HC I 2R [Public Bodies (Admission of the Press to Meetings) Bill]
|Document kind:||House of Commons Intervention|
|Venue:||House of Commons|
|Source:||Hansard HC [616/1378-86]|
|Editorial comments:||MT intervened at c1382 between 1225 and 1246 (Arthur Skeffington speaking).|
|Themes:||Local government, Media|
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 1379annual delegate conference, at which representatives of all organisations in the town can put questions and take part in various gathering—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 writ1380ten to hon. Member 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. C. Pannell
Why not say so at the time?
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 1381Public) 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
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.
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 1382have 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 application. 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 1383about 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 provision 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 muchdubllip; 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 Committe 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. C. Pannell
Or Select Committees.
These seem to me——1385
Or the Press Council.
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 &hellip"
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 1386on 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.