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 [616/1406-13]|
|Editorial comments:||MT intervened at c1412 between 1345 and 1405 (A.R. Wise speaking).|
|Themes:||Local government, Media|
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 1407said 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 can not 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.
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, 1409those 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 sub-committees 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 be 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. W. E. Wheeldon (Birmingham, Small Heath)
Mr. L. M. Lever
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 1410Blackburn 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——
No, he has not.
The hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl ) said that we have not that right, but all I have to do is to "spy strangers"——
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.
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 1411underrate 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 1412Council 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——
On what authority does my hon. Friend make that statement?
I have been listening to most of the speeches in favour of the Bill. Every suggestion has been refuted by those who support the Bill. Presumably they believe sufficiently in their case to maintain it in Committee.
The principles of the case, yes.
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 1413of 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.