Proceedings in private and secret sessions

17.22Standing Order No 163 provides that at any sitting of the House, any Member may move ‘That the House sit in private’1 and that that question shall be put forthwith,2 and may be considered after the moment of interruption. Sittings in private in peacetime are extremely unusual; the last two occasions on which the House sat in private were 18 November 1958 and 4 December 2001.3 If the House decides to sit in private,4 then all the galleries are cleared, including Hansard reporters, with the consequence that there is no report of debates; broadcasting also ceases. The occupant of the Chair may authorise a short suspension to allow these arrangements to be put in place.

During the Second World War, following the precedents of the years 1916–18, whenever it seemed that matters of value to the enemy might be revealed in debate in either House, motions were made for the House concerned to go into secret session. This involved a two-stage process, under which the House first agreed to sit in private and then agreed the further specific motion that there be a secret session; the significance of the additional step was that divulging information from a secret session could engage the provisions of wartime security legislation.5 The secret session might be either to discuss a particular named subject,6 or for the remainder of the sitting,7 without any reason being specified. It was also a frequent practice to devote part of a sitting only to secret matters, and then resume a public sitting.8 It was open to the Speaker to authorise the insertion in Hansard of a limited statement of proceedings.9 In December 1945, it was resolved that no proceedings during the last Parliament held in secret session be any longer secret.10

Footnotes

  1. 1. Until 1998 (CJ (1997–98) 597) the form of the motion was ‘That strangers do withdraw’. Before the Standing Order was originally made as a resolution in May 1875, the exclusion of members of the public from the galleries could, at any time, be enforced without an order of the House: on a Member taking notice of their presence, the Speaker was obliged to order them to withdraw, without putting a question (Parl Deb (1810) 15, c 309; ibid (1845) 77, c 138).
  2. 2. The Speaker has ruled that a motion to sit in private offered during question time should be taken at the end of questions, HC Deb (13 June 2018) 642, cc 887–89.
  3. 3. CJ (1958–59) 32; ibid (2001–02) 242.
  4. 4. See para 6.57 for additional information.
  5. 5. For a discussion of the proceedings arising from disclosure following a secret session, see Erskine May (24th edn, 2011), p 280.
  6. 6. For example, Home Defence, LJ (1939–40) 165.
  7. 7. For example, CJ (1940–41) 5.
  8. 8. For a fuller discussion of the arrangements for secret sessions, see Erskine May (21st edn, 1989), pp 252–54.
  9. 9. For example, CJ (1917–18) 149.
  10. 10. CJ (1945–46) 120.