HL Deb 09 February 1943 vol 125 cc947-51

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend, the Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne), I beg to move the Motion which stands in his name.

Moved, That the sitting of the House to consider the Motion of the Lord Beaverbrook be in Secret Session.—(Lord Snell.)


My Lords, I will detain you for a very few moments only on this Motion. I regard the Secret Session as unnecessary, and it is on that basis that I ask for your attention. Nothing that I say need he concealed from the public, and if the public seek to influence policy then of course they must know the arguments which public men advance. This is especially so in the case of the present debate. I intend to make no criticism of the Ministry of Aircraft Production or of any Minister, but if the Government still believe that a Secret Session would better serve the interest of the nation I am ready, and must be ready, to abide by their decision and to accept their view. Here let me say that I accept it all the more readily because of the new significance which attaches at the present time to this House and to its deliberations. The fullest discussion by your Lordships of every vital aspect of the war, even though that discussion remains undisclosed to the public, must be a valuable and indeed a necessary feature of the conduct of the war, for your Lordships have to-day a far greater influence and power than you have exercised at any time in the past thirty years.

A change has now occurred in the constitutional structure of this country, a change which has profound and far-reaching consequences. Like previous constitutional developments it has taken place almost unnoticed and without any particular enactment. The changes are four-fold. One is that the House of Commons no longer represents the constituencies in the ordinary sense. The Commons have prolonged their own lives by Statute, and they have co-opted nearly one hundred members into their body without consultation with the electorate. The House of Commons was elected in 1935 on issues far different from those which confront the nation to-day. The majority of the members of the House of Commons were elected on peace issues and to preserve the limitation of arms. Their mandate, which they annually decide to renew, is no longer valid. The Socialists conduct their chief debates and make their chief decisions, not in the House of Commons, but in private meetings. The voting in the Lobbies is decided beforehand. Another point is that the continued existence of this Parliament is dependent upon the decision of this House. The adjustment of power made by the Parliament Act is now reversed. If the House of Lords refuse to continue the life of Parliament an appeal to the constituencies would become necessary.

I do not either approve or disapprove of this changed state of affairs; I only note that it has happened. I myself am a House of Commons man, and I realize the limitations of this House; yet the fact of the unseen constitutional revolution remains, and your Lordships must discharge this new duty that is imposed upon you. Here in this House resides the power and the authority to prolong this Parliament or to end it, and where power is there must go responsibility. It is for these reasons that I accept the opportunity of speaking in Secret Session with just as urgent a desire to lay my facts before you as if I had the opportunity to speak to the public as well as to your Lordships.


My Lords, before the question is put, I am wondering whether the Deputy Leader of the House would say something in reply to the very effective speech which my noble friend has made. He has drawn attention to the constitutional position, in which there exists a certain amount of danger in relation to those ideas that are all in our minds, and some of us feel that the decision for an easy get-out by means of a Secret Session is perhaps taken too lightly. As the noble Lord who has just addressed us said, we all abide by the decision to go into Secret Session because it is the decision of those who still advise us. Therefore I should like the Deputy Leader of the House to tell us the reason why we are to go into Secret Session. Personally I would far sooner that the arguments which are to be put forward were made and debated in public rather than in Secret Session.


My Lords, I did not know that this Motion was to be the subject of debate, but I would remind your Lordships that some weeks ago my noble friend Lord Winster had a Motion on the Paper in practically the same words as those of the Motion of Lord Beaverbrook, and the Government then, in spite of our protests, insisted on taking the Motion in Secret Session. As we protested very vehemently against the proposal to take Lord Winster's Motion in Secret Session, it would not be proper to let this occasion pass without some protest, and I take the opportunity of making it.


My Lords, it is, I am sure, very gratifying to your Lordships' House to have heard the very interesting views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Beaverbrook, but it seems to me that it does put us in an increasingly difficult situation, if our deliberations are to become so important relatively to the other House, that we are always going to be put into Secret Session whereas they debate in public. I understand that the Opposition, or what remains of the Opposition, in another place, will put down the Ministry of Aircraft Production Vote at a future date, and there is no doubt it will be taken in public. Yet we in the House of Lords are compelled to debate this matter in secret. I feel that this anomaly really must be taken in hand by the Government, so that our House shall not be handicapped as it is being handicapped relative to another place. That was the protest I made a fortnight ago, and I repeat it to-day because I think it is becoming too ridiculous that one House should be able to debate a subject in public while the other is compelled to debate it in secret.


My Lords, this is a very familiar discussion which your Lordships have been accustomed to hear as to whether we should debate in Secret Session or not. It is for the noble Lord who wishes to address your Lordships on a matter of this kind, and to bring it before the House and the country, to decide whether he wants to speak in secret or not, and if he does not speak in your Lordships' House he has abundant opportunity elsewhere to convey to the public what he wants to say; but as to what the Government can reply—and I am the last man in your Lordships' House to know what they are going to reply—they are certainly able to speak to us much more openly in Secret Session than in public. Upon one recent occasion when the matter was discussed and protest was made, the debate, notwithstanding, took place in secret, and it was quite obvious to your Lordships when the debate took place that it it had not been in secret the Government statement could not have been made. There were so many things which they were clearly not able to state in public that, but for the fact that the debate was in secret, there would have been no sufficient statement from the Government. It is a matter entirely for the Government. If they tell your Lordships that they have certain things which they can say but which cannot be said in public, I do not think your Lordships have any choice. You have absolute power, of course, but no reasonable people should resist the Motion in such circumstances. I am not one of those who like Secret Sessions—we none of us like Secret Sessions if we can possibly avoid them—but I hope your Lordships will realize that it is for the Government, with which I have nothing to do, to decide. The noble Lord, who no doubt will make a most interesting speech on the subject, has, as I have stated, abundant opportunity elsewhere.


My Lords, may I be allowed to say a few words before this preliminary discussion comes to an end? I should be sorry if this preliminary discussion were unduly prolonged, but what has just been said by the noble Marquess is very much in my mind. I do not intend to say anything about the last occasion when we had a Secret Session, except this, that I think those of your Lordships who were then present, as I was present, will bear out what has just been said by the noble Marquess. It would have been quite impossible for the Government statement to be made on that occasion as it was, with great fullness of information, save under conditions of secrecy. On the present occasion there is the point mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, that a similar Motion was contested, but was accepted by the House a fortnight ago, that this particular subject was one which, if discussed, must be discussed in Secret Session. For my part I have no prejudice in favour of Secret Sessions at all. The whole of my instincts, the whole of my House of Commons tradition, are entirely in the other scale. I agree with what the noble Marquess, Lord Londonderry, said on that account. I agree also with something that the noble Lord, Lord Beaverbrook, said in his interesting speech. I think it is true, and I rejoice that it should be true, that public debates in your Lordships' House are debates well worthy of its great tradition, and take a very important place in public discussion in this country. But there must be occasions on which there must be a Secret Session if a particular topic is brought up and is to be adequately answered. I hope that your Lordships—especially as the noble Lord, Lord Beaverbrook, does not oppose but is willing to accept the decision of the Government—will agree that on this occasion the debate must be in secret.

On Question, Motion agreed to, and ordered accordingly.