§ VISCOUNT HALIFAX
My Lords, I beg to move that the sitting of the House to debate the Motion on the Paper this day in the name of my noble friend Lord Trenchard be held in secret.
§ Moved, That the sitting of the House to debate the Motion on the Paper this day in the name of Viscount Trenchard be secret.—(Viscount Halifax.)
§ VISCOUNT TRENCHARD, who had given Notice that he would ask His Majesty's Government whether they stand by their declaration of the 16th of October last on the organisation of the Royal Air Force; and move for Papers, said: My Lords, I feel I must oppose with great diffidence the Motion that the House go into Secret Session. I am speaking on my own behalf on this subject. This is an agitation which I did not start; it was started in a small section of the Press and I cannot see that there is anything in the remarks I was going to make upon the subject that would in any way endanger the interests of the country. I feel that when an agitation like that which I have indicated is started, there should be some answer to it, and the only means I have of getting an answer is to raise the matter in your Lordships' House. Therefore I would oppose the Motion that the House go into Secret Session. I do not know if there is any other way out of the difficulty—whether it is not possible, for instance, to allow the opening speeches to be made in public and for the Government to make their statement in Secret Session, if that is desired. The drawback to a Secret Session is that nothing is recorded and one cannot convey to the public the remarks that one makes to the Government. What is said through a third person from memory alone cannot convey to the country the importance of the subject. Therefore I must, with all diffidence, oppose this Motion.
§ LORD MOTTISTONE
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Trenchard asked me to raise this question. I was not quite sure whether I should be able to be present and he put it down in his name. I would make an appeal to the Leader of the House to accept the view, if that is at all possible, that at least the opening speech and a few words from me in agreement should be made in public, for what we shall say is only upon the general problem whether you should maintain the integrity of the Royal Air Force with which the noble Lord and I desire to deal. We want to emphasize that, and we want the Government, as we think they will do, 68 to say that, by and large, they agree with the view I have indicated. We feel this matter very acutely. My noble friend Lord Trenchard and I started the Royal Flying Corps at the beginning, and we would like the public to be given a reason, perhaps, why we were justified in those far-away days, and why ever since it has been considered desirable to maintain the essential integrity of the Royal Air Force. If the House and the country were to hear what the noble Air Marshal has to say, I think the result would be to the public advantage. But that is, of course, for the Leader of the House to decide.
My Lords, there are two points arising out of this discussion which I desire to submit to your Lordships. First, I would like to say that the practice of going into Secret Session is being too much resorted to. I do not refer of course to the occasions when we discuss our procedure; that is different. What I have in mind are important matters of public interest. I venture to warn your Lordships that it is like a man who takes to drugs. He begins in a small way, and then takes more and more until it becomes an extremely bad habit. On behalf of my noble friend I want to support the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, in resisting this Motion that the matter be discussed to-day in secret.
My second point is this. Here you have a noble Viscount with unique experience and knowledge, and what he says must, whether it is agreed with or not, be of value to Ministers themselves. Now if we go into Secret Session there is no record kept at all of the debate. The second point I rose to make therefore—and I have made this point before to the Government through the usual channels and also publicly—was that when we have a Secret Session, especially on technical matters, there should be a record taken. There can be no objection to that. The most Secret Sessions of the Committee of Imperial Defence are put on record, and the great conferences that take place at the Foreign Office are also put on record. The statements we shall hear from the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, should be available for Ministers. I suggest to your Lordships that this is not simply a matter of machinery, but is an important matter, and I hope it will receive consideration. In any case 69 I hope your Lordships will resist the present Motion.
§ VISCOUNT STONEHAVEN
My Lords, there is another point. If you look at the terms of my noble friend's Motion, it is to ask whether His Majesty's Government adhere to their statement of October 16 last on the organisation of the Royal Air Force. If we have a Secret Session the inference can hardly be otherwise than that they do not adhere to that policy. If they are going to adhere to that policy, as everybody wants them to do, nothing is simpler than to say so; but if they will not make that perfectly plain statement it stands to reason that people will imagine they have altered their policy.
There is another point which I would venture most respectfully to submit to my noble friend the Leader of the House. It is less than two months since my noble friend raised this question in your Lordships' House. He then received a most satisfactory answer from the noble Lord, Lord Snell Everybody was quite satisfied. My noble friend is the last man to raise a question unnecessarily. Indeed I thing it is true to say that he does not really enjoy making speeches either in your Lordships' House or anywhere else. Therefore he must have something very grave to submit to your Lordships. I suggest that the Government would be wise to reconsider this. Otherwise they will inevitably expose themselves to the charge that they could not give a plain answer: "Yes, we do adhere to the policy," that they have changed that policy and that we do not know what the change is. Nothing could be more deplorable in the middle of the war than that that notion should get abroad. The Prime Minister reminded us in a glorious phrase that "never did so many owe so much to so few." It looks as if there are a, few who are trying to interfere with the Air Force, a vital thing in our present situation. I beg my noble friend to reconsider the matter and let us have a straightforward question.
§ VISCOUNT SWINTON
My Lords, I would venture to make an appeal to my noble friend. It is very difficult to resist—indeed I think it is impossible to resist—a considered Motion by the Government to go into Secret Session, but that is based on the assumption that the Govern- 70 ment have a statement to make in which they wish to take Parliament into their confidence and which would include matters which, while Parliament should be made acquainted with them, it would be injurious to make known outside. In such a case obviously your Lordships would, with unanimity, accept the Motion and gratefully receive such information as was to be imparted to you. My noble friend ought to be, and indeed must be, the judge as to whether anything he wishes to say should be communicated to your Lordships' House in Secret Session. But observe what the Motion is here. It is a Motion by my noble friend referring to a matter which, with the full consent of the Government, was debated in public on the last occasion. In the debate then not a thing was said by any speaker which could possibly be injurious if it was said outside. The debate then, the individual speeches which were made and the considered reply of the Government were all in public and were very fully reported in the Press.
The issue to-day is whether that statement of Government policy is adhered to, and I would venture to suggest to my noble friend that so far as that part at any rate of the discussion is concerned the speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, should be made in public. Certainly he can be trusted, as I think all of us can be trusted in this House, not to say one word which would be injurious to any operation or to any Government plan. I suggest, too, that the considered reply of the Government on a question of organisation on which they spoke publicly only six weeks ago should be made public. Then if there be matter either for debate by any of your Lordships or for a statement by my noble friend the Leader of the House which he thinks should be made in secret, we can perfectly well do what has often been done—namely, take the first part of the debate in open Session and then, on the Motion of my noble friend the Leader of the House, go into Secret Session, in which we can be informed of secret matters. I beg my noble friend to consider whether that is not the wiser course.
§ LORD ADDISON
My Lords, I apologise for intervening late, but owing to a difficulty in transport which I cannot control it was inevitable. I have, however, 71 gathered from my noble friend beside me the subject matter of the discussion and I should like to support the plea of the noble Viscount. It was my duty last week to protest from this Bench because for the fifth time in succession we had been asked not to take some particular discussion. I am sure that nobody in the whole Empire can better be trusted than the noble Viscount in charge of the Motion on the Paper not to say anything which would be injurious to the public interest, and I am sure that that would apply also to any other member of your Lordships' House. If the suggestion which the noble Viscount has just made can possibly be accepted—as I think it ought to be—I cannot see why we should not discuss the subject matter of the Motion on the Paper in public. It is a matter on which the Government made a statement only a short time ago. It was made by my noble friend the Deputy Leader of the House. I was not clear as to what it all meant in some respects, but, whatever it did mean, if there has been any change of policy then it is a matter of public interest that the reasons for the policy so far as they can be stated should be understood. I sincerely hope that we shall not have another case of suppression of the proper duty of Parliament to discuss in public and openly with due regard to national interests vital matters of this kind.
§ VISCOUNT HALIFAX
My Lords, I am extremely sorry to disturb the unanimity of this debate which has expressed itself through those who addressed appeals to me as Leader of the House either to withdraw or to vary the Motion that I have made that we should sit in Secret Session. I confess that I find myself in a certain difficulty about placing myself in opposition to appeals made from all parts of the House by noble Lords with whom on ordinary occasions I am accustomed to find myself in complete agreement. Certainly the last thing I should wish to do would be to run counter to any sentiment of this House generally expressed. At the same time in this particular matter I am merely the spokesman of His Majesty's Government on one particular side of it over which presides my right honourable friend the Prime Minister as Minister for Defence. I am bound to 72 have great regard, as no doubt your Lordships would be willing to have regard, to his strong feeling and plea that this matter did impinge so closely, and indeed is bound to impinge so closely, on matters of vital defence that he very earnestly begged the House to debate in secret. That, then, is the difficulty in which I find myself and naturally I have, while the discussion was proceeding, been revolving in my mind whether it was possible to meet the difficulty by one or another of the suggestions that have been made.
I naturally agree that it is of great value to the public that anything which the noble Viscount says on a matter of which he is so completely master should be heard by as wide an audience as possible. At the same time I do not think it is a very convenient arrangement to have half a debate in public and half in private, and I think that that would tend perhaps to aggravate the difficulty of which my noble friend Viscount Stonehaven spoke, of the public outside drawing unwarrantable deductions from the debate as a whole. It may be, as he says—though I hope that he exaggerates the danger—that the public would tend to draw conclusions that were in no sense warranted by the facts. I do not think that that is necessarily the case, and I certainly hope that it would not be the result. I do not myself like, and I could not for my part recommend the House-to adopt the plan of the bisection of the debate in the fashion proposed.
The only other alternative that I can suggest—and I realise that it is one which is not likely to be satisfactory to those of your Lordships who have spoken—is that the debate should be postponed for a few days, in order to see whether means can be found to adjust the two points of view. I fully realise, of course, the inconvenience that that would be likely to involve for your Lordships; none the less, if that were thought to be convenient I should raise no objection to it. I am afraid that I am bound, with whatever reluctance, to make my position plain to your Lordships; and it is that in view of the responsibilities in this matter which fall on the Executive, and in view of the fact that those responsibilities cannot be delegated to any members or body other than themselves, I am 73 bound to maintain the position of asking your Lordships to sit in secret. I do so with the utmost reluctance. I should be most reluctant to ask your Lordships to support me against others who wish to debate this matter in public, and it may be that, on balance, the more convenient course may be for some postponement to be arranged, during which the matter, which is obviously one of great interest both to your Lordships and to the public at large, may be further considered.
§ VISCOUNT TRENCHARD
My Lords, I feel that I cannot ask your Lordships to go to a Division against the Government on a matter like this. Your Lordships will remember, however, that this matter was postponed for a week at the last moment at the request of the Government, only a week ago; but, in view of the statement made by the noble Viscount, the Leader of the House, I on my part am quite willing to postpone this question for a day or two.
§ LORD MOTTISTONE
My Lords, as seconder of the Motion I entirely agree. I only hope that it may be possible to hold the debate in a day or two.
§ VISCOUNT HALIFAX
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Viscount and to the noble Lord, and I will certainly represent in the proper quarter what has been said by so many members of your Lordships' House. I shall do my best to find a solution which will be agreeable, although your Lordships will understand that I am, not in a position to give any undertaking.
§ LORD ADDISON
My Lords, while accepting, of course, what has now been suggested, I should like to ask the noble Viscount whether it will be understood that in accepting the postponement those of us who take the view which has been expressed are not committing ourselves in any way to agreeing to the discussion being held in secret.
§ LORD ADDISON
My Lords, I also hope that it will be possible before the House ad odjourns to say when this Motion will be taken, either in secret or openly. It is getting near Christmas, and we do not want a long and indefinite postponement. We ought to know whether it will 74 be taken to-day week or on some other suitable day, which ought to be reasonably soon, because the matter has already been postponed once.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.