HC Deb 20 November 1951 vol 494 cc222-5
54. Mr. Michael Foot

asked the Prime Minister whether, in pursuance of the Government's policy of holding a Secret Session on defence, he proposes to introduce a regulation making it an offence for a Member to divulge matters discussed at such a Session.

The Prime Minister

I have already, Mr. Speaker, as you know, obtained your permission in case this Question was asked to answer it at the end of Questions.

I had thought that my offer of a Secret Session on defence would be generally welcomed by the House and would be advantageous to the public interest. If, however, we learn through the usual channels and other channels that any large body of Members would sooner not have this opportunity for a private discussion on matters which are of common interest to us all I shall not press my suggestion upon them on this occasion.

Referring to the particular point raised by the hon. Member, it has now become somewhat hypothetical. If at any future time a Secret, or perhaps it might be called a Private Session, should become necessary, the Government would rely on the good sense and public spirit of Members who would, of course, be aware that any disclosure of proceedings in such a Session would be a breach of Privilege.

Mr. C. R. Attlee

While gladly accepting the view that the right hon. Gentleman has put forward, that it is undesirable to hold a Secret Session when a large number of Members do not wish for it, may I ask him to look more closely into this question of a Secret Session in time of peace? I think that he will find that the regulations on Privilege are not sufficient to cover this matter, in that the noble Lords from another place have the right to attend and would not be amenable to Privilege. I would submit to him, if I may, that he should have the whole matter looked into very fully by the Law Officers, as this is by no means a clear point.

The Prime Minister

I think that this may go forward through the usual channels, and then, no doubt, the Law Officers will have their attention drawn to its aspects. At the same time, I am bound to say that I think it would be a great pity that the House of Commons should cut such a gulf between itself and this ancient traditional practice sometimes to talk things over in a friendly way among themselves.

Mr. Foot

While welcoming the Prime Minister's full-blooded retreat in this matter, may I ask him whether one of the considerations which has persuaded him to take this course is the fact that very serious issues for the freedom of the Press would be involved if he had pursued the proposal he originally made in his statement to the House on the Address?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. I must be careful not to be too much embarrassed by the welcome I have received from the other side of the House. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I would not wish at this stage to press my suggestion for a Secret or Private Session, if it is going to make our differences greater. My hope was rather that it might be a procedure which would bring us more together on matters that matter to everyone of us.

Mr. S. Silverman

On a point of order. In view of the statement made by the Prime Minister that in the case of a Private Session any disclosure by hon. Members would, I think he said, be a breach of Privilege, may I ask you whether that extremely doubtful statement has your authority?

Mr. Speaker

I think that the Parliamentary law on the subject is this: If the House passes an Order that strangers withdraw, followed by another Order to the effect that the rest of the Session be in Secret Session, any hon. Member who disregarded the Orders of the House and spoke outside would technically be in contempt of the House and disobeying its Orders. That is my Ruling on the matter.

Mr. Silverman

For that statement we are all grateful, and we would like to examine it, because it seems to some of us that there are a number of considerations which would make it, if I may say so with respect, a little doubtful. The Order on this question has always been that there cannot be reports, but, of course, any report of proceedings in this House in the Press is a technical breach of Privilege at all times. The way in which any sanction used to be regarded during the war was the sanction of the Defence Regulation and not a sanction on any ruling of Privilege.

Mr. Speaker

The sanction is a matter for the House and not for me. The hon. Gentleman will find that my predecessor, Mr. Speaker Fitzroy, gave a considered Ruling on this matter on the 12th December, 1939, to which I would refer him.

Mr. Frank Bowles

Mr. Speaker, may I refer you to the views expressed by Mr. Speaker Clifton Brown in reply to a Private Notice Question by me last year, which is referred to in today's "Manchester Guardian"?

Mr. Geoffrey Bing

In view of the importance of the issues that are raised in regard to the reporting of Parliamentary matter, would it be possible to leave this whole issue until we have had more opportunity of considering it and perhaps debating it at some future date?

Mr. Speaker

I think that would be a very wise course, and I embrace it with gratitude.

Sir H. Williams

The Leader of the Opposition asked a question which implied that the Law Officers of the Crown were the competent people to decide on questions of Privilege. The Prime Minister, in replying to him, accepted the same point of view. Is it not very clear beyond any doubt that the Law Officers of the Crown are the servants of His Majesty and have no authority of that kind whatsoever?

Mr. Speaker

I did not understand the question of the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition in that sense at all. I think he merely suggested that the Prime Minister should seek the advice and guidance of the Law Officers of the Crown, and that he is entitled to do.