HL Deb 28 July 1942 vol 124 cc45-9

LORD BRABAZON OF TARA had given Notice that he would call attention to the present distribution and use of His Majesty's aircraft; and also move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have a grievance. The Motion in my name which you see on the Paper has been there for over a fortnight. It is framed in a wide and comprehensive way. I had discussed the question with the Minister who is going to reply on behalf of the Government—I even told him what I was going to say. Everything was in order to stage a debate of quite an innocent type. I arrive here as does the Under-Secretary—both of us pregnant with speeches—and as I come into your Lordships' House I am informed that this Motion may not proceed in public, but that the debate must be held, if it is held at all, in secret. Now I consider that not only a form of procedure which really cannot be allowed to continue, but a gross discourtesy. I would not, of course, for one moment accuse the noble Viscount the Leader of the House of being discourteous, because it is riot in his nature. But there is some malign influence behind him which has compelled him to impose this extraordinary procedure upon me.

It is, of course, quite evident that the Government are allergic to air, but they need not entirely lose their nerve. Up and down the country there are articles published dealing with the air. Some of them are very informative, and some are critical, but it seems to be laid down that your Lordships are not to express your opinions on air matters in this House in public debate. We are to be muzzled on this particular question, and, unless some steps are taken about it, I do not see the end of this type of procedure. I have been requested, indeed I have been practically ordered, not to proceed with this Motion. What I intend to do is to postpone it to a later date, and at that date, when chosen, I suppose the Government will move that it be debated in secret, and then we can thresh out the general principle in that debate. I ask your Lordships' leave to postpone my Motion.


My Lords, I would ask your Lordships' leave to say a word in protest against this procedure. I know that the noble Viscount the Leader of the House would never have adopted it himself. We always get the very greatest courtesy from him. However, he is not a free agent. The same sort of thing happened to me two or three years ago, as the Lord Chancellor will remember. An endeavour was made to postpone and have taken in Secret Session a Motion which I had had down for a fortnight. I do protest vigorously against this attempt at laying down what subjects shall be taken in public, and what subjects shall not be taken, and when they shall be taken.


My Lords, if I may, by leave of the House, intervene for a few moments, I would repeat almost some observations which I have previously made on this point, in support of my two noble friends who have just spoken. I know very well—we all do—that the noble Viscount the Leader of the House is most scrupulous in his considerateness to us all, and we all respect him. We know very well that so far as he is concerned we may always justly look forward to such treatment. But this raises a very much greater issue even than the fall of the Motion, against which the noble Lord has very naturally protested. It raises the matter of the decision of the Executive to prevent this House discussing in public a matter that it wishes to discuss. It was the case only the other day, in the matter of the very modest and very restricted subject of the building of merchant ships, that we were not allowed to discuss it in public, and now, suddenly, the same thing occurs with regard to the noble Lord's Motion—which, quite frankly, is the main reason for my being here to-day, for I wanted to do something else. This raises a matter of first-class importance which has been discussed, in a very able manner, in various ways, in all the leading newspapers and journals of the country, and is one which arouses the most intense interest. There is not one of us who wants to give any information which will be helpful to the enemy, or who wants the Government to be betrayed into doing so either. But I wish to say on behalf of my noble friends, and I am sure on behalf of many others, that I think we owe a duty to Parliamentary institutions to consider these Motions, and to take such steps as we can to justify these institutions and to maintain their rights upon which the proposed procedure is, in my view, a quite unwarrantable intrusion.


My Lords, by leave of the House I will add one word to what has fallen from the lips of other noble Lords, perhaps from a somewhat different point of view. I confess that when I saw this Motion, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, says, has been on the Paper for a fortnight, I thought it exceedingly likely that His Majesty's Government would not desire it to be discussed in Public Session. It is quite evident that on a subject of this kind there is at least some risk of things being said of which His Majesty's Government would disapprove, as conveying information to the enemy which ought not to be conveyed. That is even more likely to happen on this question than on the question of shipping, to which the noble Lord, Lord Addison, has alluded. However, that notion seems to have flashed on the minds of His Majesty's Government only to-day, and I confess, therefore, that I greatly sympathize with the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, who wishes to bring this Motion before the House, and with the other noble Lords who have spoken. It seems to me very remarkable that His Majesty's Government should not have been able, until an hour or two ago, to make up their minds whether this matter ought to be discussed in public at all, and I am bound to say that in my experience of this House, which is not short, I can remember very few cases where such neglect of the ordinary courteous procedure of this House has been shown.


My Lords, all of us who say anything on this subject this afternoon are, I suppose, technically out of order, because there is no Motion before the House; but, by leave of the House, I should like to intervene for a moment, in order first of all to say how very grateful I am to the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, for his decision to postpone the moving of his Motion. I fully recognise that he would like to discuss this matter in public, that he thought that it should be discussed in public, and that he intended himself to speak with that combination of discretion and knowledge of which he is a master. I also fully understand that he, and I think other noble Lords, feel that it would have been proper to give the House more notice of the Government's decision. To be absolutely frank, I too regret this very much. I am deeply distressed that the noble Lord should not have had more notice, and I should like to express my regret to the House as well as to the noble Lord himself. I fully appreciate the inconvenience which has been caused to him and to other noble Lords who were intending to take part in the debate.

It had been hoped that it would be possible to debate this subject in public; for, if noble Lords would only believe it, the Government dislike Secret Sessions just as much as they do. The Government have all the more reason to like Public Sessions, because they are under constant attack, and even in these times under a certain measure of criticism, and nothing is better from the Government's point of view than that they should have an opportunity of stating their case fully and frankly in public. But, after further urgent consideration, they did come to the conclusion—a conclusion which, I think, was shared by the noble Marquess, Lord Crewe, and which I think will be shared by other noble Lords—that this is a subject which, however innocent the intention of the debate, it is really impossible to discuss in public at the present time. After all, there is nothing that the enemy want to know more at the present time than (to quote the wording of the Motion) "the present distribution and use of His Majesty's aircraft." There is nothing in the world which the enemy want to know more than that, and, if we tell them anything, we make them a present of information which is exceedingly valuable to them. If the House expected any declaration of policy from the Government, I can only say that the situation would be worse still.

I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, can fairly argue, as I think that he did, that he could put his case in the Press if he wished to do so. What is really important to the enemy, however, is not the views which are held by the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, or by the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, important though those views are, coming from such experts as they are. What is really important to the enemy is the policy of the British Government on this question. That is what they want to know, and that is what it is essential that we should not tell them. Nor would a debate, in such circumstances as would be inevitable in public, be satisfactory. We should have an exceedingly powerful speech from Lord Brabazon, giving the views which he holds, and we should have a Government reply which would necessarily be quite incomplete, for it would be impossible for the Government to present their full case in public. A lopsided debate of that kind would be of no advantage to your Lordships' House or to the country as a whole, and I de not think that in such circumstances a useful debate at the present time would be possible. Those were the reasons which led the Cabinet after further consideration—and it is sometimes said that second thoughts are best—to come to the decision which they did. I intimated that decision immediately I could do so to the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, and, as your Lordships know, he has decided to postpone moving his Motion. I am very grateful to him for the decision which he has taken, and I believe that in war-time there is no other decision which he could have reached.