HL Deb 15 November 1939 vol 114 cc1801-31

LORD ARNOLD rose to call attention to the desirability of the House of Lords meeting for a Secret Session; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the question which I am submitting for your consideration is not a new one. Various requests for a Secret Session have been made both in your Lordships' House and in another place. So far as your Lordships' House is concerned, what has happened is that the Leader of the House the noble Earl, Lord Stanhope, said that the Government would consider the matter. Meanwhile time passes on, and in my submission the need for a Secret Session becomes not less urgent but more urgent. Accordingly I have put this Motion down in order that the whole question may be discussed. I do not claim that I have any special qualification for this task except, perhaps, that of experience. By "experience" I mean that I am one of the very few persons still living and in Parliament who were present through all the Secret Sessions in another place during the last war. I say the need for a Secret Session becomes more urgent.

No one could contend—the most ardent admirer of your Lordships' House could not contend—that the debates on the war and the international situation which take place here are satisfactory. That is not the fault of your Lordships or of your Lordships' House; it is inherent in the circumstances. We are at war, and noble Lords who speak feel, when they do so, that they must exercise extreme care lest anything which they say—which might perhaps be detached from its context and used unscrupulously—might be of service to the enemy. The necessity to speak with this meticulous restraint means, of course, that noble Lords, with their knowledge and experience, are not making anything like the full contribution which they could make to the solution of the various problems which now face the country. What in fact happens now? We have the weekly statements by the noble Earl, Lord Stanhope, about the war. Each Thursday he gives to your Lordships a statement which purports to be on the progress of the war, but, in fact, all that he says, or practically all that he says, we know before he gets up. That is not his fault, but it is the truth. Not only so, but, in general, the subsequent debate carries matters very little further. Actually, of course, no really free discussion is possible because we are at war.

To my certain knowledge various noble Lords whose opinion carries weight, and rightly carries weight, in your Lordships' House would speak in a Secret Session but, as it is, they do not speak at all. We are faced with a situation where, because noble Lords cannot say what they really think, many of them prefer to say nothing at all. On the other hand, there is a small minority who make speeches verging on the critical, but here again no adequate reply is made to them because the Government spokesman in his turn feels that he has to be extremely guarded in what he says. Some points of great substance have never been replied to at all. Therefore I say that about these war debates there is a sense of unreality, ineffectiveness, and frustration. Meanwhile the attendance in your Lordships' House, not unnaturally, grows less and less, and sometimes it scarcely seems worth while calling the House at all. Yet, whatever else is in dispute, this will not be in dispute—we are living in a time of grave crisis for our country and for all the nations of Europe, and indeed of the world. Surely, then, anything which might be of service at such a time should not be left undone. Hence, in my submission, there is a strong case for holding in your Lordships' House a Secret Session at which noble Lords can speak freely and the Government also can speak much more freely than they do at the present time.

It is only reasonable to suppose that the result of free and unfettered discussion would be to the public good. This view that a Secret Session would be in the national interest is supported and, in my view, confirmed by the experience of the last war. I now come to a point which I hold to be of great importance in this matter, and it is this, that during the last war there were held in all six Secret Sessions—one in your Lordships' House and five in another place. These Secret Sessions were held over a period of almost two years, two of the most critical years of the war. The Secret Session in your Lordships' House was held on April 25, 1916. The first Secret Session in another place was held on April 25 and April 26, 1916—it lasted two days. The second Secret Session in another place was held on May 10 and May 11, 1917; the third was held on July 9, 1917; the fourth was held on December 13, 1917; and the fifth was held on January 17, 1918. The very fact that these six Secret Sessions were held knocks the bottom out of most of the objections urged against a Secret Session now. In fact, nearly all the arguments against a Secret Session are rendered untenable, or are greatly weakened in force, by the fact that in the last war these six Secret Sessions were held over nearly two years, approved and arranged by both the Coalition Governments.

If it be the case that a Secret Session is not worth holding, or if it be the case, as has actually been urged in some quarters, that it would do harm, how is it that all these Secret Sessions were held in the last war? If the objections urged had any real validity they could be countered by the experience of the last war. In fact the very reverse is the case, because of the six Secret Sessions which were held then. A proposal was made on October 3 by my noble friend Lord Ponsonby, for a Secret Session in your Lordships' House, and he was supported by my noble friend Lord Strabolgi. In his reply the noble Earl, Lord Stanhope, said that if the Session was to be secret he did not see how it could be for the public good. If I may respectfully say so, I will as I proceed endeavour to enlighten him and to demonstrate in what way a Secret Session would be for the public good.

The noble Earl also said the Government would consider the matter, but he admitted that he was only at one Secret Session during the period of the last war, and said he understood that a good deal leaked out afterwards as to what had been said by various individuals. I think the noble Earl is quite mistaken. Apart from my own recollection, I have made most careful inquiries into the whole matter from those who are in a position to know, and they deny that entirely. I do not think anything of any importance leaked out. Surely if it had been so, if important matters were leaking out, Secret Sessions would have been stopped; in that case they would not have gone on, as they did, for nearly two years of time. Moreover, I would submit that this suggestion that matters would leak out is not very complimentary to the members of your Lordships' House. As a matter of fact, large and important meetings of Members of Parliament have been recently addressed by Ministers at which confidential speeches have been made. The noble Viscount, Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, addressed a very large meeting of Unionist members not long ago. I am told that 170 Unionist members were there. Then last week, I think, the Secretary of State for War, Mr. Hore-Belisha, addressed a large meeting of Unionist members, made a confidential speech, and answered questions. Nothing leaked out from either of those two meetings. If this kind of thing is going on, if the noble Viscount, Lord Halifax, can make a confidential speech to a large number of Unionist Members of Parliament. I suggest he can also make a confidential speech to your Lordships' House. There is indeed much in common between a Secret Session and such meetings addressed by the noble Viscount, Lord Halifax, and these meetings constitute an argument for a Secret Session.

Nevertheless, I know it is said that because of the fear that something would leak out, the Government in a Secret Session would not say much more than they do in a Public Session. Even if that were true—and this is what I want to put to the noble Earl, Lord Stanhope—it would still be worth while holding a Secret Session, not because of what noble Lords who are members of the Government would say, but because of what noble Lords who are not members of the Government would say. In fact the request for a Secret Session really arises, not so much because of what the Government would say to the House as because of what the House would say to the Government. Now the rejoinder to this is that if a noble Lord has anything to say to the Government or to a Minister, he can write to him a letter or he can speak to him, and therefore there is no need for a Secret Session. This view of the matter overlooks some very important considerations. The views which a noble Lord desired to put before the Government and which he would put in a Secret Session are far too long to be incorporated in a letter. If we assume that the average length of speeches in a Secret Session would be, say, twenty minutes and the average rate of speaking 120 words a minute, then a speech would work out at a total of 2,400 words. Now no noble Lord would write a letter of 2,400 words to a Minister, and, if he did, no Minister would read it. Similarly, if a noble Lord is fortunate enough to buttonhole a Minister, he cannot speak to him to the extent of 2,400 words. In these days noble Lords are properly very considerate, and it is not often they ask for a definite interview with a Minister. They do not do that even if they may readily get one.

Furthermore, let me point out that it is a mistake to suppose that the only noble Lords concerned in a Secret Session are those on the Government Bench who would speak or listen, and the other noble Lords in the House who would speak. That is not so at all. There is a large and influential body of noble Lords who would not speak but who would listen, and whose views might be affected by the discussion, and that is important in the formation of opinion. Moreover, not infrequently valuable speeches are made in debates of a debating nature. Some point or argument made by a noble Lord germinates in the mind of another noble Lord, and without any premeditation but in the course of the debate a very helpful speech or suggestion results. That is much more likely to happen in a Secret Session than even in a Public Session, because in a Secret Session noble Lords can speak perfectly freely and something of untold advantage may result in that way.

Next I would base my appeal on the ground that a Secret Session is a means of giving protection to minorities. Minorities are entitled to protection in all legislative chambers. They ought to have it, and especially is that true in war time. In fact, in past wars minorities have again and again been right in opposing the popular view. May I submit to the noble Earl, Lord Stanhope, that it is one of his duties, especially in a House like your Lordships' House where there is no Speaker in the Chair in the ordinary sense, to do all that he can to help to safeguard the interests of minorities, and to see that they have opportunities for speaking and fully stating their views. In a time of war like this they can only do that in a Secret Session. And when I say "minorities" I do not only mean those who do not support the war; I mean various noble Lords who, on other grounds, are not satisfied with what the Government are doing. I suggest that it would be a very good thing to hear all these views. Let them all speak. Let us have it all out. I can hardly conceive of anything which would be of more advantage to the Government and to your Lordships than that certain noble Lords—I will not mention their names—should be un-muzzled and should say what they think without any reservation, qualification or equivocation.

I hope, then, that the Government will give this whole matter very careful consideration, and if, unhappily, they should not see their way to grant a Secret Session, that they will state their objections fully, because that has not yet been done. And if they come to do that, I trust that they will not give as one of their objections the reason so often used by Governments in rejecting a proposal in wartime, that it would be helpful to the enemy. That is a stock phrase used by all Governments when they do not want to do something. I remember that my noble friend Lord Templemore—I have a very great respect for him; he really ought to be able to do better and can do better than this—in turning down a proposal I made that there should be a small private committee of two or three experts to advise the Chancellor of the Exchequer in regard to the best way of financing the war, actually said that it might be helpful to the enemy. Well, my Lords, I leave that there. I have finished. I have broadly put before your Lordships the arguments for a Secret Session, and I have endeavoured not to overstate them, not to exaggerate them. It is always a mistake to overstate a case, especially when it is strong enough without that, as this one is. I submit with confidence that in all the circumstances there are solid advantages which are not outweighed by any disadvantages which there may be in having a Secret Session. I beg to move.

3.52 p.m.


My Lords, I want to support the proposal of my noble friend because I am profoundly convinced that his case is a very strong one. He has so well stated it that to my mind there is very little to add, but I would like to support it particularly on the ground that I was a member of another place during the last war and I saw the advantage that accrued to the Government, as much as to those members who wished for a Secret Session, from the several Secret Sessions which were then held. That the Government saw the advantage of those Sessions was proved by the fact that they repeatedly arranged for them. If the Government to-day see objection to a Secret Session, I hope His Majesty's Ministers will be good enough to tell us what new reason, what reason of a different kind, has arisen in these days to change the case that then weighed with the Government of the day. The noble Earl, Lord Stanhope, said the other day that it was possible that leakage might occur. But that argument weighed just as strongly in 1916, 1917 and 1918, and it is a striking fact that after the first Secret Session in April of 1916 there were no fewer than three in 1917 and one in 1918. Everyone must sympathise with the attachment of His Majesty's Ministers to the principle of discretion, but the proposal which my noble friend has made is not in the direction of indiscretion. One might rather truly say that it represents a more discreet view than that which was expressed, I hope only temporarily, by the noble Earl, Lord Stanhope, the other day.

The fact is that we are in a dilemma in this matter between two loyalties. I myself feel most strongly the objection to free public discussion, for instance, of war aims, on which we are not to-day engaged. I think there is the greatest objection to saying all the things we would like to say when the discussion would be known to all the world. On the other hand, it is the duty of a Member of Parliament, whether he is in one House or the other, to inform the Government and to inform also other members of the House of his views. That is one of the essences of democracy, and it would be lamentable if that democratic practice cannot be freely pursued. In some respects, of course, it cannot be pursued with complete freedom in war time, but it ought to be pursued as freely as possible. On the whole, I trust that the Government have come to the conclusion that the advantages outweigh the risks of a Secret Session. I feel that if the Government prefer that differences—there must be differences about war policy—should be made known in public, they take a grave responsibility. It cannot be thought that no views will be expressed about war aims, and I would urge in conclusion that the proposal which my noble friend has made is not in any sense hostile to the Government but is aimed at being helpful. I do hope His Majesty's Government will agree to my noble friend's proposal.

3.57 p.m.


My Lords, I listened with close attention to what has fallen from the noble Lord, Lord Arnold, in making this Motion and equally, of course, to what the noble Lord, Lord Noel-Buxton, said. If the noble Lord, Lord Arnold, will forgive me, I think I can say that he does not always find himself in complete agreement with the majority of your Lordships' House. That I have no doubt is a matter of indifference to him, and the House does always welcome free expression of independent opinion. But, on this occasion, the noble Lord, Lord Arnold, finds himself with, at any rate, I think, a substantial degree of support in your Lordships' House.

I think in a way it is unfortunate that the adjective "secret" is the one which is applied to these unreported Sessions. The word is liable to give an impression outside that all sorts of mysterious and blood-curdling revelations might be made, and that your Lordships' House would be turned into something of a Bluebeard's Chamber. It might be supposed, for instance, that one of His Majesty's Ministers—probably the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Chatfield—would announce to these privileged Benches a number of strategical facts relating either to the sea, land or the air, which could not be made known to the public. I am sure my noble and gallant friend would do nothing of the kind, and there is no conceivable reason why he should, because surely it is the case that neither we here nor honourable members in another place have any right to know more of those facts than an equivalent number of agricultural labourers or miners, who are just as much interested in the whereabouts and the activities of their relations and friends as any of us. Therefore, surely, that conceivable side of a Secret Session ought to be dismissed altogether.

On the other hand, there are subjects which might quite conceivably be discussed in an unreported Session better and more fruitfully than they could be at one of our ordinary sittings. The noble Lord, Lord Noel-Buxton, mentioned the question of war aims. Nobody who reads the daily or weekly Press can fail to have been struck by the interest which is taken in what are called war aims: that is to say, two entirely different matters, two matters which ought to be kept completely separate and which unhappily were not kept separate in 1919—namely, the actual terms on which peace could be arranged, and the possible new ordering of a better state of things in the world. It may well be, as Lord Noel-Buxton suggested, that much might be said in a discussion of that kind, a Secret Session, both by His Majesty's Government and by other members of the House, which had better not be said if it were to spread all over the world. That is one subject connected with the war on which such a sitting might be useful. As regards domestic questions, there are matters connected with various features in the emergency legislation and the hardships to some classes and some individuals which that legislation is bound to produce, which if publicly discussed might create, particularly in enemy countries, false impressions as to the temper of the people and their determination to carry through the war.

I hope, therefore, that His Majesty's Government will take those and similar points into consideration. It is for them to consider whether there is such a wide and substantial demand for a sitting of that kind as would justify them in repeating a practice of the last war and one to which the objections do not appear to me very substantial. It is undoubtedly true that the matter cannot be considered singly here. A great deal would depend upon what it is found possible and desirable to do in another place. It clearly would be difficult to hold a Session of that kind in one House and not in the other. But, that being so, I trust that His Majesty's Government will take into careful consideration the possibility of holding, if not at once, at any rate in the not very distant future, some such meeting of the House as has been proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Arnold.

4.4 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to support the proposal that has been put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Arnold, and has been supported by the other noble Lords who have just spoken. I do so with the full realisation that if the Government were to decide to have a Secret Session here, it would be, as the last speaker has said, necessary and inevitable that there should be discussions in another place. I do not see that the Government really have anything to lose by a Secret Session. It would be an opportunity to give information, to remove misgivings and suspicions, and to hear what many private members of your Lordships' House and of another place who do not hold office have to say on certain major questions.

Just over a year ago, after the Munich settlement, we had a three-day debate, and I remember a speaker saying from the Government Bench that the Government would have had a great deal more support for their policy—a policy which, incidentally, I support: that of the Munich settlement—if people had had more information. It was partly for that reason and partly because, looking ahead, I felt that we ought to have more information on what the Government proposed to do, that I then, on that occasion in October, 1938, suggested that there should be a Secret Session. Some of us then had grave misgivings that the Government, while hoping for the best, were not at the same time preparing for the worst. We felt that they were not taking adequate steps to provide the necessary men and material at the right moment. Subsequent events have, I think, justified us in those misgivings and those fears, and in thinking that there would have been no loss whatever had we had a full and frank debate in secret in your Lordships' House.

I remember being present as a member of another place in the last war when we had some Secret Sessions. Looking back, my very clear recollection is that nothing but good came out of those Secret Sessions. A certain amount may have leaked out, but nothing which helped the enemy; and I do not see that anything could be said here which would in any way frustrate our desire for a successful prosecution of the war and a successful early peace. Secret Sessions, as I remember them, were held for two reasons. The first was discontent with the way in which the Government of the time were prosecuting the war; and the second was probably, at a subsequent stage, a desire on the part of the Government—a very wise desire—to speak to members of all Parties with a frankness which was impossible for them to adopt in the ordinary open Session. Therefore, I do venture to suggest that His Majesty's Government should not wait until events and clamour force them to have a Secret Session. They had far better do it in time than be forced to do it.

I understand from some friends of mine who are members of another place that there have recently been meetings of a body which I believe is called the "1922 Committee"—a body which consists of supporters of the Government and meets sometimes for blowing-off steam and exchange of opinion, and to hear full, frank, free statements of policy by some of His Majesty's Ministers. I understand that recently representatives of the Government have met that Committee and that nothing but good has resulted from those meetings. Why should a meeting like that, which in fact is nothing but a Secret Session, be limited to Back-bench supporters of His Majesty's Government in another place? Why should not exactly the same thing be said to members of the Opposition? After all, they are supporting the Government and very often putting a great deal of ginger behind the Government, and there is no reason why they should not be given some of this vital information and argument. Moreover, I do not see why we in your Lordships' House should not have the same privilege and opportunity of taking part in such a discussion and hearing such statements.

I am not to-day going to discuss the sort of points into which we might go. I think it would be a very useful thing if we could have a frank statement of policy from the Government on the whole question of economics. It is so big a question that I am not going in any way to dwell upon that. There is an article in a London newspaper to-day by Mr. Keynes indicating one aspect. I remember the noble Earl, Lord Baldwin, a year ago saying it was essential that we should mobilise industry. To what extent have we mobilised industry to-day for the successful prosecution of the war? There are some of us who feel that industry has not been sufficiently mobilised. There are some of us who feel also that we may get into a spiral where wages and prices chase each other because there has not been a sufficiently thought-out policy on the part of the Government. A frank discussion on qustions such as that would not in any way help the enemy, even if some of it did leak out. Then there is the question of war aims, which has been referred to. There is a public discussion going on in the Press, there is a public discussion at almost every dinner table, on war aims. We have public discussions here, but it is quite obvious that we might have a more frank discussion—perhaps not so frank a discussion as would necessarily take place in the Cabinet room, but nevertheless a discussion at which a great deal more could be said than can reasonably be expected to be said when there is full reporting.

I really do not think that the risks are serious. Some people oppose this proposal on the assumption that the Government would be asked, and might be tempted, for instance, to indicate the exact number of aeroplanes being built every month. That is not the sort of question which we want to raise. It is more questions of major strategy and questions of major policy. Questions of that sort are the questions which I think could be usefully debated. Our Parliamentary government has survived because it is elastic. I believe that this is a moment to show the elasticity of our procedure by having what is called a Secret Session. The Government have indicated that they are preparing for a long war. Some of us are not absolutely convinced yet that they are making every effort necessary in order to have a short war and a successful war, and I cannot but think that if we were to have a heart-to-heart talk here in a Secret Session nothing but good would result.

4.13 p.m.


My Lords, I could almost wish, in order to impart variety to the debate, that I were in a position to oppose the Motion of my noble friend Lord Arnold, but in point of fact I am very strongly in favour of the holding of Secret Sessions in Parliament. In the short time that I have been a member of your Lordships' House I have been greatly impressed by the extraordinary wealth of knowledge and experience to be found among your Lordships. There are members who have had experience in every branch of public life, political life, in business, and in the Empire, and they are capable of sustaining on any given subject as well informed a debate as any Parliament in the world. Under the conditions that prevail at this moment, a great deal of that knowledge and experience is entirely in abeyance; it is not available under the conditions of open Session for the consideration of the greater issues that confront us. We pass Bills, many Bills, with great rapidity, and we argue smaller questions—important questions indeed, but not important relatively to the greater questions that are occupying the minds of every one of us in this House and of every thinking man in the country. We avoid altogether the major problems of policy; and why? Because we do not want to say what we think in an open Session. We wish to avoid any possible risk of embarrassing the Government; we wish to avoid any tendency to shake the confidence of the people; and again, as noble Lords have suggested, we wish very particularly to avoid providing any raw material for an ever-watchful foreign propaganda.

His Majesty's Ministers have very generously invited us to buttonhole them in the Lobbies or to write letters to them. I have never been able to bring myself to adopt either expedient. His Majesty's Ministers are exceedingly busy men, and I for one—and I think most of your Lordships—shrink from troubling them individually. There is, I believe, only one argument against Secret Sessions, and that was overcome years ago: it is the possibility that they might excite apprehension in the public mind. That argument has not been brought forward this afternoon. I can imagine that argument weighing in a good many people's minds. But that was not the result of Secret Sessions held during the last war. With other noble Lords, I was present at every Secret Session in the last war in another place. No secrets were divulged by His Majesty's Ministers, nor were they expected, and none, so far as anybody knows, ever got outside the walls of Parliament. It was a case, as a noble Lord has suggested to your Lordships, not so much of extracting secret information from Ministers, which no member of your Lordships' House would desire for a moment, as of affording Parliament—this House of Parliament and the other House, too, if they choose—an opportunity of telling Ministers what Parliament thinks about them. And that, I think, would occasionally be a very salutary process.

I remember one Secret Session that ran over two days in the Great War, which was devoted to the question of the food supply of this country. I was intimately associated with the question, as then, with my noble friend Lord Astor, I was working in close association with the Prime Minister, and I have no hesitation in saying that Secret Sessions brought about nothing but the best possible results. Parliament was perturbed about the food situation—and not merely members of the Opposition, but a great number of supporters of the then existing Government—and a full and frank statement was made during those two days. I would go a little further. I think the suggestion has been made by my noble friend Lord Ponsonby, not that we should have one Secret Session in a year, but that Secret Sessions should be a part of the normal procedure of your Lordships' House. I can see no objection whatever to that. Whether that further suggestion is adopted—it is a rather bold one, I think—I have no doubt whatever that Secret Sessions in this House would be to the advantage of your Lordships, and of the Ministerial Front Bench as well, and I know of no experience of past Secret Sessions that would lead us to have any misgivings that confidences given in this House or in another place would ever go outside the walls of Parliament.

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, Unlike other speakers to-day, I have not had the advantage of having been in another place and seeing how Secret Sessions work. I look at it, though, from a different angle, having been inside for many years during all the last war. I cannot help remembering that no alteration in policy or organisation or anything was ever made without pressure from public opinion, even in that time. There are subjects about which one cannot talk now except in a Secret Session. I have heard (and no doubt it is correct) what the noble Lords have said, that the Government cannot give much fuller information at a Secret Session than they do now; and I heard the present leader of your Lordships' House, Lord Stanhope, not long ago say that if he were criticised he could not give the full answer without giving away information.

Well, that is not quite why I am pressing for a Secret Session. It seems to be very difficult indeed in these days to get any suggestions really reviewed by the Government, who are fully occupied; it is very difficult. One noble Lord said you would have to write a letter—I forget how many columns he said it would take. But I remember that when one did write such letters in the last war they went to the Department concerned. I naturally used to prefer my suggestions as to how to run the war to the ones which were very often sent in. Those suggestions could not go and did not go to the whole Cabinet. They were looked at by the Departments concerned. I feel that if suggestions could be made in a Secret Session in this place, implying in some cases criticisms or suggestions of something different from what is being done now, if they were supported by other members of your Lordships' House, it would give the Government an idea of what the public were really thinking. These discussions go on, as one noble Lord this afternoon has said, at every dinner table and at every breakfast table everywhere. But we do not know that all of these suggestions could go to the Government.

It may be said that the suggestions would be very voluminous, very long, and that there would be a great many of them in your Lordships' House. I would like to suggest that, having a Secret Session, it should be a two-day Session; that all suggestions or subjects that were discussed on the first day should be re-discussed and followed up by other noble Lords on the second day, and that no new matter should be introduced on the second day, so as to give His Majesty's Government an opportunity of considering whether they saw a general pressure of opinion on one particular point. I hope I have put my points as clearly as I want to put them. I feel that there is that side of the value of a Secret Session that is not thoroughly recognised by the Government. Anyhow, I have been told that in these days one should do one's best to avoid boredom, and I think that Secret Sessions would help to alleviate boredom.

4.24 p.m.


My Lords, I started this question a few months ago and I am very glad that my noble friend Lord Arnold has returned to it. I cannot say that I could give him much hope that his request will be acquiesced in. In fact, I think I could make the speech that the noble Earl, the Leader of the House, is going to make shortly. But I want to put to your Lordships the alternative; that is to say, what sort of method we are going to drift into now. What happened last Thursday? There was supposed to be a statement made in your Lordships' House on that day; but when I arrived here, in good time, and saw some of my noble friends with their pockets bulging with notes, I was told that there was to be no statement, and I was told to go and look at the "tape." Well, the "tape" is never a very inspiring means of giving information. It has a somewhat spasmodic power of expression. I went and looked at it. It did not convey much to me, but I gathered that a speech was being made in the City which was to take the place of a statement in your Lordships' House. I saw a noble friend of mine who had been at the function; he is an extremely abstemious man; and I asked him if at the luncheon he had heard anything of importance. He said he could not remember but he did not think that anything particular was said. That was to take the place of a debate in your Lordships' House!

I do not know whether there are going to be other occasions outside, where information is to be given and where your Lordships are not to be informed in such a way as to allow you to express your opinions. It may be the policy of the Government not to embark on embarrassing debates and, as my noble friend has said, it is certainly the firm intention of all of us in this House not to embarrass the Government and not to say one word that should help the enemy. But if the alternatives to debates here are going to be functions outside and, I would add also, broadcasts, then I think that Parliament, and more especially your Lordships' House, is being very badly treated. I myself came down with notes on the broadcast of the noble Viscount, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, upon which I had a good deal to say; but since then we have had another broadcast upon which some of us have still more to say. But we have not an opportunity. We are not very fully reported in the Press in the debates here. But still I do feel that the safeguard of no report ought to allow the Government to provide us with an opportunity for a full debate.

I agree with the noble Marquess that the word "secret" is rather an unnecessary name to give a Session. It might just as well be called a Private Session, with no reports, because I quite agree that the word "secret" looks as if there were some sort of conspiracy going on or as if we were all met to oppose the Government. Nothing of the kind. It is merely a matter of allowing us an opportunity to say fully what we think. I think it would do the Government a lot of good; I am convinced of that; and, as previous speakers have said, we have absolutely no desire for the Government to disclose questions of tactics in the military field to us at all. I hope that the support that has been given to my noble friend's Motion will allow the Leader of the House to regard this matter quite seriously and to give it very full consideration. It is far better that they should begin to do that now than be forced to do it later on when there might be some dilemma. If it were the practice, not frequently, but from time to time, to allow full expression of opinion In your Lordships' House, and of course also in another place, the Government would benefit by it.

4.30 p.m.


My Lords, when I entered this House to-day I had no intention of taking part in the proceedings, but I must apologise to your Lordships for saying that the traditions and education of a lifetime prevent me from sitting still. I feel therefore I must say a few words in support of the Motion of the noble Lord behind me. There is no question here of any Party. There is no question of condemning the Government, not even of criticising the Government. On the contrary, we owe to them, and to each one of them, our grateful thanks for the hard work they are doing at this time of great public anxiety. There is an old maxim which ought to apply in this House, and that is to hear both sides. To every question there are two sides. Although one's own side may be wrong, although it may be explained to one why one's own side is wrong, at any rate we do like to have the opportunity of putting our own views before the other side.

We do not want to hear any secrets. What we want to do is to be allowed in this House to make suggestions—and let me say that there are in this House men, not in the Government, who are capable of giving a wise, knowledgeable, and careful opinion on any subject which may be broached, and they sit here tongue-tied. Why? Because they do not like even to be thought to be criticising the Government, because of the harm it may do outside. I am jealous of the honour of your Lordships' House. I also think that the experience of members of your Lordships' House would be useful to the Government, and I beg the Government to consider that there may be men in this House who could make suggestions, in perfect good faith, perfect generosity, without any desire to run them down or to get any advantage to themselves, which might be a very considerable help to the prosecution of the war. Therefore I do hope that the noble Earl, Lord Stanhope, will be good enough to convey to the Government this expression of opinion. I am not speaking for myself. I do not want to trouble your Lordships. On questions of law I might be of some use; but on ordinary questions of public policy I see in front of me numerous men who, out of loyalty to the country and loyalty to the Government, do not rise in their places, and who would be able to make a most useful contribution to debate and also to public policy if they could be quite sure that the debate would be a secret one and that anything that was said would not be taken as showing want of confidence in or want of loyalty to the Government.

4.35 p.m.


My Lords, it is not my intention unduly to detain your Lordships to-day, but I should like to say how much I support the Motion that has been moved by Lord Arnold. I would put before your Lordships this point, that when there is a Motion of this description, which has received so much support, the Government should consider very carefully the points which have been mentioned. I agree with my noble friend Lord Crewe, who said that the word "secret" may certainly have an element of prejudice about it. One would hope that we could have some arrangement by which our opinions could be put forward at some form of Session which would not be open to the public. There are many members of your Lordships' House who are most anxious to play their part as members of your Lordships' House but who feel themselves muzzled and controlled by reason of the fact that some of their speeches might savour of criticism of the Government. These criticisms would go out to the Press and they would run the risk of being misrepresented. They would run the equal risk of being exaggerated, and one would no doubt find in the German broadcast of that evening in some form or another an interpretation quite different from that which was intended and these opinions would go out to neutral countries all over the world. That is the reason why many of us—and I am speaking for myself—have remained silent through all these debates: because we know quite well that whatever we may say we should run the risk of these indictments which I have suggested. The only opportunity which we can have is in some form of Session which is not open to the public and will not be reported in the Press.

Some of your Lordships may have greater audacity than I can claim to have, and may buttonhole Ministers, write to them, or stand on their doorsteps. I am afraid I do not do that, and the result is that I have very few contacts with those who are controlling these very difficult matters. We should have that opportunity if we followed the suggestion which has been made by the noble Lord. I would go further, and would say that these Sessions would be of great assistance to the Government. If we read the newspapers we can see that there is a volume of criticism of a very gentle, placid type. That is the manner in which people in this country try to express their disagreement with the Government at a time when they know that the expression of their disagreement may be of great difficulty to the Government and may be what is called helping the enemy; but, reading between the lines of many of these letters in the newspapers, one can realise the feelings of the writers.

I do most earnestly ask the Government to consider this matter very carefully. The noble Viscount the Foreign Secretary has, I understand, had confidential conversations with various bodies. I welcome these conversations. I only wish I had been a member of those bodies and received an invitation, because then I should be in the possession of information I badly require. One does not like to go and ask for it individually, though if there is an opportunity of hearing it, one is very glad to receive it. Unless there is a better suggestion, what the noble Lord has put forward fulfils what is in our minds, not only with a view to knowing more of what is going on, but as to the feeling, perhaps, that by the knowledge and experience we may possess we should be able to render some help and assistance to the Government. It is for these reasons, and not, as your Lordships know, in any hostile spirit, that I want to support the Motion that the noble Lord has put forward, and I sincerely hope the Government will give it the consideration it deserves.

4.40 p.m.


My Lords, I have never attended a Secret Session, so I am afraid I cannot speak, like many of my noble friends, with experience either here or in another House, but I remember that after certain Secret Sessions twenty-five years ago the whole place was buzzing with gossip. Every journalist in the place was trying to pick up titbits. A good deal of information, right or wrong, reached me as to what occurred in Secret Sessions, and whether I misused it or not I do not know. But do not think that a Secret Session is not a source of great activity to people who want to know what they are not themselves expected or otherwise allowed to know. So I listened today with great interest to ascertain what noble Lords really wanted a Secret Session for, and, as the debate has gone on, I have made an anthology.

Much the best speech made this evening, if I may say so, was that of my noble friend Lord Arnold. He did not want to hear a bit what Ministers had to say; he was determined that Ministers and others should hear what he thinks about it. During Lord Arnold's speech I felt my feet tingling all over, and I hope that Ministers would have that experience after Lord Arnold had addressed the Secret Session. That was rather the view of my noble friend behind me, who recalled that at one of the Secret Sessions in the other House a useful debate took place about food supplies. Lord Astor wants a Secret Session to remove suspicion. Whose suspicion, pray? His suspicion, or the suspicion of Ministers? If it is his suspicion, let it be removed in public and not in private. The noble Marquess, Lord Crewe, said that there are lots of domestic affairs arising out of emergency legislation that might suitably he discussed by Parliament. I invite Lord Crewe to mention half a dozen subjects of domestic affairs that are causing trouble in this country arising out of emergency legislation which have not been amply discussed already here and elsewhere. Parliament is meeting two or three times a week regularly, and all those subjects have been already discussed or are in process of being discussed.

Lord Astor said: "Let us discuss the article of Mr. Keynes in The Times this morning." Gracious me, we do not want a Secret Session to discuss that. It is also said, "Let us mobilise industry." The papers are full of discussions about mobilising industry. We who are connected with industry know all the troubles about mobilising industry, and the way to get those troubles settled is not to make polemical speeches here or elsewhere, but to tackle the people who are doing it. They are finding it, I know, very difficult indeed to untie some of the knots that have been tied, but it is not from lack of good will on the part of those who see the mistakes that have been made. I do not think those mistakes are going to be corrected in Parliament. I think they are much more likely to be corrected by the people who know and suffer approaching the people in charge. Then, it is said, "We want to discuss war aims." The newspapers seem to me to be full of discussions about war aims. Ministers have made statements constantly about war aims. The real difficulty about war aims is that you cannot define your war aims until it is settled whom you are going to fight and who are going to fight you. Moreover, we do not know how long the war is going on, nor do we know how and where it is to end. When a few of these difficulties have been overcome we can discuss war aims, but I prefer to do it not in Secret Session.

Lord Harmsworth wants to tell off Ministers about food—a very good idea too! Lord Trenchard said nothing at all—he did not speak 2,400 words that I counted—except that suggestions might be made. A very mysterious speech. I do not know what his suggestions are likely to be about. I imagine, coming rfom Lord Trenchard, they will not be about small things. They would be about major strategy. I have not a doubt but that Lord Trenchard has conveyed those suggestions already in a more direct way than he would do in a Secret Session to those who are responsible for questions of strategy. Lord Ponsonby wanted to discuss a broadcast. I am sure, for the pleasure and hilarity of Britain as a whole, that had better be discussed in open rather than in Secret Session, and I would very much like to hear what he has to say about that if we are thinking about the same broadcast. Lord Sankey merely dropped an obiter dictum that he would like to loosen his tongue, and my noble friend Lord Londonderry, again, wanted a Secret Session in order to avoid misapprehension or misconception. I think Lord Londonderry's speech was very serious, because he indicated that the Secret Session would be serviceable to him, as it would enable him to conceal from the public his disagreement with the attitude of the Government.


I really must protest. The last person I should like to disagree with would be my noble friend on the Front Bench. My noble friend (the Earl of Crawford) makes accusations against me that I resent. I said nothing of the kind. I said that if we addressed any criticism openly in the House of Lords both misrepresentation and exaggeration might arise in the Press. That was what I wished to avoid.


I beg the noble Lord's pardon, I was wrong. I thought the Secret Session was to avoid misrepresentation or misconception here and abroad.


And exaggeration.


Unless it is critical there is no object in misrepresenting or misconceiving is there? If it was a strong statement in support of Lord Halifax I do not think anybody would trouble to make really heavy weather of that. I thought it was only to enable Peers who disagreed with the Government to do so without being misrepresented either here or abroad, or misconceived. If I misheard the remark I am very sorry. So I think, on the whole, there are very few subjects which have been suggested which cannot be discussed in open Session. A great many of them are being discussed, or have been discussed, and in the future will again be discussed, in Public Session. I quite understand that the time may come, sooner perhaps than we expect, when it may be necessary for the Government to make communications of a very serious character to Parliament, but I express the hope that until the very last moment our traditional policy of open and public Sessions of Parliament may be retained for the benefit of Parliament and for the benefit of the public as well.

4.48 p.m.


My Lords, I must confess, after listening to the debate so far, including the speech of the noble Earl in front of me (the Earl of Crawford) on Secret Sessions, I am still not entirely clear as to when and under what conditions your Lordships ought to debate in secret; but I am at least clear on one point, and that is the sort of debate which I personally should like to hear in your Lordships' House. I should like to hear a searching debate, with all respect to those in front of me, upon our war aims, and I hope to hear from His Majesty's Government this evening whether in their view such a debate could be conducted in secret. Up to the present His Majesty's Government, doubtless for entirely adequate reasons, have not found it possible to make any explicit public statement of what we are fighting for or, what in my judgment is perhaps more important at present, what we are not fighting for. In the meantime there seems to be an increasing danger that in various ways, through our replies to peace interventions from neutral countries, through semi-official or official statements, through broadcasts, even through articles in the Press, we may be gradually accumulating a burden of war aims which have never been discussed or sanctioned by Parliament or even by His Majesty's Government.

For example, when we went to war ten weeks ago we were informed that we were fighting for Poland and to rid Europe of the menace of constant aggression. A little later it began to appear that we were also fighting for Czecho-Slovakia, and, to judge from the French reply to the recent intervention of the King of the Belgians and the Queen of the Netherlands, it would seem that we are now fighting to free Austria. Well, there may be much to be said in favour of that proposition, but it is a proposition which has never been discussed, much less sanctioned, by your Lordships' House or another place and it is a proposition which should be discussed. I very much hope that the noble Earl this evening will tell us whether in his view it should be discussed in secret. According to his reply will depend my attitude to the Motion introduced with such eloquence by the noble Lord, Lord Arnold.

4.51 p.m.


My Lords, I only wish to say one or two words on the general subject from my own personal experience during a life spent in assisting in the conduct of foreign affairs. From that point of view it seems to me that at certain critical times there would be great advantage in an opportunity being offered to your Lordships' House to have a discussion in Secret Session in order to bring out certain things which it is practically impossible to bring out in Public Session. I have now left the diplomatic profession for some twenty years, but I move about the world a great deal and I am in continual contact with authorities of other countries who have been occupied in that particular direction also. Having known me for so many years they are very often very frank with me, and from many quarters in those countries from time to time I hear something which is interesting, often from men who have left office, who in talking of their experiences give one light on certain tendencies which are likely to produce action in their country or which may often have done so in the past. Well, of course, anything that is heard which is of importance to his country it is the duty of a Privy Councillor to report, but on several occasions when something has come to me that appeared to me to be of value, if I went to an official quarter or to a Government office to see somebody there, although I do not say it was not received with attention, there was a general attitude that they already knew much better, and, generally speaking, one received the impression that one was looked upon rather as a busybody.

These occasions do not occur very often—there would not be many of them—but from time to time one may come into possession of some information from a source which it would be impossible to betray in Public Session because it would be fully reported the following day in the OFFICIAL REPORT and would be studied by every Embassy and Legation in the country and reported home by them. I therefore put forward this very small contribution to the debate to-day from that point of view. It may sometimes be impossible publicly to explain a source of information, or even several sources of information, whereas in your Lordships' House in a Private Session which was not reported it appears to me one would be able to go much further in making known what was the source of information and how far it might be regarded as trustworthy. I can only say that very often what I have been told by people who have been in authority or may still be in authority in other countries has modified my own private assumption of what was likely to happen. If it were possible in any way to modify the general sense of your Lordships' House by knowledge that might not be obtained in any other way, I think that a Private Session might from that point of view have a certain value.

4.56 p.m.


My Lords, until this debate was drawing to a conclusion I felt that I might be placed in the same position as an ancestor of mine, who many years ago I believe kept your Lordships' House sitting all night and then found himself in a minority of one. His supporters outside were so pleased at the event that a medal was struck to commemorate the occasion, and it is now in my possession. I do not think anybody is likely to present me with a medal on this occasion, and I am still less likely to keep your Lordships up all night. Some noble Lords have referred to the Secret Sessions which were held during the last war, and your Lordships have been reminded that this House had only one. It was held on April 25, 1916, and was Proposed by the noble Marquess, Lord Crewe, on behalf of the Government of the day. It was criticised severely by another noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, who said it was absolutely unprecedented in modern times. In another place there were five or six Secret Sessions, as the noble Lord, Lord Arnold, said; but may I point out that at each one of those Secret Sessions there was a definite subject for discussion?

In your Lordships' House the subject debated was the question of compulsory military service. As your Lordships will remember, there was a very great division of opinion on that, not only in both Houses of Parliament but throughout the country, and I have no doubt the Government of the day found it a very great advantage to discuss with members of both Houses the whole of that extremely important question to find out how far they were likely to get support in proposing compulsory service. I can conceive of no such question to-day. There is no substantial division of opinion in the country on any great matter. Indeed, my own feeling is that never in all our history has this country been so united and so determined as it is at this moment. There is another question which affects this matter, and it is this. There is far more publicity to-day in every kind of way than there was twenty-five years ago. Your Lordships will remember that in the last war, when the "Audacious" was sunk, no word was said about it and nothing was known until, I think, nearly the end of the war, if indeed the war was not over. At any rate nothing was said until a very long time afterwards.


It was published in the American newspapers.


It was made public at once.


It was not made public in this country. In this war every one of our losses has been made public without delay. First of all there was the sinking of the "Courageous," then of the "Royal Oak," quite recently the sinking of a submarine, and, only yesterday, the sinking of a destroyer. Each one of those losses was made known to the public at once. So, too, in regard to other matters. Publicity has not been confined to the fighting Services, but really has run through the whole of the action taken by the Government as far as I can see in every direction. Statements have been made in Parliament at regular intervals, covering the whole field not only of the fighting Services but of the Home Front, and when it is said—as I think it was said by the noble Lord, Lord Arnold—that when these statements are made there is nothing new in them, that only shows how much has already been given to the public through the Press and how the public is being kept fully informed in every direction.

Then there is another medium through which publicity is given, and that is through the radio. The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, referred to the admirable broadcasts, as I think we should all agree, of my noble friend the Foreign Secretary. He said he would have liked to have come and criticised them in Secret Session. But why in Secret Session? If he has any criticism to make of my noble friend's broadcast I suppose my noble friend would be prepared to withstand it here and now. So, too, in regard to other broadcasts made by other members of His Majesty's Government, including two by the First Lord of the Admiralty, which I think your Lordships will have very sincerely welcomed. So far from trying to keep these matters secret, the situation is entirely different from that of the last war. Indeed, I am one of those who think that publicity has in some ways gone too far. We are accustomed now to have speeches blared at us across the ether dealing with all sorts of delicate international questions; and although I am not one who would wish to return entirely to the days of secret diplomacy, at any rate I feel that those matters would have been more easily and more successfully dealt with if there had been less publicity about them than was given them in the speeches which are now produced in autocratic countries.

No one, of course, would for a moment suggest that details should be given of either the disposition or the movements of His Majesty's Forces. No one in this debate, of course, has suggested any such thing, although the noble Viscount on the Cross Benches, Lord Astor, suggested that we might consider questions of major strategy. That I should have thought would have been most unwise, and the suggestion is certainly not one that I could recommend. But of course all your Lordships desire only to assist in winning the war, and not to give any information to the enemy—and indeed not to take any Party action against the Government, but to give them all the support that you may. Surely the moment the Government agree that a Secret Session should be held, at once the public feel that they are not being taken into the full confidence of the Government and are not being given all the truth. After all, the mere word "secret" means that there is something to hide, and the only thing that the Government feel that it is necessary to hide is anything which might assist the enemy. I am not going to suggest that there would be leakage after debates in this House, although I should like to point out to Lord Arnold that before the first Secret Session was held in the last war, an Order in Council was passed making it a serious offence if any publicity came of it.




Your Lordships have said, and particularly Lord Arnold, that it is really not what the Government might say to Parliament, but rather what Parliament might say to the Government, which would be of advantage. But why wait for an audience to say these things? I have been approached since the war began by a number of your Lordships, sometimes offering criticisms of the Government and sometimes, I am glad to say, making suggestions; and in each case I have passed them on. I have no reason to think that those suggestions and criticisms have received less consideration because they were made in a private manner than they would have received if they had been made in a Secret Session, when obviously no record of them could be kept.

There is another and much weightier reason, which Lord Arnold hoped I should not use, but which I am certainly going to use: that is, the effect of a Secret Session abroad. Not only has the radio developed in this country, but also it has developed abroad, perhaps almost more for purposes of propaganda, and particularly of untrue propaganda. Dr. Goebbels, the moment a Secret Session was held, would at once say that in this House or in another place there had been apparent a very strong move in favour of immediate peace on Germany's terms, and various other untruths of that kind. How are we going to deny that? What is the good of simply saying this, that and the other did not happen? I should doubt whether my noble and learned friend the Minister of Information would tell your Lordships that an effective means of countering untrue propaganda is merely to deny it. You have to give chapter and verse to a very considerable extent if you are really going to meet it adequately and properly. That, of course, you cannot do after a Secret Session; you cannot say what was in fact said or disprove what was not said.

Many questions have been suggested for discussion at a Secret Session; but is there in fact any topic at this moment which is really ripe for such a discussion? The noble Lord, Lord Elton, referred to war aims. They have been discussed and laid down in general terms, both by the Prime Minister and by my noble friend the Foreign Secretary, over and over again. Surely at this moment we are wise in sticking to general principles and not going further into detail. Similarly, in regard to other questions which might be discussed, we are anxious to get all the assistance and all the help from members of both Houses of Parliament that it is possible to get. I agree completely with what was said by my noble friend Lord Harmsworth, as to the immense knowledge and experience of members of your Lordships' House. But why have a Secret Session in order to give us the benefit of that knowledge and experience? Why not come to us and give us your criticisms, or, as I said, preferably your suggestions—as was said by the noble and gallant Viscount on the Cross Benches—which might be of great value to the Government? Let us have them. I cannot believe that every one of your Lordships is in the position of Lord Arnold, who cannot do with less than whatever it was—24,000 words?—in order to give us the benefit of his advice! I am quite sure that Lord Harmsworth, in the suggestions he would make, would be very much shorter than that, and so would Lord Arnold himself.

So far from it being a burden to Ministers to receive suggestions of value, of course we welcome them, and we should welcome them all the more when they were given us in the real confidence of a heart-to-heart talk than in the more limited confidence which is all that you can have even in a Secret Session. Lord Rennell said he could not give the authority for some of the statements that had been made to him if he were to give them in public; nor could he give it in confidence to your Lordships' House. But he could give it by talking privately to the noble Lord beside me or to any other member of the Government, and I hope he will. It may be that the time will come when some special question is ripe for a Secret Session of Parliament. It may be that some sort of division may arise in the country which we should like to have cleared up by frank and full discussion. But that moment has not arrived yet; because, as I said before, all of us are agreed that the country is peculiarly united at this moment and peculiarly determined as to the objects for which it is fighting and the methods by which they should be attained. Therefore, although at this moment the Government feel that there is no advantage in holding such a Session, I shall certainly report to my noble friends in the War Cabinet the views that your Lordships have expressed to-night, and the door is by no means closed should an occasion arise when the Government and your Lordships feel later on that a Private Session is necessary.

5.8 p.m.


My Lords, I will only speak for one moment in concluding this debate. I have naturally been much gratified by the wide and very influential support given to the Motion. Of course I take no credit for that; the merit is inherent in the Motion itself. I can scarcely say that I am satisfied with the reply of the noble Earl, Lord Stanhope—if reply it was. In fact he did not attempt to reply to the main arguments in favour of a Secret Session. If what he said is sound, how is it that there were six Secret Sessions held in the last war over a period of nearly two years? He did not answer that, and he cannot answer that. In view of the very wide support given to the Motion in the very important speeches which were made, I felt much tempted to carry this Motion to a Division; and if I were to do that, I have no doubt that the Motion would be carried. Having regard, however, to wider considerations, I will refrain from doing that, and will beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.