HL Deb 10 April 1940 vol 116 cc49-56

My Lords, I beg to ask the noble Earl the Leader of the House if His Majesty's Government have any statement to make on the naval action in the North Sea.


My Lords, His Majesty's Government do not propose to-day to make any general statement on the naval aspects of the war, but my right honourable friend the First Lord of the Admiralty hopes to be in a position to make a statement in another place to-morrow, when perhaps more information than we now possess will have come to hand. Your Lordships, however, will probably wish to hear the account which has just been received of the fierce action fought by the British destroyers against the German forces in Narvik this morning. Five British destroyers steamed up the fjord and engaged six German destroyers of the latest and largest type, which were also supported by the shore batteries and guns newly mounted ashore. His Majesty's ship "Hunter" was sunk and the "Hardy" was so severely injured that she had to be run ashore and became a wreck. The "Hotspur" also received serious damage and the destroyer "Hostile" slight damage. The remaining vessel, the "Havoc," was untouched. After a most determined action against a superior force with larger and more modern ships, and in the face of gunfire from the shore, the damaged "Hotspur" withdrew covered by the other two destroyers. The enemy appeared in no condition to attempt pursuit. One 1,600-ton German destroyer was torpedoed and believed sunk and three were left heavily hit and burning. It is perhaps not less important that six merchant ships suspected of containing the unloaded store of the German expedition were sunk in the action by the British destroyers. On the way out they met the German ship "Ravensfeld," which was found to be carrying the reserve ammunition of the landed German force. This vessel was blown up. Your Lordships Will naturally not expect me to deal to-day with any further operations, but I hope to be in a position to make a further statement to-morrow.

4.3 p.m.


My Lords, I beg on behalf of my noble friends to thank the noble Earl for the statement which he has made. In the absence of detailed and verified information, it is obviously not very useful to have a discussion upon it, especially if, as the noble Earl suggests, we may have the opportunity of hearing further information to-morrow of a verified kind. I feel, however, that I have a kind of half-grumble to make, in that your Lordships' House had not the opportunity of hearing yesterday the statement that was made in another place. I am aware that the House had adjourned till to-day, but in these urgent times it ought to be a rule of any adjournment that the House can be called together if circumstances require it. Parliament cannot play its part in this national crisis unless it is constantly consulted, and the Government, I feel, cannot rightly complain that Parliament has harassed it in any way by factious criticism. Parliament has the ear of the nation, and it is to Parliament that the people look for guidance. In this matter of consulting Parliament the Government constantly display a bashful reticence which I personally deplore. I do not propose to say more about it to-day, if to-morrow we are to have the advantage of an additional statement.

4.5 p.m.


My Lords, I do not wish to add anything to what the noble Lord has said, but perhaps I might, in joining in thanking the noble Earl for his statement, make very respectfully and humbly a suggestion in regard to the form in which these announcements are made. I well remember how, in the last war, from the first news the battle of Jutland, which was a remarkable success for the British Navy and had a profound effect on the winning of ultimate victory, appeared to the general public to have been a grave defeat. In this action at Narvik, where the British Navy has achieved such a fine result, the form in which the statement has been made, beginning with the casualties we have unfortunately suffered and ending only with the achievements of our destroyer flotilla, might give quite a wrong impression. Might I suggest that in any similar event in the future the Government should begin by proclaiming what the British Fleet has achieved, and end by a regretted statement with regard to casualties?

4.6 p.m.


My Lords, arising out of the observations of my noble friend Lord Snell, who said he had a half-grumble against the Government: as I also have a half-grumble, or perhaps rather more, on another point and we are discussing business, I think this is an appropriate opportunity of stating it. I want to ask the noble Earl who leads the House if he will very seriously consider again the matter of a Secret Session for your Lordships' House, more particularly as there is to be a Secret Session in another place to-morrow.


There is not going to be one.


It had been arranged, but if it has been cancelled, that, of course, makes some difference. But the point I was going to put was this. It has been clearly evidenced in your Lordships' House more than once, particularly in the debate last November, that a Secret Session is desired. The Government have now given, I think, about half-a-dozen reasons why there should not be one, and not one of those reasons has any real substance in it. Having regard to the fact that a Secret Session was held in another place in December, and on that occasion one was offered to your Lordships' House—I will say that for the Government—but was not wanted because the subject was Supply, I do suggest to the noble Earl that as, if the course which had been arranged for another place had gone through, there would have been a debate to-morrow on the blockade, a similar opportunity ought to have been given to your Lordships' House. At any rate I ask him very seriously to take this matter into consideration for the future, so that we are not always met with this blank refusal in regard to this matter, more particularly as Secret Sessions have begun in another place.

4.8 p.m.


My Lords, I am afraid I am to blame for the House not having sat yesterday, because, as there was no business on the Paper, I did not wish to trouble your Lordships unduly. I thought it possible that mines were going to be laid off the Norwegian coast, but I was not sure. What I did not know, and the Government did not know, was that, before those mines were laid, Germany was going to take action against Norway and make landings, and that there was a possibility of a statement being made. As your Lordships know, the House can be called together at any time on twenty-four hours' notice, but it was not until yesterday morning that it seemed likely that there would be anything of great substance before either House of Parliament. Therefore I apologise that your Lordships were not in the same position as another place. My endeavour always is that your Lordships should have every bit as much opportunity of discussing and, if necessary, criticising the Government as the other House or any other section of the country. As long as I am the Leader of the House, I shall do my very best to see that your Lordships have full opportunity of debate and of criticism whenever you desire it.

As regards the communiqué, I am sure that my right honourable friend the First Lord of the Admiralty is fully alive to what was said by the noble Viscount on the Liberal Benches. I do not entirely agree with him that that statement gives the idea that there has been any defeat of the British forces, and I think that the public will read into the statement that I have just given to your Lordships the fact that there has been a very severe action by destroyers, most brilliantly executed and carried out against overwhelming odds in a way which has upheld fully the high traditions of the British Navy. I am sure that the Navy would say that if they could have a few more actions of that kind the Germans would regret it more and more as time went on, because there can be no question whatever that we have taken more than full toll of the enemy forces in the action at Narvik.

As regards what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Arnold, I have never refused to hold a Secret Session, nor have I the power to do so. I suggested, however, that before we agreed to a Secret Session your Lordships should agree what that Secret Session would be about. On the last occasion when the matter was discussed in your Lordships' House, five or six members of the House spoke, and every one of them required a different subject to be debated. I suggested that there should be some agreement as to what was the subject to be debated, and then I would put it to the Prime Minister to see whether he was prepared to agree. Your Lordships did not get agreement, and therefore I heard nothing more about it. As to the debate which was to have taken place in the House of Commons to-morrow, I am told that that is not now going to take place, and that there will be a general debate in public. That is what the Government much prefer, for the reason which I have given more than once to your Lordships and which I feel is overwhelming, although the noble Lord, Lord Arnold, may not agree—namely, that everything which it is possible to give to the public is given, and we have nothing that we can say in Secret Session other than what has already been announced in the Press and in broadcast statements. If noble Lords wish to have a Secret Session on any particular subject, I shall be prepared to consider it and put it before the Prime Minister, but I can assure your Lordships that there has been no refusal of a Secret Session so far as I am aware.

4.13 p.m.


My Lords, it is only fair that I should say that I have not noticed any reluctance on the part of His Majesty's Government to take your Lordships into their confidence. I think that the noble Earl, ever since he has been. Leader of the House, has shown himself most ready to give us all the information in his power. As regards what happened yesterday, I agree with the noble Lord, the Leader of the Opposition, that it was a pity that we were not sitting yesterday. The matter could have been dealt with satisfactorily if it had been thought of; a formal sitting of the House might always take place, and then if there was any news of importance it could be given in the manner which the noble Lord suggested. I feel quite confident, however, that that is an accident which will not occur again and that your Lordships will always find that there is an opportunity of hearing all the news that there is to be heard.

As regards the Secret Session, I cannot pretend to be so enthusiastically in favour of it as the noble Lord opposite, because I am so old that I remember the Secret Session held in your Lordships' House at the time of the last war. That was not a success. I do not want to attribute any particular reason for that, but I do not think any of your Lordships who were present—I am afraid there is not a very large number left of those who were present—were very satisfied at what passed. Your Lordships' House sits for a very short time, and anything like prolonged speeches would make it very difficult for the general sense of the House to be communicated to the Government. I am not saying that I am against a Secret Session, but I do think that your Lordships ought to be warned—if I may use such a phrase—that it may easily be very disappointing. A few rather long speeches might perhaps be made and a rather perfunctory reply, and nothing else might happen. I hope that I have not damped the youthful enthusiasm of the noble Lord opposite, and I hope he will realise that we are always delighted to hear what he has to say, whether in Secret Session or otherwise; but I should be sorry if as one of the older members of the House I left your Lordships under the impression that Secret Sessions were always a success.

4.16 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Earl, the Leader of the House, has really failed to apprehend the principal reason why some of us desire to have very occasionally a Secret Session. It is not that we desire to have information given which otherwise might be of value to the enemy, but there are occasions when it would be of value to the Government for certain criticisms to be offered by members of your Lordships' House which, if made in public, might be against the public interest. They may nevertheless be very useful criticisms, and there is no doubt that they do carry more weight than the alternative which the noble Earl offered us when we were last discussing this subject, the alternative of private interviews with individual Ministers. That does not carry the same weight as a statement even in Private Session. I would urge, therefore, that the Government should keep an open mind on this subject, bearing in mind that although there were a good many criticisms of the Secret Sessions of the last war, and that one of the criticisms made of the Secret Session recently held in another place was that anything that was said there would inevitably leak out, it has been proved since that nothing that was said in that Secret Session has been revealed that was of advantage to the enemy, and it is generally agreed that that Secret Session was a success, so much so that it has been considered necessary to repeat the experiment. I venture to suggest that an experiment which has been so successful as to be repeated in another place might at least be considered as suitable for your Lordships' House.

4.18 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission I should like to explain the attitude of my noble friends towards the Secret Session when it was last asked for. We were quite willing to have, and even desirous of having, a Private Session, if the whole range of the war could be discussed, but the Government's decision was to limit it to a very narrow field. They said to a hungry Parliament, "You can have the hors d' œuvres or the tooth-pick, but you cannot have the whole meal." That really did not interest us. We should be glad to have a Private Session now if the Government did not say, "You can have one, but you can discuss only what we want you to discuss." That is not giving Parliament a free hand. With regard to what the noble Earl has said, if there is a statement next week, as presumably there may be, it may be the rightful occasion when a public discussion should take place.

4.19 p.m.


My Lords, I have no intention of prolonging this debate, because I find myself in agreement with what has just fallen from the noble Marquess beside me, but there is one point which I venture to make, and that is that a Secret Session in this House depends upon your Lordships and this House. The noble Earl, the Leader of the House, may have some private communication with the Prime Minister of which we know nothing, but whether there is a Secret Session in this House or not depends upon this House alone.

Back to