HL Deb 16 July 1942 vol 123 cc899-907

My Lords, I rise to move that this House do go into Secret Session on the Motions with reference to shipping standing on the Paper in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Winster, and the noble and gallant Viscount, Lord Trenchard. I fully recognize that a Secret Session is not a device which normally commends itself to all your Lordships; indeed, none of us likes it very much in principle. The privilege of public debate is one of the most precious assets of our Parliamentary system. But these are abnormal times, and by its capacity to adapt itself to abnormal times our Parliamentary system will stand or fall. And to-day I think we shall all agree that we in this country are under one overriding necessity: that is, to do nothing which could possibly help our enemies. On no subject is it more necessary to remember this than on the subject of shipping. As the House knows, the attack on shipping is, as much as, or even more than, the great offensive which the enemy are conducting on land, the spear-point of their strategy. They seek not merely to starve us out, they seek even more, to destroy the mobility of the Allied Forces, and anything they can find out about the shipping situation, either in the present or in the future, is worth its weight in gold to them.

We have pretty good evidence that they do not know at present the exact position, and I think it is—and I am sure the House will agree it is—essential to keep them in as much ignorance as we can about it. How anxious they are to get information is shown by their own broadcasting stations, and especially the new British Broadcasting Station which, as your Lordships know very well, is ostensibly a British station, but really a German one. In confirmation of this I should like to quote to the House an extract from the issue of this station on the 10th of July—only just a week ago. This is what the Germans said: The best way to end the Churchill régime is to demand the truth. We want to know the truth about who is to blame for the situation in Egypt, about how much help we are giving to Russia, and about the true facts of our shipping losses and what risks we are taking; also, about whether the convoy route to "Russia is worth while. And they go on to say: These are the things which should not be debated in secret. Now, why do they want to know about our shipping losses and the convoy route to Russia? Why are they so strong against a Secret Session? I suggest to your Lordships there is only one possible reason, and that is that they do not know the facts, and they want us to give them to them. And that seems to be a conclusive reason, to my mind at any rate, against discussing this question in public.

This, as I understand, is fully recognized by the noble Lord, Lord Winster, and others, and I know very well they have tried to meet this difficulty by limiting the scope of the Motion to the question of shipbuilding. I should like to say how greatly we appreciate the efforts they have made in this respect. But I suggest that this limitation does not, and cannot, eliminate the danger that valuable information may be given to the enemy. Any discussion on shipbuilding, I suggest, invites the following questions—I put them in a very crude form but they would no doubt be elaborated in any debate: When, and at what speed, are we building merchant ships? How, and by what methods, are we building merchant ships? And, above all, why, and as a result of what situation, are we building merchant ships? This inevitably opens up the whole question of the shipping question to-day. I am quite certain that the noble Lord, Lord Winster, would make every effort to avoid saying anything which was in the least dangerous or indiscreet, but noble Lords know that debates in this House do tend to range rather wide.

And, moreover, it is quite possible that two things, quite harmless in themselves and said by different speakers, when taken together may lead to important deductions. Any noble Lords who have ever been members of another place, as many of us have, will remember the methods employed in the days before the war, and possibly even now, by lobby correspondents. When these gentlemen wish to find out information about some political developments they ask first one member, and then another, and each of these members unquestionably will think he has spoken with the utmost discretion. But at the same time, at the end of the day, we always find that the lobby correspondents have got the whole picture and put the whole story together. It is like a jig-saw puzzle, of which the individual pieces mean very little, but when you put them together they form a coherent whole. In the case of lobby correspondents it does not matter, because, as we all know, they are a very patriotic and discreet body of men, and they do not publish anything they should not; but the same methods of deduction may be, and are J think, employed by the enemy for much more sinister reasons. They are continually occupied in trying to put two and two together, and they are exceedingly skilful at it.

For this reason alone, after very prolonged consideration and reconsideration of the point, the Government have come to the reluctant conclusion that at the present critical moment any debate on any aspect of shipping must be held in secret. This is not, I would assure the House, because we have anything to conceal. It is really entirely for reasons of national security. It will not be suggested that Parliament in recent times has been starved of information. The Government have a pretty good record in that respect, and during the debates we have had in the last few weeks an immense amount of information about our armaments has been divulged to the House and to the country in Public Session. Indeed, I believe that the main criticism outside Parliament, if not inside, has been that too much information has been given, and not too little. The Government are most anxious that the people of this country and Parliament should be as fully informed as possible, but there is a point beyond which we cannot go on account of the risks involved. We think that that point comes on the question of shipping.

I am not going to say for a moment—and I will say this to my noble friend Lord Winster and others—that there should never be a public debate on shipping. I am not going to lay down a law of the Medes and Persians, but I do say that, at the present very delicate moment, when the interests and security of other nations besides ourselves are involved, it would be dangerous and wrong to have a debate of this kind in public. For these reasons, which I feel sure will receive the support of the overwhelming majority of the House, I beg to move that the noble Lords' Motions be debated in secret.

Moved, That the Sitting of the House to consider the Motions of the Lord Winster and the Viscount Trenchard be in Secret Session.—(Viscount Cranbarne.)


My Lords, I am sure we are indebted to the noble Viscount for his exposition of the case. I am afraid that in many respects I shall not be able to find myself fully in accord with what he has said, and I would also suggest that if I were it would have a much wider application than to the present discussion. The Order Paper appears to-day in a different form from what it was before. It was limited, so far as this subject is concerned, to the Motion of my noble friend Lord Winster, and I would call your Lordships' attention to the care with which it is worded. It is "to call attention to the arrangements at present in force for building merchant ships." That is all. That is as far as it goes. But for reasons it is not necessary for me to inquire into, we now have on the Order Paper a Motion in the name of the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, which is as wide as the Seven Seas. It is "to call attention to the shipping problem." That might include anything from the Arctic to the Antarctic, from the Orient to the Antipodes. I do not wonder that the Government would like that Motion discussed in secret; I should if I were in the Government.

It is a very proper decision on their part in these perilous days. But I rather suspect—in fact I more than suspect; I know—that the decision to have the discussion on the Motion of my noble friend Lord Winster in secret was arrived at before it had occurred to the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, to put his far-reaching Motion on the Paper. Therefore, so far as I am concerned, I am not interested, if I may say so, in discussing the Motion of the noble Viscount, the Leader of the House, with regard to Lord Trenchard's Motion. It is entirely appropriate to an indiscreet Motion like that, but it is entirely inappropriate to a very proper Motion such as has been put on the Paper by my noble friend Lord Winster.

I would, with great respect, give one or two reasons for that conviction. The Motion, I suggest to the noble Viscount, the Leader of the House, raises two issues—first, that affecting the character of the Motion put down by my noble friend Lord Winster and, secondly, the function of Parliament. It is on the second that I feel very strongly. With regard to the Motion itself, as I have already said, its words were deliberately restricted to discussing the arrangements for building merchant ships—not even naval vessels. It will be within your Lordships' recollection that on various occasions since the war began we have had most interesting and profitable discussions affecting supply. We had more than one discussion on whether there should, or should not, be a Ministry of Supply, in which many of us went into considerable detail as to the imperfections of our existing arrangements, and so on. That was carried even further in discussions on the provision of aircraft, and, if I remember aright, the indiscreet Viscount below the gangway (Lord Trenchard) took a very prominent part in those public discussions. Public, my Lords. There were quite a number of these public discussions, and they were of very great value. It is fair to say that they added to the credit of your Lordships' House in the opinion of the country, for we voiced in advance what the Government reluctantly afterwards conceded. They were valuable discussions, and there is no difference in character or intent between them and the discussion which is sought to be promoted by my noble friend Lord Winster. It is exactly the same.

I am in complete accord—I am sure we all are—with what the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, said as to not saying anything which will help our enemies. Of course we are, every one of us. It is true to say that you may search the Official Report in vain to find any sentence in any of the debates which were in public on exactly kindred subjects, which was in any way harmful or improper. The speeches were confined, by all the patriotic members who took part in them, strictly to the matter under debate, with due regard to the national interest. I never, myself, heard a word of complaint about any one of them, and I should not think the noble Viscount has done so either. In the last war, I remember—and I may be forgiven for referring to it—we became more and more frugal, not more and more generous, in our adoption of what the noble Viscount has described as the "device" of the Secret Session. We became very reluctant to adopt the Secret Session. This particular matter, if anyone will refer to the details of the proceedings of the other House—namely, merchant shipbuilding—was discussed" openly on quite a number of occasions with great public advantage.

If your Lordships will allow me, not for vanity's sake but because it happens to be handy, to refer to one of my own publications, it would be interesting to recall some figures which were the results of the agitation in public that went on at that time. Previous to the last war our merchant shipbuilding capacity, I am glad to say, was in a much healthier state than it was before this war. I see that in 1914 we produced 1,674,000 tons of merchant ships—many times greater than it was, I have no doubt, three or four years before the beginning of this war. Then, during the first two years of the war when shipping was the business of the Board of Trade, it declined in a calamitous way. It declined in 1916 to 607,000 tons, and the concern of us all was very great. I find on looking at these records that on April 23, 1917, when the submarine campaign was at its height, I myself was responsible for a Cabinet memorandum recommending a consolidation of the measures for merchant shipbuilding, and I see that I had worked up, on the advice of the iron and steel and other departments, who of course helped me to prepare the case, to an ambitious programme reaching 3,000,000 tons.

Sir Eric Geddes, as he then was, was put in charge, and your Lordships will be interested to see that the shipbuilding effort of the country for twelve months ending May, 1917, when the more organized system began, was 773,000 tons. That was the output for twelve months. After this more organized system had been adopted, for the year ending May, 1918, the output was 1,406,000 tons, so it had nearly doubled. In the light of that experience, and of the fact that my noble friend has accumulated a mass of material which he submitted to me in advance, for I do not: profess to have any first-hand knowledge of these matters during the present war, there is abundant material for examining as to whether the methods now being adopted are as efficient as they ought to be. We do not need to give the enemy any information when we say we are all anxious to build as many ships as we can. Nobody will deny that, and the only question is, are the methods now being adopted as efficient as they ought to be to secure that end? That is the question my noble friends wish to discuss. We discussed an exactly kindred question when we were examining munitions output, aeroplane output and other topics. A precisely analogous thing was then discussed with great advantage in public.

Turning just for a moment to the second objection which my noble friend entertained to the Motion of my noble friend behind me (Lord Winster), there is the function of Parliament to be considered. Tire Leader of the House gave us a very interesting, and I have no doubt an exceedingly accurate, picture of how our enemies put together in a jigsaw puzzle various odds and ends, bits said by this man and by that, and so on. I wonder if they could have pieced together with so great advantage any group of statements on output as those made lately by responsible Ministers in the other place. I confess that I was rather shocked myself, as an old hand at this business, when I saw the frankness with which some of our Ministers did talk about these things, and have talked about these things, They have given, I think, much more detail than they might have done. Anyhow, if the German jigsaw puzzle expert wanted material to work on, there it was. I do not say that such material has been presented by any of my noble friends, who are not in a position to present it for one thing, and perhaps we have not the ability to give these picturesque accounts. At all events, I am sure the noble Lord's warning was fully warranted; but it seems to me quite frankly that he might with advantage address his remarks to some of his colleagues.

That, however, is another point. The point I am now on is to what extent is Parliament intended to discuss these matters. Clearly we ought not to discuss matters without the fullest regard to the national safety and the national interest. There will be no difference between us on that. At the same time it is the duty of Parliament to discuss these matters, and great benefits have arisen during this war from Parliament exercising its functions. It is the duty of Parliament publicly, openly and frankly to discuss, within the limits I have mentioned, matters of public concern affecting the conduct and issues of the war, and Parliament has often done it. I suggest that the noble Viscount has given what I may call a picturesque upbuilding of the case about telling the enemy about our losses and all the rest of it that has nothing whatever to do with the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Winster. It might have to do with the Motion of the noble Viscount, Viscount Trenchard, but certainly not with our Motion. We want to discuss what the arrangements are for building merchant ships, and whether they are the best that can be devised. There are some material criticisms that my noble friend would be able to make according to the material he has available. I suggest that they ought not to be excluded from Parliamentary discussion. The whole history of the discussions during the war shows that they should not be excluded.

The character of the case itself is one which is most appropriate for public, free Parliamentary examination within the limits I have prescribed for all of us. I suggest that it is our duty as those who are charged, so far as we are charged, with the preservation of the rights and duties of a free Parliament, to examine very carefully the proposals of the Executive and that we should not be muzzled in our discussions. I think there is a much greater interest in this matter than might perhaps suit the convenience of some of the Departments of the Admiralty. Quite frankly, so far as the Motion of my noble friend is concerned—and that is the only matter I am speaking about—I regard the proposal that this should be discussed in secret as quite unsupported by any reason the noble Viscount has given but I do regard it as an unreasonable intrusion by the Executive upon the rights and duty of Parliament, and for that reason we object to the Motion as it stands. I may say we shall voice our protests. We have no desire whatever to divide the House upon it, because we regard it as much greater than a Party matter. This is a matter affecting the functions of Parliament, and in my judgment the noble Lord's colleagues have committed a grave error of judgment in requiring Parliament to discuss a matter such as the building of merchant ships, or the methods adopted for doing so, as a secret matter on which public knowledge should be excluded.

On Question, Motion agreed to, and ordered accordingly.