HL Deb 19 December 1945 vol 138 cc902-7

2.40 p.m.


My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Viscount Addison, I beg to move the Motion standing in his name. The same Motion has already been passed in another place.

Moved, That the proceedings in Secret Session of the House during the last Session of Parliament be recorded in the Journals of the House.—(Lord Ammon.)


My Lords, before we pass this Motion I think we ought to have a little more information. There are a good many noble Lords who are not at all happy about this proposal. We do not know exactly what its meaning is. It says: That the proceedings in Secret Session of the House during the last Session of Parliament he recorded in the Journals of the House. Does that merely mean that the bare subject is to be recorded and the vote, if any, or does it mean much more than that? Does it mean that from now on any member of your Lordships' House, or of another place, is-free to quote his remembrance of what was said in a Secret Session two or three years before? It seems to me that if that is what it means it is open to a great deal of criticism and might lead to serious abuse—I do not mean necessarily intentional abuse, but actual abuse—because, after all, there is no official record in existence by which to check any statements which are made, and memories are becoming cloudy and some people are a little rash in what they say. It is not at all impossible that somebody might get up here in Public Session and say that a certain noble Lord said something or other in Secret Session, and the noble Lord who was attacked would have no means, so far as I can see, of refuting the statement made. I do not say that it is necessary for us to negative this proposal now, but at any rate we should have more information about it, and personally I think that it requires a Good deal more consideration. I should like the matter to be postponed until a later date.


My Lords, I think that perhaps the noble Viscount, the Leader of the Opposition, has read more into this than there is in it. All that it requires is a record of the bare Resolutions which have been passed. There has been no verbatim report of the Secret Sessions. If the noble Viscount is not satisfied, he can raise the matter later, when the noble Viscount, the Leader of the House, is here.


If we pass this Motion, will it mean that from now on it will be possible for any member of this House to quote from memory something which was said in Secret Session during the last Session of Parliament?


No; as far as I understand it, all that it is proposed to record is simply the bare Resolutions passed. No one can prevent people from talking and saying what they like.

2.44 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, in moving this Motion, said that he was inviting us to pass a Motion similar to that passed in another place, but as a matter of fact the Motion before another place is entirely different from this. The Motion before another place, in simple language, means that although everything which has been said in Secret Session was absolutely secret and every member was bound to preserve that secrecy—and I presume that it was in fact protected by privilege outside—people will now be free to say whatever they think took place in Secret Session (because, as the Leader of the Opposition has said, it cannot be more than that, there being no record). In future, anybody can give an account anywhere of what he believes took place in Secret Session. That is the Motion before the House of Commons. Yet the noble Lord said that he was proposing that we should pass a Motion similar to that passed in another place to-day.

I would go further and ask, what is behind this? We are not-bound by many rules of order in this House, but I think that at any rate there would be a rule of order which precluded discussion (and a vote if necessary) on this subject to-day, on a Motion which merely asks that certain proceedings in this House shall be recorded in the Journals. I do ask, however, what is behind this. What are we going to be asked to do if we pass this Motion? What is the point of it? Hitherto the House has kept these proceedings secret. The whole essence of a Secret Session is that it should be secret, and that people should he able to say in secret what they certainly would not say openly in the House, so that there can be that frankness which in a time of great emergency is necessary.

A case may arise where the Government wish to take the House fully into their confidence, and where it is desirable that people should speak with complete frankness, that being the whole intention of a Secret Session. That being so, what is the advantage of recording in the journals of the House the information which probably would be recorded—namely, the subject under discussion and the names of the speakers? I take it that that is all that would be recorded, because the Clerk of the Parliaments is the only person other than members of this House who attends a Secret Session. The vote would also be recorded where a vote was taken. I cannot see any object in placing that on record, unless it be to go further and say what has been said. Moreover, noble Lords who have spoken in Secret Session, under the impression that they were doing so under the seal of secrecy, might be placed in a very invidious position if this information is given to the world; they would be asked what they said in Secret Session. If we pass this Motion I think it will lead on inevitably to the suggestion that, having published the names of the speakers, there can be no objection to saying what took place.

This matter is put before us at very short notice. I saw it only a few minutes ago. We have all been taken by surprise by it, and certainly we did not expect it to be moved formally, without any explanation of why it is moved and what is behind it. It would be a very good thing if some further explanation were to be given, and the whole matter stood over. There can he no urgency about it.

2.49 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to say a word on behalf of the Liberal Nationals whom I represent in this House, because we feel very strongly about this. There can be no possible secrecy in the future should a Secret Session be held if we agree to this. This means the end of all secrecy. It is not a matter of certainty that Secret Sessions will be held only in war-time. There might easily he a Secret Sesssion in peacetime, and it might be fraught with much more danger and much more difficulty, if anything came out, than it was in time of war. I am sure that all your Lordships recognize that quite clearly.

Then there is another point. Viscount Swinton has asserted that the Motion is not, as Lord Ammon said, the same as that put before another place. It is entirely different. But we must realize that it is either intended to be the same as that put forward to another place or to lead up to what is happening in another place. It will be of no interest to posterity to know that Viscount Addison spoke in a Secret Session in this House, but it will be of the greatest interest to posterity to know what the noble Viscount said in that Secret Session. I can see no conceivable reason for just putting down the name of a speaker if you cannot also put down what he says. The effect of this will be that in future everybody speaking in a Secret Session will be, so to speak, looking over his shoulder, realizing that both his friends and his opponents can go out and say openly, after a time, what they purport to think that he said. Only last night I was discussing with several other members of your Lordships' House some of the very able speeches that were made in yesterday's debate. On two or three occasions we differed entirely as to exactly what was said by a particular Lord yesterday afternoon. And yet we are going to lay ourselves open in the future—this of course does not matter to me for I am getting on, but there are young members who may get up and speak and it may affect them—to the risk that in, say, twenty years' time those of us who spoke may be told what we were purported to have said in a Secret Session of the greatest importance.

I look at this with the greatest suspicion. Mr. Herbert Morrison said—I think in another place but it may have been outside—that there was no point in keeping these matters secret now because he was taking off Defence of the Realm Regulations, and this would allow people to publish what was purported to have taken place in Secret Session. I would like to ask the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack if this is correct. I do not think that Mr. Herbert Morrison or anyone else can take away privileges of this House. Surely it would have been against the privileges of this House, long before the Defence Regulat- ions came into operation, if a newspaper were to have published what was purported to have been said in a Secret Session here? I speak with diffidence on this point. I am not a lawyer, nor am I very fully conversant with the laws of this place. But I do think that, if a newspaper published that, we should be able, and rightly so, to bring the proprietor of that newspaper to the bar of this House and ask him some very pertinent questions. I do not quite understand what Lord Ammon said about postponing this Motion. Does what he said mean that if we stop now, the position will be as if this Motion had not been moved at all and that nothing will have been done?




Then if that is the case I will say nothing more.

2.55 p.m.


My Lords, I think the House should be grateful to noble Lords on the Front Opposition Bench for drawing the attention of the House to the implications of this Motion. We should, rightly, be very jealous to safeguard the secrecy of sessions which purported to be and were declared to be secret, and in which, on that understanding, members of this House took part. I think that before proceeding to a decision on this matter, either to-day or at any subsequent date, we should be informed, first of all, just what it is that is proposed to be published. If it is merely the bare text of the Resolutions which have been passed, and which it is necessary to record in the Journals of the House for any legal or quasi-legal reasons, I do not think that objection could be raised to that now. If the idea is that anything more should be published, then reasons should be given for the proposed publication.

The noble Lord who moved this Motion said it was for the purpose of bringing the procedure of this House into conformity with that of the other House. Noble Lords who have spoken subsequently have said that this is not the same Resolution as that which has been, or is about to be, passed in the other House. Consequently we ought to have an explanation of the other Resolution and of why it is proposed to depart from it here. Again, this Motion deals with Secret Sessions of this House "during the last Session of Parliament." I do not remember if there were more than one such Session—I rather think there were —during the war. If so, why are not all of them covered by the Resolution? Why should it be limited to one Session? Perhaps, in the circumstances, the Government may think well to withdraw this Motion or to move that the discussion be now adjourned and proceeded with after the Christmas Recess.


I think perhaps it will short circuit matters if 'I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.