§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 11.7 a.m.
§ Mrs. Margaret Thatcher (Finchley)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This is a maiden speech, but I know that the constituency of Finchley which I have the honour to represent would not wish me to do other than come straight to the point and address myself to the matter before the House.
I cannot do better than begin by stating the objects of the Bill in the words used by Mr. Arthur Henderson when he introduced the Bill which became the Local Authorities (Admission of the Press to Meetings) Act, 1908, which was also a Private Member's Measure. He specified the object and purpose as that of guarding the rights of members of the public by enabling the fullest information to be obtained for them in regard to the actions of their representatives upon local authorities.
It is appropriate at this stage to mention that the public does not have a right of admission, either at common law or by statute, to the meetings of local authorities. Members of the public are compelled, therefore, to rely upon the local Press for information on what their elected representatives are doing. The original Measure was brought as a result of a case in which the representatives of a particular paper were excluded from a particular meeting.
The public has the right, in the first instance, to know what its elected representatives are doing. That right extends in a number of directions. I do not know whether hon. Members generally appreciate the total amount of money spent by local authorities. In England and Wales, local authorities spend £1,400 million a year and, in Scotland, just over £200 million a year. Those sums are not insignificant, even in terms of national budgets. Less than half is raised by ratepayers' money and the rest by taxpayers' money, and the first purpose in admitting the Press is that we may know how those moneys are being spent. 1351 In the second place, I quote from the Report of the Franks Committee:Publicity is the greatest and most effective check against any arbitrary action.That is one of the fundamental rights of the subject. Further, publicity stimulates the interest of local persons in local government. That is also very important. But if there is a case for publicity, there is also a case for a certain amount of private conference when personal matters are being discussed and when questions are in a preliminary stage. It is in trying to find a point of balance between these two aspects—the public right of knowledge and the necessity on occasion for private conference—that the difficulty arises.
An attempt was made by the 1908 Act to meet this difficulty, and I now turn to the history of the Measure which I am about to present. Provision was made by the 1908 Act for Press representatives to attend meetings of local councils and meetings of education committees in so far as they had delegated powers, and, also a number of other bodies which have now ceased to exist because successive Parliaments have substituted new bodies to carry out the powers which the 1908 Act formerly permitted the Press to publicise.
Long before the events of the past summer, there was a very good case for amending the 1908 Act. The first good case arose when the Local Government Act, 1929, abolished boards of guardians, to whose meetings the Act admitted the Press. Boards of Guardians were responsible for the administration of hospitals and many other matters. The first attempt to bring the law of 1908 up-to-date came in 1930, when the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) introduced a Private Member's Measure, which I am happy and relieved to learn received a Second Reading. It did not get any further because of a rather precipitate change of Government, which I do not think even the most optimistic hon. Member opposite would believe was imminent at the moment. The case for the Bill then was that boards of guardians no longer existed and the Act needed amending, firstly, by reference to its past performance, and secondly, by reference to the new legislation of 1929.
1352 Then came another major local government Measure, the Local Government Act, 1933. That Act has very considerable significance, because in Section 85 local authorities were empowered to appoint any committees they chose. As a result, many authorities began to go into committee of the full council, not merely for the purpose which is in the spirit of the 1908 Act—that is to say, in order to discuss something which was truly of a confidential nature—but in order merely to exclude the Press, without addressing their minds to whether such exclusion was justified by reference to the matter to be discussed. That began to provide the first major legal loophole in the Act. Where previously local authorities had to deliberate in open council, with the exception of circumstances arising from the business which justified the exclusion of the Press, after that Act they were enabled to resolve themselves into committee merely as a matter of administrative convenience.
Two more Private Members' Measures attempted to bring the 1908 Act up-todate—one introduced in 1949 by the hon. Member for Westbury (Sir R. Grimston), and the other introduced in 1950 by the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. M. Lindsay). In the meantime, the need was becoming even greater, because in 1944 came the Education Act, which removed from the sharp light of publicity education committees which had been within purview of the 1908 Act. So we find that the purpose of this Act which governs the position now is no longer effective, because its provisions have become greatly out-dated. This is one of the major grounds for attempting now to bring the 1908 Act up-to-date and make its purpose effective by means of a new Act.
I now turn to the Bill before the House and will try to deduce its general principle from the Clauses there set down. There are six points I should like to make. The first point is, on what occasions in local authority work will this Bill entitle the Press to be present? I use the word "entitled" because there are many authorities which already practise the admission of the Press to a far greater extent than the Bill would necessitate their doing if it became law. This is meant to establish a minimum legislative code of practice for the local 1353 authorities. Therefore, the first question is to which meetings of local authorities would the Press be entitled to be admitted by virtue of the Bill. I would refer hon. Members to Clause 2 (2), which contains the major point with reference to committees, and I will try to put the point in fairly simple language —rather simpler than the complicated drafting we find here.
May I point out that committees of local authorities whose only power is to recommend a course of action to the council—a course of action which must be taken by the council and which cannot be taken by the committee without reference back—are not included at all in the Bill? Therefore, any committee of a local authority whose only task is to recommend a course of action to the council is not within the purview of the Bill.
I am well aware that a number of committees of local authorities have two different kinds of power—power to recommend and power to discharge the function of the local authority itself because that local authority has specifically delegated that task to the committee. Where the committee has both of these functions, it comes within the realm of the Bill if, and only if, a substantial Dart of its functions consists in discharging delegated powers. Where a committee only has the odd delegated power referred to it, it will not come within the Bill. Where local authorities have made a practice, as some have, of delegating their own functions to committees, these committees have substantial delegated powers, and therefore come within this Clause.
The Press will be admitted to the main council meetings of local authorities and to those meetings which effectively discharge the functions of the council; that is the committees with substantial delegated powers, but others are not included. I know that some authorities include them, and I would like to see more authorities include them, because I think it would be in the interests of local government, but they are not entitled to be included under this Bill.
Having got the Press in to these meetings, or having entitled them to be in, there must inevitably be occasions, such as personal circumstances coming under discussion, matters preliminary to legal proceedings, matters with regard to the 1354 acquisition of land, or such matters which would inevitably come up, when the Press were entitled to be present, unless some effective provision was made to exclude the Press on these occasions.
My second point, therefore, is: having got the Press in, upon what grounds is a local authority entitled to exclude it? There must inevitably be some occasions. We have had great difficulty in drafting the Clause to fit all cases. I had hoped to draw up a schedule of circumstances in which local authorities would be entitled to exclude the Press. That was not possible, and we have had to go back to a kind of omnibus Clause. I refer hon. Members to Clause 1 (2), which is the operative Clause for this purpose. I suggest most earnestly that when the Press is excluded it must be because of some particular reason arising from the proceedings of the local authority at the time, and there must be very good reason for the exclusion. The real reason for excluding the Press is that publicity of the matter to be discussed would be prejudicial to the public interest.
There are two prongs to this Clause. Publicity would be prejudicial for two main groups of reasons. The first group is where the matters under discussion are of a confidential nature. They may relate to personal circumstances of individual electors. They may relate to a confidential communication from a Government Department asking local authorities for their opinion on a subject which the Minister would not like to be discussed in open session until he is a good deal further on and has received the views of local authorities.
There is another group of subjects which perhaps could not be strictly termed confidential but where it would be clearly prejudicial to the public interest to discuss them in open session. They may relate to staff matters, to legal proceedings, to contracts, the discussion of which tender to accept and other such matters. On this prong the Press has to be excluded for a special reason which would need to be stated in the resolution for exclusion. Where the matter is confidential it would not need to be specified further in the resolution for exclusion. Where it was for a special reason, that reason would need to be specified in broad general terms in the resolution for exclusion. This subsection is effective 1355 and wide enough in its drafting to cover all occasions upon which a local authority could possibly have good grounds for going into private session. Those are the two main operative Clauses of the Bill.
My third point relates to documents. I understand that there is a very wide variation in practice between the number of documents which different local authorities give to the Press. I do not know how many hon. Members have tried to obtain information about a local authority of which they are not a member but happen to be a ratepayer. One sometimes goes to a council meeting without any idea of what is to be discussed. One sits there for about 15 minutes and all one hears is numbers being counted up to about twenty and starting all over again. Unless the Press, which is to report to the public, has some idea from the documents before it what is to be discussed, the business of allowing the Press in becomes wholly abortive. Therefore, Clause 1 (3, b) makes provision for a limited number of documents to be supplied to the Press at its request in advance of the meeting. It specifies that the agenda must be supplied to the Press if it so requests and is prepared to pay for it.
Agendas vary very much. Some are couched in terms which do not betray for one moment the subject which is to be discussed. One sees such items as "To discuss the proposal of Mr. Smith" and, "To receive the recommendation of Mr. Jones". As distinct from the supporting accompanying documents, the agenda itself is usually a comparatively brief document. I have, therefore, thought fit to put into the subsection a provision that the agenda shall be supplied to the Press together with such further statement or particulars as are necessary to convey to an outside person the nature of the subject to be discussed. Therefore, the Press must have some idea from the documents what is the true subject to be discussed at meetings to which its representatives are entitled to be admitted.
If the whole agenda was supplied, it might include some things which would be likely to be taken when the Press was excluded. I understand that the practice in many councils is to have Part I and Part II, to take subjects in public session 1356 first, and then have a resolution and go into camera for the next group of subjects which come up in private. The corporation, acting through its proper officer, to whom it would have to give instructions, is entitled to exclude from the agenda matters which are likely to be taken in camera so that no confidential matters will leak out by that process. Another provision in the Clause is that the corporation may, if it thinks fit—not must—include supporting committee reports or documents, but it would have to exercise its mind to include them. The Press would not be able to demand such documents as of right.
Fourthly, I have been approached and asked about the question of qualified privilege for local councillors and people who serve on local authorities. I have been approached by people who suggest that the privilege should be made absolute. I could not possibly accede to that, as I think that absolute privilege should be given very rarely indeed. However, there is a consequential provision in the Bill which means that where qualified privilege at present exists for statements made by people serving on local authorities that qualified privilege shall not cease to exist merely because the Press is present. That retains the present position and removes one of the reasons why people can object to the Press being present, because unless there were a consequential provision it might serve to remove the qualified privilege.
Fifthly, I understand from various sources that my proposals are under some criticism because they contain no sanctions or penalties upon local authorities. I should therefore like to state briefly what I am advised the position is when any statute is breached. There are general sanctions available at law for this purpose. Where a public right is infringed, as it would be in the event of the Bill becoming law and local authorities wrongfully excluding the Press, any person can apply to either the Attorney-General or the Solicitor-General for what is known as a relator action. He must state on the application the grounds and enclose counsel's opinion that there is a good cause of action, that is to say, that it is probable that the council wrongfully excluded under particular circumstances. The person must supply also—I have no doubt that this is very important—a 1357 solicitor's certificate to the effect that the person to take action and to go to the courts is a person who is likely to be able to meet the costs, because the Attorney-General will not foot the bill. He only lends his name to the action.
When that is done, the courts can adjudicate on whether that exclusion was legal or illegal. In the event of the litigant getting a declaration that the exclusion was illegal, he would get costs, and the district auditor already has power to surcharge those costs upon the members of the local authority whose misconduct was responsible for the illegal action occurring. I submit that those sanctions that are available by the ordinary law are sufficient to enable this Measure to be enforced.
My sixth point relates to the Schedule. I shall not go through the Schedule in any great detail, except to point out that a considerable number of the bodies referred to in it are the successors in title to those mentioned in the 1908 Act—the divisional executives established under the Education Act, the regional hospital boards and so on. Hon. Members will note that some committees of authorities are specifically excluded—those whose functions consist solely of determining matters of a confidential nature.
For example, committees of regional hospitals boards are specifically excluded. Committees of executive councils are specifically excluded, which means that any disciplinary matter relating to doctors, nurses, and so on, would not come before the public eye because the committee discharging the function does not come within this Measure.
I hope it is evident from what I have said that we are trying very hard to put into the form of legislation a code of practice that will safeguard the rights of the public. There was, last summer, one instance of the letter of the 1908 Act being contravened, and in a number of instances certainly the spirit of that Act was contravened. It is not, therefore, only a matter of bringing the 1908 Act up to date; because of the abuse of the law, there is a case for safeguarding the rights of the citizen. I hope that hon. Members will think fit to give this Bill a Second Reading, and to consider that the paramount function of this distin- 1358 guished House is to safeguard civil liberties rather than to think that administrative convenience should take first place in law.
Finally, Mr. Speaker, I should like to acknowledge the help given to me by my right hon. Friend and his Department which, I understand, has been as great as any Government Department could give to a private Member. I want also to acknowledge the help of those who have been good enough to subscribe their names to the Bill, and I should like to thank the House for its very kind indulgence to a new Member.
§ 11.34 a.m.
§ Mr. F. V. Corfield (Gloucestershire, South)
I beg to second the Motion.
It is a very great pleasure and privilege to express my congratulations, which, I am sure, will be echoed in all parts of the House, to my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher). It is not often that one gets the opportunity in this House to congratulate an hon. Member on an outstanding maiden speech, which has been delivered with very considerable clarity and charm, and to congratulate the same hon. Member on introducing a piece of by no means unimportant legislation in a manner that would do credit to the Front Benches on either side of the Chamber.
Her very great interest in this matter is reflected in the manner in which my hon. Friend has covered, not only the general subject, but the detailed provisions of the various Clauses of her Bill. It is, therefore, with no sense of mere formality, but very sincerely, that I say that we look forward to hearing more from her in future debates, to which she has so obviously a contribution to make. I have also to congratulate her on her success in the Ballot, and on choosing this Measure which is perhaps not wholly uncontroversial and which raises matters and principles of the greatest importance.
In considering the underlying principles of the Bill—and, indeed, those of the 1908 Act that it purports to replace —I am very much aware of the dangers of trying to draw too close a parallel between the business conducted at local authority meetings and that conducted on the Floor of this Chamber. Much local authority business is inevitably of an administrative nature, and is more 1359 comparable to that conducted within the walls of a Government Department than that which we discuss here.
Nevertheless, as my hon. Friend has so well pointed out, local government, like central government, is concerned with the raising and spending of very large sums of public money, and it is concerned with a host of decisions that very intimately affect private rights and private prospects. I have always thought it to be absolutely fundamental to our system of democracy that matters of that sort—public spending, and interference with private lives on behalf of the public —should, as a general rule, take place in public. I cannot believe that that principle should be reversed.
The principle must be that, as a general rule, such discussions should be in public, and the exclusion of members of the Press and the public should be regarded as the exception. There have to be exceptions, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, either because a certain item is of a confidential nature, or is of such a nature that the public or the Press should not be present while it is discussed, or because the business of that committee is generally of that nature.
I should like to underline what my hon. Friend has said about the admission of the public. It is unfortunate that those of us who were concerned with helping my hon. Friend in the preparation of this Bill did not fully appreciate that the choice of the Title would exclude us, under Standing Orders, from making it possible to admit the public, as well as members of the Press—
§ Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)
I notice that the hon. Member mentions the public and the Press. Where is there a single word in the Bill about the admission of the public?
§ Mr. Corfield
If the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) had done me the courtesy of listening to what I said, he might have saved that intervention.
I was explaining that we did not fully appreciate that the Title precluded us from putting in a Clause to allow the public, as distinct from the Press, to be admitted, but I believe that it is possible 1360 that this can be put right in Committee. I should like to emphasise one point that, I believe, is also the view of my hon. Friend. It is not the purpose of the Bill merely to confer privileges on the Press as such, but to ensure that the Press, as the natural channel between electors and elected—
§ Mr. Charles Pannell (Leeds, West)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield) is apparently suggesting that the Title of the Bill can be altered in Committee, so that the public as well as members of the Press may be admitted. I presume that for the Committee to deal with anything not included in the Long Title would be out of order?
§ Mr. Speaker
In any case, it is for the Committee to decide. It would be a matter, not for the House at this moment, but for the Committee to decide.
§ Mr. Pannell
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. With respect, I do not know whether you are fully seized of the point that I am making. The hon. Gentleman is putting forward a plea. The Bill does not confer on the public the right to enter council committees in the same way as the Press. The hon. Gentleman thinks that the public should have equal rights with the Press, and he is suggesting that it could be put right in Committee. I submit that in so far as there is nothing in the Long Title about that, it can hardly be amended in Committee.
§ Major Sir Frank Markham (Buckingham)
Surely it is within the discretion of this House and of the Committee to amend the Long Title of the Bill, just as there is discretion to amend other parts of the Bill?
§ Mr. Speaker
I may have expressed myself extremely badly in reply to the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell), in which case I regret my inefficiency. I should have thought it was clear that whether or no a particular Amendment proposed in Committee was in order would be for the decision of the Chairman of that Committee. That is the point that I wanted to make.
§ Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham)
Further to that point of order. There is a point here which interests the House—namely, whether with the Bill as at present drafted it would be possible for the Chairman of the Committee concerned to allow an Amendment of this kind. We might reach a decision today that would tie the hands of the Chairman of the Committee, and it is rather important for us to know now whether or not that is so.
§ Mr. Speaker
I cannot here and now give Rulings on a hypothetical matter which would be for the Chairman of the Committee to consider if and when some Amendment were proposed. I am sure the House appreciates the difficulty.
§ Sir F. Markham
Surely there are many precedents for the Long Title to a Bill being altered in Committee. The Chairman has merely to be guided by those precedents.
§ Mr. Speaker
These are not points of order for me to decide now. They are clearly matters which would fall to be decided by the Chairman of the Committee if and when a specific Amendment were presented to him.
§ Mr. G. A. Pargiter (Southall)
Further to that point of order. Is it not a well-established fact and in accordance with the precedents that once the Long Title to a Bill has been settled on Second Reading it cannot be altered? Any alteration of the Long Title must surely be made in the course of an Amendment to the Bill at this stage.
§ Mr. Speaker
I do not propose at this stage to give a Ruling on some hypothetical Amendment which might or might not be proposed at some stage. I do not think it desirable to do so.
§ Mr. Pargiter
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not true to say that the settlement of this point is vital in relation to whether some Members will support the Bill or not?
§ Sir F. Markham
There is a point of order, Mr. Speaker, on which I am sure we should all welcome your Ruling. That is, how best can we express our opinion 1362 here and now if we want the Long Title altered by the inclusion of the words, "and the public"?
§ Mr. Speaker
What the hon. Member can do is to express his view about it here and now in a speech on the general principles of the Bill on Second Reading.
§ Mr. Corfield
I think that in view of what I was going to say, a great deal of this discussion is somewhat academic, with all respect.
§ Mr. C. Pannell
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can it really be called academic when an hon. Gentleman, in seconding a Bill, wants to alter its Title in a Second Reading speech?
§ Mr. Speaker
That is not a point of order. I would ask the House to be careful not to raise, as points of order, matters which are not points of order, so that we may make progress.
§ Mr. Corfield
I was saying that, as I understood it, it is not the purpose of this Bill to confer privileges on the Press as such. The purpose of the Bill is to ensure to the Press, as the natural channel between electors and elected, the facilities necessary for the Press to fulfil that function. This general principle, that admission should be the rule and exclusion the exception, seems to me to become increasingly important as time goes on, rather than the reverse, as local authorities cover an ever-widening field and as more and more functions tend to be delegated to them from the central Government.
It is perfectly true that in central government administrative decisions are taken within the walls of a Government Department, but nevertheless they are taken in the name of a responsible Minister who can be questioned in this House and can be required to justify those decisions on the Floor of the House. That seems to me to be an absolutely basic safeguard to our liberties. But as these decisions become delegated to local authorities, Ministerial responsibility must be correspondingly weakend and in some cases abrogated altogether. In that case, the private citizen is deprived of the right to that last final 1363 appeal to this House through his Parliamentary representative.
The only substitute, when a decision is delegated to local authorities, is that the decision should be announced in public after due notice in public and in conditions which permit of a public discussion in which the merits of the decision can be judged and where it can be seen, in the words of the Franks Committee, that it has been taken in "openness and fairness." Secrecy in this matter is not only the enemy of the public. It is not merely the enemy of the Press, for that would be relatively unimportant. It is the enemy of local government itself. The whole basis of government in this country, whether local or central, is surely government by consent. I do not believe that there can be consent without public understanding and the opportunity for question and explanation. Local government, after all, is not an end in itself.
I know that the practice with regard to admission of the Press and the public varies very widely indeed from one local authority to another and cases of extreme secrecy are fortunately rare. But on recent occasions, at any rate, when they have occurred, they have regrettably occurred in the larger authorities with correspondingly larger responsibilities for the spending of public money and responsibilities for a very large, thickly-populated urban area. They are, therefore, of the utmost importance.
Although in bringing forward this Bill I understand that we are not altogether in agreement with the Association of Municipal Corporations, I am glad to find that on this point there seems to be no disagreement between us at all. I should like to quote from the Association's Report which was issued in 1946:The Association recognise that there must be occasions when local authorities will have to ensure in the public interest that certain matters discussed by them in council or committee are not reported in the public press. They consider that these matters should be comparatively few and that full and free public discussion and debate of the major issues arising in local government is essential to the maintenance of our democratic system.I have already emphasised that we admit that there must be exceptions to the general rule, and I believe that as the Bill is at present drafted, occasions on 1364 which it is necessary to exclude the Press are covered. If they are not, I do not believe that there will be any major difficulty in reaching agreement in Committee.
I should like, at this stage, to say something on one or two of the major objections that have been expressed to the Bill. First, I quote from an article sent to me by the Association of Parish Councils. There, objection seems to be mainly based upon the dangers of inadequate reporting. The article says:In passing the 1908 Act Parliament has been concerned that the public should be fully informed on all matters of local government. Yet a thoughtful and factual exposition in the Press of a piece of major council policy, if it was not controversial and not therefore debated in Council was a rarity. Such a decision was not deemed to be news. Unfortunately the flippant, the frivolous or the scandalous was always news to be reported in details. The Press was not discharging its duty to keep the public informed of all the Council business.I do not imagine that any of us, even those hon. Members who are themselves members of the Press, will for one moment try to make out that the Press are always angels. Of course, they are not. But this is surely one of the criticisms to which there is a direct parallel with what happens in this House. I always feel that one of the more fascinating parts of reading in the London evening papers are the accounts of something that has gone on in this House while one has been present. One finds on many occasions how totally they differ from the facts. Often we have had, perhaps at Question Time, a relatively lively exchange, but in the utmost good humour, and when we go home in our trains at night, if they happen to be running, we read that there has been a major row in the House of Commons, or that backbenchers are threatening the Government. Very often neither has any connection with what actually happened.
I do not think that any hon. Member would suggest that this is a good reason for excluding the Press. Certainly, I think that the vices which the Association of Parish Council is apparently apprehensive about are not the vices common to the provincial Press. Sensationalism and bias, which I think we have to admit are too often features of the national Press, are not a common fault in the provincial Press with which 1365 we are mainly concerned in matters of local government.
It is certainly my experience that any misunderstanding through misreporting and the like, so far as the local Press is concerned—my own local Press, as far as I know, is not run by people of my own party sympathies—is very readily cleared up and the person concerned is most fairly reported if he is prepared to exercise a little patience and co-operation.
The other main criticism—and I think this is the most important part of the Bill—is the question of the position of local government officers. One obviously does not want to put local government officers in the position, after giving advice which is overruled, of having to execute policy which they are known very widely, through Press publicity, to be in disagreement with. Similarly, one does not want to put officers in the position, perhaps through incomplete reporting, of appearing to be swaying their council in matters of policy.
It seems to me that there is a great deal of advice which officials are called upon to give which can perfectly well be given to members of the Press. There is a great deal of purely factual advice of the same type as the information which they constantly give in correspondence to private individuals, and a great deal of advice on procedure or law, in respect of which there is no more reason for excluding the Press than when the clerk of the justices gives advice in a magistrate's court.
But there are cases when the advice may impinge on policy and we believe that these are catered for in the Bill as drafted. I hope that we shall not be pressed, in order to cover this problem, to exclude the Press on all occasions when advice is given by officials. That would be a disservice to the officials rather than the reverse, for there is criticism throughout the country, and it is to be heard very constantly, that certain local authorities appear to be run by their officials: and the only way of exploding that myth, if myth it be, is to allow the public to see for themselves that executive decisions are the decisions of the elected representatives, advised, but in no sense dictated to, by their officials.
In conclusion, I do not claim, and I know that my hon. Friend does not 1366 claim, that the Bill is perfect, but I believe that it covers the exceptions that are necessary. I do claim that the principle underlying it, that the Press should be admitted as a general rule and excluded only as an exception, is so fundamental to the whole basis of our system of government, to the whole concept of government by consent, to the concept of government of the people by the people and for the people, that the Bill ought to receive a Second Reading without dissent.
§ 11.57 a.m.
§ Mr. G. W. Reynolds (Islington, North)
I beg to move, to leave out from "That" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:this House, while believing that good relationships between the Press and public bodies can only be achieved through greater understanding, tolerance and good sense on behalf of the parties concerned, and anxious that all public bodies should assist the Press as much as possible in the exercise of its proper functions, declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which would disrupt satisfactory arrangements which already exist in many parts of the country.I must, of course, first add my congratulations to those already given to the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) on the excellent speech which she made to the House. She spoke for most of the time with hardly reference to notes and gave a good exposition of the content of her Bill, which, I think, must have left everyone fully aware of exactly what the Bill proposes to do. I am sure that all of us look forward in the future to hearing her speak in this Chamber, and we wish her well.
Having said that, I must comment on the fact that the hon. Lady, when rising to address the House, informed us that it was her maiden speech, but did not ask, presumably deliberately, for the indulgence of the House in making that maiden speech. While, of course, the House gave that indulgence, I am sure she will realise that she has chosen what I must regard as a very controversial piece of legislation, and I hope that she will forgive me and other of my hon. Friends if we feel it necessary during the debate to disagree with and dispute several of the points which she made.
The hon. Lady has been waiting for some time to make her maiden speech. No doubt, she found the waiting far more trying than the actual making of 1367 the speech. I must apologise to her for saying that, although it was a maiden speech, I unfortunately disagree with several of the matters raised, because she has chosen what I regard as a controversial piece of legislation. Nevertheless, I thank her very much indeed, having won success in the Ballot, for choosing this subject for a Bill.
I think that at the present time a debate on a Bill of this nature can do a great deal of good throughout the country. I hope, however, that we shall not conclude the proceedings today by giving it a Second Reading. I hope that, as it is a matter that affects the Press, it will receive considerable publicity in the Press. Several of my hon. Friends were surprised to see me safely in the Chamber, having thought that I would be waylaid by the Press on the way, in an attempt to stifle the Amendment. Nevertheless, it is very good that we should have a debate on this matter. I hope that we can, by accepting my Amendment, place ourselves on record as desiring local authorities and other public bodies to co-operate to the utmost with the Press and give the Press every possible facility without imposing what I regard as unworkable obligations upon the public bodies concerned.
I was very surprised to hear the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield), almost at the commencement of his speech seconding the Motion for a Second Reading, refer to some apparent misunderstanding or muddle in the drafting of the Long Title of the Bill. He said that he himself would prefer to see certain matters which are not in the Bill as it stands included within it. It is most surprising that an hon. Member should second the Motion for a Second Reading of a Bill and, at the same time, express regret to the House that certain matters are not included in it.
There seems to be some doubt—there is certainly doubt in my mind—about whether it would be possible in Committee to make the Amendment which the seconder himself appeared to suggest. I understand that, if the Long Title is amended in Committee, the matter has to be reported to the House or it must be brought specially to the attention of the House. On the other hand, we do not appear to have any guarantee that 1368 the Chairman of the appropriate Committee would be prepared to accept an Amendment of the kind suggested. I feel, therefore, that if we gave the Bill a Second Reading we should be taking a risk in giving great advantages to the Press which we should not at the same time be able to give to the public.
§ Mr. Corfield
Will not the hon. Gentleman agree that that is purely a matter to be considered on Third Reading and not on Second Reading?
§ Mr. Reynolds
It is a very important matter. The hon. Gentleman, as he must realise, was not speaking in the debate generally; he was seconding the Motion for a Second Reading and commending the contents of the Bill to the House. At the same time, he said that it was regrettable that the Bill did not provide for similar facilities being given to the public. That, in itself, is unusual. He is trying to persuade the House to give a Second Reading to a Bill and, at the same time, saying that something else should be in it which, unfortunately, is not there at the moment but which he hopes will be there by the time the Bill comes back to the Chamber again. I suggest that that is not the sort of basis on which we should be asked to vote for any Bill, let alone this one.
I agree that we must ensure that local authorities give maximum assistance to the Press so that the Press in its turn—this is very important—may pass the information on to the general public. The exceptions and provisions in the Bill will, in many parts of the country, probably lead to greater animosity between the public bodies and the Press rather than ease the relationship between them.
I can envisage many occasions when, for one reason or another, a public body may feel that it ought to exclude the Press from a committee which, under the terms of the Bill, the Press would be entitled to attend. In many parts of the country, this may well lead to headlines in the local papers about a gag on the Press and under-cover work by a committee of a local authority. If the Bill is passed into law, there will be dozens of occasions every year when local authority committees will have to pass resolutions of the two types which the hon. Lady so eloquently explained to us. This 1369 will, in the end, inevitably lead to friction between the Press and local authorities.
It is important to have in mind how many bodies of this kind we are dealing with, how they are appointed, and how they work. The hon. Lady herself mentioned a figure with which I agree. It may come as a surprise to some to learn that local authorities spend about £1,600 million every year. Let us look in detail at that expenditure. It is easy to say that, because they are spending this truly vast amount of money, there must be the maximum possible public accountability. Let us remember, however, that 70 per cent. of that expenditure is on wages and salaries which are fixed by national negotiating machinery and which, in many instances, require confirmation by the Minister of Housing and Local Government or others of his colleagues in the Cabinet. The local authority has no control over those matters at all.
Indeed, this House of Commons probably has more control over a very large part of the expenditure of local authorities than have the local authorities themselves because we are in a position to question and put pressure upon, for instance, the Minister of Education with regard to his confirmation or otherwise of the salary scales for teachers. We are able to question and put pressure upon several Ministers in order to discuss the portion, approximately a half, of total local authority income which comes by way of Government grants. While I agree that that is a large sum of money, and so is the total expenditure, a great deal of the control of both income and expenditure lies outside the local authorities themselves. Control actually reposes elsewhere.
We are discussing a Bill which is intended to give rights to the Press and place obligations upon about 15,000 local authorities in Great Britain. On those authorities there are at least 150,000 elected members. Some people like to create the impression that local government is conducted by a little clique of people working in complete secrecy and without any outside control of any kind. In fact, of course, those 15,000 local authorities of all kinds, from parish councils and parish meetings to county councils, county borough councils and the councils of counties of 1370 cities, work through the active voluntary participation of at least 150,000 persons who are elected by the local ratepayers.
Out of the 15,000 local authorities, possibly only about 300 will have a membership totally comprised of members of one political party or one particular group. In all the remainder there is, one might say, a party in control of the council and one or more parties in opposition of some kind or another.
To argue that the Press should be permitted to attend the committee meetings of local authorities in order to make sure that people generally are informed of what is done by the council is, I think, to be derogatory to the many members of local authorities who are in a minority party or group. It is apparently suggested that they are not capable of bringing to the notice of the electorate and the Press at public council meetings anything which they regard as wrongly done in a closed committee meeting of the council.
Very many councils delegate powers to various committees. I am informed by the town clerk of my own council, the Borough Council of Islington, that, although the terms of the Bill are very far from certain, he thinks that in all probability they will entitle the Press to be present at almost all the committee meetings of the council. Many important matters are delegated to committees, for instance, the allocation of houses, the obtaining of information on such matters as the fostering and boarding out of children and making decisions thereupon.
There are purely administrative matters such as the issue of statutory notices under the various Public Health Acts and the Housing Acts to force landlords to carry out repairs to property. There is also the granting of consents for planning applications for permission to develop. This latter matter is usually done in committee purely because Parliament has decided in legislation that decisions on such matters must be given within a certain number of days, not because the council itself particularly wants to delegate the matter to a committee. Because Parliament has said that, once an application has been received, it must be dealt with within a certain time, it is possible administratively to do this in many cases only 1371 by delegating full powers to a committee. Also, applications for mortgage advances under the Small Dwellings Acquisition Act and the Housing Act, 1949, are left to a committee of the council.
In most of the matters to which I have referred, particularly in regard to information and decisions about children, the allocation of houses and applications for mortgage advances, it is necessary to inquire in some detail about the personal lives and incomes of very many individuals. I know that it will be said that, under the Bill, it is possible for the Press to be excluded when such matters are being dealt with, but will the people directly concerned be fully aware of that?
It is quite possible that many people, knowing that the Press is entitled to be present at meetings of committees of local authorities and probably knowing no more than that, will be very hesitant indeed about giving to the local authority the type of information which is often required from them in order to make the right decisions. Those asked to give references about people who apply to act as foster parents, for instance, may be very hesitant because they will have at the back of their minds the thought, wrong though the idea may be, that there is a good chance of information they provide reaching the Press and becoming public.
Most councils except the very large ones—there is no ulterior motive in the large ones; it is purely a matter of administrative necessity—insist that, even though powers are delegated to a committee, the committee shall report to the council on the action it has taken. It simply means that in its report the committee recommends the council to do some things— because that is the way it has to do it; it has not power to do it itself—but it informs the council that it has done other things because the council has delegated that power to it.
All these matters, whether delegated or not, can be raised and discussed in the full council meeting. It simply means that it has to be done on a slightly different type of motion. If the committee recommends a particular line of action, the recommendation can be amended at the council meeting or referred back to the committee. If the 1372 committee reports that it intends to do certain things or has done certain things, it is possible at the council meeting for the council to ask the committee to look at the matter again. The motion is technically different, but the debate is the same. There is no difference between the type of debate on those two motions.
I cannot be convinced that a local authority with members of both political parties or with members of no political party on it will deliberately let committees of that authority do things which they ought not to do when there is the opportunity of any member who so wishes to bring that matter to light at the council meeting.
I think that we should have a look at the relationship between Parliament, the central government, and local authorities. It is a relationship which can only be expressed as a partnership between the two. We pass legislation in Parliament giving local authorities certain powers and placing certain obligations on them. They can do absolutely nothing unless Parliament has given them permission to do it. In the last few years the Government have given examples of how the partnership works, and I wish to quote only two. It is well known that it is the declared policy of the Government to proceed with the sale of council houses, but they have not instructed local authorities that they must sell council houses. Local authorities have been informed of the Government's view, but whether or not they comply with it has been left to local authorities themselves. That is the way in which a partnership of this nature must work.
The Minister of Housing and Local Government has made it abundantly clear many times that he himself favours a system of differential rents for local authority houses. I do not want to enter into a discussion of that matter at all, except to say that I think that the Minister is right in leaving the decision whether or not to have differential rent schemes to local authorities themselves. He has expressed his view, but the decision whether or not it should be carried out has been left to local authorities.
To my mind, this Bill is very similar. I feel that we in this House should express our views but leave it to the good 1373 sense of locally elected bodies to decide the actual detailed course of action which they will take. I cannot let this occasion pass without myself condemning the action of a minority of local authorities.
For many years, with some local authorities—I have had experience of them because I had the good fortune before entering this House to be the local government officer of the Labour Party for six years—I was continually getting letters from members complaining that there was a general purposes committee comprising all the members of the council, that that committee met at about 6 o'clock in the evening, or whatever it was, and received all the reports of the other committees whether it had delegated powers or not. The reports were discussed at some length, and then the council meeting of exactly the same members commenced two hours later. Everything had been dealt with in the general purposes committee. If a member dared to get up to discuss further matters it was quickly made clear to him, either by his removal from a committee or in some other way, that that was not the thing to do. This is a practice which I think this House should condemn. council meetings should not be turned into a mockery.
I do not think that this Bill will solve that problem. There are town clerks, council clerks and leaders of councils all over the country who are already looking for ways and means of getting round the provisions of this Bill. There are some very skilful town clerks. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] There are some very skilful leaders of local authorities. I am convinced that, if the Bill becomes law, many local authorities will withdraw their delegated powers from committees. That will be impossible for larger authorities—they could not work without major delegation—but many medium and small authorities will withdraw delegated powers from committees. This would hamper their own administration, although I am sure that they would be prepared to do that, and the Press would not get greater facilities in large parts of the country.
I hope that we can realise the dangers of members of the Press being present at committee meetings. The effect of the Bill would be that, once they are present at a meeting, they can stay for 1374 the whole of it irrespective of whether delegated legislation is being discussed or not unless a resolution is passed excluding them from the meeting. I think that this would bring about a state of affairs which hon. Members opposite are always deploring—a hardening of political lines on local authorities.
Most of us, including myself, have served on local authorities. I may be wrong, but I am sorry to say that I do not think that the hon. Lady, the sponsor of the Bill, has served on a local authority. Most of us who have served on local authorities know that at meetings of committees of the council political lines are very often merged and overlap. Resolutions are made and decisions are taken very often in the council on which I served by the minority Tory members voting in favour together with two or three of the majority Labour members, with the rest of the Labour members against the decision of the committee. [HON. MEMBERS: "Jolly good."] Hon. Members opposite say "Jolly good." There are very few local authorities where the party whip extends to the committee meetings. Where it does, I think it is wrong and that the system should be altered.
Once committee meetings are open to the glare and reports of the local Press, we shall find an extension of the party whip system into the committees. That would be very bad for local government, and I ask hon. Members to think of that when they go into the Division Lobbies later. It would also inhibit the free participation in discussions at committee level of officers of the local authority. It must be possible, without having to go through the passing of a resolution which may be misunderstood by local newspaper representatives, for any officer to give his advice to the committee and to be able to answer questions in the committee without the presence of the Press, which may inhibit him and which may inhibit members asking questions of him and thus perhaps bring a local civil servant into the limelight of local political controversy, and this would be exceedingly bad for local government.
Members who very often ask a large number of questions in committee would feel a little inhibited. They may think. 1375 "I do not know what the answer to this is, but I will not ask the town clerk. It might make me look a little silly. There is the local newspaper man sitting there." I do not care how silly it makes him look in closed committee as long as he gets all the information that he wants, but he may think twice about asking for information for fear that he might look a little silly if a representative of the Press is sitting there.
We have been told that at present there is qualified privilege for members of local authorities. Nevertheless, I still feel that the presence of the Press at a meeting of a committee of a local authority would inhibit members of that committee in what they had to say.
Let us take one example. Let us consider a case where tenders are being considered. The hon. Lady said that this type of business would be in the second class, if I may use that phrase, type of resolution that could be passed in which a resolution has to be made, in effect, for the exclusion of the Press. A member of a committee dealing with tenders may have one or two rather awkward or personal remarks that he wants to make about work done by a certain contractor in the past. I understand from what the hon. Lady has told us that such a member must first convince a sufficient number of his colleagues that it is necessary for him to do this before the Press can be excluded. It would be very difficult for him to do that without, before the meeting, having gone round and explained to each one of them individually why he wants the Press excluded. He will not be able to give his reasons while moving the resolution, because the Press would be sitting there taking down every word he said.
This Bill will lead to more back-door methods of carrying out local authority work. The work would be driven from the committee into the hands of a few people meeting together in a little group outside.
§ Mr. C. Pannell
Also, on my hon. Friend's last point regarding the resolution to go into committee, it would be possible for the majority to muzzle the minority from asking questions. There is no doubt about that, and the member would find himself muzzled.
§ Mr. Reynolds
That, I understand, is true, and I am obliged to my hon. Friend for that intervention.
I also feel that a local authority should give certain minimum facilities to the Press. It must provide proper physical conditions for the Press. It should give the Press full access to the chairmen of committees and to the responsible officers of the local authority whenever it needs information. Both chairmen of committees and responsible officers of a local authority should be prepared to give information to the Press, both on and off the record. That can only be done, however, if there is mutual trust, confidence and respect between the local public body and the Press. This can only be achieved by understanding and by working together over a long period of years and not by any Act of Parliament.
The local authority must also provide adequate background information for the Press. Far too many authorities do not do this. In my view, they should provide for the Press before the meeting of the council itself copies of the reports of committees and should allow the Press to print and comment upon those reports before the council meeting, subject, of course, to the exclusion of one or two matters which it would be undesirable should become public knowledge before the council meeting.
In return for those facilities from the local authority, however, there are obligations upon the Press as well. In reporting council debates, the Press must give both impartial and accurate—I stress "accurate"—reports of meetings as distinct from any comment that it wishes to make. That is important and is an obligation which should be upon the Press.
The Press should take the utmost care in reporting facts. All too often, facts of local authority business as reported are incorrect. The Press should realise that councillors are voluntary workers trying to do a good job, which many local newspapers do not seem to realise. What is very important is that they should try to ensure that reporters attending council meetings have some little knowledge of local government.
All too often, the reporter who attends a council meeting has no knowledge of local government. I do not blame him 1377 for this. He is in court one day, at a garden party the next, then at a council meeting, as well as attending christenings, weddings—in fact, the lot. Local newspapers must try to have on their staff people who have knowledge of the problems and the way in which a local authority works.
We can only get good relationship between the Press and local authorities by an understanding between them. I hope that after this debate, if my Amendment is carried, the Minister of Housing and Local Government will immediately get in touch with the local authority associations. We have all had information from the Association of Municipal Corporations and others. I was horrified to notice that the information we had been sent from the A.M.C. was a report printed in 1946 and reprinted in 1959. To me—I may be wrong—that infers that the A.M.C. has not shifted its views on the matter since 1946. In all probability, the other local authority associations are in much the same position.
I hope that the Minister will contact them and discuss with them what can be done in this matter and that representatives of the newspaper interests and journalists will also be brought in to see whether it is possible to draw up a code of practice and general guidance to local authorities and the Press explaining how each side can help the other. If that is done and the Minister uses his powers of persuasion—they are considerable— we can in that way greatly improve relationships between the Press and the local authorities.
In many parts of the country, those relationships are not bad. In many places, they are good. I do not want to see those good relationships spoiled. To impose obligations upon local authorities might easily spoil those relationships. Some authorities already allow the Press into committee meetings, and it works well, but I think that to place the obligation upon the local authorities and to insist that they must allow the Press to come in would break many good relationships which already exist.
Once again, I congratulate the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley on the excellent way in which she moved the Second Reading of her Bill. I must, however, conclude by expressing the 1378 hope that hon. Members will not be swayed by her charm and the excellent way in which she moved her Bill but will, nevertheless, vote for my Amendment in the Division Lobby.
§ 12.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Skeffington (Hayes and Harlington)
I beg to second the Amendment.
From what my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) said in so fully and ably moving the Amendment, the House will realise that the issues raised cannot be dismissed lightly. There are many points of view that are worthy of the most serious consideration before the Bill gets a Second Reading. I also join my hon. Friend and others in congratulating the hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), not only on her Bill, but on her model speech in support of it. I should be greatly fortified if I could feel that my seconding of the Amendment would be as happily phrased and as effective as the hon. Lady's speech.
One also congratulates the hon. Lady on giving the House an opportunity to consider a matter which is of first-class importance to local government. No matter what our political views may be, we all agree that the dissemination of information in the fullest form, at the earliest possible stage, is the only guarantee of good local government. I have gone on record as saying this on many occasions. Just as this principle applies to local government, it applies also to industrial relations. Indeed, in any sphere the dissemination of true information dispels ignorance and brings about a common purpose and understanding.
A great many of our difficulties in industry and local government arise from the fact that the ratepayers and the public do not have adequate information upon which to base their opinions. Sometimes—let us be quite frank—this is the fault of the local authorities. Sometimes, to be equally frank, it is the responsibility of the newspapers.
At a delegate conference organised by my local authority, the Hayes and Harlington Urban District Council, which tries to keep the public informed in various ways—one method is an 1379 annual delegate conference, at which representatives of all organisations in the town can put questions and take part in various gatherings—I expressed the view that information must be available at the earliest possible moment. Our debate and dispute will be about when democratically that moment is.
Before I develop my objections to the Bill in its present form, I support my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North in making it clear that I have no defence for a local authority or public body which does the majority of its business behind closed doors and then, in a very brief meeting, sometimes lasting only a matter of minutes, passes everything and, therefore, affords no opportunity to the public or to the Press to understand the issues. Authorities which do this are inflicting upon the local government system the very worst service and are likely to bring it into disrepute.
Nobody should have any doubt as to where those of us who support the Amendment stand. Our objections to the Bill are shared by a large number of people with great knowledge of the issues. Quite a number of journalists certainly have not asked for anything like the powers that would be granted in the Bill. I am told that the Guild of Editors does not consider that the powers that would be conferred on the Press in this way are necessary. As far as I am aware, all the local authority associations, comprising a great many people with vast practical experience, have voiced grave misgivings about the Bill, not because they do not want additional information given to the public, not because they do not want authorities to be encouraged to make the maximum information available and to give the greatest facilities to the Press, but because they do see the very serious practical objections which will affect not only the local authorities but often the individual ratepayer.
The Urban District Councils Association went on record in this connection, not ten years ago but last year. I want in a moment or two very briefly to refer to what it said and proposed.
Then, as most hon. Members will know, there is a third category, the local authorities themselves which have writ- 1380 ten to hon. Members expressing their doubts not only about the general principles and the practical consequences of what is envisaged in the Bill but also about its detailed provisions which, if the Bill gets a Second Reading, we shall have to consider in Committee.
The first objection came to light quite early in the speech of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield), who seconded the Motion for Second Reading. It is proposed in the Bill to create what seems to me to be a new constitutional principle, that a commercial organisation, the Press—and, while we all must have profound respect for newspapers and journalists and the job they do, it is a fact that it is a commercial organisation—
§ Mr. Peter Kirk (Gravesend)
The hon. Member said that the Guild of Editors did not think the Bill to be necessary. I have just confirmed that it is in full support of the Bill as it stands.
§ Mr. Skeffington
What I said was the information I had from the Guild a few days ago. There must have been some change. I will certainly withdraw what I said, if that is not now the position.
What I was saying was that it is proposed to give a special privilege to representatives of a commercial organisation, for, after all, the Press exists to sell newspapers. It is not proposed to give that privilege to the public. I know of no other case where this has happened. It certainly did not happen in this House, to which the public had access a good many hundreds of years before the Press. It certainly does not happen in the courts, and I should have thought that we wanted very strong arguments before we would approve a proposition to allow certain privileges to individuals and deny them to the public.
Indeed, I gathered from the speech of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Gloucestershire, South that he very much regretted that the Title had not been altered to include the public. It is rather extraordinary that in such an important Bill the public have been left out and not considered until Second Reading. I must say that if the Bill were entitled, "The Public Bodies (Admission of the 1381 Public) Bill", I think many of us would have to revise our views, because it would then be a very different sort of privilege being accorded by law from the one now proposed in the Bill.
§ Mrs. Thatcher
I am very reluctant to intervene in the hon. Gentleman's speech, but the privilege to which the hon. Member is objecting was given by and now stands upon the 1908 Act. It is ineffective in a large measure, but it was given as long as fifty years ago.
§ Mr. Skeffington
It was given in respect of the main meetings of the councils. That, I gather, is not an issue on this Bill, which is to extend the privilege to certain committees, which I think is a very considerable one and which seems to me to be a new constitutional principle.
Now I come to some of the practical difficulties. I think there are three types of case in which they arise and which are not adequately dealt with by the proviso to which the hon. Lady and her seconder referred. The first type of case is that in which the welfare of individuals is concerned. I will say something about the Bill's provisoes in a moment, but before I come on to them I must say that it seems to me that in considering applications for accommodation it would be extremely undesirable if all these details were to be reported. One of two things would happen. In committees at which the Press is present members or officers would not like fully and frankly to discuss those matters. Alternatively—and this is something which the House must never lose sight of—we are approving power of admission in order that the Press can report what may be harrowing details of an individual. That seems to me to be something which ought to be prevented at any cost. I do not think this House would be in favour.
The second sort of case is the kind which we get in certain children's committees—details of the background of people, family circumstances, details about the child. All that, surely, is something which ought not to be permitted to go into the Press. It may haunt the child for years after.
The third is that in which a prosecution may be undertaken by a health committee or a committee dealing with food and drugs. Hon. Members who 1382 have had experience on local authorities know that what happens is that members of the committees take careful note of all the circumstances so as to know whether the authority ought to launch a prosecution. The officer advising the committee may say, "If you ask me a question about this firm or group of individuals, then I can say that they have been in trouble before and there have been proceedings." It seems to me that neither the officer nor the members of the committee will be able, if the Press is present, to discuss matters with what would seem to me to be the frankness necessary in order that the local authority can do its work fairly and justly.
The problem occurs in its most acute form in the watch committee. It will obviously be undesirable if all the information there, which is known long before a prosecution is launched, is also available so that anybody involved can get a tip-off and know where to go and what to do. It seems to me quite undesirable that this information should go to the Press.
I am told—I do not know—that the Government intend to advise that watch committees should be exempt from the Bill. If they do so, then it seems to me that one of the main reasons for the support for this Bill will be lost. It is not unknown to us that one of the reasons which prompted many people to support the Bill was that a local authority had acted, I think most unwisely, last year in dealing with a watch committee. If this sort of committee is to be exempt from the provisions of the Bill, then a great deal of the reason for the Bill and for the support it has will fall by the wayside.
I have mentioned three sorts of cases. I think there is a fourth I should touch on because it is becoming increasingly important every week. This is the case of town and country planning applications. We have got back to full market value. I see on the opposite side of the House hon. Members who supported that. Before a town and country planning permission is given there is a good deal of investigation and discussion, and if it is reported it must have a very considerable effect upon the price at which the land or other property is to be sold. If that sort of information were to get 1383 about in the Press it would be fatal to the interests of the ratepayers and of the local authority.
There was an article written by Derek Senior in the Manchester Guardian on this last year. It said:In effect, the property market is betting a huge and rapidly mounting sum that it will succeed in breaking planning control …".If information on all these sorts of decisions is obtained by and commented upon in the Press, then town and country planning will cease to be an effective instrument.
I know that it will be said that these are cases in which the proviso will operate, but there are two things to be said about that. Authorities which are unco-operative—there is a minority of authorities which are unco-operative and which do not care about the interests of the public and of the Press, whether purely from lack of any imagination or from some sinister motive—can, it seems to me, under the provisions of the Bill, get round this proviso quite easily anyway, by passing the necessary resolution, or by taking up my hon. Friend's suggestion of "other action".
Any authority which moves such a resolution and passes it will always then be faced with the accusation that it really has got something to hide, there will be accusations of "gag", and the relationships between that local authority and the Press which are now good may become bad. It seems to me that a local authority, in its own interest and if it has at heart the interests of the individual ratepayer and of all the citizens, must frequently invoke the proviso to exclude the Press. If that frequently happens I think that the Press will be in a worse position than at present.
One must also have a look at the position of the local authorities and their officers. The Bill says that if an authority expects that the business will be confidential, that should be indicated to the Press in advance. That may be easy to do, in some cases, but often one does not know that the business is confidential until it arises in a committee. When an attempt is made to operate that provision it will be found in practice very difficult, if not undesirable, and harm may arise as I have outlined.
1384 This matter was before Standing Committee D on the Local Government Bill two years ago. There were new Clauses dealing with the admission of the Press. One was moved by the hon. Member for Gravesend (Mr. Kirk). The Minister expressed himself very forcefully. He said:I was coming on to the proviso to subsection (2) of the Clause relating to the disclosure of documents. I think it would put a quite intolerable responsibility on the clerk if he had to give in advance his opinion of which documents it was not in the public interest to disclose. I think these are really the proofs integrated in the Clauses themselves that they are trying to do too much. … It would be most damaging to the course of local government, and our democratic structure in general, if we were to write anything into the law which was likely in practice to lead to the muzzling of officials of the councils.Then he went on to discuss the position if provisions which seem to me to be identical with those in this Bill were applied to Ministers and the documents which they and their officials prepare, and he said:How Parliament would get on in those circumstances I really dread to think, … if we can argue from our experience at first hand, the experience in Parliament to the experience of local authorities …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee D, 1st April, 1958; c. 1233–4.]This is something to which the movers of the Bill have not given adequate consideration, certainly in the speeches which we have had the pleasure of hearing so far.
What really divides those of us who feel that the Bill is not the right way of getting information across to the public? I think that it is the period when the information can be given. It seems to me that in local government, just as in national government, there must be fully constituted committees where policy matters can be freely and frankly discussed before decisions are taken. Many parallels have been drawn today between local government and the House, and we have had some discussions as to what the Title of the Bill really means and what it contains. If the Bill is passed I think that it would be in order to suggest that the Press should be admitted to meetings of the Cabinet.
§ Mr. Skeffington
These seem to me two of the sorts of cases which must make the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley realise that only to mention them is sufficient to show that the position would be ridiculous. Before deciding on actual policy in Cabinet, there must be the fullest and frankest discussion on all points of view and there must be similar discussion in certain committees of local government. If the Bill is passed, there will not be that free and frank discussion or, alternatively, there will have to be provisions for exclusion to such an extent that relations between local government and the Press will be worsened or members and officials may do these things unofficially.
This matter was discussed before the Urban District Councils Association. In Standing Committee on the Local Government Bill I thought that both sides had come to the conclusion that what was really required was some kind of declaratory code of conduct for local authorities and the Press. That was certainly the view of the association when it met last year. After having had a very full discussion and preliminary work done on a very useful paper which went into great detail putting forward various suggestions, a resolution was passed in these terms:That this Conference considers that, in relation to the admission of the Press to meetings of local authorities, further legislation is not necessary and would be undesirable, but nevertheless there would be advantage in a code of practice being devised and agreed and made known to local authorities and to the Press; and that, if and when such a code of practice is agreed, this Conference would recommend members of the Association favourably to consider adopting it …There has been some discussion about sanctions if the local authority does not do what it ought to do under the Bill. We are entitled to ask about some kind of guarantee that the Press itself will do the job to which it is admitted. I am not making any general charge. I know that many journalists know as much about local authority work as do the members of those authorities, but there are a few exceptions. The practical consequence of this may be that the information will not be disseminated unless there is some code of conduct. Therefore, I strongly suggest that there should be a preparatory code of conduct which should be binding as far as possible both 1386 on the Press and the local authorities. That would go much further than the Bill in maintaining good relations.
At present many local authorities have a gentleman's agreement with the Press that they either do not report certain items or leave the meeting, and I know of no case where the agreement has been broken by the Press. That is because the Press feels that it is having a privilege which could be taken away from it at any time, and that is appreciated. That is an ideal situation. A declaration given with as much force and authority as possible would go much further than the Bill in maintaining good relations. The Bill may make those relations very much worse, apart from the fact that in some cases it will make the position of members and officers of local authorities intolerable.
§ 12.46 p.m.
§ Mr. Dudley Smith (Brentford and Chiswick)
I should like to ask the indulgence of the House which it so generously accords to hon. Members making their contribution for the first time in the Chamber. I have heard senior Parliamentarians liken the delivery of a maiden speech to the ordeal of an amateur conjurer appearing before the Magic Circle to perform his party tricks. My party tricks will be reserved for some other occasion. Today, I shall endeavour to be as non-controversial as possible.
I have to declare a two-fold interest, because I have been for most of my professional life a journalist and I have the honour to be a member of one of the largest local authorities in the country, Middlesex County Council. I will make no further reference to that authority, because the hon. Member for Southall (Mr. Pargiter), who is not now in his place, knows a great deal more about that council than I do.
I support the Bill unreservedly. It is a considerable improvement on the 1908 Act, which many of us who have been or are journalists consider to be outdated and outmoded. The only criticism I make of the Bill is that in many cases its provisions do not go far enough. I should like to see the names of more bodies added to the Schedule. Also, there is need for a penalty Clause. It will involve the Press in very extensive litigation if it is forced 1387 to take action itself if there is default on the part of some councils.
In a debate of this sort, we must get the rôle of the Press in the right perspective. I do not think the sponsors of the Bill are seeking any special privileges for the Press. I was glad to hear that paint confirmed by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield). I have always believed as a journalist, and I think that many members of the public believe, that the Press represents the public and on many occasions is the public. Certain local authorities lack room to accommodate the public, but the Press can be accommodated and can be there to see that justice is done.
On balance, I think many hon. Members would subscribe to the view that the local Press does an excellent job, often in adverse circumstances. It lacks the financial resources, the abilities and the staff of the national newspapers. I have discussed the Bill with other journalists, and we are well aware that it will bring added strain to the staffs of some newspapers. There will be more meetings to cover and more space will have to be given to local authority activities, but I am assured that the vast majority of journalists welcome the Bill. It is true that it will mean extra work, but it will give greater opportunity for a better coverage of local government affairs.
Many journalists feel that on many occasions over the years there has been evasion of the 1908 Act by certain local authorities. They feel that the spirit of the Act has been contravened, particularly by councils which arbitrarily go into committee, not in the public interest but with the idea of excluding the Press because they do not want something published. Journalists believe that good councils have nothing to fear from the provisions of the Bill. It is only those councils, referred to somewhat obliquely today, which operate in a twilight and which have something to fear which are likely to make representations against the Bill.
In my view, the local Press requires much greater information about the activities of local government and a better insight into the reasons for some of the decisions taken there. There 1388 should be more discussion, as I think there will be if the Press is admitted to meetings of committees with delegated powers. Anyone who has waded through the verbiage of some committee minutes will know the need for an interpreter. Although one hon. Gentleman has mentioned that journalists are skilled in local government, even then they need an interpreter of some of the minutes passed by local authorities. I believe that discussion will bring out these points.
Although a member of a local authority, I feel no strain on my loyalty in taking part in this debate, and I still support the Bill unreservedly. But I would be less than fair if I did not say that I have canvassed opinion among many county and county borough councillors I know and have found that they are sharply divided in their opinions on the Bill. Many of those councillors are on my own political side of the fence, but I believe that this is not a political matter. The Bill cuts across the political atmosphere of this country and gets down to the fundamentals of administration and basic democracy.
The councillors with whom I discussed the matter raised as their first fear that, despite the provisions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher)—who introduced the Bill so admirably—to prevent any abuse of privilege in respect of committees with delegated powers, they feel that the Press will get round this provision and will cover such items as, for example, the disciplining of an official, the domestic circumstances of a person appearing before a housing committee, or the preliminary negotiations over the sale or purchase of land. I believe, however, that there will be adequate safeguards under the Bill to ensure that the Press do not cover such items.
Furthermore, I believe firmly that a new relationship of mutual trust and understanding will grow up between the Press and local government members, as is the case today with the courts of this country. Many of us know that the Press have almost limitless access to the courts and, as a result, although they are subject to the rule and law of contempt of court, on many occasions they have to exercise discretion. One small example of that is when witnesses appear in blackmail cases and their names and 1389 addresses are voluntarily suppressed by the Press.
I have been making some research on this point and I came across a leading article in The Times of two years ago which stated categorically:Under English law, newspapers have shown exceptional propriety in co-operating with the courts to secure its proper administration.I believe that there can be valuable cooperation between the Press and local government, and I commend this point to all hon. Members.
I was interested in the point made by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds), which is the second fear I found among those who take part in local government. I believe this to be the more important one. It is the fear that deliberations of a committee would be either stifled or exaggerated with the Press present. We all know that party divisions are often not so sharp in committee, that common sense prevails, and that many people making their point sometimes join with their political opponents and even vote with them. There is a danger that if this Bill becomes law discussion will be stifled and councillors will be reluctant to speak. They will be frightened of being branded in their local newspapers as rebels, and whips will become more stringent in their activities at the committee level. They feel, too, that frank political discussions ought to be reserved for the "show-ring" of the council chamber. On the other hand, they fear that debate in committee might be exaggerated. They fear that every speech in committee will be a political one, made with one eye on the pencils of the reporters. I feel that these fears are themselves exaggerated and that after the first novelty of the Measure has died down things will settle down well and there will be a great degree of co-operation between the Press and local government.
It is significant that where more enlightened local authorities have opened their doors to the Press, both in council chambers and committees, the experiment has worked well and the privilege has been withdrawn in only a few cases. I understand that a little while ago Darwin went into this question again, although it still allows the Press to attend committees. In one committee which was overcrowded, I understand 1390 that the Press were sitting almost on top of the members of the local authority and that during the course of the committee proceedings they actually joined in the discussion. I cannot help having a certain sympathy with those Press representatives, having in my own career had to endure the tedium of debates in the local council.
We often talk glibly about the freedom of the Press, but many of us could do much more to preserve it. I make no apology today for speaking on behalf of both the national and the local Press because it is becoming increasingly fashionable in this country to attack the Press. I know that a good case could be made against the gutter sections of the Press which print near-pornography, and do great disservice to their profession. However, by and large, the Press does a good job, often in adverse circumstances. We are faced with the fact that the freedom of the Press is rather ill-defined in this country. Nevertheless, without a free Press there will be innuendo, gossip and false accusation extending from this institution of Parliament down to parish council level. So I urge all hon. Members to sacrifice any prejudices they may have and to approach this matter as individuals. I believe that on the political plane the Bill can benefit all political parties, and the better reporting of local government we have, the more response we shall have from the public.
Above all, I believe that the Bill can bring about a significant improvement in the relationship between the public and local government and, what is perhaps more important, a better understanding of local government which at the moment is rather sadly lacking. This is a change we should all welcome and so I recommend all hon. Members to support its Second Reading.
§ 12.58 p.m.
§ Mrs. Barbara Castle (Blackburn)
We have had excellent speeches today on both sides of the argument, and I am glad that the Press of this country is here to listen to us.
I join those who have congratulated the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) on her outstanding maiden speech. I do so both for its manner and the ability with which the hon. Lady marshalled the case and the 1391 fluency with which she presented it. I also congratulate her on having followed in the footsteps of an eminent Labour predecessor, even though she is fifty years behind him, in catching up.
§ Mr. A. J. Irvine (Liverpool, Edge Hill) rose—
§ Mrs. Castle
My hon. and learned Friend has just reminded me that the previous speaker, the hon. Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. D. Smith) also made a maiden speech. It was so fluent that I did not realise the fact. I extend my congratulations also to the hon. Gentleman.
I rise with some diffidence this morning because of the powerful counterattack to the hon. Lady which has been marshalled from this side of the House in two impressive speeches. This shows that it is not an easy matter to decide and that there are arguments of substance and validity on both sides. I want to tell my hon. Friends on this side of the House that I am rising to support the hon. Lady's Bill. I do so not purely as a feminist—nobody could accuse me of being that—but because, after mature consideration of all the facts involved, I believe the Bill is right and is the logical and natural successor to the Act of 1908 introduced by Arthur Henderson. Indeed, I should like to feel that it is always from this side of the House that the initiative should come in giving greater knowledge to the public of public affairs. After all, it is always the progressive movements which are the supporters of publicity, because they need it to educate people to their point of view and enable them to achieve the changes for which they are fighting. I firmly believe that it is conservatism which needs secrecy to survive and not socialism. That is why I disagree with my hon. Friends who have spoken in opposition to the Bill. I agree with the hon. Member for Brentford and Chiswick. Though the arguments of my hon. Friends were marshalled powerfully, I believe their fears are exaggerated.
I support this Bill, not only as a member of the National Union of Journalists, but as one who has had extensive experience of local government on two local authorities up to 1945 and is the wife of a journalist who is 1392 very active in local government in two capacities, as chairman of a committee of the Middlesex County Council, where Labour has a majority, and as an alderman of the Hornsey Council, where we are in the minority. So within our domestic circle we have an all-embracing experience of all the problems involved.
I can understand the basis of the objections to this Bill by my hon. Friends. We on Labour-controlled councils in particular have suffered at the hands of the Press. On this side of the House we always suffer from the over-sensationalisation in which the Press is inclined to indulge. I agree that in many directions we are witnessing a lamentable deterioration in the quality of the Press. One has only to open a Sunday newspaper and read the account of the unedifying life of Miss Diana Dors to wonder whether we have an educated democracy in this country. I sympathise strongly with those who say, "I am not going to lift a finger to help a Press of this kind to try to find the Diana Dors of local government". But I believe that this is entirely the wrong way to approach the problem.
We shall not be helping to educate the Press if we are as anti-social as they are. All we can do is to provide opportunities for the Press to gain access to more information about more edifying matters and enable them, we hope, to acquire a greater interest in public affairs and in the activities of the women in our public life who are providing such a fine example of public service on hundreds of local authorities in the country. Therefore, I am not concerned with the rights of the Press as such but only with them in so far as the rights of the Press are the rights of the public.
I agree that it is a serious drawback to this Bill that the Long Title does not contain provision for similar rights for the public at large, and I hope that that may be dealt with during the Committee stage proceedings; but the fact is that for the majority of the public the Press is the channel for information about what is being done in their name. Members of the public cannot attend every meeting of the local authorities in their hundreds and thousands. Therefore, they depend on the Press for information. So I start from this principle. Elected representatives of the public, 1393 whether Members of this House or of local councils, have no rights or powers which they do not draw from the people who elected them. We have a constant duty to remind ourselves of this fact. When we are elected we become members of a little inner circle, whether in this Chamber or on a local authority, but that does not confer on us some special authority which is distinct from the authority accorded to us by the public who elected us.
We tend to forget that just because we have been elected we do not thereby become someone special, someone who can disregard the claims to knowledge by the public who gave us our being and without whom we should not exist. From that I follow to what is the right of the public, which surely is to know as much as it is administratively practicable to tell them. There cannot be the slightest doubt that the public are being denied that right by many local authorities. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North, gave illustrations of this and admitted that this was so. He said that we should express an opinion against this here and leave the correcting force of public opinion to work. But it will not work in authorities which have an overwhelming or a 100 per cent. majority of one political colour.
The tendency is always for the public to be told too little, not too much, because, by their very nature, executives tend to be secretive. We know how we have to struggle in this House, even with the resources at our disposal. to get information from Governments which we ought to have and. which we do not get, and certainly in many areas of local government the public do not get the information to which they are entitled. I stand by the principle which follows from that, which is that the onus to prove the need to withhold information should lie upon the elected representatives; it should not be the other way round.
Already the best local authorities are following this kind of practice, as was admitted by my hon. Friend. Only this morning I was talking about this Bill with the leader of my own local authority in Blackburn. I thought I had better let him know that I was proposing to support it. He was delighted that I should do so. The Blackburn authority has been practising much 1394 Which this Bill would make it incumbent on local authorities to do, because in Blackburn that is regarded as common sense and a desirable expression of democracy. It admits the Press to meetings of the education committee. The council goes out of its way to keep the Press well-informed.
Not only does the Press get copies of agendas and minutes of committees beforehand, but is invited to consult officials or the chairman of the committees to obtain information on any point on which clarification is desired. I am glad to say that the council holds protracted meetings in which full discussion takes place and from which the ratepayers can learn not only of decisions which are made but, what is equally important, the reasons for those decisions.
I do not know whether it would be possible to do so through this Bill, but I should like to see more provision made whereby when agendas are given beforehand to the Press, those agendas are drawn up in such a way that reasons for decisions are included in them, as is done by the Middlesex County Council in its reports of committee meetings. We want the provisions in this Bill to be operated in the full spirit of democracy and not in the arid letter of it.
I suggest to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) that in moving his Motion of rejection he is trying to have it both ways, which I do not consider is possible. On the one hand, he implies that the Bill is unnecessary because satisfactory arrangements already exist which the Bill might disturb. He then goes on to argue that it is wrong to give these satisfactory arrangements statutory authority. That is a very strange principle on which to base an argument. We are not seeking to introduce some practice which good and progressive local authorities have never thought of; we are merely attempting to universalise the best of the existing practices, and give it statutory force.
Of course, one can always make objections to any legislative change. One can always foresee snags and difficulties. What we must decide, however, is whether the objections and snags outweigh the disadvantages of the existing 1395 situation. If my hon. Friend had elaborated that part of his speech which concerned local authorities whom he rightly condemned for having council meetings that were a mockery of democratic discussions, and for being hostile and secretive towards the Press, we should have found that the objections to leaving things as they are are far greater than some of the minor objections to the Bill to which he referred.
Some of the consequences that my hon. Friend fears may flow from the Bill may actually be welcome. He said, "If we are going to admit the Press to committees with delegated powers, what will happen?"—and then he introduced a rather sinister note—" Local authorities will manoeuvre and find ways of getting round it." He suggested that one result might be that the local authority would withdraw some of the delegated powers. But perhaps that would be a good thing. Local councils ought to review some of the delegated powers which are at present exercised by committees to see whether they are justified.
I am thinking particularly of the very lively debate which took place in the Hornsey Council last year. It was initiated by Labour members, who are keen guardians of the public interest. Their objection was to the activities of the libraries committee, which had delegated powers to decide what newspapers and periodicals were to be supplied to the libraries in the borough. This is a matter which closely affects the rights of ratepayers, who have a right to freedom of choice as to the source from which they get their information.
It is always difficult to discover information in these cases because the decisions of the committees are given to councils only as an act of courtesy: an act of largesse: it is not a question of making recommendations. The libraries committee informed the council that it had decided to exclude from certain libraries in the borough copies of the Daily Mirror and Daily Sketch. The reasons for that decision, and the arguments put forward in arriving at it, were known to nobody, because the discussion took place in a secret committee. But it seems to have been a matter of certain little dictators imposing their own personal tastes upon the readers in the Borough of Hornsey—an intolerable 1396 interference with the rights of the ratepayers.
The ever-vigilant Labour councillors unearthed this fact and disputed it most vigorously in the general council. It may be argued, as my hon. Friend would argue, that even when power is delegated decisions taken will eventually come to light, but one of the things that do not come to light are the arguments of the people who spoke and the names of those who voted in favour of the decision. It is very important that ratepayers should know how their individual representatives vote when final decisions are reached. At the moment there is a grave lacuna in local democracy, in that committees with delegated powers can reach decisions in secret, so that the ratepayers know nothing about them. The ratepayers not only do not know what arguments were put forward, but who voted in favour of the ultimate decision.
§ Mr. Reynolds
My hon. Friend has gone rather heavily at some of the things I said. Is she not aware of the fact that in the case of the standing orders of 99 per cent. of local authorities, if the watchful Labour group had put down a motion on the agenda of the council, asking the libraries committee to reconsider the matter, there would have been a vote: speeches would have been made, and the facts recorded—and the Press would have been there.
§ Mrs. Castle
That is so, but to begin with that is a very devious and involved procedure. Secondly, it depends upon the presence on the council of somebody who has taken the initiative and been active enough to unearth and ventilate the matter. One of the checks of the rights of the ratepayers is the presence of the Press, which can he aware of these matters and alerted to them, and which can give publicity which will create a public opinion which may compel the reconsideration of something which would otherwise be overlooked. I suggest that it is a grave criticism that even if the course to which my hon. Friend referred were followed there would be no guarantee that any person would be compelled, in public, to repeat the arguments he put forward in private.
This brings me to another point made by my hon. Friend, which raises a very 1397 dangerous principle. He said that certain discussions which took place in committee were of a kind where arguments could cut across normal party lines, and that because it was a secret committee men and women were prepared to exercise their individual judgment and vote across party lines. I say that if a subject is of a kind in which there may be genuine and valid disagreement among parties, and agreement cutting across party lines, there is no reason why that agreement and disagreement should not be expressed in public. I do not like the suggestion that people will vote across party lines in private and refuse to do so in public. Presumably, according to that argument we must conscript some people to vote in public contrary to the way they voted in private. That is a very serious flaw in the operation of democracy.
I am a strong believer in party politics, especially in local government. My feelings in the matter are rather stronger than those of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North, because I believe that the existence of the party system creates a bias towards a more extensive scrutiny than would otherwise be the case. There is a function for organised opposition in democracy, and it is vital that there should be such opposition. I do not like this nonsense about local government being above party lines. All democracy should be subject to organised scrutiny of the Executive by the Opposition.
Within that broad division, which should be organised, there may be subjects, especially in local government, which do not fall within the rigid party category—administrative subjects in connection with which legitimate agreement tray exist across party lines without any destruction of the party system.
If it is good for that disagreement to take place in a private committee, the party system will only be strengthened and not discredited if it also takes place in public, because then the public will realise that when we talk about party politics, we are not talking merely about the organisation of both sides to get "jobs for the boys," but the broad alignment of men and women against one another on fundamental principles, and that that it is a system which can allow legitimate agreement across the 1398 floor, when that is in the public interest. If party political government is to survive and if democracy is to retain its credit in the eyes of the world, nothing but good can come of this public ventilation of what people really believe, even though they are loyal party members.
It is for those reasons that, after mature consideration, not only as a journalist but as someone who has had many years in local government, I support the Bill, believing that, although there may be points which we should consider in Committee, it is the natural successor to the clamour of Arthur Henderson fifty years ago for the light of publicity to come on public affairs, knowing that Labour's case can only gain advantage from it.
§ 1.21 p.m.
§ Sir Lionel Heald (Chertsey)
It has often been said that the House of Commons is at its best when it is discussing important questions in a nonpartisan atmosphere. I hope that I shall not be thought impertinent if I say that the debate so far has very much lived up to that reputation.
As one of the supporters of the Bill, there is very little for me to say, and l shall be very wise to keep my remarks brief and my mouth shut after the Bill has been recommended to the House on both sides by two ladies with such charm and ability in their speeches.
We all agree that my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) has done a magnificant job on the Bill. Some of us know that a Private Member's Bill is not easy to produce, and some of us may have forgotten that my hon. Friend entered upon this task within a week or two of having first come into the House. That was a brave thing to do since, although not saying that she regrets it, I know that she has been through some troubles and difficulties.
One point which should be mentioned is that reliance has been placed on some of the objections which have been received by hon. Members from local authorities and local authority associations. I think that my hon. Friend would like it to be known that many of those objections, I think the majority. were received when the Bill was in its original form as deposited. There have 1399 since been discussions and there have undoubtedly been changes which will render many of those objections now out of date.
I can be very brief indeed, because another attractive result of the kind of procedure which we have had today is that I have had the pleasure of hearing the Amendment disposed of so finally by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle), and for the reasons which I myself would have advanced. On this occasion, I can adopt her remarks and that is a thing which I have never had the opportunity of doing before and might never have the opportunity of doing again, so it is something which I am glad to have reason to be able to do.
The hon. Member for Blackburn put her finger on the point when she pointed out that in dealing with a Second Reading we are dealing with the question of principle. It was very appropriate that she should have referred to the 1908 legislation, because many people outside the House who have discussed the subject have not appreciated the true origin of the Bill.
Up to a point, the 1908 Act has worked satisfactorily, and it is only in comparatively recent years that certain councils have appreciated that they could use that Act actually to protect them in what has been described today as, if not their nefarious activities, their not very desirable activities. Not all hon. Members may have appreciated that in the 1908 Act there was an express exception of committees. The result of that is that local councils have said that they are entitled to say, and have said—and I have seen it in writing that they are entitled to say—that Parliament has said that they should not admit the Press. Of course, they did not also refer to other paragraphs which said that they could admit the Press if they so wished. However, reading the Act in that way, one can find an excuse for what has been done.
The fundamental principle which we have now to decide is whether we should say that this power to demand admission, to put it that way, should be extended to cover committees, particularly those committees which have delegated power. We know that that has been done. I will not rub it in to the hon. 1400 Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds), because the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn did it very thoroughly, but he himself admitted that there were cases where councils had been doing the wrong thing. We hope that the Bill will restrain them from continuing to do so. Once we admit that, we have admitted the justification for the Bill.
The principle with which we are concerned—and I do not think that there is any hon. Member who does not agree with it—is that those who elect representatives to local authorities are entitled to know how those representatives exercise the powers and spend the money which they get from the ratepayers.
§ Mr. Roderic Bowen (Cardigan)
Would not the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the privileges extended to the Press in the 1908 Act and the privileges of the Bill should apply to the public as a whole and not merely to the Press?
§ Sir L. Heald
I am much obliged to the hon. and learned Gentleman for mentioning that, although I think that it would be out of order for me to discuss it at any length. It was rather unfortunate that the hon. Member for Islington, North had not looked at the elementary rules of the House before making his remarks. He would have found in page 518 of Erskine May and in Standing Order No. 40 that Committees are not only entitled, but have a duty, to make such Amendments in the Long and/or Short Title as are necessary to deal with Amendments which are passed in due course by the Committee. Thus there is no question of there being any major difficulty or anything of that kind. That is a question for the House to consider, primarily in Committee. If the Committee decides that there should be provision for the public to attend, then there is no difficulty about dealing with that matter. That argument was a red herring.
§ Sir Kenneth Pickthorn (Carlton)
Is not my right hon. and learned Friend omitting the essential difficulty, which is that an Amendment in Committee will be in order only if it is interpreted as being relevant to the Bill as introduced, a point upon which nobody can give certainty now?
§ Sir L. Heald
One thing is quite clear; we cannot debate that now. However, I thought that it was desirable to point out what the rules were. Perhaps the less I continue to discuss it, the better, because in a moment I shall be reprimanded.
§ Sir L. Heald
I should like to hear the discussion about it and, as we always do in these matters, pay attention to arguments such as those which the hon. Member for Islington, North will no doubt put forward very cogently, and then make up my mind. However, to say that that is a reason for doing nothing about it is illogical.
There are a number of other matters which we can discuss in Committee. There are great difficulties on several points. We ought to pay considerable attention in Committee to the points which will be raised by the representatives of the local authorities. After all, that is what the Committee stage is for. We are concerned here today with the question of principle, and I do not believe that it is worth while spending time today answering anything said against it.
Apparently, the most cogent argument which has been made against it is that it might lead to a deterioration in the relations between the Press and the local authorities. That is a rather fanciful theory. That is not the view taken by any of the newspapers themselves, and, after all, they are deeply concerned with the matter. There is another point, which the hon. Lady has already covered, but which I will very briefly repeat. It is not right to consider the matter from the point of view of the national Press alone. In the vast majority of cases, it is the provincial and local Press which covers these meetings, and if the national Press comes in at all, it comes in indirectly as a result of material passed on to it locally. Therefore, it is hardly material to say that the national Press has done this, that or the other.
I believe it right to say that there are very few cases in which a council has any right to complain of the provincial Press in these matters, unless we think of a case in which it is refused admis- 1402 sion, and there we find that there is a genuine dispute. If the Press is refused admission, as we know it has been in recent years, on improper grounds, I do not think that anybody has anything to complain about if the Press expresses itself. We should realise the tremendous services rendered to the public by the provincial and local Press in giving information on these local affairs, and I believe that this Bill will promote the benefit of both parties concerned.
§ 1.34 p.m.
§ Mr. Maurice Edelman (Coventry, North)
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle), I am a member of the National Union of Journalists and wish to give my general support to the Bill. I have no doubt that before very long the debate which is taking place today will seem as remote as a subject of controversy as the debate which took place when the question of the admission of the Press to report the proceedings of our own House was originally discussed.
I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) is not in his place, because I should like to refer to something he said. If I heard him aright, he said that at the end of the committee meeting it would be possible for a resumé or summary to be given to the Press by a member of the committee or an officer delegated to do so, and that in that way it would be possible for the proceedings of committees to be reported as fully as if in fact the Press had been present.
For my part, I must say that I think it is absolutely wrong to try to substitute public relations officers for free reporting by the Press. I cannot help feeling that if we were to start anything of the kind the ordinary citizen would be squeezed between the "lobbyist" on the one side and the public relations officer on the other. In fact, the whole point of a free Press would be negated by any procedure of that kind. I believe myself that already the process of public relations officers acting as interpreters of matters which should be freely, fully and independently reported has gone too far. We shall not improve our local democracy by appointing public relations officers to try to interpret the 1403 proceedings of committees as a substitute for the normal process of reporting by the Press.
I support this Bill because I think that in general it will enlarge, not so much the liberty of the Press, as the liberty of the subject. I believe that we have seen too often, particularly in recent years, how local dictators have emerged and flourished precisely in the absence of criticism by the Press, simply because the activities in which they were engaged were not susceptible to public criticism. I am certain that there are as many "village Hitlers" as there are "village Hampdens," and I am quite certain that in local government there are many people who abuse the Press as there have been in its history those whom the Press abuses.
§ Mr. James MacColl (Widnes)
My hon. Friend has made a very important point, saying that there are "village Hitlers." In other words, he says that some local authority members are irresponsible and dictatorial. Is not the same likely to be true of the Press? We are not dealing with the best of the Press. What guarantee is there that there will not only be "village Hitlers" but also "village Wilkes"? May there not also be irresponsible reporting over which there is no control?
§ Mr. Edelman
I cannot accept too readily the point made by my hon. Friend, because I am a great admirer of John Wilkes. Consequently, I do not believe that it would be altogether a bad thing, certainly in the case of some localities, if a John Wilkes were to rise and try to smite some of the local dictators.
§ Mr. MacColl
My hon. Friend is running away from the point, and this is a key point. If he can deal with it, I think it will be a great help. It worries many people that we all recognise the need for sensible councils and sensible editors to get together, but there are cases where the reporting is incompetent and irresponsible, and highly tendentious in its selection. What protection have the public got against that?
§ Mr. Edelman
My hon. Friend seems to me to be failing to recognise the nature of democracy. Surely, the nature of democracy is that citizens can elect 1404 a bad council, and, if they want it, can have a bad Press. From my own observation, I would say that the provincial Press, more particularly, is excellent. I would add the general observation that in local reporting, in particular in the provincial Press—and I will have something to say about the national Press later—the standards of the provincial Press in the traditional forms are higher than those of the national Press.
§ Mr. MacColl rose—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Gordon Touche)
I hope the hon. Gentleman will not intervene again, because there are a large number of hon. Members who wish to speak.
§ Mr. Edelman
Perhaps I may be allowed to develop my point and deal with my hon. Friend's question later in my remarks.
I think there are two elements in this Bill. It is a Bill enlarging the opportunity of scrutiny of the actions of those who are the representatives of the people, and it is also concerned with the rights of the ordinary citizen, who is directly affected by what takes place in committee. It seems to me that the difficulty—and there are difficulties in the Bill—is that it will give the opportunity to the Press of examining, considering and criticising the actions which take place in committee which are initiated by the local representatives, and we want to make sure that the privacy of the individual is not invaded by the disclosure of matters which are personal to himself.
Here I should like to say a few words in parentheses about the tendency which has developed in the national Press in recent years, which is precisely the tendency to invade the privacy of the individual. Some of us in this House some time ago put down a Motion at the time of the Munich air disaster and complained that the behaviour of certain members of the Press in publishing a photograph of a man who lay at death's door was deplorable and inconsistent with the highest traditions of the Press. As a journalist and a Member of Parliament 1405 I was very strongly criticised by Sir Linton Andrews in particular, who was then chairman of the Press Council, for having anticipated the conclusions of the inquiry which the Council made. In fact, it was not anticipation, because the facts spoke for themselves. The photograph of Mr. Matt Busby was published in a large number of newspapers. Whether the German authorities at the hospital had invited the photographers into the hospital or whether they had initiated it themselves is immaterial. The fact remains that Mr. Busby, unconscious at the time, had not been consulted. That was an invasion of his privacy.
If the Bill goes through suitably amended, as I hope that it will be, I hope that the Press will recognise its responsibility. It will not be enough for a large number of resolutions to be passed from time to time by the committees, as provided for in the Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North forecast, I can imagine that certain councils may be inclined, in order to circumvent the intention of the Bill as it now stands, to abuse the opportunity of passing resolutions of this kind.
The Press today has a very grave responsibility. In a debate on the Press some time ago in the House I said that I considered the British Press to be the best in the world. If we had that debate today I should be obliged to qualify what I then said. There certainly has been a very serious decline in the standards of our Press. We live with it and are familiar with it, and consequently we tend not to see the deterioration which has taken place. One has only to watch an American studying our Press, studying certain of the cases which are reported and the manner in which they are reported, studying the gossip columns with the Paul Slickeys which have emerged in the Press, and this prying into the privacy of an individual's life, in order to see how new elements have entered into the habits of the Press which are a very sad decline from the traditional standards.
If the Bill when enacted is to succeed in its intention of enlarging democratic rights and not diminishing them, it will be necessary for the Press to exercise an added sense of responsibility. I do not share the view that the safeguards 1406 which the hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) described in her admirable exposition of the Bill will be ineffective. She has made careful provision for speeches of a confidential nature and matters of a particularly private kind, for instance, affecting staff, to be excluded from the scope of these arrangements.
Finally, although there is no provision in the Bill as it stands for the admission of the general public, there is absolutely no reason why any local council should not of its own volition decide that it will admit the public.
§ Mr. Edelman
Certainly. It is already done in certain cases. Therefore, I see no reason why the passage of the Bill should be hindered by the limiting consideration that it merely enlarges the privileges of the Press while not enlarging correspondingly the privileges of the public. If the Bill is to be a success there will have to be a joint act of good will and co-operation between Press and public and between Press and local authorities. If that is done, the final effect of the Bill will be to enlarge the liberties of every citizen.
§ 1.45 p.m.
§ Mr. A. R. Wise (Rugby)
I almost had the idea of claiming the privileges of a maiden speech, because it is a very long time—a little over fourteen years—since I last addressed the House. I thought that fourteen years of virginal seclusion might qualify me again. On the other hand, it seemed to me rather like one of the Wolfenden reports of a young lady claiming maidenhood because it was only the first time she had been charged in that particular court. Therefore, I ask no privilege and no indulgence.
I am in the curious position of being the first hon. Member from these benches to speak in favour of the Amendment. Uneasy though I feel about the company in which I shall find myself, I was considerably heartened by the fact that the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) is taking the other side, so at least I have some justification for my present action.
Although the Bill is not wholly right, even in principle, there is much to be 1407 said for it, and a Second Reading debate is a debate on principles only. There comes a time when a Bill, to be in the least useful, has to have so much amendment in Committee that it is not worth giving it a Second Reading. That is so with this Bill. It sets out, as my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) said, to try to find a balance between the needs of the public for information and the competence of local authorities to carry on an administration. It does not do that, does not even begin to do it and, in my view, it does not seriously try to do it. It is based upon a false analogy between the House of Commons and local government. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield) drew half his example from what we do in the House of Commons. The two systems are in no way comparable. The House is a legislature. Local government is an administration. One cannot administer in a goldfish pond. It just is not practical politics.
It may be claimed that the Bill is very moderate in its demands on local government. It seeks only to admit the Press to those committees having delegated powers. That sounds very good. I was a member of a local authority until I had to give it up to devote more time to a Parliamentary constituency. it could not have been described as a Socialist or authoritarian local authority, because it was the Westminster City Council. That Council is as firmly opposed—not merely the Clerk, but the members of the Council—to this proposal as the most arbitrary sub-committee that Nottingham could ever produce.
The reason is that in Westminster nearly every committee—except the Finance Committee and the General Purpose Committee, and even they to a mild degree—have substantial delegated powers. These committees do not wish to undergo the unnecessary expense of increasing staff and the unnecessary tax on members' time which would be entailed through having to resolve themselves into sub-committees so that they could carry on the day-to-day administration of the City. Someone would have to move a motion to throw the Press out almost every time the committees meet. That is what would happen. 1408 Many discussions take place in these committees—disciplinary matters, and so on—at which it is not suitable that the Press should be present. One cannot expect committees which are dependent on advice from their officers to obtain that advice properly if it is being given in public. It may be that qualified privilege would apply, although what would happen if the Press published what was a qualified privilege in committee only a lawyer could say, and I am not a lawyer. One cannot get effective functioning of a committee when that goes on—
§ Mr. C. Pannell
As I understand it, the Press, in reporting what was actually said, would be let right out by the Bill, but the person who said it would have only qualified privilege.
§ Mr. Wise
I am prepared to accept the hon. Member's definition, although I am not at all sure that the legal point raised by this is not so complicated that, ultimately, only the House of Lords could settle it. That is another reason why I am against the Bill. I do not think that these major complications should be introduced in this way.
The promoters of the Bill suggested that they had tried to draw up a Schedule of the circumstances in which the Press should or should not be admitted, and had had to give it up. I am not surprised. Such a Schedule would have been about double the size of the Oxford Dictionary. One cannot legislate on those lines. This Bill, like, I regret to say, so many Private Members' Bills Which deal with subjects too large for their purpose and intent, is, in fact, what in my previous incarnation here we used to describe as a lawyer's dream. It is also a councillor's nightmare, as I shall demonstrate in a moment.
Let us see how joyful this Measure might make the legal profession. If a committee—as it would be perfectly entitled to do under the Bill—decided not to admit the Press, it would have to do so on the ground that it was not in the public interest for the public to be admitted. That decision is open to challenge. Who would challenge it, and for how long would the challenge continue? There is the lawyer's dream. If, at the end, it was decided that that action was not in the public interest. 1409 those councillors, who were doing only what they thought was their plain duty, would find themselves surcharged with the entire costs of the proceedings. That is the councillor's nightmare. These are all matters that the House should take extremely seriously.
The Bill also provides that when these committees that have delegated powers are about to meet they must supply the Press with an agenda, and with all relevant documents and everything else. That would mean that even in the subcommittees that I am certain would have to be set up in vast quantities, there would still be no protection against this publicity because, if a document is to be of any use to council or committee, it must say in one form or another what the business is all about. What is the point of full privacy in sub-committee if the material is to he printed and circulated when the committee itself meets?
One also has to consider the practical working of a committee. I do not know whether any of the promoters of the Bill have a great deal of experience of local government. I should think some of them have—
§ Mr. Wise
I think that perhaps some of the Bill's protagonists have not, or it is possible that they may have forgotten quite how committee work is carried out.
A committee of a council works like a board of directors. People do not get to their feet to make speeches, and they do not express themselves in elaborate and rotund phrases. It is a simple and ordinary discussion. I do not think that members of the Press would get much out of that, in any case, but if they were there—well, after all, we are all human, and we all like our publicity. Would not that committee resolve itself, in fact, into a sort of open council meeting, with everybody rising to make speeches that they hoped their fellow-citizens would read and enthuse over in the local Press?
That is not how committee work should be carried out. It is purely a business proposition. It is not really part of what the hon. Member for Black- 1410 burn called the great functioning of democracy. It is merely a means of making the functioning of democracy possible. So long as council meetings are public, it seems wholly unnecessary for the Bill to go as far as it does.
One thing that I would have supported is not in this Measure. I would not in the least mind an enactment to say that all meetings of the council, whether or not the council liked it, should be public—that seems quite fair—just as are meetings of this House. Perhaps our meetings are not invariably public, because any one of us has the right to exclude the public at any moment he wishes—
§ Mr. MacColl
The position is that if an hon. Member claims to "spy strangers" the House takes a decision on that, precisely as would a local authority.
§ Mr. Wise
I accept that, but we have the right of exclusion. I would be prepared to say that if a council resolved itself into a committee of the whole council, that committee also should be compelled to accept the Press, because in such cases there is every argument in favour of the greatest possible publicity for what is being done. But in the committees—no. We have to get the most efficient and economic local government, and that is not the way to get it.
I know that there have been abuses in the past by local councils. I shall not enter into controversy as to which party on which councils has been responsible for that—it is not relevant to this debate. In any case, I do not think that major legislation of this kind should be introduced to deal with a few hard cases. That hard cases make bad law is a well known truism.
If that sort of thing has to be done—and I think that it may have to be done—it is much better done by pressure from the appropriate Ministry—and that pressure can be very effective, I know—and by the general weight of public opinion. Several speakers today have rather brushed aside the weight of public opinion, but I think that they 1411 underrate its effect, and that we shall find that these major sinners among the councils will be very chary of repeating that sort of action. We should rest ourselves on that. I am not defending that procedure. I am merely stating it.
I come now to the proposal to admit the Press by right to the regional executive councils and the regional hospital boards. These deal with questions affecting the professional capacity or assiduity of the medical profession. It is true that all disciplinary matters involving doctors are dealt with by committees to which the Press will not be admitted under the Bill, but all of them report to their parent bodies and the Press is gaining admission to those. At present, even when some negligence or incapacity has been proved and disciplinary action has been taken against a doctor, that doctor's name is withheld from publication. To make so major a change in the existing procedure as to publish the doctor's name would be much more appropriate in a Government Measure than in a Private Member's Bill. I know that it will be said that these executive councils and hospital boards, when they are dealing with individual cases, have every power to exclude the Press. As we know, the Press has been complaining about the withholding of doctors' names. In my view, it is wholly unfair that these disciplinary bodies should have placed upon them on every occasion the onus of having to exclude the Press, and to start a whole furore which that sort of action entails, whenever they consider one of these cases.
I am not entering into the merits of withholding the name of a professional man charged with a breach of discipline, but that is the state of affairs at present. So far as I know, leaving my personal opinion out of it, there is no great demand that that procedure should be changed. Unfortunately, under the National Health legislation doctors became liable to all sorts of penalties to which they were not liable before, and I do not doubt that they regret it as much as I regret it on their behalf. But the fact is that they are liable at any moment to have their whole professional careers pretty well blasted.
Whenever there is a really grave breach of professional behaviour the matter goes to the General Medical 1412 Council and there it is given publicity because the Council admits the Press. That seems to me to be a wholly adequate safeguard, but it seems an unnecessary burden to place on these bodies which have to decide these cases to leave it to them to decide whether the Press should be admitted or not. One must remember that these bodies have no power of subpoena. Counsel do not appear. It is a very informal inquiry. From their decision an appeal can take place to the Minister, but if that decision has to be conveyed to the parent body and has been given publicity there, of what sort of use will the appeal to the Minister be to the doctor in his professional career?
It seems to me that this Bill requires so much amendment that, however willing the promotors might be to consider improvements in Committee—and I do not think that they would be willing to do so—
§ Mr. Wise
It is the details which have been refuted. I therefore presume that they attach some importance to the details. So much amendment is required to make the Bill workable that I do not think it should be given a Second Reading. I would add that two major Ministries are involved in the operation of this Bill. It would have been within the capacity of either of them, if they had thought this sort of amendment necessary, to have done something about it. They have not, and therefore I cannot believe that the urgency is all that great.
I think, on the whole, that the publicity given to the principle of the Bill may have done some good, first to recalcitrant councils and possibly also in strengthening the slightly weak attitude of the Ministries involved in encouraging them to apply a little more pressure where pressure is necessary. But I hope that we shall not be faced with the task 1413 of giving this Measure a death by a thousand cuts upstairs. I am a merciful man, and I am all in favour of a happy dispatch.
§ 2.5 p.m.
§ Mr. Charles Pannell (Leeds, West)
I should like, first, to join those hon. Members who have congratulated the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) on what was rather a beautiful maiden speech. The hon. Lady will recall that she started her political life unsuccessfully trying to contest the division in which I was once mayor and in which I lived, and consequently I heard her maiden efforts at the hustings. Nevertheless, I was glad to hear her maiden speech in this House. It was almost a model to the occupants of the Government Front Bench on how to deliver a speech in favour of a Bill, instead of having a dreary essay read to us in a turgid monotone.
I want to come down to cases. I have been a member of four local authorities and I must declare my interest as a vice-president of the Association of Municipal Corporations. The other evening I met the general purposes committee of that body—a body which completely cuts across all politics—and I could not find one official there who was in favour of this Bill. I hope that the hon. Lady will take it from me as a statement of fact that there is deep distress about this Bill, particularly among the officers of local authorities. If this Bill goes to Standing Committee she will have to meet opposition, not so much because of what she has said, but because of the rather dogmatic tone of other speeches, many of which were full of clichés, and also I detected a degree of obstinacy among her supporters, if not in herself.
First, I want to get the atmosphere right. It would be a grave matter if Parliament were to appear to cast a suspect eye on the generality of local government, and I would remind hon. Members that we are not the senior partner in public administration. We are equal partners with local government. We confer on them the right to administer and they give voluntary public service. I have said before that I have noticed among some hon. Members who have been members of local authorities before coming here a feeling that somehow the breed has grown 1414 rather less since they left local government. I do not believe that is so, and I ask the House to bear in mind that people who enter public service—of course, they are extroverts, as we are here; there are few introverts in local government—do so in an attempt to run the town or city in the way in which they think it should be run. Let us not make too much of politics in this connection, because politics is merely an attempt to organise local government in order to secure certain broad principles. I say this in defence of the Conservative Party as well as of the Labour Party in local government, because where there is no political party running the town there is a social clique, which is a lot worse.
Most often these people who serve in local government are not skilled in the law. They have to be guided. But Parliament is different from local government. Here the Minister comes to the Dispatch Box and brings a brief, but he brings it under absolute privilege. We speak in reply under absolute privilege. Of course, it often goes further than that. Often when we attempt to move Amendments the Minister or his deputy will say in that bleating way that they have, "The hon. Gentleman's Amendment is so drafted that it would not achieve what he sets out to do." But the Minister should get no credit for that. It is his civil servants who have kept him clear of that one. This is the atmosphere in which local government works. Of course, there are vested interests inside local government—people seeking tenders and others—and some members of local authorities sometimes defend those interests.
I can tell of cases within my own experience. One may have a member of a local authority with knowledge of a local racket or knowledge of the unsatisfactory nature of somebody tendering for a contract. The contractor may have one or two friends on the council. One councillor with that knowledge may say, "I move that we go into committee because there is knowledge which I can give. Other members of the committee may say, "No." and they vote him down. He dare not risk the law of libel or slander by speaking with the Press present, and consequently a public scandal is quelled.
I will give another case within my knowledge and within the constituency 1415 of which the hon. Lady once sought the suffrage of the electorate. Take the question of the increase of council rents. That is dynamite. How do we assess council rents? There are half a dozen ways in which we can assess council rents. We can take the pooling of all council funds, or the pooling of the housing accounts, or we can decide to separate the post-war rents from the prewar rents. This is a technical subject. The chairman of the finance committee decides to recommend to the council a new level of rents in an upward curve—nobody reduces them nowadays—to meet the needs of the housing revenue account.
At the present time half a dozen considerations can be deployed by the borough treasurer on what the rents should be. Let us see what happens in public. The finance committee chairman decides that he is going to pool post-war and pre-war rents and fix the rents on that basis, which will have the effect of bringing the pre-war rents up a bit. He deploys that argument. Someone, who probably knows only simple arithmetic, starts on a simpler proposition. It is very difficult for the borough treasurer to correct a councillor on his elementary arithmetic. The argument gets to a point where the council is divided because this is really dynamite. I had a brick through my window when I attempted to put rents up as chairman of a local finance committee and it finished up with 600 summonses in the Dartford county court. These are the practical difficulties. At that point somebody says, "Now, Mr. Treasurer, you hit us where you stand." Do we think that any treasurer in public is going to come down on one side or the other? If he does he immediately becomes a political animal.
There are very few councils on which there is a bipartisan policy about rent because that is one of the things which can easily put people out at election times. There will always be one or two unscrupulous people on one side or another. One councillor may put out to the Press his own argument, without any of the refinements of arithmetic and, of course, the Press man will not be able to do the sums either. That is the sort of situation we get into and in which a council finds itself.
§ Mr. Harold Gurden (Birmingham, Selly Oak)
The instance of which the hon. Gentleman has spoken is quite all right under this Bill, because he explained that it was a committee which would make a recommendation about the rents and that would not be a committee with delegated powers in this case. I presume that the city treasurer would be giving advice in the committee. If it is the other way, that the city treasurer would be giving advice in council, the Press would be there already under the 1908 Act.
§ Mr. Pannell
Perhaps I did not put my argument in simple enough terms to allow the hon. Member to follow it, but I believe that other hon. Members did follow me. I was attempting to give an imaginary position under the hon. Lady's Bill. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak had better consult the officials of Birmingham Corporation where there is wider delegation than in any other local authority in the country.
That is one case and I could multiply it. It is not a question of the town clerk's advice. Any town clerk who attempts to give a long legal ruling in public wants his head tested. That is not the sort of thing on which elections are won or lost. What matters at election time is the level of rents, contracts, and the treatment of people. There are only two things which turn out councils. The two things that affect people more than anything else are a steady level of the rates—they can go up steadily but they must not jump up and down—and the regular weekly emptying of dustbins. Those things concern everyone. Anyone who has attempted honestly to assess rents in this difficult period and has lived through a period, such as I have, of acute misery and terrific pressure from which I was protected only because I was an alderman and was not subject to the next election, would look at this Bill with a great deal of distrust and hostility. I speak quite feelingly about it.
I want to turn to the point that under the hon. Lady's Bill if there is an injudicious statement made by a member of the council when the Press is present and the Press publish that statement in good faith, the Press is protected. but the member of the council who makes the statement is not protected.
§ Mr. Pannell
My hon. Friend is a great legal luminary in the same way as he is a great constitutional authority and one of the greatest Lord Mayors of Manchester, but I ask him to let me waffle on in my own way with all my limitations.
Of course, this is a far milder Bill than the one the hon. Lady set out to give us in the first place. It is a far better Bill than that which the National Union of Journalists attempted to father on the hon. and learned Member for Middlesbrough, West (Sir J. Simon) before he reached greater heights of political eminence.
I come now to the subject of privilege. This was one of the grounds on which I opposed an earlier Bill. We speak under privilege, but there is very limited privilege only for members of local authorities. The only thing which protects members of local authorities, as it protects the public, is the confidential nature of documents circulating between officials and their members and the fact that members in committee can freely speak their minds. A councillor may have an honest doubt. He may have a firm belief that a racket is going on. He has only to state it and he is prosecuted or sued. But, in the more informal manner of local authorities, it can be investigated and, I think, the public interest is protected thereby.
How much further is the Press to erode the privacy of affairs which should not sometimes be public? Only last week, there was published the report made by Mr. Victor Durand, Q.C., on certain disturbances at Carlton Approved School. Mr. Durand suggests that the Press should by Statute be barred from going into approved schools. If it is argued by the supporters of the Bill that it is in the public interest that the Press should go into public places, why should the Press be kept out of schools? There are assaults made upon little boys and girls every day. Should not reports of them be published? When we come to consider the details of this matter, is what I say quite so ridiculous, bearing in mind that 70 per cent. of all public expenditure by local authorities is on wages and salaries fixed by agreement and over which there is no council control? I 1418 leave out the subject of watch committees for the moment.
There is the other matter of atmosphere, to which reference has already been made. In my experience in Conservative local authorities and Labour local authorities on which I have served, I have found that, once the election is over, there is a camaraderie between councillors and an attempt made to settle affairs in the interests of the public they serve. That sort of feeling will begin to go if some of the proposals made are adopted. There will be playing to the gallery in committee. It needs only to start with one person doing it, and then it will develop. There is sometimes a tendency here to do the same. Indeed, it is one of the arguments against putting our proceedings on television. In this Chamber, we want speaking to the House rather than to the Gallery, and I do not want to see that altered.
I should be in favour of a declaration that every council must meet in public when it meets as a full council and I would prohibit it—this will be quite effective—from resolving itself on the same day into a council in committee. The mere fact that it would take two or three days to call another meeting would be salutory enough because it is usually only the convenience of doing the thing on the same night which encourages the practice of going into committee. When a council meets with the mayor or chairman, in the full panoply of public meeting, the meeting should remain public, and I would make it illegal for a council at that meeting to go into committee. The Press, of course, would be given recourse to the council meeting.
The hon. Lady has still to meet the criticism that her Bill would allow a Press man who is not a ratepayer to have facilities which a ratepayer has not. That is a substantial point. I hope she will take it from me that it was not a flippant point we made about the Long Title of the Bill. We may not have finished with that yet. In my view, Press men as such should have no privileges beyond the privileges of the generality of ratepayers.
To take the argument a little further, what is the point of this House having its Select Committees sit in private? Of all the bodies of this House, the Select 1419 Committee is protected by the deepest privilege. Every Press man knows that. Why do we do it? We publish the evidence afterwards. Recently, I had to ask the Leader of the House specially to allow a rule 100 years old to be broken in order that a memorandum might be published about a certain part of the work of a Select Committee. There was unpublished evidence before a Select Committee, and a Select Committee only can decide that evidence may not be published. We had a special Resolution concerning a paper submitted by two university lecturers. What is the case there? These things may be matters of public scandal and they have been matters of public scandal. Yet we insist upon our present practice of absolute privacy. Local authorities, on the other hand, are administrative bodies, while we are a legislative body. I really cannot follow the argument.
I have attempted to deal with cases within my knowledge, and I could multiply the examples many times. I do not speak here in any attempt to keep the Press from their lawful concerns. I speak because I believe that the very nature of local government demands a decent reticence just as much as it demands publicity. We hear the cry that the Press should be able to give publicity to everything. Surely, that goes too far. Where is it to stop?
I recently wrote a letter to The Times about an attempted intrusion into the hospital where my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) was lying ill. I was rebuked by an ex-chairman of the Press Council who did not publish fully in his own paper what I had said. There is always this problem of selection. If the hospital authorities ask Mr. Morgan Phillips to take over the issuing of bulletins because of embarrassment caused to the hospital, there is, surely, a prima facie case. I have known Mr. Morgan Phillips for a long time and I have no doubt at all that, before he put out his first statement, there had been an attempted intrusion. He speaks as a responsible person. In the same way, if the chairman of the Conservative Party were to make a similar announcement, he would be believed by Members opposite because people would have a regard for the persons involved.
1420 Nowadays, the idea seems to be that nothing is sacred and nothing is barred. There is a sense of decorum in the House and a feeling that the life of a public man should not be outraged. I ask the House to imagine what would have been the reaction if the right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) were involved in such an incident. There would be the greatest sympathy felt. If what will happen in Buckingham Palace in a week or two is regarded as sacred, just as are the secrets of life and the mysteries of death, let us remember that local authorities are far nearer to these matters than people sometimes think. Every day, local authorities consider birth and death, delinquency or the welfare of someone's child. These are the intimate affairs of individuals, and they deserve the same respect and privacy which we give to the highest in the land.
I reject the Bill out of my experience and a deep conviction that reticence is a fine and decent quality, far more desirable than the garish desire for publicity which seems to oppress our civilisation today.
§ 2.29 p.m.
§ Mr. James Watts (Manchester, Moss Side)
I ask the House for the indulgence which is always shown to maiden speakers. If I may say so, this has been a very interesting debate. It has been a real debate on both sides, and not a party political matter at all, with everyone freely saying what he wishes to say.
I had a little experience of local government before the war, although not much. Since then there seems to have been a great change in local government. Before the war, there was very little party political action and enmity. I remember that the senior councillor was always made the next alderman on the bench. This was always agreed by the members of the council of whatever party, because such a person was thought to have given service to the city. Since the war, there has been a marked party political change. Quarrels have affected the aldermanic bench and, with a change of party, quite without reason, and having nothing to do with character or service, sometimes these gentlemen have been pushed off the aldermanic bench. With a change of party, the reverse has taken place. 1421 There has been far too much controversy and anger. We have seen recently that in certain cases the Press has been excluded from the meetings of certain bodies. Sometimes one party has done it and sometimes another. These are always very sad occasions. The result is that since the war I think that there has been a diminution of confidence in local authority work, which seems to me deplorable when so many people on both sides of these many local bodies carry out such wonderful work for the public and when officials work so hard.
The Town and Country Planning Act and the other intrusive powers of local authorities have also caused great suspicions among the public who never know what will take place with regard to their property, what will happen to values or what is to be bought by compulsion and later sold at a profit by the local authority. I believe that if the Bill becomes an Act and members of the Press are allowed into council meetings to a greater extent, there will be an enormous amount of new confidence in local government throughout the country.
I wish in my humble way to support the hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) and, of course, I should like to congratulate her on her wonderful speech. I agree with everything that the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) said, but I do not quite agree with her conclusions. If the Bill becomes an Act and if the Press is allowed into meetings to a greater extent, I think public relationships will soften. I believe that when the Press is present at meetings common sense is inclined to prevail and that people are very much less willing to say bitter things. My experience in local affairs has always been that if one says nasty, bitter things one loses support.
The hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) drew attention to all sorts of possibilities of racketeering in local authorities. He did not say whether in fact this had happened, but he drew the attention of the House to the possibility that this sort of thing could happen. I believe that if the Press is able to be Present at the meetings of committees which have sovereign delegated powers, a lot of confidence will be restored and 1422 I think that it would be a great safeguard against the remote possibility of things to which the hon. Member referred taking place.
I wish to support the Bill and I hope that it will become an Act. My own humble view is that if the Bill becomes an Act it will strengthen confidence in local authorities all over the kingdom. It will make for accord, will remove bitterness and will safeguard the public from the possibility of corruption, to which the hon. Member for Leeds, West referred.
I want to thank the House for having allowed me to speak. Naturally, I should like this to be an agreed Measure, for the reasons which I have given. If the Bill becomes an Act, I believe that it will stop party differences, that there will be much less bitterness in local authorities and that we shall return to the times we had before this present bitterness started.
§ 2.36 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham)
This is the first time that it has fallen to me to speak in this House immediately after a maiden speech. I perform most heartily and gladly the task of congratulating the hon. Member for Manchester, Moss Side (Mr. Watts) on his concise and vigorous speech. Before long, we shall debate procedure in this House. One of the points which will come up then is whether a time limit could usefully be imposed on speeches. The hon. Member may find his speech quoted as an example of how much to the point can be said within a brief compass. I hope that we shall hear the hon. Gentleman on other occasions and at greater length.
I also congratulate the hon. Lady the, Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) on her maiden speech in introducing the Bill. We all agree, as many hon. Members have said, that it was a most striking, impressive and skilful performance. I could have wished that the hon. Lady had been a little better advised by some of her hon. Friends with more experience of this House who collaborated with her in drafting the Bill, because there is one point about it which I think should be made with great emphasis.
I propose to make that point at once. Whatever the intentions of the Bill it is not, as it is framed at the moment, a 1423 Bill for the protection of the public; it is a Bill for the enlargement of the privileges of the Press. The seconder of the Motion, the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield), said that that was not what was intended, and I fully accept that, but that is what the Bill in fact means at the moment. I think that the Act of 1908 was good enough as far as it went. I think that it would have been a better Act if it had given to the public the rights given to the Press. If we are now to be asked to give further rights to members of the Press, surely it is necessary that we should establish clearly that those rights ought to belong to them as members of the public.
That is the position of the Press in the courts of justice, with the exception, of course, of juvenile courts, to which the Press is admitted and the public not admitted, but that special privilege is balanced by certain rules prohibiting the Press from publishing certain matter. We ought properly to regard the public bodies with which the Bill deals as analogous to the ordinary courts of justice.
I regretted that this point was treated in such cavalier manner by the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South and the right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald). This is not, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman suggested, a red herring. We are being asked to give the Bill a Second Reading. Before doing so, we ought to know whether it will be possible procedurally to amend it in this very important sense. I assume, and I hope that I am right, that those who support the Bill want to see its scope widened to give these privileges to the public as well as to the Press, but there is very genuine anxiety as to whether this can be done.
The hon. Member for Carlton (Sir K. Pickthorn) was quite right. We can alter the Long Title of the Bill to fit the matter of the Bill if we have been previously able to alter the matter. The question is whether, in Committee, an Amendment to admit the public would be regarded as in order. It would turn on the interpretation of the words "relevant" and "within the scope of the Bill". It is not at all clear.
I wonder whether any of the hon. Members whose names appear on the Bill 1424 have taken the opportunity since the point was first raised to seek expert advice on the matter and whether they will be able to enlighten the House further before the end of this debate. I hope they may be able to do so, because the attitude of a good many hon. Members towards the Bill will be influenced by that. I hope, therefore, that in any subsequent speeches by supporters of the Bill, the matter will be treated more sympathetically than it has been treated so far. This is a matter of major importance. It is one thing to defend the rights of the public: it is quite another to enlarge the degree of privilege possessed by one sector of the public.
I believe, Mr. Speaker, that the Minister of Housing and Local Government is likely to catch your eye before long in this debate. Although it is a Private Member's Bill, since a member of the Government is to speak on it the House may not consider it inappropriate that I should say something from this Box about it as well, although, of course, I am not in a position to commit my hon. Friends or even positively to advise them on any course of action. I can only say that I think some of the views I express are not only my own views. but that they are shared by a number of my hon. Friends.
As I understand the position, the real alteration in the law which the Bill makes is to open to the Press committees to which powers are delegated. The power of exclusion under the 1908 Act is still to remain, both for the council itself and for the committees to which the Press is now to be admitted under the Bill. Substantially, the reasons for which the Press can be excluded will still be those in the 1908 Act, The fundamental alteration that the Bill makes in the law is the admission to committees with delegated powers and the admission to certain other bodies specified in the Schedule.
On the question of admission to committees to whom powers are delegated, the critical part of the Bill is Clause 2(2). I do not find it at all easy to follow and I am not sure that, if the need arose, the courts would find it easy to interpret. It is not uncommon for a committee, over the whole range of subjects with which it deals, to have delegated powers with respect to some of them but a duty 1425 to seek the approval of the council before it proceeds in others. We are told under the Bill that if a substantial part of a committee's work consists of exercising delegated powers, it is to be open for the whole of its work except in so far as it uses the deliberate right of exclusion.
It is difficult to measure and weigh up quantitatively the work of a committee in this fashion and to say of any committee whether a substantial part of its work is delegated. If we agree to give the Bill a Second Reading, it will be necessary for the promoters to look again closely at subsection (2) to see whether they can produce something that would be a little more intelligible to the layman and, one hopes, a little easier for courts to interpret than the rather vague phraseology of subsection (2) in its present form.
I have used the phrase, "if we give the Bill a Second Reading". When it was first known that the Bill was coming up and I received, as we all did, representations from many quarters and in many different senses about it. I started my consideration with a completely open mind on the matter. That, incidentally, is something that does not happen to me very often. Indeed, I came in today not fully certain which way I would finally give a verdict. I listened with great interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. Wise), who made one of the most impressive and important speeches in a debate that has been full of speeches of great merit. The hon. Member expressed doubts that had been in my own mind.
Does the Bill need so much amendment that it is not worth giving it a Second Reading? My own inclination in the end was to come down just on the other side of the balance. The Bill will need a lot of amendment, so much that one might ask the question put by the hon. Member whether it needs so much amendment that it is not worth giving it a Second Reading at all.
I thought that the Bill was just worth giving a Second Reading, but I beg those who are interested in the passage of it to realise that my doubts and the judgment passed by the hon. Member for Rugby represent a considerable body of opinion on both sides of the House. If the proposers of the Bill want it not 1426 only to go into Committee, but to come out of it, there must be a considerable degree of conciliation. They must realise also that the body of people whom the Bill will closely concern, the people who serve voluntarily and unpaid on local councils, are a body of people deserving of the highest respect of this House.
Having said that about how I will vote on the Bill, I want to develop one or two of the respects in which it is badly in need of amendment. First, however, there are one or two things on which we can agree completely. It is wholly undesirable for a council to dodge the spirit of the 1908 Act by transferring to a committee of the whole council what should properly be council business and merely dodging publicity in that manner. None of us would want to defend that procedure. I have been furnished with the names of certain councils that have been carrying on that procedure for a good many years—it is not entirely a recent development. It is solely a desire to avoid imparting political party bitterness into the debate that prevents me from quoting with some relish the names of some of those local authorities.
We should all agree that it would be wrong for a council to work on the assumption that all committee business should, by nature, be private. Nearly all of us would be prepared to say that there is a reasonable case for some committee business being heard in public. That, I suppose, creates some justification for a Bill of this kind. On the other hand—and this is where we must look particularly closely at the Bill in Committee—the Bill grants power to exclude. It ought to be clearly understood by all concerned with the Bill—the Members of this House, members of local authorities and the Press—that if the Bill becomes law, the power of exclusion from committees which it gives will be used and, indeed, ought in the public interest to be used quite frequently. It must not be supposed, once the Bill has gone through, that any council which uses the power of exclusion is operating a gag, is behaving unreasonably or has turned into a pocket Hitler. The number of occasions on which a council will, and ought to, use that power will be considerable.
I do not know that I need rehearse the number of types of business for 1427 which that power should be used, because many examples have been quoted during the debate. Matters concerning land and property contracts are an obvious example. They affect the public interest in the most tangible form. If at the appropriate stage privacy is not observed, the whole of the ratepayers' pockets may be made to suffer to the benefit primarily of private individuals.
That is an obvious case of the public interest, but I wonder how far in law the words "public interest" fully safeguard the right of the individual to privacy. I sometimes think that in the minds of some journalists there are only two words in the language; one is "public" and the other is "secret." They do not seem to have grasped that there is another very important word in the language, the word "private."
Suppose a council or a committee of the council is dealing with something affecting the future of a child. I pick that example because children's committees were specially referred to by the Minister when we dealt with this matter in Standing Committee on the Local Government Bill in 1958. He rejected Clauses giving the Press wider powers, specifically quoting the work of children's committees as a reason for privacy. Suppose the situation is, as it may well be, that if a certain item of council business becomes public no good purpose will be served, but that on the other hand the only bad purpose which will be served is that indescribable pain and distress will be caused to Mr. and Mrs. Smith. This is not a matter which will affect the whole body of the ratepayers but will cause terrible injury to two or three if there is no right to privacy. Is it assumed that the phrase "public interest" covers that kind of case? We shall want to be dead certain of that before we pass this Bill.
The right to exclude the Press simply on the ground that it is for an individual's right to privacy ought to be just as firm as the right to exclude the Press on the ground that the public might be swindled over the price of land. The same applies to the many other examples which have been quoted, disciplinary cases and so on.
1428 As I understand the matter of disciplinary cases, if it is a question of a local authority or a medical tribunal, referred to by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Rugby, they may have to decide to impose certain penalties on an officer or a doctor. They have got to ask themselves, ought the further, sometimes very terrible, penalty of publicity throughout the land be imposed on him? Sometimes the right and just answer to that question will be "No". That is why that kind of matter is one where the right of exclusion ought to be adopted.
A little more tricky, perhaps, is the question of the relation between a committee and its officers. The right hon. Gentleman in Committee on the Local Government Bill, to which I referred, said something about this on 1st April, 1958. It was an afternoon sitting of the Committee. I think the old superstition, that what one says on 1st April ought not to be taken too seriously, applies only to what is said before noon on that day. It was said in the afternoon that local government officers should be the private, impartial and fearless advisers of the council. I expect that the right hon. Gentleman is still of that view.
It does not mean that every bit of their advice has got to be given in private, but it does mean that sometimes it is very desirable that they should be able to advise the council in private. I hope that under this Bill it will be both within its letter and its spirit for a council committee to say, "There is here a special reason for exclusion, namely, that the proceedings are of such a character that it is desirable for the committee to have the private, fearless and impartial advice of its officers, and that, therefore, we exclude". If they cannot do it under the Bill as it is at present worded the Bill ought to be altered so that it is quite beyond dispute that they can do it.
It seems to me that if it is possible to amend the Bill to that extent and to that degree we may make this a useful piece of legislation, but it will require a very genuine all-round effort by all those interested in it to turn this into a good Bill, which I do not think it is at the moment. I am one of those who feel that there should be no doubt about our desire to give publicity wherever 1429 publicity is justified. For that reason I am inclined to give it a chance, but to make it into a good Bill will require a good deal of effort all round.
Let me make this final point. I think it comes down to this. If local government is to be well conducted, and central Government for that matter, some things have got to be done in public and some things have got to be done in private. I do not think anyone would dispute that. Who is to be the final arbiter of what shall be done in public arid what shall be done in private? That is the question which has got to be decided in the public interest. The people most fully entitled to decide it are, therefore, the representatives whom the public has chosen, the councillors themselves, acting within the framework of law made by us in this House, since we are the representatives whom the nation as a whole has chosen. With the very greatest respect to the whole journalistic profession, which contains very honourable and very distinguished figures, none the less they are not the people the public has chosen as its representatives.
Compare the whole body of those engaged in journalism on the one hand and the whole body of those men and women doing unpaid work on local authorities on the other. In both bodies we shall find some very fine characters, and some who are no credit to the group to which they belong. but I do not think it ought to go out from this House that by and large it has less confidence in the people who do the voluntary work of local government, without which a lot that we do in this House would be worthless, and that they are any less worthy of credit and respect and trust than the journalistic profession.
That is how this Bill seems to me at the end of the day. I have tried to make a number of suggestions how I think it could be improved. It may be that the Minister who is to follow me will be able to say what the Government's views on the matter are. Curiously enough, even on a Private Member's Bill, the views of the Government as to what ought to be done sometimes have a quite surprising connection with what is ultimately done before the Bill is finished.
§ 2.58 p.m.
§ The Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs (Mr. Henry Brooke)
No words of mine can be too high praise for the brilliance of the speech with which my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) opened the debate. She spoke with charm, as we all expected, she spoke with a fluency which most of us would envy, and she achieved the rare feat of making a Parliamentary reputation on a Friday, a reputation which I am sure she will now proceed to enhance on the earlier days of the week.
We have had the privilege of listening to other excellent maiden speeches. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. D. Smith) was one of those who could speak in the debate with first-hand local government experience, and I think that we all liked the way in which he warmed to his subject with real confidence. A few minutes ago my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Moss Side (Mr. Watts) intervened and he richly earned the tribute paid to him by the Hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart). In a short space he made an interesting and thoughtful speech and he established the point, which I think must have occurred to all of us, that today we have had a real debate in the House.
There are so many occasions when we can almost be certain beforehand of what hon. Members on both sides of the House will say. I must have shared the experience with many others today of not knowing what views would come forward from hon. Members, though I confess that I had a sneaking suspicion of what the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) would say. I do not want to pass over the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. Wise), who renewed his maidenhood so successfully today after fifteen years. He made a contribution of distinctive value and I think that it will be agreed that it has been a loss to the House that we have had to do without his services for fifteen years.
I think that it is common ground between us that the Local Authorities (Admission of the Press to Meetings) Act, 1908, is inadequate, at any rate it is not the sort of Measure we would 1431 put on the Statute Book today if the slate was clean. What my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley has done is to frame a courageous, and I would say an ingenious, Measure to replace that Act. Fortunately, there seems to be virtual unanimity in the House that councils ought to give proper facilities to the Press. I have not heard that questioned from any quarter. The dispute among us is solely about the best method of achieving that and, frankly, my concern as Minister of Housing and Local Government is to see how that area of dispute can be narrowed rather than to say anything that would be calculated to widen it.
In the main, what is achieved now in the way of good public and Press relations is achieved by common sense and good will. We do not rely on the 1908 Act. That Act is a small thing and, though this is purely hypothetical, I suggest that if the Act were to disappear overnight by magic and not be replaced, there might be a bit of backsliding by a few intransigent authorities but the vast majority would continue to go on just as they do at present. What we are all worried about is not the behaviour of the great majority of local authorities. The great majority are well-disposed to local reporters and the local Press.
We are concerned about a minority of these authorities who either through deliberate intransigence, or, as I suspect in a good many cases, through lack of imagination and understanding, and maybe from inertia fail to give the Press the consideration it deserves. One cannot rest content with the position in those areas few though they may be. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) condemned it roundly, and I noticed that he was cheered by the whole House when he did so.
Frankly, it was because we could not be content with the position in areas like that, that we put in the Conservative Manifesto at the last election the sentence:We mean to make quite sure that the Press have proper facilities for reporting the proceedings of local authorities".In that sentence we pledged ourselves to achieve a result without binding our hands to the particular method that we 1432 should employ. The pledge stands, and we intend to fulfil it.
Let me tell the House candidly that had there not come forward a Private Member's Bill on this subject, quite independently of the Government, at the beginning of this new Parliament, I was not proposing to promote Government legislation on the subject this Session. With that pledge on the record, the manifesto of a party which had been confirmed in power, my first action was going to be to see whether a code of good conduct, as hon. Members have des-described it, could be drawn up and completed which would satisfy me as Minister of Local Government, which would be strongly commended by the local authority associations to all their members—that is the individual councils—since the full backing of the associations would be a necessity, and would broadly achieve what the Press really desired. I need hardly disclose to the House that it was at the back of my mind that if practical experience frustrated my attempt to achieve what all of us want by an authoritative but a non-statutory code, I would have the power of Government legislation in reserve. So nothing would be lost, and in one way or another the pledge would be fulfilled.
I pause here to interpolate that with twenty years' personal experience of local government behind me, I have no doubt that a council which does no more than comply with the minimum obligations in an Act of Parliament, however stringent those requirements may be, will never be as much use to the Press or to the public as the many councils which care about their public relations and which seek to live up to the highest ideals of collaboration. I feel sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley realises this fact. I am sure she would not wish to do anything to imperil the goodwill which at present exists in the majority of cases, unfortunately not all, in the attempt she is making to place statutory obligations on the laggards who undoubtedly exist.
A new situation was created for the Government by the hon. Lady, having obtained a high place in the Ballot, deciding to choose this subject on which to introduce a Private Member's Bill, on which Parliament is being asked 1433 today to come to an initial decision. She was good enough to mention the assistance she had received from my Ministry. I want to tell the House that when I knew she was proposing to bring forward a Bill on this subject, and when I knew what proposals she had in mind, I offered her my assistance in finding a way through the labrynth which faces any private Member who seeks to introduce a Bill on a complex subject. However, to my hon. Friend and her supporters belongs the responsibility and the credit for what her Bill contains.
Now that the Bill is before us, I personally intend to vote for it, as I think does the hon. Member for Fulham, and I am ready to help her to improve it in Committee so as to rub away the sharp corners and to remove any causes for legitimate criticism there may be in the Bill. I am sure that if it receives a Second Reading my hon. Friend will not be so adamant as my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby feared she might be in insisting that the Bill must go through immutable. I am sure she will be ready to see whether valid points made against it in this debate can properly be met, and, like the hon. Member for Fulham, I am ready to accept that it is an open question. There are great difficulties here but I would not advise the House to reject the Bill because of the difficulties.
My hon. Friend is right in her view that the 1908 Act has defects. The big question is whether her Bill can be so shaped as to reduce to the minimum certain difficulties to which a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House have drawn attention. I will try to list those difficulties. There was the one which my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby succinctly summed up when he said that we cannot administer in a goldfish bowl. It is a false analogy between Parliament and local authorities. Parliament is a legislative body; a local authority is an executive body. A local authority must constantly be dealing with specific and detailed matters, going into them at considerable length and making sure, as far as the members can be sure, that they are reaching concrete decisions in as serious and helpful a way as possible. The results of their decisions will become immediately apparent, whereas the results of laws which we debate here 1434 may not be seen for many a long month or year.
That is the first difficulty we have to get over, and the second is one which has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House. I think it was clearly brought into the open by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield) in seconding the Motion. It would be a grievous service to local government and, I would say, not only to local government but to the public interest as well, if local government officers were hindered from giving their dispassionate and objective advice to councillors and aldermen through the risk of their words thereupon becoming matters of public controversy.
We are always scrupulous in protecting civil servants against this. I have never known any hon. Member who has sought in this House to publicise the view of an individual civil servant. That proves that we recognise the value of the rule. We must equally respect the value of a similar rule in the local government sphere. I am bound to say that however great the virtues of publicity, I am quite sure the general level of the results of local government work would fall if able local government officers felt themselves awkwardly impeded from expressing their views and giving their advice with absolute frankness, as at present, in my experience, they are accustomed to do.
§ Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)
The right hon. Gentleman will realise that the difference between civil servants and local government officers is that we do not usually hear what civil servants have to say, whereas under the provisions of this Bill the Press may report a good deal of what local government officers may say.
§ Mr. Brooke
I certainly appreciate that difference. I also appreciate how awkward it would be for me if the House of Commons knew all the advice given to me by my civil servants. It might he even more awkward for the civil servants.
The third difficulty which we must try to overcome in any reshaping of the Bill is the danger that it might encourage councillors and aldermen to play to the gallery. May I illustrate this in the 1435 simplest way by saying that I have already heard of one Conservative councillor, who shall be nameless, who has expressed the view that if this Bill gets on to the Statute Book, he will withdraw from local government service. He considers that he has to waste so much time listening to his opponents in open council meetings making turgid speeches which he considers do not deal with the merits of the case, but are addressed simply to the Press and the political atmosphere outside, that if it is necessary to go through all that again in committee somebody, else can do the work. He thinks that at that stage the "doers" had better retire from local government and leave it to the "talkers."
I am sure those hon. Members are right who have detected, as a defect in this Bill, that it mentions only the Press. Had the Government been bringing forward a Bill on this topic, they would never have sought to legislate for the Press differently from the public. I have no idea whether this Bill can be so amended. But I have been invited to express the view of the Government which is most strongly that if facilities are given to the Press, comparable facilities should be given to the general public.
I intend to vote for the Bill because though it is not exactly the method I should have chosen, it is a genuine and sincere endeavour to remedy a situation which is at present unsatisfactory. No one can foretell what will happen when the House divides this afternoon, it being a Friday when the Whips are off, and particularly as the views expressed during the debate have markedly cut across party lines. I think the reason why views have cut across party lines is that we have not been arguing about the purpose but about the instrument and the method.
If the Bill is given a Second Reading I shall try to help my hon. Friend to improve it. It may need a considerable amount of improvement; I do not know. I hope that local authority associations will approach it in the same spirit. If the Bill fails to get a Second Reading, the heavens will not fall. I shall take up afresh with the local authority associations the completion of a code of good conduct, trying thereby to secure a major advance on behalf of the Press and the 1436 public, and to see if we can reduce almost to vanishing point the obstruction which, I am sorry to say, a minority of local authorities place in the way of proper publicity.
I hope that my hon. Friend will not think me disloyal to her purpose—which is my purpose—if, in any case, I pursue further the idea of a code of good conduct. I believe very strongly that whatever legislation we may put upon the Statute Book in this Session or another we need not only to lay dawn a statutory minimum but to give positive encouragement to all councils to raise the standards of their relations with the Press and the public to the highest pitch.
§ 3.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Victor Yates (Birmingham, Lady-wood)
I am sure we have all been very much impressed with the Minister's statement. It gives us satisfaction to know that the Government think in terms of the public as well as the Press. My hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) said that hon. Members would be influenced in their decision on the matter if the public were included in the provisions of the Bill. I am sure that the Minister would agree that among the matters discussed by local government committees there are many in respect of which, if the public were admitted as well as the Press, proceedings would be almost farcical, and certainly be extremely difficult.
Never in the past thirty years has the Birmingham Corporation excluded the Press from its deliberations. It has even allowed it to be present at meetings of its education committee and watch committee, although I heard the suggestion made earlier that watch committees should not be included in the provisions of the Bill. Even in the case of the Birmingham watch committee, however, experience has shown that most of the business has been done through the judicial sub-committee, whose deliberations have not been open to the public or the Press. The fear of the Birmingham Corporation is that if the Press are to be admitted to the meetings of all council committees and sub-committees it will be difficult for the Corporation to carry on its business efficiency, economically and satisfactorily.
The Birmingham Corporation general purposes committee, formed from both 1437 political parties, is unanimous in viewing with dismay the prospect of the Bill becoming law. Its members, who have a good deal of experience of local government, are unanimously agreed that grave difficulties would be met with in conducting the corporation's business, and that it would be against the interests of the persons whom members represent. I had the opportunity, with other hon. Members—
§ Mr. Gurden
It was in my presence and in the presence of the hon. Gentleman that the leader of the opposition on the Birmingham City Council said that he supported the Bill's principles.
§ Mr. Yates
That is not my impression My impression is that Alderman Pritchett, the leader of the Conservative Party in the council, made it perfectly clear in an interview in the Council House that the Press were to be admitted to all committees of the council. If agendas are to be circulated in advance, it will be almost like a judicial case being made public before coming before the proper judicial authorities.
§ Major Sir Frank Markham (Buckingham)
The hon. Gentleman said that all the parties in the Birmingham City Council were supporting the Bill, even with the Press attending some committees. I suggest that that statement is completely wrong.
§ Mr. Yates
No, that was not what I said. I quote from the letter from the acting deputy town clerk of Birmingham in which he said:The General Purposes Committee of the City Council decided that such an Amendment"—that is, the Bill—would be detrimental to local government in Birmingham and this decision received the support of both the political parties on the Council.
Major W. Hicks Beach (Cheltenham)
I understand that that minute was passed before the Bill was actually published. Is it the custom of Birmingham city councillors to make up their minds on a Bill before it is published?
§ Mr. Yates
I must be allowed to answer in my own way. The council had before it a suggestion that there was to be a Press Bill. It was perfectly clear that that Bill had been announced and that it had been drawn up. It was known that the Bill was on the lines of an Amendment which was moved in the Standing Committee—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."]—and now we find that that is the position and—
§ Several Hon. Members rose—
§ Mr. T. L. Iremonger (Ilford, North)
I was a Member of that Standing Committee and I spoke to an Amendment, to the Local Government Bill as it then was, to allow the Press to be admitted to all committees of a council at which members of the council had the right to be present. No wonder the Birmingham City Council took that view, but that Amendment is quite different from the point made in the Bill.
§ Mr. Yates
It did. [Laughter.] It is made perfectly clear that the Press is to be admitted to meetings which include committee meetings. The Bill says that the Press is to be admitted to all meetings of the council. The hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) distinguished between committees which have to recommend to a council and those which do not have to recommend and said that in all cases where committees had delegated powers the Press should be present at committee meetings. 1439 Furthermore, agendas of those committees are to be circulated to the Press in advance, and the Bill goes so far as to say that there shall be notices and that people who request the agendas are to pay the postage and so on. Surely, that is clearly in the Bill.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Gurden) knows perfectly well that we have before us on the Birmingham Corporation a considerable number of items on agendas. I wish to ask the Minister who is to be responsible for deciding which agenda should be sent out and which should not, or which items on the agenda should be excluded from the notice of the Press. Is it to be the town clerk? In the case of Birmingham, there are hundreds of occasions when there is a long agenda, when it would be well-nigh impossible for any official to go through it for this purpose. Which official should it be—the town clerk or one of his officers—who is to go through the agenda to decide which items should be made public and which should not?
As a democrat, I entirely agree that the Press should be permitted to attend the meetings of the city council and of the education committee. I think there are many public bodies which do not admit the Press which should do so, but when we come to the management of the day-to-day business of a council in private committee it would not be in the public interest for the Press and the public to be admitted to those meetings.
To hear some hon. Members opposite who are so much in favour of the Press, one would wonder why on earth they were not asking for the Press to be admitted to the meetings of boards of directors who are spending millions of pounds—money which they very often get from the public in prices. There is no suggestion that such private boards of directors should be subject to criticism in the same way, or any suggestion that the Press should he admitted to the meeting of any board of directors supporting the idea of a big strike involving thousands of people being out of work.
Therefore, unless it can be made perfectly plain that these officials will be free to express themselves—and we have had occasions when officials in Birmingham have made recommendations which 1440 a committee has not accepted—it would be very unfortunate if the names of our public servants were to be bandied about to the public when decisions have been taken in committee contrary to their advice. In regard to the Civil Service, we never mention in our reports in this House, even in reports of Select Committees, statements made by civil servants, except that when we consider such reports they are published at the end. Even then, no person in this House is allowed to criticise a civil servant. That is quite out of order, and has been ruled to be so on more than one occasion.
In the case of Birmingham, it will be practically impossible for these officials to carry on their work efficiently if the agendas for meetings, not only of committees but even of sub-committees, are to be sent to the Press. If the meetings of the judicial sub-committee of the watch committee of the Birmingham Corporation, which at present meets in private, are to be open to the Press—and according to this Bill, they will be, unless it is ruled otherwise—it will create an almost impossible situation. We shall drive our local government into a most unfortunate position.
For that reason, although I am all for democracy and all for the Press, I shall find it very difficult to support the Second Reading of this Bill.
§ Mr. Iremonger rose—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Gordon Touche)
The hon. Member for Ilford (Mr. Iremonger) must resume his seat unless the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. V. Yates) gives way.
§ Mr. Yates
I have almost concluded what I wanted to say. I have since confirmed that officials in Birmingham are of the same opinion after the Bill has been published, so much so that they wish for a further meeting with the Members of Parliament for the city. The general purposes committee believes that officials could not advise committees freely if the Bill is accepted in its present form. It is true that confidential subjects can still be discussed in camera, but it will be extremely difficult if there must be a resolution, which will be debatable, that the Press shall not be admitted. That will not happen just once, but hundreds of times. 1441 It will be well nigh impossible for local government to be carried on in a real democratic spirit and satisfactorily.
For that reason, I feel that the Minister's approach is a satisfactory one. I agree with his suggestion that we should have a code of conduct. His actions have been very satisfactory in calling attention to councils which have not carried out what he considers to be a satisfactory code of conduct. He is on the right lines. I support him in the view that he has taken about bringing this matter forward so that we can have a code of conduct. but I doubt very mach whether we should go to all the trouble of arguing in Committee for weeks on matters which could be resolved by proper consideration between the right hon. Gentleman's Department and local government bodies.
§ 3.32 p.m.
§ Mr. W. F. Deedes (Ashford)
On behalf of the sponsors of the Bill I find myself, rather earlier than I had expected, in a position to answer some of the points which have been made. I wish to express my regrets to those hon. Members on both sides who I know had hoped to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and to take part in the debate. Whatever the result at 4 o'clock, I think that it will be agreed emphatically that the House of Commons has not wasted its time today. For this debate of exceptional interest on a Friday we are all indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) for her courage in laying hands on such a Bill, I believe within a week of entering the House, and for the manner in which she presented it today.
I must at once declare an interest as one associated with a newspaper, but I feel that I have a much wider interest, shared with most hon. Members, in that I am also a ratepayer. I do not think that the Bill should be regarded as one or two speakers have tended to regard it namely, as a challenge by the Press to local authorities or as a contest between the local Press or the national Press and local government. It is not even, with respect to the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr M. Stewart), a case of comparing the respective qualities of journalists and the many excellent men and women who serve in local government. I find such a comparison too difficult to make.
1442 Fundamentally this is for the protection of the ratepayer, not for the advancement of the Press. As my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley said, we are discussing a code of practice to safeguard the rights of the public. A leading article in The Times a day or so ago put it in this way:The purpose and the consequences of the Bill would be to enable the general public to inform themselves, through their local newspapers, of what their representatives are doing or are intending to do with the powers and moneys entrusted to them".That objective must meet with the general support of nearly every hon. Member.
I will deal at once with the most important point raised by the hon. Member for Fulham and which I think most hon. Members regard as fundamental to the Bill, namely, whether it may be found possible to include the public as well as the Press within its provisions. It is the intention of the sponsors to seek this inclusion during the Committee stage if it is possible. I am advised that whether it can be done must rest with the Chairman of that Committee, who must decide if such an addition comes within the scope of the Bill.
I hope that hon. Members will agree that it would not have been proper for me to have inquired whether advice, and, if so, what advice, may be tendered to the Chairman in these circumstances. I therefore did not feel it proper for me to take advice on the matter in time for me to mention it in this reply—
§ Mr. Reynolds
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would go a little further by telling the House why it would not be proper to seek this advice and make it public beforehand, because this Bill obviously makes it possible for the advice of local authority officials to be made public?
§ Mr. Deedes
The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) has a good point there, but the fact remains that it is the practice in this House not to seek the advice of the Officers of the House on matters that are hypothetical before a Committee meets. However, even if the supporters of the Bill fail in Standing Committee to secure what they feel to be an essential purpose of the Bill, they will have an opportunity to resume their efforts during the later stages. 1443 As my right hon. Friend has reminded the House, the purpose of the promoters of the Bill has been to fulfil a pledge, widely approved by the public and accepted by a great majority of public authorities; to fulfil it fairly, and in a manner that will not, as some hon. Members, and as some local government officials fear, make local government administration unworkable. Nor is the purpose further to bedevil relations between the Press and local authorities; nor is it to increase the burden on already overworked local government officials.
The job has been to strike a balance. Most of us will accept that, at present, the balance between privacy and publicity in local government affairs is not in all places where we should like to see it. Like all other hon. Members, I get my share of letters on local government affairs, but until quite recently I have received very few letters from the Press asking that its members should have more access to these affairs. On the other hand, I get a good many letters from ratepayers complaining of decisions affecting, as they think, their very close interests, and taken irremediably without their foreknowledge. I am sure that other hon. Members must have received varied complaints on that same subject.
I stress, therefore, that we are here not considering the freedom of the rights of the Press but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield) put it, the Press as a channel between the elected representatives and the electors. That is the real issue, and that is what the Bill is designed to secure.
That does not mean that I am in the least unsympathetic with a number of the points made by the hon. Member for Islington, North in moving his Amendment, or with the fears that he expressed. I thought that his strongest point was that people might be afraid to give details of their personal circumstances, and other private details of that kind in public. This fear was echoed by his hon. Friend the Member for Fulham who asked: are the private affairs of Mr. and Mrs. Smith a subject of public interest within the terms of Clause 1 (2)? That point will need most careful thought, and I am sure that supporters of the Bill will agree with me when I 1444 say that it will receive that careful thought.
One or two further matters mentioned by the hon. Member for Islington, North were rather less convincing. He said that he had information that local authorities were already seeking a way round the provisions of the Bill. I would not for a moment question his information, but I think that that is rather less fair than he intended to the great majority of local authorities which, I think, will be prepared to give this Measure, if it reaches the Statute Book, a fair wind and a good run. I must confess that I do not like the implication that in some way we are tempting local authorities to find ways round the provisions of the Bill.
The second thing that I would say is that so many of the points he made, and very cogently, were well answered by the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle), who I thought made a most remarkable speech. She answered a good many of the fears not only of the opponents of the Bill but of some of its supporters. As she said, we are not so much inventing a new code as seeking to make more general the best code which the great majority of local authorities pursue, and to eliminate the worst.
The hon. Member for Islington, North admitted that there were certain undesirable practices, and he quoted in particular the general purposes committee which sits in private, discusses the whole business and then goes to the council for what I take to be no more than the rubber stamp, which he rightly described as an obnoxious practice. That is a view which is shared not only be everyone in this House but by everyone in local government. Those are the practices to which I imagine the hon. Lady was alluding.
The hon. Lady also dealt with the suggestion that in privacy we might reduce the amount of party politics in local Government. The public, as she said, are entitled to know how their elected representatives have voted on any issue. The suggestion that they may vote one way in private and another way in public is surely most alarming. We may vote in this House one way on Friday and another way on another day, but the proceedings on both days are public and there is, therefore, no concealment. 1445 I do not dismiss as negligible the point that the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) made on the subject of privilege. I think it is a difficult point. But I would say that such doubts, even added to the others which have been raised, do not equal the virtue of decisions affecting the lives and wellbeing of our citizens being reached as openly as possible. This is matter of balance, and provided that in Committee we can meet such points as that—
§ Mr. Pannell
I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but I should like to make it plain that I was considering the point of principle that there should be equity as between the public and the Press. That is why we suggest they should be allowed in to these meetings as well. What I am questioning is this. Is it not a fact that under this Bill a statement made by a councillor in an open committee could be slanderous and actionable, whereas the Press man reporting such a statement would be let off?
§ Mr. Deedes
That is not as I understand the provisions of the Bill. This is precisely the kind of thing which must be hammered out when the Bill goes to Committee.
May I touch on other fears which have been expressed? There has been the suggestion—and again I think this needs careful thought—that in throwing open the doors we render confidential discussions with permanent officials impossible and put the permanent officials in an impossible situation. I think the permanent officials in local government must certainly be safeguarded, just as this House safeguards the interests of civil servants. To meet this, some degree of discretion is left with local authorities under Clause 1 (2) and I would say that it is a degree of discretion which some supporters of the Bill think sufficient to negative the main effect of the Bill.
I am unlike the hon. Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. D. Smith) who, in an admirable maiden speech, said that he regretted the omission of a penalty Clause. I disagree. The essence of this Bill, which is to reach an agreed modus vivendi between local authorities and the Press, if it included a penalty Clause, would probably lose the whole purpose and drive of the exercise.
1446 I fully accept the point made by the hon. Member for Fulham that there are occasions when the letter and the spirit of this Bill will have to be invoked, and those occasions may not be infrequent. Further, when they are invoked the cry of "gag" ought not automatically to be raised against the council which is invoking them. This is a matter on which we shall have to watch very carefully the relationships between the Press and the local authorities.
I would concede at once that while there is no penalty Clause in this Bill, a local authority which, in the opinion of the local Press, offends against the spirit of the Bill, may be subject to criticism in the local Press and it may be suggested to the electorate that that local council is applying a gag to free discussion and free reporting. I accept that that possibility may arise and may lead to invidious distinctions between one local authority and another. That is a point which both supporters and opponents of the Bill will no doubt have in mind.
There is some fear that planning decisions, which must often be of a confidential nature, will be made more difficult. I would have said from my experience that the danger in most planning decisions taken in this country is not that too many know too much too soon, but that, occasionally, too few learn too much too soon and are themselves in a position to profit by it. That arises more often than some of us would like to think it does. That is undoubtedly a point which will be met by the provisions of the Bill.
I should like to say a word or two on what, I believe, the Bill will do not only for the ratepayers and the public but for local government itself. I support the Bill in the belief that, on balance, its provisions are for the good health of local government. Every hon. Member has his local Press, and it should not need me to point out the service which most local newspapers render to local government in their areas. They, in fact, give far more space to local government proceedings than some sections of the national Press give to proceedings in this House.
The charge of frivolity was, I think, made by one hon. Member. My experience of local newspapers is that the 1447 number of times that a charge of frivolity in the reporting of local affairs can be made against them is astonishingly few. I would have thought that some of the accounts, with which we are all familiar, in many local newspapers might be described by many adjectives but not as frivolous. Most reporting is fair and informative and, in my experience, the local reporter gives to the council the same principle of equity which he is compelled, by training, to give to proceedings in a police court. When he reports cases of law he has to give both sides an equal share. I think that is very often—hon. Members will be able to quote exceptions—the general run of local newspaper reporting.
Of course, there is sometimes premature disclosure in the local Press. It happens whether proceedings are open or not, but I think that it must be accepted that news to a journalist is something that someone does not want published. At least that situation would not arise if the Press were invited to attend proceedings of the local government committees. What matters is whether, on balance, the treatment of the local Press is for the good or ill of local government. I think that it is overwhelmingly good.
Local representatives in local government—150,000 was, I think, the figure which was mentioned—like to receive attention and publicity. Why not? Hon. Members of this House like to receive publicity for what they say here and elsewhere. Why should we suppose that local government representatives are any different in any human respect from ourselves? The majority of them are very glad to have the speeches they make and the actions they take put before the local ratepayers. I must add that I think there is some difference of view on this—and I respect it—between the permanent official and the elected representative. I hold the highest opinion of the permanent officials in local government, and by far the best testimony to them is what the rest of the world thinks about them —the rest of the world is very envious of the standard of the men we have at every level, from the rural district council upwards.
What I now say is not intended in any derogation, but, on balance, I think that 1448 we must recognise that at every level of government, not only local government, there is a natural and understandable inclination on the part of the permanent officials to prefer privacy, while the elected representative will mind less. On balance, the elected representative prefers his speeches and actions to be reported whereas the permanent officials, for excellent reasons, will very often counsel caution in relation to publicity. Where the influence of the permanent official increases, that trend towards privacy—I do not say secrecy—will increase.
In sum, I believe that the danger that local government will be exposed is very much less than the danger that local government will be ignored. We need merely to look at the figures of voting and the results in some of our local elections to realise that today local government does not everywhere attract the public interest that it should. If we are to bring home to the public the value of local government and of the work of those who serve for nothing in local government, and the debt which they owe on that account, then I cannot help thinking that, subject to the precautions we must take at a later stage of the Bill, the more open are council proceedings and the more access the public are given to them and the decisions taken, the better will be the health of local government and the better, in the long run, will it be for all who serve in local government. That is why I support the Bill and why I believe that the Bill should have the backing of every hon. Member who has the health of local government at heart.
§ 3.51 p.m.
§ Mrs. Joyce Butler (Wood Green)
I support the Bill because I think its provisions will be very good for local government. I entirely agree with what the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) said about the need to publicise what local authorities are doing. Because I agree with what has been said by many hon. Members about the excellent work which local authorities of all kinds are doing, I wish to see that work more widely known. 1449 I do not believe there is really any ground for the fears and doubts which have been expressed today. I base my view on experience in the Borough of Wood Green. In Wood Green, which admittedly is a comparatively small authority, following a resolution which I moved in the council almost exactly ten years ago, we have admitted the Press to our committee meetings. We have found very little difficulty with the problems raised today because, immediately after we decided to admit the Press, we had a conference with representatives of the local Press to discuss the matter with them. We agreed with them that certain subjects which it would not be proper for the Press to publish should appear in the second part of the agenda for committees.
I am not convinced that the Bill will in any way prevent local authorities doing exactly that. I cannot understand why the many hon. Members who have today praised the idea of agreement in local government and urged the need for agreed decisions should, apparently, be unable to visualise agreement between local authorities and the local Press about matters which it is proper to exclude from the Press. I believe that it can be done and it would be a very good thing if, following the passing of the Bill with any necessary Amendments, such arrangements were made all over the country. It would be for the benefit of both local authorities and Press to have discussions together so that each side might appreciate the difficulties of the other.
In Wood Green we have really had no difficulties in the past ten years. There was provision made for frequent consultations with the Press, but such consultation has not been necessary because the system has worked very well. There must be safeguards and certain matters must be taken in private, but, in general, there is very little difficulty
§ about agreeing what are those matters. Hon. Members this afternoon have been unanimous about what are those matters and I think it is public knowledge that we must keep such matters private and that the Press should, rightly, be excluded.
§ It is because I think that what the Bill seeks to do is not only good but workable that I do not think it needs very much amendment. As other hon. Members have said, whatever Bill we pass, the final result will depend on councils and the Press putting into operation the spirit behind the Bill. It will depend on local councillors, many of whom have got into a rut with their public relations and with the way they do their business, trying to see how far they can open their proceedings to the Press as the best channel of communication to the public. It will also depend on the Press exercising the necessary restraint.
§ I therefore hope that hon. Members, whatever doubts they may have about the Bill and whatever difficulties they may see in Committee, will nevertheless recognise that the principle behind it is in the interests of councils, Press and public and of our democracy which is at the root of our whole discussion today. I hope that hon. Members will give the Bill a Second Reading so that, in Committee, the difficulties may be ironed out and that we may inject a new lease of life into many authorities which are in danger of becoming rather stagnant and content with things as they are and not matching up to the needs of the modern age.
§ Question put, That the Question be now put:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 155, Noes 12.1451
|Division No. 34.]||AYES||[3.58 p.m.|
|Agnew, Sir Peter||Bourne-Arton, A.||Cleaver, Leonard|
|Aitken, W. T.||Bowden, Herbert W. (Leics, S.W.)||Collard, Richard|
|Allason, James||Bowen, Roderic (Cardigan)||Cooper-Key, Sir Edmund|
|Ashton, Sir Hubert||Boyd-Carpenter, Rt. Hon. John||Corfield, F. V.|
|Atkins, Humphrey||Braine, Bernard||Costain, A. P.|
|Baird, John||Brooke, Rt. Hon. Henry||Courtney, Cdr. Anthony|
|Barber, Anthony||Burden, F. A.||Critchley, Julian|
|Batsford, Brian||Butler, Mrs. Joyce (Wood Green)||Crowder, F. P.|
|Baxter, Sir Beverley (Southgate)||Butler, Rt.Hn.R.A.(Saffron Walden)||Curran, Charles|
|Bell, Philip (Bolton, E.)||Carr, Compton (Barons Court)||Deedes, W. F.|
|Bell, Ronald (S. Bucks.)||Carr, Robert (Mitcham)||Doughty, Charles|
|Bishop, F. P.||Castle, Mrs. Barbara||Drayson, G. B.|
|Blackburn, F.||Channon, H. P. G.||Ede, Rt. Hon. Chuter|
|Bossom, Clive||Chataway, Christopher||Edelman, Maurice|
|Eden, John||James, David||Rees-Davies, W. R.|
|Emery, Peter||Janner, Barnett||Renton, David|
|Erroll, F. J.||Johnson, Dr. Donald (Carlisle)||Ridley, Hon. Nicholas|
|Farey-Jones, F. W.||Johnson, Eric (Blackley)||Ridsdale, Julian|
|Finlay, Graeme||Johnson Smith, Geoffrey||Robinson, Sir Roland (Blackpool, S.)|
|Fraser, Hn. Hugh (Stafford & Stone)||Joseph, Sir Keith||Roots, William|
|Fraser, Ian (Plymouth, Sutton)||Kenyon, Clifford||Boyle, Anthony (Richmond, Surrey)|
|Gammans, Lady||Lagden, Godfrey||Russell, Ronald|
|Gardner, Edward||Langford-Holt, J.||Seymour, Leslie|
|Glover, Sir Douglas||Lever, L. M. (Ardwick)||Simon, Sir Jocelyn|
|Glyn, Col. Richard H. (Dorset, N.)||Lindsay, Martin||Skeet, T. H. H.|
|Goodhart, Philip||Lipton, Marcus||Smith, Dudley (Br'ntf'd & Chiswick)|
|Grant-Ferris, Wg Cdr. R. (Nantwich)||Litchfield, Capt. John||Smyth, Brig. Sir John (Norwood)|
|Grimston, Sir Robert||Longden, Gilbert||Speir, Rupert|
|Harris, Frederic (Croydon, N.W.)||Loveys, Walter H.||Stewart, Michael (Fulham)|
|Harris, Reader (Heston)||Lucas-Tooth, Sir Hugh||Stonehouse, John|
|Harrison, Col. J. H. (Eye)||McLaren, Martin||Storey, Sir Samuel|
|Harvey, John (Waithamstow, E.)||Macmillan, Maurice (Halifax)||Studholme, Sir Henry|
|Heald, Rt. Hon. Sir Llonel||Macpherson, Niall (Dumfries)||Talbot, John E.|
|Heath, Rt. Hon. Edward||Manningham-Buller, Rt. Hn. Sir R.||Taylor, Sir Charles (Eastbourne)|
|Hendry, A. Forbes||Manuel, A. C.||Teeling, William|
|Hicks Beach, Maj. W.||Markham, Major Sir Frank||Temple, John M.|
|Hiley, Joseph||Matthews, Gordon (Meriden)||Thatcher, Mrs. Margaret|
|Hill, J. E. B.(S. Norfolk)||Maydon, Lt.-Cmdr. S. L. C.||Thomson, G. M. (Dundee, E.)|
|Hinchingbrooke, Viscount||Mitchison, G. R.||Thorneycroft, Rt. Hon. Peter|
|Hobson, John||Moore, Sir Thomas||Thorpe, Jeremy|
|Hooking, Philip N.||Mott-Radclyffe, Sir Charles||Turner, Colin|
|Holland, Philip||Orr-Ewing, C. Ian||Wakefield, Sir Wavell (St. M'lebone)|
|Hollingworth, John||Page, Graham||Warbey, William|
|Holt, Arthur||Pannell, Norman (Kirkdale)||Watts, James|
|Hopkins, Alan||Partridge, E.||Webster, David|
|Hornby, R. P.||Peel, John||Wise, Alfred|
|Hornsby-Smith, Rt. Hon. Patricia||Pickthorn, Sir Kenneth||Woodnutt, Mark|
|Howard, John (Southampton, Test)||Pitman, I. J.||Yates, William (The Wrekin)|
|Hughes, Emrys (S. Ayrshire)||Pitt, Miss Edith||Zilliacus, K.|
|Hughes Hallett, Vice-Admiral John||Price, H. A. (Lewisham, W.)|
|Hughes-Young, Michael||Proctor, W. T.||TELLERS FOR THE AYES|
|Hunter, A. E.||Proudfoot, Wilfred||Mr. Kirk and Mr. Gurden.|
|Iremonger, T. L.||Redmayne, Rt. Hon. Martin|
|Corbet, Mrs. Freda||Hynd, H. (Accrington)||Summerskill, Dr. Rt. Hon. Edith|
|Craddock, George (Bradford, S.)||Jones, Dan (Burnley)||Wheeldon, W. E.|
|Edwards, Walter (Stepney)||Key, Rt. Hon. C. W.|
|Goodhew, Victor||Pannell, Charles (Leeds, W.)||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:|
|Henderson,Rt.Hn.Arthur(RwlyRegls)||Popplewell, Ernest||Mr. Pargiter and Mr. Parker.|
§ Question put accordingly, That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 152, Noes 39.1453
|Division No. 35.]||AYES||[4.7 p.m.|
|Agnew, Sir Peter||Cleaver, Leonard||Harvey, John (Walthamstow, E.)|
|Aitken, W. T.||Collard, Richard||Heald, Rt. Hon. Sir Lionel|
|Allason, James||Cooper-Key, Sir Edmund||Heath, Rt. Hon. Edward|
|Ashton, Sir Hubert||Corfield, F. V.||Hendry, A. Forbes|
|Atkins, Humphrey||Costain A. P.||Hicks Beach, Maj. W.|
|Baird, John||Courtney, Cdr. Anthony||Hiley, Joseph|
|Barber, Anthony||Critchley, Julian||Hill, J. E. B. (S. Norfolk)|
|Batsford, Brian||Crowder, F. P.||Hinchingbrooke, Viscount|
|Baxter, Sir Beverley (Southgate)||Curran, Charles||Hobson, John|
|Bell, Philip (Bolton E.)||Deedes, W. F.||Hocking, Philip N.|
|Bell, Ronald (S. Bucks.)||Doughty, Charles||Holland, Philip|
|Bishop, F. P.||Drayson, G. B.||Hollingworth, John|
|Blackburn, F.||Edelman, Maurice||Holt, Arthur|
|Bossom, Clive||Eden, John||Hopkins, Alan|
|Bourne-Arton, A.||Emery, Peter||Hornsby-Smith, Rt. Hon. Patricia|
|Bowden, Herbert W.(Leics. S.W.)||Erroll, F. J.||Howard, John (Southampton, Test)|
|Bowen, Roderic (Cardigan)||Finlay, Graeme||Hughes, Emrys (S. Ayrshire)|
|Boyd-Carpenter, Rt. Hon. John||Fraser, Hn. Hugh (Stafford & Stone)||Hughes Hallett, Vice-Admiral John|
|Braine, Bernard||Fraser, Ian (Plymouth, Sutton)||Hughes-Young, Michael|
|Brooke, Rt. Hon. Henry||Gammans, Lady||Hunter, A. E.|
|Burden, F. A.||Gardner, Edward||Iremonger, T. L.|
|Butler, Mrs. Joyce (Wood Green)||Glover, Sir Douglas||James, David|
|Butler,Rt.Hn.R.A.(SaffronWalden)||Glyn, Col. Richard H. (Dorset, N.)||Janner, Barnett|
|Carr, Compton (Barons Court)||Goodhart, Philip||Johnson, Dr. Donald (Carlisle)|
|Carr, Robert (Mitcham)||Grant-Ferris, Wg Cdr. R. (Nantwich)||Johnson, Eric (Blackley)|
|Castle, Mrs. Barbara||Grimston, Sir Robert||Johnson Smith, Geoffrey|
|Channon, H. P. G.||Harris, Frederic (Croydon, N.W.)||Joseph, Sir Keith|
|Chataway, Christopher||Harris, Reader (Heston)||Kenyon, Clifford|
|Chetwynd, George||Harrison, Col. J. H. (Eye)||Lagden, Godfrey|
|Langford-Holt, J.||Pickthorn, Sir Kenneth||Storey, Sir Samuel|
|Lever, L. M. (Ardwick)||Pitman, I. J.||Studholme, Sir Henry|
|Lindsay, Martin||Pitt, Miss Edith||Talbot, John E.|
|Lipton, Marcus||Price, H. A. (Lewisham, W.)||Taylor, Sir Charles (Eastbourne)|
|Litchfield, Capt. John||Proctor, W. T.||Teeling, William|
|Loveys, Walter H.||Proudfoot, Wilfred||Temple, John M.|
|Lucas-Tooth, Sir Hugh||Redmayne, Rt. Hon. Martin||Thatcher, Mrs. Margaret|
|McLaren, Martin||Rees-Davies, W. R.||Thomson, G. M. (Dundee, E.)|
|Macmillan, Maurice (Halifax)||Renton, David||Thorneycroft, Rt. Hon. Peter|
|Macpherson, Niall (Dumfries)||Ridley, Hon. Nicholas||Thorpe, Jeremy|
|Manningham-Buller, Rt. Hn. Sir R.||Ridsdale, Julian||Turner, Colin|
|Manuel, A. C.||Robinson, Sir Roland (Blackpool, S.)||Wakefield, Sir Wavell (St. M'lebone)|
|Markham, Major Sir Frank||Roots, William||Warbey, William|
|Matthews, Gordon (Meriden)||Royle, Anthony (Richmond, Surrey)||Watts, James|
|Maydon, Lt.-Cmdr. S. L. C.||Russell, Ronald||Webster, David|
|Mitchison, G. R.||Seymour, Leslie||Williams, W. R. (Openshaw)|
|Moore, Sir Thomas||Simon, Sir Jocelyn||Woodnutt, Mark|
|Mott-Radclyffe, Sir Charles||Skeet, T. H. H.||Yates, William (The Wrekin)|
|Orr-Ewing, C. Ian||Smith, Dudley (Br'ntf'd & Chiswick)||Zilliacus, K.|
|Page, Graham||Smyth, Brig. Sir John (Norwood)|
|Pannell, Norman (Kirkdale)||Speir, Rupert||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Partridge, E.||Stewart, Michael (Fulham)||Mr. Kirk and Mr. Garden.|
|Peel, John||Stonehouse, John|
|Butler, Herbert (Hackney, C.)||Hynd, John (Attercliffe)||Prentice, R. E.|
|Cliffs, Michael||Irving, Sydney (Dartford)||Redhead, E. C.|
|Corbet, Mrs. Freda||Jeger, George||Reynolds, G. W.|
|Craddock, George (Bradford, S.)||Jones, Dan (Burnley)||Skeffington, Arthur|
|Deer, George||Key, Rt. Hon. C. W.||Summerskill, Dr. Rt. Hon. Edith|
|Ede, Rt. Hon. Chuter||Lewis, Arthur (West Ham, N.)||Wheeldon, W. E.|
|Edwards, Walter (Stepney)||MacColl, James||White, Mrs. Eirene|
|Ginsburg, David||McLeavy, Frank||Whitlock, William|
|Goodhew, Victor||Marsh, Richard||Wilkins, W. A.|
|Hall, Rt. Hn. Glenvil (Colne Valley)||Mellish, R. J.||Wise, Alfred|
|Henderson,Rt.Hn.Arthur(Rwly Regis)||Pannell, Charles (Leeds, W.)||Yates, Victor (Ladywood)|
|Holman, Percy||Pargiter, G. A.|
|Houghton, Douglas||Parker, John (Dagenham)||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:|
|Hynd, H. (Accrington)||Popplewell, Errest||Mr. A. Evans and Mr. A. Brown.|
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No.38 (Committal of Bills).