The Business for the next series of Sitting Days will be as follows:
First and Second Sitting Days—Supply, Committee (13th and 14th Allotted Days). A Debate will take place on Production.
Third Sitting Day—Supply, Committee (15th Allotted Day). The Adjournment of the House will be moved, and a Debate will take place on the shipping situation.
With regard to the Debate on the Third Sitting Day, on shipping, the Government wish to take this opportunity of putting before hon. Members a frank review of the shipping situation, both from the point of view of losses and of construction. In order that this may be done with safety to the people of this island and to our very gallant merchant seamen, it will be necessary to hold the Session in secret. The House will realise when the position is explained to them in Secret Session, as it will be, that this decision has not been arrived at because the Government desire to conceal unpleasant facts, or because they are afraid of their ability to see through the difficulties, which, though grave, are certainly surmountable. The sole factor actuating the Government in their decision is their paramount duty to protect the food and the lives of our people, and of our seamen in particular. Any Debate in which rumours or opinions were expressed upon the shipping situation and in which the Government were unable, for reasons of security, to state the true facts, would be misleading and damaging, and would impede rather than assist the efforts which are being made both to foil the enemy attacks and to make good and more than good the losses that are being suffered. I feel certain that the House will agree that, however valuable publicity may be for our Debates, it must not be allowed in so vital a matter to endanger the lives of our people, especially of those who are already running such constant and grave risks as our merchant seamen.
Does the Leader of the House appreciate the fact that all hon. Members who have been interested in this have assumed that the Debate was to be in public? While we should all be in sympathy with the considerations which the right hon. and learned Gentleman has put before the House about giving comfort and information to the enemy, I think it was the feeling of all Members on all sides of the House that the public are perhaps not sufficiently seized of the gravity of the situation, and it was desired rather to reinforce them than to force the House to disclose facts which ought not properly to be disclosed. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman whether, in view of what I am sure is a widespread feeling in the House for a public Debate, the Cabinet will reconsider the matter?
The Cabinet have naturally given this matter very deep and prolonged consideration, and as a result of that they have come to the conclusion which I have announced. They feel impelled, after considering the matter, to allow their action to be ruled by considerations of safety and security, and much though they deprecate the necessity of a Secret Session, they feel that in this matter the House will think that they have come to the right decision.
While appreciating the very sound argument put forward for a Secret Session, will it not be possible to have part of the Session in public, so that at any rate such information as could be given to the public could be stated openly?
That matter has been considered very carefully by the Cabinet. The difficulty is that in any such Debate any Member can speak on any subject which is in Order. Therefore, it may be that certain statements are made in the course of the Debate in public which cannot be answered in public by the Government, which would give a false impression both here and abroad as to the true situation.
Is the Leader of the House aware that if a Debate is held in secret, rumours will still be current about the position, and that nothing which transpires in the course of the Secret Debate can suppress those rumours, as the public will still be uninformed on the subject? Moreover, is he aware that Lord Woolton the other day asked the public to face squarely the facts of the shipping situation? How is it possible to face those facts squarely unless some information is provided by the Government? Does he also appreciate that while the question of the publication of shipping losses is solely a matter for the Government to decide, much value will accrue from having a Debate on the general shipping position in public, so that the whole question can be thoroughly ventilated?
I quite appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point of view; it is one which we have very carefully considered. So far as the question of uninformed public opinion is concerned, it would be impossible to right that situation except by giving the information, and the Government have come to the conclusion that that is a thing which cannot be done in view of the matters I have mentioned. As regards the question of not publishing the shipping losses, but publishing the discussion on other matters relating to them, I would point out that there are, equally, matters with regard to construction and what is being done to counteract these losses that must be kept secret as well, and it is impossible to allow a partial picture to be given which would in itself be gravely misleading as to the nature of the situation at the present time.
Why were these considerations not present in the mind of the Government yesterday afternoon, when they certainly conveyed the information that the Debate on shipping was to be in public? At what stage did they reach the conclusion—will the right hon. and learned Gentleman be quite frank about the matter—that the Debate was not to be in public but was to be held in secret; and why did they come to that later decision?
The decision was arrived at last night, and the reason was that it had been assumed that, though the Government might give no details and no figures, it would be possible to have a Debate ranging over a number of subjects which would not do any harm. It was then ascertained that other questions might be raised in the course of the Debate and that within the Rules of Order it would be impossible to prevent any Member who wished to do so from getting up and speaking on those matters. In view of that consideration, and the danger of such matters being mentioned in the course of the Debate, the Government felt it wiser to take the course which has now been adopted.
It must be obvious to the House that if the Government wish to have a matter of this sort discussed insecret, the House must accept the Government's point of view. On the other hand, I think the Government realise that they will be watched very carefully on this occasion and that if we are to go into Secret Session upon this matter, we shall expect to have from the Government a frank and open statement upon it. On more than one occasion Secret Sessions have been abused by the Government, and the things which have been told to the House at such Sessions could quite easily have been told in public. May I put a second point? Is there not in this country a feeling that the Americans are much franker about the shipping situation than we are and that American newspapers publish figures of American shipping losses in a much fuller way——
May I intervene to suggest to the hon. Member that it would be easier to deal with the matter which he is mentioning when we are able to explain the position in Secret Session?
May I then suggest that at the end of the coming Secret Session on this matter Mr. Speaker should be authorised to issue a much fuller report than those which have been issued previously in regard to matters of this sort, so that whatever information can be given to the country, should be given to the country, having regard to the psychological value of that information?
I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman for the suggestion and certainly will consider carefully whether, as a result of this Session, some further and fuller statement can be made to the public which expresses the general feeling of the House.
Mr. Graham White:
Whether information concerning shipping losses is given to the House or is withheld, will my right hon. and learned Friend see that the Government give the House an assurance that measures appropriate to the gravity of the situation have been taken and will be maintained?
May I ask a question on another topic? In view of the supreme and growing importance of air power in the conduct of the war, and the inadequate attention given to that matter during the recent Debate, in which the Secretary of State for Air was not able to take part, and also in view of the continued public interest in the general strategy of the air arm, would my right hon. and learned Friend consider arranging for a Debate on that subject before the Summer Recess?
We are always prepared, naturally, to consider any matter which will suit the convenience of the House. If my hon. Friend will take the usual steps through the usual channels, his suggestion will be considered.
May I raise a different issue? Will the Government consider discontinuing the practice of describing our days of meeting as First, Second and Third Sitting Days and restore the actual days of the week? Any intelligent person in Berlin can ascertain without any difficulty the days when we are to meet. It can be done in many ways. The simplest way is for a person to go into a certain public office to-morrow and buy, as he will be able to buy without challenge, a document which will have printed in it the day on which we are next going to meet. Surely it is a sheer farce to continue wasting time and effort in the silly way we have been doing for the last two years?
I do not think it has wasted a great deal of time or effort, but we will certainly consider whether we cannot restore the days of the week, instead of following the present practice of referring to the First, Second and Third Sitting Days.
Colonel Arthur Evans:
May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend whether he will consider the necessity of this House being fully informed on the American reactions to the shipping situation and whether we are to have the benefit of a speech from the hon. Member for Oxford University (Sir A. Salter)?
On the question of the Government's decision to hold the shipping Debate in Secret Session, may I ask the Leader of the House whether steps will be taken by the Government to bring home to the people of this country the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood), namely, the gravity of the shipping situation?