HL Deb 06 December 1939 vol 115 cc133-40

My Lords, I beg to ask the Leader of the House whether His Majesty's Government have any proposal respecting a Private Session of your Lordships' House.


My Lords, His Majesty's Government are prepared, if your Lordships so desire, to hold a Secret Session of this House on the general question of the Ministry of Supply. That, I understand, has been agreed in another place, and of course, the Government would be more than ready that your Lordships should have an equal opportunity if so desired. I do not know which day would suit the House best, but suggest either Tuesday or Thursday of next week. Perhaps that can be arranged after consultation between the different Parties in your Lordships' House.


My Lords, may I be permitted to say that I do not think it will give general satisfaction in your Lordships' House if a Secret Session is held and is to be confined to questions affecting the Ministry of Supply? It is quite true that the Secret Session in another place is to be so restricted, but honourable members in another place have control over Supply and your Lordships have not. Moreover, I do not think that, since the war began, any point of importance with regard to the Ministry of Supply has been raised in your Lordships' House. The fact is that in response to an almost unanimous desire in your Lordships' House for a Secret Session, the Government are now offering something which has not been asked for and which, indeed, is not particularly wanted. For my part, I say quite frankly that rather than have a Secret Session limited to questions of Supply—important though they are—I would prefer to have no Secret Session at all. I do not wish to make the slightest reflection on your Lordships' House, but in the circumstances a Secret Session confined to questions affecting the Ministry of Supply would not be a success, and the Government would make that a reason for not granting another and more important Secret Session later on. In fact, I am not at all sure that this is not a clever venture on the part of the Government to kill the idea of a Secret Session.


My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord could not have been here when my noble friend Lord Addison initiated a very important debate on the Ministry of Supply which drew a very important speech from the noble Lord, Lord Chatfield. The matter has been very fully discussed in your Lordships' House, and my noble friend could not have been here.


The noble Lord may be right, but I have taken the trouble to look through the OFFICIAL REPORT, and that debate was held, I think, just before the war, and not since the war.


The noble Lord, for once, is wrong. My noble friend Lord Addison, who was Minister of Munitions and has great knowledge, has raised this subject at great length and in great detail in your Lordships' House. But I have risen, by arrangement with my noble friend, to put this to the noble Earl who leads the House. The request for a Secret Session has reached us from noble Lords of very great experience in the King's service who wish to discuss matters of strategy, and we think, in view of the wealth of Service experience in your Lordships' House, we ought to be given an opportunity of discussing strategy. I may say at once that, while I occasionally speak on strategy myself, I have no intention of speaking in a Secret Session on any subject, because what I have to say might be too explosive even for a Secret Session. Would the noble Earl be prepared to make representations to the Government on our behalf that, seeing that the Ministry of Supply is being discussed in another place—and here I support Lord Arnold—and your Lordships are permitted to be present to hear what transpires in another place, it would be redundant to discuss it again here? But the broad questions of strategy would be very suitable, and Supply is linked up with that. As a matter of fact, my noble friend Lord Addison, if a Secret Session were held, would speak from the point of view of bringing Supply into close relation with strategy. We hope the matter will not be so closely narrowed as has been indicated by the noble Earl, and possibly he will represent that to the Prime Minister.

3.35 p.m.


My Lords, if the House generally does not want a Secret Session, I hope Lord Stanhope will not force it upon us. I should like to make just this observation. If we do have this Secret Session, it is essential that the matters to be discussed should be confined to a single Department or to a group of analogous subjects. We discussed a Secret Session a week or two ago. Had the House been in Secret Session at that time, the reply to that debate would have required answers from ten different Government Departments. The debate, therefore, would have been really a farce. If we are to have a Secret Session at all, it ought to be on closely defined subjects, so that the debate shall not sprawl over the general outlook on the war.


My Lords, the noble Earl who has just spoken was the only one in the course of the debate on the question of a Secret Session, other than the spokesman of the Government, who opposed the holding of a Secret Session. He would no doubt prefer that no Secret Session should be held at all. I disagree with him as to the necessity of confining discussion to a single topic. The Ministry of Supply is a topic which does not, I believe, interest many members of your Lordships' House in such detail as to make it worth while to have a Secret Session on that subject. On that I entirely agree with the noble Lords who have spoken from this side of the House. Nor is it very necessary that there should be only one subject. It could be easily arranged, through the Whips, that the debate shall take its ordinary course on one subject, followed by another batch of speeches on another subject, as is frequently the case.

I was one of the first to urge that a Private Session should be held in this House, but I never for a moment contemplated that it should be merely a Session dealing with the Ministry of Supply. The one subject of which I gave notice I should have desired to speak in a Private Session has no connection whatever with that topic. I therefore agree with Lord Arnold, who raised the subject specifically on a recent day, that it would be better to have no Secret Session at all than one limited to the Ministry of Supply. On the other hand, I consider it most desirable that there should be a Secret Session in order that the topics should be ventilated in private within these walls which were in the minds of many noble Lords who spoke in a representative and authoritative capacity in the recent debate.

3.40 p.m.


My Lords, in the first place, let me say it is not quite as the noble Lord on the Front Bench opposite seemed to indicate. It is not entirely for the Government to decide what subject is to be discussed in a private sitting; it is for the House to decide. It is true that unless the Government are prepared to take their part in the debate it might be rather a one-sided affair. That, of course, is for them to decide. I think there is some little difficulty in confining the discussion to one topic and one topic only, because I happen to know that noble Lords of great importance and influence do desire to discuss strategical considerations. There are also financial considerations which might very properly form part of a Private or Secret Session and would not be suitable altogether for public discussion. On the other hand, it is true that if we multiply these subjects it will be very difficult to get them all into the ordinary length of a sitting of your Lordships' House.

I rather gathered that the noble Viscount who has just sat down suggested there should be several private sittings. I do not think it would be a very good thing to have a succession of such sittings, because the outside public would think they were being kept in the dark altogether and that would have an unfortunate effect. Might I make a practical suggestion to my noble friend the Leader of the House, that he would allow us to confer with him privately as to what topics we thought, or many of us thought, ought to be discussed? Then he would be able to decide how far he could meet your Lordships in different parts of the House. I think it would be rather difficult to confine us only to the question of Supply. There are other very important matters, and your Lordships do not like to be tied down very tightly when you have once embarked on a debate.


My Lords, the difficulty raised by the noble Earl, Lord Crawford, is no doubt a real one, but we frequently do have matters discussed here for which there is no specified Minister of the Department present, and I do not see why at a Private Session noble Lords should not speak what they wish to say, and that what they say should not be reported, as we so frequently are promised will be done, to the appropriate Departments. I almost feel that to have a Secret Session which does not raise matters of general importance might give a wrong impression. I think the Government in the end must decide what it is best to do, but we do ask them to consider these various reflections.


My Lords, as an old Parliamentary Whip such as Lord Crawford has been, I do not personally think there is much to be gained by an indiscriminate Secret Session in which a variety of subjects can be discussed. I think there is always a way of approaching Ministers if there is anything really to be said, and especially is that so in this House. I am quite sure that any noble Lord who has anything to impart will be listened to with courtesy and attention. But in the event of strong opinions being expressed such as have already been expressed by a certain number of noble Lords that there should be a secret debate, I suggest that the matter ought to be left in the hands of the Whips, who would consult with the Peers who desire to speak in such a Session, and the result of that confabulation between the Whips and private members can be conveyed to the Government and the Government can take the responsibility.


My Lords, on the occasion when this question was previously raised in your Lordships' House I was one of those who advocated the holding of an unreported Session, and I did so from a knowledge of such Sessions in the other place during the last war. May I add my voice humbly to the voices that have been raised in favour of having a much less restricted debate than that which is proposed? I had no conception myself when I advocated the holding of an unreported or Secret Session that the topic would be confined to one issue. I would not have taken any interest in the matter if I had thought such a policy was going to be adopted, and, if I may put it so, it is really rather an innovation. I am a very new member of your Lordships' House, but so far as the prerogatives of the House are concerned I think it is rather an innovation on the part of the Government that they should seek to restrict debate on an occasion when it ought to be possible to raise any kind of matter.

As my noble friend Lord Gainford and others have pointed out, it is perfectly easy for members of the House to address the Whips and indicate to them what are the topics they wish to raise, as often happens in your Lordships' House, and then a responsible Minister representing the Department in question would no doubt be able to take his place on the Front Bench for the purpose of replying. I say again that if I had thought that this rather unpalatable device of an unreported Session was to be confined to a discussion on one Department of public business, I personally would not have taken any interest whatever in the matter.

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, I confess I found myself in some difficulty in regard to this discussion until my noble friend below the Gangway, the noble Marquess, spoke, and was supported by my noble friend Lord Gainford, because I really was completely at a loss as to what I was to say to the Prime Minister. I endeavoured to indicate when we discussed this matter on a former occasion that the Government preferred not to have a Secret Session in either House of Parliament, because we are doing our utmost to keep the public informed as fully as possible of everything going on in this country as far as that is consistent with the proper conduct of the war. I indicated then that the idea that there should be a Secret Session either here or elsewhere was likely to cause the public to think things were being kept from them which they were entitled to know. I also indicated then that if there was any special subject which your Lordships wished to discuss the Government would be prepared to consider the matter and say whether a Secret Session should be held.

When a request was made in another place to discuss the Ministry of Supply, the Government decided that that was a subject which they felt could be properly discussed in Secret Session, and they have agreed to it; but I think my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made it quite clear that he is not prepared to consider the question of holding a Secret Session which has a roving commission over the whole question of the war. That is a very different matter from holding a debate on one particular subject. Several of your Lordships have said that you are not interested in discussing the Ministry of Supply, but I am still at a loss to know what your Lordships do wish to discuss. One noble Lord said he wished to discuss strategy, someone else wished to discuss finance, and so on. We are getting into the situation which I endeavoured to meet in the remarks I made to your Lordships' House recently, that from a Government point of view we do not think it is to the advantage of this country that there should be a Secret Session not confined to one particular subject, for the reasons I then gave. If your Lordships would discuss with the Whips of the three Parties what is the subject you wish to discuss, then I will represent that matter to the Prime Minister, but I say quite frankly to your Lordships I think it is unlikely that the Government will be prepared to accede to a request of that kind.

My noble friend the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, is quite right in saying that the House can do what it pleases, but your Lordships will understand that, although you can make whatever remarks you please to His Majesty's Government, His Majesty's Government in reply can confine their remarks as they please, and therefore it is unlikely that the Government will agree to a discussion on such matters as strategy. If you do so you will get nothing that will be of any particular interest to any member of this House. That, I think, was what happened on a former occasion when a secret debate was held in this House. I understand that your Lordships, after an experience of that kind, decided that secret debates were of very little avail and have never repeated the experiment. That may occur again. But when your Lordships have consulted with the respective Whips regarding the matter you wish to discuss and come to a decision about it, then, of course, I will represent it to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, and I shall be able to report to your Lordships what the Government have decided in regard to the matter.

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