and adequately, as Miss Violet Douglas Pennant has done all through these years.
If I could he suspected of prejudice in taking a line which can be termed a somewhat antagonistic one—that is not the 426 word which I should like to use, but I should say a line which does not exactly coincide with the view put forward by those who are supporting Miss Douglas Pennant in this question—if I could be suspected of any prejudice in the matter, may I say that Miss Douglas Pennant is the daughter of a late highly-respected member of your Lordships' house, who I am glad to think honoured me with his acquaintance, and her two half-brothers were two of my most highly-valued friends, both of whom lost their lives in the war. Therefore I feel that you will absolve me of having any prejudice in the matter, and admit that my sole desire is to put before your Lordships the case as I have endeavoured to understand it, and ask you to realise what is the view of the Government in connection with this matter.
My task is not a very easy one on its merits. It would be an easy one if I were to read out to your Lordships the specific answers which I have in my possession to the Questions which the noble Lord has put on the Paper, but I feel that I should be lacking in courtesy if I did not, with the very inferior powers at my disposal, venture to present the case to your Lordships with a view of removing any misunderstanding or any sense of bitterness which may reside in the minds of those who are supporting Miss Douglas Pennant, and also of those in your Lordships' House who naturally take a great interest in this matter. It is in this connection that I feel I am entitled to claim a certain amount of indulgence from your Lordships. My Parliamentary career has been passed far more in polishing the weapons of attack, if I may use the expression, than in learning the meaning of the subtler weapons of defence. Your Lordships know well that a member of the Opposition in the House of Commons always endeavours to bring to his aid all the diabolical ingenuity he can command for the purpose of harassing an embarrassed Minister⁁
§ THE MARQUESS OF LONDONDERRY
—and I feel that I may, perhaps, have ranged myself on the side of the noble Lord but for the fact that I am in the responsible position of answering the Questions which the noble Lord has put. But when I speak of "attack" and "defence" I am surely exaggerating. There is no question of attack, and there is 427 no question of defence. There is no idea that one side will triumph and another side will fail. We are anxious that this matter should be put before your Lordships in its true aspects, so that your Lordships will be able to draw your own conclusions, and to realise whether the Ministry have acted fairly and justly, or whether Miss Douglas Pennant has been treated in a manner in which certainly no one was entitled to be treated. I should like to say at this juncture that my sole desire—and it is a burning desire—is to prove to your Lordships that the Air Ministry have not acted unjustly, have not besmirched the character of the lady in question by the action which they have taken, and have in no sense injured a career which we hope will be employed to the benefit of the country for many years to come.
May I deal with the first Question which the noble Lord has put on the Paper? I should like to say at once that there is a certain amount of misapprehension in the mind of the noble Lord. Miss Violet Douglas Pennant was not a member of the Women's Royal Air Force but was lent to that force by the Welsh Insurance Commission. It is quite true that Miss Douglas Pennant was superseded. Your Lordships are well aware of all those difficulties which naturally surround the inauguration of a new undertaking. We have been the witnesses during these last four years of the almost insuperable difficulties which heads of Departments have had to overcome, and I am sorry to think that the Women's Royal Air Force provided no exception to that rule. There were enormous difficulties to counteract, and His Majesty's Government are well aware that Miss Douglas Pennant did her utmost to overcome them. But I regret to say that Lord Weir, the Secretary of State for the Air Ministry, was convinced that she was unable to overcome those difficulties.
In that connection I should like to go into all possible detail for the purpose of satisfying the noble Lord who has raised the subject, and to show your Lordships exactly how the matter stood. The Women's Royal Air Force had been in existence for some months, and the jurisdiction of Miss Violet Douglas Pennant occupies a certain period of that time. As I have said, the path was beset with difficulties, and this fact was brought to the notice of the Secretary of State. He satisfied himself, on the evidence which he 428 obtained, that there was a large amount of disorganisation, and that the control over the Women's Royal Air Force was not of such a character as to justify that state of affairs continuing. The Secretary of State did not make up his mind at once. A certain period of time was allowed to elapse, and then the Secretary of State wrote a letter to Miss Violet Douglas Pennant, and, in a word, that lady was superseded. Now I venture to come to a point which I am very willing, on behalf of the Government, to admit. It is that, while it was supposed that a month would elapse before the Secretary of State would come to his final decision, a fortnight alone was allowed to elapse, and Miss Violet Douglas Pennant was requested by the Secretary of State to give up her duties.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LONDONDERRY
I have not the letter of Lord Weir with me at the moment, but I can tell the noble Lord more or less its contents.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LONDONDERRY
The noble Lord must excuse me, because this is a matter which has come to my cognisance only in the course of the last two days. He will realise, and noble Lords will realise, that this episode (if I may use the expression) occurred under the Ægis of the previous Administration of the Royal Air Force. When I say that, I am not, on behalf of myself or of the present Administration of the Air Force, disclaiming any responsibility in the matter. Our desire is to elucidate the facts and to prove them to the satisfaction of all parties concerned so that no bitterness or misunderstanding can be left in the mind of any one. So far as my memory goes, the letter was to the effect that there had been disorganisation in the Women's Royal Air Force, that for the present Miss Violet Douglas Pennant did not seem to be able to co-operate with those other organisations which came naturally into close contact with the 429 Women's Royal Air Force, and that, in the interests of the service of which he was the representative, he deemed it best that Miss Violet Douglas Pennant should be replaced by a successor.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LONDONDERRY
I have had the letter just placed in my bands. It is dated September 6, 1918.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LONDONDERRY
In reply to the remark which the noble Lord makes, I would point out to him that Miss Violet Douglas Pennant was superseded by the Secretary of State and not by General Brancker or any subordinate official. As the noble Lord must know from his own experience, this is a matter which is the sole responsibility of the head of the Department, who, as we know, takes every possible advice upon the subject. He considers it with the most close personal contact he can possibly achieve, and on his own volition and responsibility lie carries out the details of his administration.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LONDONDERRY
Perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to finish my statement, and perhaps I shall have an opportunity, with the leave of your Lordships' House, to reply to the arguments which the noble Lord has put forward. When the noble Lord interrupted me I was suggesting, or rather affirming—it is the wish and desire of His Majesty's Government I should do so—that they feel, and feel very acutely, that Miss Violet Douglas Pennant was not treated with that consideration which she is entitled to claim, and I know that if Lord Weir was here at this moment he would be 430 the first to admit that and to offer whatever apology lay in his power to Miss Violet Douglas Pennant. But, my Lords, while that is certainly a ground for grievance to which the noble Lord on behalf of Miss Violet Douglas Pennant can lay claim.
I come to another question which the noble Lord has put to me, and that is the connection of Mr. Cecil Harmsworth with the case. As your Lordships are aware, Mr. Cecil Harmsworth is now Under-Secretary of Slate for Foreign Affairs. Previous to his appointment to that office he was a member of the Prime Minister's secretariat, and in his capacity, I understand, as secretary to the Prime Minister he was asked to investigate the case. I have seen Mr. Cecil Harmsworth and had a certain amount of conversation with him in respect to this matter. He tells me that he had an interview with Miss Violet Douglas Pennant, aid that in the course of the interview she alleged that certain influences had been brought to bear; in fact—I think I am right in taking your Lordships into all the facts I know of the the case—that she was more or less the victim of a conspiracy. Mr. Cecil Harmsworth then, as I think anybody else would have done, felt that it was not a matter on which he could adjudicate, and he left the case at that moment and said, "If this is the case as you state it, it is not a matter for me, but for some competent authority which the Prime Minister may think right to select." That, as far as I understand it, is the sole portion of the story in which Mr. Cecil Harmsworth is interested.
With regard to the statement that the Prime Minister promised that such an inquiry should be held, I say at once that the noble Lord can obtain no corroboration for that statement. I should be glad to know on what authority the noble Lord was led to believe that the Prime Minister had agreed to the setting up of an inquiry into the reasons for the supersession of Miss Violet Douglas Pennant. May I say a few words with regard to the question of supersession? Supersession is almost always a matter which causes a great amount of disappointment, destruction of hopes, in some cases the destruction perhaps of a life-long ambition. In the last four years the number of cases of 431 supersession, not only in the highest ranks in the Army, but also in every walk of the public life, have been many. In my own experience in France I know of many officers who were removed from their posts, not because they were incompetent, not because they were hopelessly inefficient or anything of the kind, but because they did not fulfil all those requirements which are necessary for the efficient carrying out of work, which is before authority. If there was any doubt that one individual was not altogether the best man to have under his jurisdiction, almost in his hands, the lives of the soldiers in France, he was put on one side at once and some one else put in his place. That was not a ground for inquiry; it was not a case in which anyone would have said that the jurisdiction of the head authority should be questioned. It happened in more cases than I should like to enumerate. It is always a matter of regret, and when it comes about it is something that we are all sorry for, but we feel that it is a principle none of us can alter. I am bound to say this on behalf of His Majesty's Government. If the question which the noble Lord is raising is one of inquiry as to the merits of the action which the Secretary of State took in superseding Miss Violet Douglas Pennant, it is a course of action they cannot countenance for one moment. I think it also right to say that if it is a question for inquiry as to whether there was any individual who could fill that post better, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, than Miss Violet Douglas Pennant, that is a demand which the Government are unable to concede.
I have endeavoured to put before your Lordships the attitude of the Government in this matter. I have, perhaps, spoken with a certain amount of heat on the question of supersession. It seems to me to be one which touches the whole public life of this country. The claim of anyone to occupy a high position in this country depends on his capacity to select the right individuals to act as subordinates to himself. But when I come to the other side of the case, and when I am given to understand that there is an idea in Miss Violet Douglas Pennant's mind and in the minds of those noble Lords who are taking up this case that she has been the victim of malice, the victim of a conspiracy, I am entitled to say on behalf of the Government that the Secretary of State will leave no stone unturned to probe that allegation to its very uttermost limit, and if Miss Violet Douglas 432 Pennant can bring forward a prima facie case, in which she will state the names of individuals who are associated in this reprehensible action, give us dates and details, give us facts, an inquiry shall most certainly be held, and all these facts brought to light and to the satisfaction, not only of Miss Violet Douglas Pennant and those noble Lords who are supporting her, but to the satisfaction of the whole of your Lordships' House and the other House of Parliament.
§ EARL STANHOPE
My Lords, the noble Marquess who has just sat down, as the whole House would expect, made the very best of an extremely weak case. In the closing part of his speech he apparently entirely forgot that he has to deal with the question of British law rather than the question of Continental law. In England it is the law that every one is innocent until proved to be guilty, and there is no question of anybody who is accused of having done anything having to produce proof that this, that, and the other has not been done. The noble Marquess really took the line that is taken in France, that a prisoner has to prove his innocence before that innocence can be established, and that all sorts of charges have to be met with dates, names, and everything else before innocence can be established.
What is the case? My noble friend has put down on the Paper a series of Questions. What are the answers he received? First of all, the noble Marquess told us that Miss Violet Douglas Pennant did not belong to the Women's Royal Air Force, and was only lent by the Pensions Committee in Wales. I do not know what foundation there is for that. It would be simply proved whether she was a member of the Air Force or not by the noble Marquess being able to tell the House whether Miss Pennant wore the uniform of the Air Force or not: If she wore the uniform of the Force, or was entitled to wear it, she was a member of that Force, and could only cease to be a member of it if she was dismissed, or, as the noble Marquess prefers to call it, superseded. There is no difference between the two words; they mean one and the same thing.
The noble Marquess himself raised the question of supersession which took place in France. I have seen a good many cases of that kind, but I do not re 433 member any case in which an officer was not told the reasons why he had been superseded. It was obvious that he had failed to take a position, or to hold it, or that he had been found incompetent in one way or another. But whatever the cause, the officer was always told why he had been superseded. In this case that has not happened. Why has it not happened? We are led to believe that there were other people; perhaps, who were more fitted for the pest. In what way were they more fitted for it? Was it that Miss Violet Douglas Pennant was considered incompetent, or what was the reason? As a matter of fact, if the noble Marquess had produced the letter from the Minister of the Air Force we would find that that Minister wrote stating that Miss Pennant had been extremely efficient. That is hardly a reason for dismissal lie failed to produce that letter. I do not know how things are done in the Ministry, but as a rule in a great Government Office any papers relating to an individual are kept in one jacket and in one file, and every paper relating to that individual should be quite easily found.
As to the further Questions that are on the Paper, the reply that we were given to No. 2 was that the Prime Minister appointed Mr. Cecil Harmsworth; to No. 3, that Mr. Cecil Harmsworth was in possession of the facts as given to him by Miss Pennant and thought that a judicial inquiry might be held; and as to No. 4, the noble Marquess does not know whether the Prime Minister promised an inquiry or not. To No. 5 the reply was that it is quite impossible that any inquiry should be held. I think that any individual who is placed in the position of Miss Pennant is entitled to be told quite clearly and without any equivocation why she was dismissed from the post which she held.
This is not a single case. There are other cases of a similar kind. There have been cases where information about individuals has been withheld a great deal too long. There is, for instance, the question of Sir Frederick Stopford, of Suvla Bay; the question of General Gough, the question of General Townshend, and the question of Sir William Garstin. In every one of those cases individuals have been dismissed from their posts, or something of a similar kind has happened, and they have been given absolutely no information as to why these things have been done.
434 This House is very jealous of what is done to individuals, particularly to great public servants, and I suggest to His Majesty's Government that it is not very wise of them not to give every fact which they possibly can on these occasions, because inevitably suspicion is aroused, and when suspicion is aroused debates take place which perhaps are not to the benefit of the Government and do not tend to the strengthening of their position. I suggest that His Majesty's Government should face these facts quite clearly, and say that they think in justice to the individual that the individual should be told the reason for the supersession or dismissal. That has never been done yet. The public should be told why these things have occurred.
I believe that a great deal of mischief has been done by leading articles and letters in the Press attacking the Government, and I think it is one of the things which every one of us ought to endeavour to avoid at a time of crisis such as the country is passing through at this moment. I am quite sure that there are no members of your Lordships' House who would not do their utmost to strengthen the hands of the Government, but with procedure such as this it is impossible to support them. So long as the Government put their heads into the sand and play the ostrich it is impossible for members in this House to support them in the way that they wish to do. I press strongly that His Majesty's Government should tell us a great deal more than they have told us vet. If not, I cannot see that my noble friend has any alternative other than to press his Motion, and if he does I shall support hint in the Division Lobby.
§ LORD WITTENHAM
My Lords, I came down to the House hoping that we should have a rather fuller explanation from His Majesty's Government of the circumstances under which Miss Pennant was dismissed. Of course, we all perfectly understand that while the war was on things had to be done at once, and people had to go at once if, in the opinion of the authorities who decided these matters, it was in the public interest that they should go. The noble Marquess who represents the Government in this matter explained the purport of Lord Weir's letter, which he had not at that time in his hand, but subsequently he said that Lord Weir's letter had been placed in his hand, or at all events I understood him to say so. 435 There, is a rule that if you quote from a letter the letter should be produced. The letter has been quoted from, or at all events the purport of it has been quoted, and I did not understand from the noble Marquess that he had any reason for withholding that letter from your Lordships' House, or for not reading it. But he did not, in fact, read it. I hope, if the noble Marquess replies, that lie may explain to your Lordships why, if he now declines to read it, he does so decline.
I should like to know, was Lord Weir's letter written after or before the interview between Sir William Brancker and Miss Violet Douglas Pennant? In other words, Did Sir William Brancker first dismiss Miss Violet Douglas Pennant and afterwards obtain the sanction of his chief, or was it upon the instructions of his chief that Sir William Brancker told Miss Pennant, as he did in fact tell her, that her services would not be required? I think that a matter of moment. Also there is this—I will not say curious, but noticeable—circumstance about the matter, that according to Miss Violet Douglas Pennant Sir Godfrey Paine, the predecessor of Sir William Brancker, had assured her almost immediately before he left, and before Sir William Brancker took up the leading position, that the Air Ministry had complete confidence in her and begged that she should not resign her appointment. It does strike one as odd that the moment Sir William Brancker comes on the scene, and has hardly really got the details of the work of the office within his cognisance, there and then he arrives at a diametrically opposite opinion from Sir Godfrey Paine. The answer may be given me, quot homines, tot sententiÆ Sir William Brancker differed in tote from the opinion arrived at by his prodecessor, and it is at that point that it seems to me that the letter of Lord Weir is of the greatest possible importance. Because I understand that Lord Weir was in the supreme position at the time that Sir Godfrey Paine held the position that Sir William Brancker subsequently took up, and if that is so Lord Weir knew all about it. Well then, when Sir Godfrey, Paine said that the Air Ministry had complete confidence in her, did he say that with the cognisance and consent of his chief, Lord Weir? And if he did, what right had Sir William Brancker, the moment he came on the scene, to differ from Lord Weir? That, again, 436 strikes me as a point that rather wants elucidation.
I happen to enjoy the privilege of the lady's acquaintance, as many of your Lordships doubtless do, but that does not move me in the matter; how could it? It is only that I desire to know, so far as I am allowed to know, exactly how the matter stands. And as it stands at present I must say I am left in considerable doubt, difficulty, and hesitancy, and it is only by reading (if the noble Marquess can do so) Lord Weir's letter that I, at any rate, can find some of my doubts resolved.
§ LORD AMPTHILL
My Lords, if it was the object of the noble Marquess to allay annoyance and disappointment, I regret to tell him that he has lamentably failed in that object. Your Lordships, with just the hare facts before you, can judge whether I have had a straight answer to a straight question or not. The answer to these five questions, which I put down categorically, was "Yes" in each case, and in no case have I had a straight "Yes." That is not the way to allay suspicion and to relieve anxiety. I am not complaining of the noble Marquess. He knew nothing about the case before he was obliged to take up the heritage of his predecessor, and he is, of course, the mouthpiece of the Department. He has all my sympathy for being obliged to pronounce in your Lordships' House an answer which is so palpably evasive and incorrect.
The first main point in which he is incorrect is his insistance in saying that Miss Violet Pennant was superseded. Miss Pennant was not superseded; she was dismissed. She was dismissed in an abrupt, and arbitrary, and insulting manner. The letter from Lord Weir, with which the noble Marquess endeavoured to obscure the issue, was written sonic time after this dismissal and not before, and your Lordships will have noticed that the noble Marquess was most careful not to answer the question with which I interrupted him as to the date of that letter. We had a long dissertation on the question of supersession and how it is necessary in war time, and how it may be a grievance, though not a case for inquiry. This was a case of dismissal, and every public servant, whether in the Navy or the Army or the Civil service, has the right to know the cause of his dismissal from that service. That is a well 437 acknowledged and fully recognised right, which is possessed by everybody who is in any kind of service. That is all that Miss Pennant asks for, and she asks it not for herself, not for the sake of reparation, but because this is a question of principle, it is a test case. If we have now come to a state of things in which any public servant may be arbitrarily dismissed at a moment's notice by any Jack-in.-office and have no address, no right of asking for the cause of dismissal, then we have got to a state of things which has never existed in this country before, and which is intolerable. You have the fact of the Prime Minister's promise. It was repeated again and again that an Inquiry should be held, and that promise has not been kept. Again, that is a thing which is intolerable, and it is highly disconcerting at the present time when the Prime Minister gives his word and that word is not kept.
We now come to a new suggestion, which may be exceedingly clever, but which is not a fair suggestion; it is not "playing the game." Miss Violet Pennant asks for an Inquiry into the causes of her dismissal—nothing more than that; and she is told "You shall not have that unless you bring a charge of corruption." Did anybody ever hear such a monstrous suggestion? She asks to have the causes of her dismissal inquired into; she is not the accuser, she merely wishes to know the reason why, and she is met by the answer, "Unless you put yourself in the position of accuser, unless you bring some charge of corruption, or scandal, or Heaven knows what, against the Department, you shall not have any Inquiry, you shall not have justice." I do not think there is any precedent for action of that kind. It is certainly not fair or just; it is not what We have the right to expect from a Minister of the Crown.
A prima facie case for inquiry has been established by Mr. Cecil Harmsworth, who was appointed by the Prime Minister, and if you wish to know further reasons for inquiry I can give them in a few words. The various Ministers and authorities concerned have all disagreed as to the cause of dismissal. Take first of all Major-General Brancker. He told Miss Pennant that she was dismissed not because she was inefficient—he went out of his way to say that she was very efficient—but because she was unpopular. That may or may not be a case for dismissal, but that was the 438 sole reason given by Major-General Brancker. When Miss Pennant went to Lord Weir he dropped that and said it was not the case that case that that she was unpopular; it was because she did not get on with certain women's organisations. It was the first that Miss Violet Douglas Pennant had heard about it, and to this day no proof has been produced of friction with other women's organisations. That was Lord Weir's reason.
Then we come to Major-General Seely, who had taken it over; and the reason he gave was that it was on account of Miss Pennant's inefficiency—the very thing that had been denied by the two previous authorities, who, not only in their personal communications to Miss Pennant but openly in the House of Commons and publicly, had said that she was very efficient and capable. Now here you have the three reasons. Which of them is right? We want to get to the bottom of it. Surely Miss Pennant has a right to be told whether she was dismissed because she was unpopular, or because she could not get on with some women's organisation (which has not been named), or whether she was dismissed because of inefficiency. And now she is told that unless she brings a charge of corruption—a thing which it has never entered her head to do—against somebody or something, she is not to have this elementary justice.
The noble Marquess was careful to avoid saying anything about the Papers for which I moved. I should like to know whether we are going to be given the Papers in this case. It is no good telling me that there are no Papers, because there must be some. No transaction of this kind takes place in a Government Office without there being something on paper. The noble Marquess appealed to me on account of my knowledge of Public Offices. Yes, I know something about them, and I know the way these things are done; and I know it is incredible and inconceivable that any important public servant should be dismissed without something being in writing. We have the Report of Mr. Cecil Harmsworth. I take it that he did not report verbally to the Prime Minister, and that he must have put down something in writing. Further than that, there are the protests of a great number of public bodies who have taken up this matter. A number of important trade unions and other public bodies have been interested in this case, 439 not only on account of Miss Pennant's great popularity and remarkable record of public work, but because they regard this as a test case; it is a case on the decision of which depends our security for ordinary justice and fair treatment for all those in the public service. I beg to remind your Lordships that I have moved for Papers.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, I am very reluctant to intervene in this most difficult matter, and I can assure your Lordships that nothing I shall say will exacerbate the discussion which has taken place. But it seems to me that the public are likely to be left rather in doubt as to the facts. Nobody admires the noble Marquess more than I do; nor could he have done better what he set out to do in his speech; yet there are one or two remarks which I think it right to make. In the first place I take it as admitted—my noble friend will correct me if I am wrong; I will use his own word—that the supersession of this lady was carried out in a way which he does not defend. I think he said that Lord Weir himself would admit that the supersession had taken place in a manner which was profoundly regrettable, or some phrase of that kind. I hope my noble friend will interrupt me if I make a mistake. That, I think, is a matter which is important. The apology which that, involves ought to be noted, and I hope it will serve to allay any feeling of annoyance and vexation which in the circumstances has arisen. That is a good point.
Then we have the great difficulty of knowing for what actual reason this lady was superseded. I should have thought—I say it with great respect and diffidence—that at the point at which things have arrived my noble friend would do right to say plainly what was the reason. Perhaps he may say—I do not put myself up as a judge in this matter—that it would have been better not to have asked the question; but once the question has been asked it seems to me that in the public interest it should be plainly stated what the answer is. Whether the answer gives pain or not, we cannot help it.
Lastly I should like to say that I think it very unfortunate—though no blame attaches to my noble friend—that he was not able to answer the question whether the Prime Minister had promised an Inquiry. He is of course; not the keeper of the Prime Minister's conscience; but, 440 as he himself admitted, there has been ample notice of this Question, and I imagine that communication could have been made to the Prime Minister and he could have been asked whether in fact he had made this promise. If the Prime Minister says he did not make the promise the matter will, of course, fall to the ground. But there is no doubt that the impression was conveyed to my noble friend Lord Ampthill, or to those in whose name he speaks, that the promise was not only made but repeated over and over again. If the Prime Minister makes a promise there seems to be only one course—namely, to fulfil the promise.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
If he did not make the promise, then, of course, the matter drops to the ground. But if my noble friend and the Government will make a plain statement of the reasons for the dismissal, and their view whether that was a proper course to have taken, perhaps nothing more would arise and the thing might come to an end. I do not think it is right, however, that the matter should be left as my noble friend opposite has been obliged to leave it, and I suggest with great respect and diffidence that it, would be wiser to make a clean breast of the reason; and, if there still seems to be need for an Inquiry, if the Prime Minister promised an inquiry, his promise ought to be fulfilled.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LONDONDERRY
My Lords, I can speak again only with the leave of your Lordships. I fully appreciate the remarks which have fallen from the noble Marquess. I can only apologise for my own shortcomings—
§ THE MARQUESS OF LONDONDERRY
—in putting forward the case if I have not been able to convey to him the objects which were in my mind, and the thoughts and reflections, after earnest consultation with my colleagues, which I was endeavouring to put before your Lordships' House. The noble Marquess seems to think from the speech that I made that there is something which we are anxious to conceal. I can assure him that there is nothing whatever of the kind. I spoke of the super- 441 session—which the noble Lord prefers to call the dismissal—of Miss Violet Douglas Pennant; and I thought I put before your Lordships' House the reasons why the Secretary of State was brought to that conclusion.
I thought I had told your Lordships that the organisation of the Women's Royal Air Force was not in the satisfactory condition which the Secretary of State was determined it should be. He had brought before him evidence of disorganisation, and he was satisfied that the control exercised over the Women's Royal Air Force was not satisfactory and not conducive in the best interests of the public service. We know well that at that time we were in the midst of an immense struggle, and that no one could afford to give anything away, and that, if some one were not to the highest possible degree of efficiency fulfilling a position, it was on the responsibility of the Secretary of State that he should leave no stone unturned to better the conditions of that particular department and to see that everything was done to make the force a really efficient asset to the British Government. The Secretary of State was convinced that this department was not being satisfactorily conducted, and he was confirmed afterwards in that opinion by the results of the change which he made. He himself is satisfied, and the Air Ministry are now satisfied, that the Force has improved; and Lord Weir assumes that it is by reason of the action which he felt justified in taking that the Women's Roy al Air Force enjoys at present an efficiency which it did not possess before.
I hope I have made it clear to your Lordships that that was the reason for the supersession—that that was the reason why Miss Douglas Pennant was superseded, or if the noble Lord likes, dismissed, from her post and a successor chosen to take her place. I hope I have made that clear to your Lordships. The further point which I desire to emphasise is this, that the Government could not countenance an inquiry as to reasons for the supersession. They do not believe that it is in the interests of the public service. It is a custom which is not followed. Lord Stanhope has, I believe, represented the War Office in your Lordships' House, and he knows perfectly well that non-commissioned officers and men, petty officers and ratings, are entitled to an inquiry if they are 442 superseded or dismissed from the posts which they occupy, but that rule does not prevail in other branches of the public service, and I do not think that your Lordships would desire that there should be a change in the procedure which has existed for all time. I do not know whether the noble Earl is advocating that, whenever dismissal or supersession takes place, an inquiry should be set up and all the facts brought oat, and that it should be inquired into why the responsible authority has thought fit to dismiss or supersede so-and-so.
§ EARL STANHOPE
I am suggesting that the individual in question should be told what the reasons were. That I believe is usual.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LONDONDERRY
I think that Miss Douglas Pennant was told the reasons by Lord Weir, and I believe the noble Earl knows that she was told.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LONDONDERRY
I have ventured to put forward the case as I understand it, and I hope that your Lordships will take the view which the Government are taking at this moment.
The Motion for Papers was then put by the Lord Chancellor, and a Division challenged.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
What is the Motion? Before we divide might I ask the House to be quite clear what it is that it is dividing upon I have listened to this discussion without, I frankly confess, knowing anything of the merits of the case before entering the House. I have heard the defence of my noble friend Lord Londonderry, and I gathered from his second statement two facts about which there has been considerable dispute. One is that there was an interview between Lord Weir and the lady in question, in which Lord Weir made her acquainted with the reason why he thought it desirable that her occupation in that force should cease. The second was that there existed such a state of dislocation and disorganisation in the force with which the lady was connected as to render it desirable that that 443 state of affairs should be brought to an end. Noble Lords may be dissatisfied with this explanation, and say that the lady has been unjustly treated; but while their speeches suggested either that the lady had been unjustly treated, or that there should be inquiry, that is not the Motion before the House. The Motion before the House, which is about to be put from the Woolsack, is a Motion for Papers. All of us who are familiar with the procedure of the House know perfectly well that that is a familiar move by which a speaker in charge of a Question reserves for himself a right of reply. That is the object for which the noble Lord concluded with a Motion for Papers. In fact when he got up he frankly confessed it. I have heard no Papers demanded. I have heard references to a particular Paper—namely, a letter from Lord Weir—but it is clear that noble Lords, although they professed curiosity as to its contents, had seen it or were familiar with its contents. Therefore it cannot be their object to divide for the production of a letter of which they are aware. What other Papers are there?
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
When a noble Lord concludes with a Motion for Papers, he may be expected to be in a position to say what Papers he wants. But the noble Lord now asks us to vote for a Motion for Papers in general. Whatever may be the merits of this question, von do not carry it one stage further by voting for a Motion that Papers be produced by the Government.
§ On Question, Motion negatived.
§ House adjourned during pleasure.
§ House resumed.