The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Sir Norman Hulbert (in the Chair) Balniel , Lord (Hertford)
Bishop , Mr. F. P. (Harrow, Central)
Bowen , Mr. Roderic (Cardigan)
Brooke , Mr. Henry (Minister of Housing and Local Government)
Bullard , Mr. Denys (King's Lynn
Butler , Mrs. Joyce (Wood Green)
Castle , Mrs. Barbara (Blackburn
Cleaver , Mr. Leonard (Birmingham, Yardley)
Cordeaux , Lieut.-Colonel J. K. (Nottingham, Central)
Corfield , Mr. F. V. (Gloucestershire, South)
Deedes , Mr. W. F. (Ashford)
de Ferranti , Mr. Basil (Morecambe and Lonsdale)
Edelman , Mr. Maurice (Coventry, North)
Galbraith , Mr. T. G. D. (Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland)
Gammans , Lady (Hornsey)
Glyn , Dr. Alan (Clapham)
Grimston , Sir Robert (Westbury)
Hall , Mr. Glenvil (Colne Valley
Harris , Mr. Reader (Heston and Isleworth)
Hocking , Mr. Philip N. (Coventry, South)
[column 2]Iremonger , Mr. T. L. (Ilford, North)
Jenkins , Mr. Robert (Dulwich)
Maddan , Mr. Martin (Hitchin)
Pannell , Mr. Charles (Leeds, West)
Pannell , Mr. Norman (Liverpool, Kirkdale)
Pargiter , Mr. G. A. (Southall)
Renton , Mr. David (Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
Reynolds , Mr. G. W. (Islington, North)
Rogers , Mr. G. H. R. (Kensington, North)
Skeffington , Mr. Arthur (Hayes and Harlington)
Slater , Mrs. Harriet (Stoke-on-Trent, North)
Small , Mr. William (Glasgow, Scotstoun)
Smith , Mr. Dudley (Brentford and Chiswick)
Stewart , Mr. Michael (Fulham)
Symonds , Mr. J. B. (Whitehaven)
Thatcher, Mrs. Margaret (Finchley)
Thomas , Mr. Iorwerth (Rhondda, West)
Wilkins , Mr. W. A. (Bristol, South)
Williams , Mr. Dudley (Exeter)
Yates , Mr. Victor (Birmingham, Lady-wood)
Committee Clerks.[column 3]
PUBLIC BODIES (ADMISSION OF THE PRESS TO MEETINGS) BILL
STANDING COMMITTEE C
Wednesday, 16th March, 1960
[Sir Norman Hulbert in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That during the proceedings on the Public Bodies (Admission of the Press to Meetings) Bill the Committee do meet on Wednesdays.—[Mrs. Thatcher.]
Mr. Michael Stewart
There is one point to which we should give attention before deciding about our sittings. I refer to the point made by the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Housing and Local Government during the Second Reading debate when he spoke of dealing with the subject of the Bill by means of a code of conduct. He gave us to understand that he was still pursuing his discussions with members of local authorities with a view to securing a code of conduct. There are several Amendments down for consideration by the Committee which would have the effect of dealing with the matter in that fashion—by means of a code of conduct—but it will be difficult for the Committee to decide about them unless it has more detailed information about how the Minister's discussions with local authorities are proceeding.
It may, therefore, be desirable for the Committee to meet today and again today fortnight and then on subsequent Wednesdays, but it is a little difficult to know whether it would be sensible to make that proposition unless the Minister can help by telling us what stage his discussions about a code of conduct have reached. I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to help us at this juncture.
The Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs (Mr. Henry Brooke)
Before my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) gave notice of her intention to present the Bill, I had for some time been in contact with local authority associations on the general subject of the rights of the Press in [column 4]relation to meetings of local authorities and their committees, and at an earlier stage I had been in contact with the representatives of the Press. As I said on Second Reading, I had formulated the idea that the best course of action for me to take would be in this new Parliament to pursue with local authority associations the idea of a code of conduct. I had no idea whether it would be possible to agree a satisfactory code—satisfactory to the associations, representatives of the Press and myself—but a new situation arose when my hon. Friend gave notice of her intention to present the Bill.
I do not think that it is possible for a Minister to carry on discussions with the Press or local authority associations about a code of conduct simultaneously with Parliament's consideration of a Bill for making certain minimum requirements. I have always thought that a code of conduct or a code of standards must be rather more than a statutory minimum. Indeed, the more I study the subject the more convinced I am that it is not possible in an Act of Parliament to lay down all that one would certainly wish to see adopted and practised by local authorities—and that view is probably common to both sides of the Committee. The Local Authorities (Admission of the Press to Meetings) Act, 1908, is defective.
Order. I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman must not discuss the merits of the Bill. The Question before the Committee is whether we meet next Wednesday and on subsequent Wednesdays. The right hon. Gentleman must confine his remarks to that issue.
I am sorry, Sir Norman. I was led on because I was asked to express a view about a code of conduct, and it is difficult to do that without reference to existing legislation. I do not wish to discuss the Bill but my remarks on Second Reading——
Mr. Dudley Williams
On a point of order. An hon. Member is smoking.
Smoking is out of order in Standing Committee.
Mr. J. B. Symonds
I apologise, Sir Norman.[column 5]
My remarks on Second Reading were against the background that existing legislation seemed to be defective and that as there was a Bill before the House, we must proceed with it and examine whether the House wished to amend the existing law on the subject. Until that is decided, I do not see how one can proceed with seeking to negotiate a code of conduct which, almost by definition, would go beyond certain statutory minimum requirements. A code of conduct or a code of standards must necessarily be more than a minimum which can be enforced by law.
The position, therefore, is that the discussions have been not terminated, I hope, but deferred until it is clear what Parliament wishes to do about the Bill. As I said on Second Reading, if the Bill fails to reach the Statute Book, I shall certainly pursue the matter again, but it would not be reasonable for me to be holding negotiations, as it were, behind the back of Parliament when the House of Commons has given a Second Reading to a Bill.
Mr. Glenvil Hall
I have rarely listened to a more Machiavellian speech than that, and I have listened to many from the right hon. Gentleman which have run that speech rather close.
The position is that the right hon. Gentleman was, properly and very much to his credit, carrying on negotiations with public authorities, local authorities and others, and their associations. It is absolutely necessary to carry those authorities with us in any legislation which the House passes. It is obvious to everybody that those authorities are not in favour of the present legislation. Before Second Reading, the right hon. Gentleman was negotiating with local authority associations and it appeared that some sort of modus vivendi would be reached and a solution satisfactory to all concerned would be found.
In the meantime, the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) introduced her Bill. All that the Government had to do was to say that they had ideas of their own which they were in course of putting into operation and that they hoped there would be regulations mutually agreed and satisfactory to all concerned. Now the right hon. Gentleman suddenly says that he would be acting behind the hon. Lady's back [column 6]if he went on with those negotiations. It may be said that she has been acting behind his back because she must have known that he was carrying on negotiations which had every chance of being successful.
I did not say behind the back of my hon. Friend. I said behind the back of Parliament.
Mr. Glenvil Hall
I accept that correction—if there is any difference in the form of words which the right hon. Gentleman now says that he used. What I am trying to say is that all my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) has suggested is that we should postpone the next meeting of the Committee till a fortnight today, which would give us all a chance to study this matter and would give the right hon. Gentleman an opportunity to get in touch with the associations so that we could have some idea of whether the negotiations were likely to be fruitful. We are all busy people and there is no need to waste weeks and weeks in Committee, as may necessarily be the case, when the whole thing can be amicably arranged by the right hon. Gentleman himself.
Mr. Dudley Williams
I wonder whether we are in order in discussing this Motion. In the past, we have had long discussions on sittings Motions and there have been very protracted debates before we have reached a conclusion. Last year I was a Member of Standing Committee “C” when it was ruled by the then Chairman that it was out of order to discuss any question of postponing discussion of the Bill and that one could be allowed only to vote for or against the Motion. The hon. Member who was in the Chair—yourself, Sir Norman, or some other hon. Member—must have been wrong at that time and I think that it would be a good idea if we could get it quite clear whether we are in order to discuss sittings Motions now and in future.
The Question before us is whether the Committee shall deal with the Bill on Wednesdays. It is perfectly in order for any hon. Member to adduce arguments why we should not sit on Wednesdays, but it is not in order on this Motion to go into the merits of the Bill.[column 7]
Mr. Victor Yates
The hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Dudley Williams) cannot have very much experience of Standing Committees, for there have been many discussions about whether the time allowed has been satisfactory and about whether we should meet twice a week, or once a fortnight and so on.
Before considering a Bill of this magnitude, we are entitled to all the necessary and relevant information, and the more I think about it the more difficult it seems for us to embark upon a programme of meeting once a week without all the necessary information. On Second Reading, the Minister spoke of his own attitude towards a code of conduct and said:
“… a code … could be drawn up and completed which would satisfy me as Minister of Local Government, which would be strongly commended—” .—[Official Report, 5th February, 1960; Vol. 616, c. 1432.]
Order. The hon. Member must relate his argument to whether we sit every Wednesday. The House has committed the Bill to the Committee.
What I am trying to point out is that the Minister said that he must have agreement with all associations; yet the Committee is now meeting without the necessary information. If the Minister has been in negotiation, we should have all the relevant information. I have received several memoranda from associations, and many other authorities may feel very strongly about this issue. Before we embark on a programme of meeting regularly, we should have the benefit of the knowledge which the Minister himself said he would want if he were drawing up a code of conduct. That is all I am asking. I think it quite unreasonable for us to start meeting regularly. We ought to have a fortnight, or three weeks if necessary, to gather all the information on this vital matter. I suggest, therefore, that we do not start meeting regularly for two or three weeks.
Mr. G. A. Pargiter
I beg to move, at the end to add:
“the next meeting being Wednesday, 30th March.”
I prefer that the next meeting be postponed for a fortnight, if that is [column 8]acceptable to you, Sir Norman, in order to provide more time to consider this matter. This Committee has a responsibility to the House of Commons. It has to make some recommendations when the Bill goes back to the House and it is our duty to put the Measure before the House in a form in which it will work. If we do not do that, we have failed in our duty. Parliament has given us that responsibility and it seems to me that we should discharge it in the best way possible.
Unless it has the good will of the local authorities, whatever is put in this Bill will not work, and that is the basis on which we have to consider the matter. We must devise something which will work and be to the benefit of the public, the local authorities and the Press—perhaps I can include the Press with the public. Therefore, it ought to be possible to get some idea about how far we can go. At the moment we have not that information, but if the next meeting were held on Wednesday, 30th March, it would give the Minister and hon. Members an opportunity to look at what can be done to make this Measure workable.
There has been no lack of desire on the part of the associations to meet the Minister in order to discuss this matter. I think the right hon. Gentleman would agree that it is because of pressure of work in his Department that the meetings have not taken place. My own association, the County Councils Association, is anxious to meet the Minister as soon as possible.
Mr. Martin Maddan
I strongly oppose the Amendment and I wish to support the original Motion. The matters which we are discussing have been before the local authority associations and the associations representing the Press and journalists—and, indeed, before hon. Members—for many years. This is a Private Member's Bill. Our duty is to make up our minds about what we want done and not to hand the decision over to the Minister. I am astonished that hon. Members opposite should abrogate their responsibilities as Private Members, or seek to do so, and hand over to the Minister what is clearly a duty upon us.
Order. The Amendment has nothing to do with abrogating responsibilities.[column 9]
My point is that if we are to carry out the duties which were laid upon us after the Second Reading debate, we ought to proceed with the discussion of this Bill with dispatch, and meet on Wednesdays as originally proposed. We should reject the Amendment.
Mr. G. W. Reynolds
I wish to support the Amendment. I apologise for being late; I am convinced that London Transport Executive, at any rate, is supporting the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) on this Bill.
There are two main reasons why I suggest it would be better for the Committee not to meet again for another fortnight. The first has already been mentioned—the possibility of getting agreement with the local authority associations and organisations representing the Press, because we must have agreement by both organisations. From what I heard the Minister say, I understand that he is not continuing his negotiations with the associations at present, although during the Second Reading debate he said that he hoped his hon. Friend the Member for Finchley would not think him disloyal if in any case he proceeded further with the negotiations. He had previously said that in any case he would carry on with the negotiations if the Bill did not receive a Second Reading. Therefore, I am surprised to hear that apparently the negotiations have not continued since the Second Reading debate. We ought to give the Minister a little longer so that he may try to get agreement with the local authority associations. The fact that the Bill received a Second Reading——
Mr. Norman Pannell
On a point of order, Sir Norman. Is it in order for an hon. Member to read a newspaper in the Committee?
Mr. W. A. Wilkins
Yes, it is. I am looking up the third leader in The Times of Saturday, which refers to this debate.
If the local authority associations knew that this Committee had adjourned its sittings for a fortnight to enable the discussions to continue, that would strengthen the Minister's position.
There is another reason why I think it would be unwise for this Committee to [column 10]go into detailed considerations of this Measure for another fortnight. It is only 36¾ hours ago that the House approved an Instruction to the Committee which had the effect of widening considerably its terms of reference. Since then I have seen no Amendments on the Notice Paper which bear any relation to that Instruction. There were a few Amendments tabled prior to the Instruction being approved, but I feel that we should have further time to consider the implications of widening the effect of this Bill, if the Committee should so desire, in compliance with the terms of that Instruction, so as to include the public as well as the Press. I do not think it is feasible that we should go through the Bill knocking out the word “Press” and inserting the word “public” . If we continue with detailed discussions on this Measure, we shall be dealing with a Bill containing the word “Press” while in the back of our minds we shall be thinking of the Instruction which enables the Committee to include the public, but we shall have no idea about how the Instruction is to be complied with.
I suggest that within the next fortnight it will be possible for the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley, the Minister and other hon. Members to give some thought to the Instruction, which was passed only 36¾ hours ago, so that we may get some idea of the best way to comply with its terms, and the wish of the House, that facilities similar to those afforded to the Press should be given to the public. There are many ways round the provisions in this Bill, if local authority associations or individual associations, do not like them, so that we must obtain the full co-operation of local authorities and representatives of the Press in anything that is done. With the Minister I prefer that there should be a code of conduct. Why need we meet as a Committee to discuss this matter if the Minister has been able to arrive at an adequate agreement?
Mr. Roderic Bowen
The argument advanced in favour of the Amendment is that it would be better for everyone if the discussions with the local authority associations continued, and we should postpone dealing with this Bill while those discussions are allowed to develop. That is an attractive argument. The difficulty, as I understand it, is that the [column 11-12]Minister has clearly indicated that while this Bill is being discussed by the Committee he will not take part in any discussions with the local authority associations or the Press.
I hope the right hon. Gentleman will have second thoughts about that. I do not see any fundamental difficulty about the discussions continuing between all the parties involved, quite apart from what happens to this Bill. It would resolve all the difficulties with which we are faced if the Minister revised his view and continued with the discussions. I should have thought that the purport of the discussions, even though they proved futile, would enable the right hon. Gentleman to make a much more valuable contribution to the framing of this Bill than otherwise would be the case.
If the Minister is not to take part in discussions, there is no possibility of getting a code of conduct and there is no object in postponing the discussions on this Bill. If the Minister is adamant in that regard, I shall not support the Amendment. But I hope the right hon. Gentleman will reconsider the position, in which event a certain postponement of the consideration of this Bill would be desirable.
Mr. Dudley Williams
I wish to return to the point I made previously. I now have the advantage of having before me the Official Report of the discussion to which I referred. It was during the Committee stage of the Baking Industry (Small Establishments and Seasonal Resorts) Bill on 29th April, 1959. On that occasion I quoted the Ruling of the Chairman of a Standing Committee that a discussion on the days on which the Committee should meet was out of order. He said:
“I am afraid that I cannot accept that Amendment, because it is not in accordance with the duty of the Committee to proceed as reasonably and as speedily as possible with a Bill which has been remitted to it by the House.” —[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 29th April, 1959; c. 4.]
With respect, Sir Norman, I suggest that that rules out any discussion in the future unless there is a change in the Rules of Procedure of the House. I hope, therefore, that I shall not be accused of raising frivolous points by hon. Members opposite who, obviously, have not listened to discussions which have taken place in other Standing Committees.
I have also looked up a precedent. I am satisfied that my Ruling is right. Were an Amendment moved to delay the consideration of the Bill for a great number of weeks or, months I should not accept it, but in my opinion a delay of one week is not unreasonable and so I accepted the Amendment which has been moved.
Question put, That those words be there added:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 16.
Division No. 1.]
Hall , Rt. Hn. Glenvil (Colne Valley)
Pargiter , G. A.
Reynolds , G. W.
Slater , Mrs. Harriet (Stoke, N.)
Small , William
Stewart , Michael (Fulham)
Symonds , J. B.
Wilkins , W. A.
Yates , Victor (Ladywood)
Balniel , Lord
Bishop , F. P.
Bowen , Roderic (Cardigan)
Brooke , Rt. Hon. Henry
Bullard , Denys
Cleaver , Leonard
Cordeaux , Lt.-Col. J. K.
Corfield , F. V.
Galbraith , Hon. T. G. D.
Gammans , Lady
Iremonger , T. L.
Jenkins , Robert (Dulwich)
Maddan , Martin
Pannell , Norman (Kirkdale)
Smith , Dudley (Br'ntf'd & Chiswick)
Thatcher, Mrs. Margaret
Main Question put and agreed to.
That during the proceedings on the Public Bodies (Admission of the Press to Meetings) Bill the Committee do meet on Wednesdays.
Hon. Members are aware that the House has agreed to an Instruction in connection with the Bill. I should like also to call attention to the fact that adequate notice should be given of Amendments. As a general rule, I do not propose to call manuscript Amendments.
I suggest that the first Amendment is the name of the hon. Member for Southall (Mr. Pargiter), in page 1, line 5, leave out:
“Subject to subsection (2) below” .
[column 13]goes with the Amendments in page 1, line 8, at end insert:
“in such circumstances and on such occasions and subject to such conditions as shall be set out in a code of practice and conduct to be prescribed by the Minister of Housing and Local Government after consultation with the Press and with associations representative of local authorities, and other bodies exercising public functions” .
In line 9, leave out subsection (2).
In line 19, leave out subsection (3).
And in page 2, line 30, leave out subsection (5). It will be for the convenience of the Committee to discuss all those Amendments together.
In general, that would appear to be so, because those Amendments are subjective to the first Amendment that I have to move. I shall be happy to accept your suggestion, Sir Norman.
Mr. Robert Jenkins
On a point of order, Sir Norman. I have tabled an Amendment in page 1, line 18, at end insert:
(3) Without prejudice to the generality of the last foregoing subsection it shall be deemed to be prejudicial to the public interest for any matter involving the consideration of the status, means, health, conduct, or personal circumstances or relationships of any individual to be discussed in the presence of the Press.
Is that being included?
I think that can be discussed with the Amendment standing in the name of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. V. Yates), in page 1, line 11, leave out from “whenever” to “by” in line 12 and insert:
“in the opinion of the body publicity would be undesirable” .
Perhaps we can deal with that when we reach it.
Mr. F. P. Bishop
I am sorry, Sir Norman, but some hon. Members are not clear about which Amendment in page 2, line 18 is to be discussed.
I think that the hon. Member is referring to the Amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Southall, in page 1, line 19, leave out subsection (3).
Sir Norman, I take it that I may proceed with my Amendment in page 1, line 8. That is the one you wish us to take in conjunction with this.[column 14]
The first Amendment is that in page 1, line 5.
This Amendment, in which I propose to debate subsection (2), arises because so much of this is dependent upon subsequent Amendments and because subsection (2), which I propose to delete altogether, is very much concerned with the Amendment in page 1, line 8. In other words, the whole of my Amendments to leave out subsections are largely concerned with establishing a code of conduct.
I am in some difficulty about arguing the deletion of subsection (2) when dealing with my main Amendment in page 1, line 8. That is the particular difficulty I have in dealing with this subject.
I am sorry if I did not make matters clear to the Committee. I said that in dealing with the first Amendment of the hon. Member for Southall in page 1, line 5, we should discuss also the two Amendments in his name in page 1, line 8 and page 1, line 9.
Therefore, I shall formally move the Amendment in page 1, line 5 and, in the discussion on the Amendment in page 1, line 8, deal with the arguments concerning why subsection (2) is unnecessary.
Order. The hon. Gentleman must discuss it now, not on the later Amendments.
Sir Norman, do I understand that my hon. Friend in moving the Amendment in page 1, line 5, also moves the Amendment in page 1, line 8, that therefore the one goes with the other and that it is necessary to make out the whole case for the Amendment in page 1, line 8 before we vote?
No. The hon. Member for Southall moves only one Amendment at a time, but he can discuss the others.
And there can be a vote on the others?
I beg to move, in page 1, line 5, to leave out:
“Subject to subsection (2) below” .
My purpose in seeking to delete those words is to make the rest of the [column 15]proposals intelligible, which are very largely a matter of how this subject can best be re-presented to the House in a form likely to be acceptable to the House as a whole. All of us are concerned that the public shall be as fully informed as possible about everything done by local authorities. After all, the public has a fundamental right to know what is going on.
As the Bill is drafted at present, that just will not happen. I ask hon. Members to accept that the relations between the majority of local authorities and the Press are extremely amicable. The Press obtain any information they reasonably ask for. The Bill is produced merely because of one or two unfortunate cases, whichever way one looks at them, which caused some people to get the bit between their teeth.
If the Bill is enacted as it is at present drafted, I am satisfied that it will do infinite harm to relations between the Press and local authorities. I speak with some knowledge of this subject, because in my county we spend a large sum each year on the dissemination of information to the public, and very largely to the Press. I do not think that the Press in my county would say that they are dealt with hardly on any of the matters upon which they require information. Once we reach the stage when we are required by statute to do something, we shall have to be advised about what our authority, responsibilities and liabilities are under the Statute, and we shall have to consider exactly how far we are prepared to accept them.
All this will not be anything like as easy as the sponsors of the Bill may think it is. Anyone with long experience of local authorities, particularly large local authorities, will appreciate that it is not an easy matter to say that the Press shall have the right to be present at meetings which have delegated functions. The question will arise of what is delegated and what is not delegated. Small local authorities can get round it quite easily by withdrawing their delegation. Large authorities can also deal with it, except that it will take much administrative time and much time of officers, which can ill be spared, in order to sort out those discussions which the Press and public may properly hear from those which they may not properly hear. Those [column 16]are the difficulties which all local authorities will face.
I am satisfied that there is very considerable alarm about the Measure. Again, I speak from the point of view of one of the larger associations. Views have been expressed by local authority officers about the problems with which they are to be faced. Questions will arise about the information and advice which an officer may give a committee; how far this may be published; how far it may be circulated with papers; the extent to which the clerk has to make himself responsible for ensuring that nothing is circulated which might be in any way defamatory, which whilst it would be perfectly proper under the cover of being circulated to members in a perfectly open and frank manner probably could not be circulated to the public. All these matters will create considerable difficulties, with which my Amendment in page 1, line 8 is specifically concerned.
There is no desire on the part of any of the authorities which I know very well—I know many of them—to defeat the objects of giving information to the public. In fact, the complaint is precisely the opposite. We just cannot get enough information over to the public. There are twenty-eight or thirty newspapers catering for local authorities in the County of Middlesex. Although we disseminate information, and the task of the Public Relations Officer is to ensure that the Press receives information on various aspects of the county council service, the information which the public get is very meagre. Although we administer two-thirds of the money which is spent on local authority services, we receive far less cover in the newspapers than perhaps a local council. Although we may spend perhaps £500,000 in a district, we receive far less publicity than a local council which is spending much less.
Those are the sorts of things with which we are concerned. Because of the necessity to maintain the virility and life of local authorities, we are concerned that their efforts should be publicised. In general, local authorities have nothing to fear from publicity. The implied suggestion that they fear publicity is an entirely wrong approach, which local authorities through their associations very [column 17]strongly resent. Their main concern is precisely the opposite. They want to do this job in a reasonable way.
I should like to repeat and re-emphasise what I said earlier. There has been no lack of co-operation on the part of local authority associations to discuss these subjects with the Minister. Because the Department, through so many pressures, has not found the time and convenient dates to deal with these matters, the matter has not proceeded very much further. I personally and my own association—I know that this applies to other associations—regret that the matter has not proceeded further.
We are anxious to have something which will work. If we can have something which will work, we can have a code of conduct. It is important to remember that the Minister has always at his back the authority to say that Parliament has indicated that it wants something done. He will also have behind him the necessity, should it arise, of using statutory powers, or alternatively such statutory powers as it may be found desirable to write into a Bill.
All those considerations make it plain that this is essentially not a very good subject for a Private Member's Bill. It covers such a wide aspect of public life with so many variants that it is not the duty of the Government merely to say, “We do not particularly like the Bill, but we will give it some lukewarm support” . It would be very much better that the Government should say and continue to say that they are prepared to use statutory powers if they are satisfied that those statutory powers are necessary and that they should have the full weight of the Government behind them. As the Bill is drafted at present, it is on a sort of half-and-half basis and no one seems to know where he is going.
My reason for deleting subsection (2) altogether is connected with my Amendment in page 1, line 8. I hope that the code of conduct will receive statutory consent. I ask the Committee to approach it in a reasonable manner. I do not ask hon. Members to approach it in any other manner, either pro-Press or anti-Press. I am not pro-Press or anti-Press. I want my local authority to have greater publicity than it receives at present. [column 18]
It is that matter with which we are concerned. I am prepared to admit that the local authority associations will concede this in regard to matters dealt with by committees under delegated powers, and I agree that some of these bodies have very wide powers and are spending vast sums of money. That is bound to be the case with a large authority; it could not be otherwise.
We have this delegation of their powers, which is sometimes very wide, and I do not think that anyone will say, as a matter of principle, that on matters which are dealt with under delegated powers, without any reference again to the public, the county council, or the county district council, as the case may be, if these things are dealt with in that way, the public are entitled to know what is being done under these delegated powers. If there are non-delegated powers, the matter goes back to the main body itself, and it does not seem to me that the Press has any particular right or interest.
But we are very anxious to find ways in which these delegated powers can be dealt with, and by which the Press can have the fullest information about what goes on under these delegated powers. I am very anxious that we should support everything which will make this possible in such a way that it can be operated reasonably as between the Press, the public and the local authorities.
These are the objects which I have in mind, and I am genuinely concerned with the interests of the Press. The relations between my own local authority and the Press are excellent, and journalists have already said that they are not asking for more than they are getting, because they are getting far more than they are able to use. That being the case, I am satisfied in the case of the vast majority of authorities.
What worries me, as the Bill is now drafted, is that a tremendous amount of opposition is developing because of this threat—and I think it is a threat—that there will be a statutory power which will at least oblige local authorities to do something. We know quite well what the reaction to this will be. When one is obliged to do something, one generally does the minimum amount which one is obliged to do. One is [column 19]always trying to get out of as much of the obligation as possible, and it is only natural that this should be so when local authority officers so advise their members. They give their advice from their own experience on what the responsibilities and liabilities of the local authorities are. This will mean in the long run that instead of there being amicable relations between the local authorities and the Press, instead of the Press having as much information as it wants the tendency will be for it to get rather less, and public relations will suffer as a result.
Is the hon. Member suggesting a statutory code of conduct or a voluntary code of conduct which will be prescribed by the Minister?
I should prefer that, if I were not circumscribed by the terms of this Bill. I should prefer a voluntary code of conduct, but I can only put on the Order Paper Amendments which are likely to be acceptable within the framework of the Bill. I would make the point at this juncture that I prefer a code of conduct without statutory authority, and I would leave to the Minister a power to be used if necessary if he felt that local authorities or the Press were not prepared to “play ball” and give that information.
What power has the hon. Member in mind if he does not support statutory authority?
The power which obviously exists at present, when we have relatively few authorities with which the Press have any quarrel. We should not leave the whole of this business to Parliament in order to deal with a few authorities. I would regret it if we had a code of conduct with statutory backing. We have four major local authority associations, to which all the authorities, I think I can say without exception, subscribe. By and large, the resolutions passed by the associations are acceptable to the whole.
If we were establishing a code of conduct, this would be recommended to the authorities, which would indicate their views to the associations, which would say if it was a matter which they were prepared to accept. Having accepted it, [column 20]as honourable bodies—and I think no one will be prepared to say that these authorities are dishonourable bodies—we should find that the present position would be maintained in many cases, in other cases there would be certain alterations which would improve the situation generally. That would be the effect if we had a voluntary code of conduct.
But let us assume that there are some recalcitrant authorities which are not prepared to play. There the Minister can use his power and say “I am not prepared to permit any local authority to give information to the Press and the public.” I am sure that Parliament would give him every support in this matter. It would not be a difficult matter at all. There could be, by agreement, something which I am sure would be satisfactory. There could be a reserve power which the Minister would be able to exercise, which would adequately satisfy all those concerned. In the main, it would also suit the Press to have it that way because the Press would be much more concerned about the arrangements which are now carried out amicably between the local authorities and the Press than those cases where they are not.
These are good and sufficient reasons why I think we should leave out the words
“Subject to subsection (2) below” .
and I think we should proceed as early as possible to try to establish the principle. While I am prepared to accept that there should be a code of conduct which would have a statutory authority, I do not think that this is the best way. I think it is the second best. But in view of the fact that the Bill is now before us, it might be better to proceed on the basis of some statutory authority, although I myself would have preferred it otherwise.
Mr. T. L. Iremonger
I oppose this Amendment, and, if I may say so with great respect to the hon. Member for Southall (Mr. Pargiter), I think he was in some danger of confusing the mind of the Committee. Having listened to what he said, I was not absolutely sure that his own mind was entirely innocent of that confusion.
It seems to me that this is an entirely useless and misguided Amendment. We could agree with the hon. Member that [column 21]certainly the relationship between the Press and the local authorities in the past, in the vast majority of cases, has been entirely satisfactory, but because it is not entirely satisfactory in respect of a very small minority we have this Bill. I do not think that this Bill is ever going to alter the good faith which exists between a good local authority and a good Press, and, therefore, we have to look upon the Measure as being, to use a cricketing metaphor, a long stop Measure. It is one which will be used only in the last resort when that good faith has broken down.
There are two things which we have to establish—first, that the Press shall come in; and then, in subsection (2), in certain circumstances which we all recognise—because the duties of local authorities are not primarily consultative and legislative, but are to some extent executive—the circumstances in which the Press should be put out. Therefore, we say in subsection (1) that they should come in, subject to the reservation that in certain circumstances they must go out. But the wording of the hon. Gentleman's Amendment seeks to define and prescribe, wisely or otherwise, which is a matter for discussion at a later stage, the circumstances in which the Press shall be excluded.
I think the Committee will be wasting its time, misconceiving the object of the Bill, and confusing its mind if it gets led into the sidetracks into which the hon. Member has been seeking to lead us. I suggest that the Committee would be ill advised to waste time on this Amendment. We should simply have these words—
“Subject to subsection (2) below”
because there are circumstances in which the Press must go out, and then, when we come to discuss subsection (2), we can see whether we have got things right or not. This is a long stop Measure for bad authorities, and I think we should leave the discussion of the details until we come to subsection (2).
It is important to try to get clear the distinction between what is proposed in the Bill and what is involved in the Amendment. As I see it, it is this. The Bill as it stands sets out the precise rules and regulations regarding the admission of the Press. We shall have an opportunity of debating and [column 22]dealing in detail with those provisions later. The Amendment says that there shall be regulations. The effect will be that we shall be precisely in the same position, except that the nature of the regulations shall not be determined by the Committee or indeed by the House of Commons. They are to be determined by negotiation between a number of bodies, and the number of bodies to take part in these negotiations shall be determined by the Minister.
The interest of this Bill is the interest of the public, and when I talk about the public I mean in particular the interests of a private individual as a member of the public. To my mind, it is far more satisfactory to deal with the way in which those interests are most effectively protected and that those interests should be determined by the ordinary processes of legislation in this House, rather than that the matter should be left to this rather novel way of determining the precise method of dealing with these rules and regulations.
The Minister can express his views on what he thinks are the best rules. This Committee is not short of representatives who can put forward the views of the local authorities in relation to what are the most appropriate rules and regulations. Equally, I am quite sure that there are members of the Committee who can put forward the point of view of the Press. We have here an opportunity of discussing the whole merit and form which the rules and regulations should take. If the Amendment says “Let us not have rules and regulations which have statutory authority; let us leave it to the honour of the Press, of local authorities and of private persons,” that is an attractive proposition. That is the way in which it was dealt with long before the Bill came forward.
In these circumstances, I see no merit in substituting for a Bill provisions for a code of conduct in the way outlined in the Amendment.
Mr. N. Pannell
I also oppose the Amendment. I do not share the fears of the hon. Member for Southall (Mr. Pargiter) regarding the effects on local authorities of subsection (2). Neither do I share his hopes that a code of conduct would be effective to prevent those incidents which occurred last July. The hon. Member for Southall said, out of his very wide experience——[column 23]
I am concerned with experience extending over twenty-five years, and not just last July.
Exactly. My experience in council affairs is much more limited than that of the hon. Member for Southall. The only difference is that whereas the hon. Member has served in the softer South, he has not had the experience of the rough and turbulent North where reactions are somewhat different.
In that connection I would have to recount to the Committee the circumstances of the exclusion of the Press from the proceedings of the Liverpool Corporation last July. I believe that that and similar instances prompted the promotion of the Bill. Therefore, the Bill should be effective in preventing the recurrence of such incidents. On 1st July last year Liverpool City Council met on a Wednesday as usual. There was at the time a printing dispute as a result of which the majority of the provincial newspapers went out of circulation.
Order. The hon. Member is relating his argument to an Amendment which appears later on the Order Paper.
With great respect. Sir Norman, I will defer my remarks on the Clause generally until later, but I wanted to refer to the effect of a code of conduct. To do so, would it not be in order for me to recount the circumstances in which the Press was excluded on that occasion, so that we may judge whether a code would be effective?
If the hon. Member can relate his argument to the Amendment it will be in order, otherwise it will be out of order.
The Amendment is in page 1, line 8 and refers to a code of practice and conduct to be prescribed by the Minister of Housing and Local Government. It is the Amendment which you, Sir Norman, said could be brought into the context of the debate on this Amendment. It is the code of conduct to which the hon. Member for Southall has referred and is the reason for the original Amendment which is the substantive purpose of this discussion. [column 24]
If I may proceed, the provincial Press was generally not in circulation in Liverpool but a very influential evening newspaper with a circulation of about 400,000 copies managed to produce an abridged version during the dispute which it sold at 1d. a copy.
Are these remarks permissible under the Amendment, Sir Norman? If the hon. Member goes on. I shall be very happy to have a good deal to say about this matter.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Kirkdale (Mr. N. Pannell) appears to be relating his argument to the Amendment in page 1, line 8 which refers to there being no interruption in the normal production of newspapers or periodicals.
The hon. Member is making his speech in advance.
That is not quite the point. I will abridge what I wanted to say and add only that I hope that I shall be in order in pointing out the more relevant points. The leader of the Socialist majority on the Liverpool City Council moved that the Press should be excluded. The Town Clerk intervened and said that it was not in order for such a motion to be put. The leader of the Council then defied the Town Clerk and put the motion. It was carried by a large majority. This is what I mean by a code of conduct. If a local council is not to bow to the ruling of its chief legal officer, the Town Clerk, and in defiance pass a resolution against his recommendation, what purpose is there in bringing in a code of conduct at all?
I am not dealing with the specific issue to which the hon. Member refers, but if a chief officer gives a ruling that the council is doing something which is illegal there are ample legal remedies to deal with the matter. It does not need a Bill to deal with it.
The hon. Member says that there are many legal methods of dealing with the matter, but that will not prevent the Press being excluded from that meeting. There may be some method of correcting the situation for the future by legal action.
But there is no means of ensuring that the Press will be present at that meeting, and the same procedure can be carried out at later meetings, with not only the spirit but the letter of the law being flagrantly abused, and no legal process will correct the situation as time goes on. That is why I suspect and am very sceptical about the efficacy of any code of conduct.
Is there not a code of conduct enshrined in the Local Authorities (Admission of the Press to Meetings) Act, 1908? It is clearly said in that Act that
“Representatives of the Press shall be admitted to the meetings of every local authority: Provided that a local authority may temporarily exclude such representatives from a meeting … when in the opinion of a majority of the members … such exclusion is advisable in the public interest.”
It is left to the good sense and decency of the members to interpret that law as it should be interpreted. The subsection in the present Bill varies very little from that in the 1908 Act.
Is not that an argument against the Bill?
It might be an argument against the Bill, but my noble Friend must wait. We are discussing only one Amendment now, but there will be opportunities no doubt to criticise other aspects of the Bill as time goes on. I should be more out of order than you have indicated already, Sir Norman, if I went as wide as my noble Friend suggests that I should go.
This, however, is my reservation. I cannot see that we can do anything effective unless we have a Bill which lays down a certain line of conduct and course of procedure and imposes penalties for non-observation. I am quite aware of the difficulties, but I certainly do not think from my experience on Liverpool City Council, on which I have had the honour of sitting for five years, that a code of conduct will be completely effective in view of the fact that the 1908 Act in effect enshrines a code of conduct which has been flagrantly abused.
It is interesting that it has required only 45 minutes of our sitting this morning to discover the real reason for the Bill. It is true that the [column 26]hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), in presenting the Bill on Second Reading, referred to the events of last July, but I shall not get myself out of order. I hope to deal with the Amendment in page 1, line 8, which refers to there being no interruption in the normal production of newspapers or periodicals and which has some reference to the matters to which the hon. Member for Liverpool, Kirkdale (Mr. Pannell) has referred. I am surprised at the naivety of my hon. Friend the Member for Southall (Mr. Pargiter). I do not think that he was quite so naive as he tried to convey to the Committee. I think that he knew what the motives of the Bill were but probably tried to smooth over its real intentions in his speech.
I want to refer first to the observations of the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Iremonger) who admitted, as anyone who has had anything to do with local authorities must admit, that the relationships between the Press and the local authorities throughout the country are generally exceptionally good. The hon. Member ventured to support the introduction of the Bill on the grounds that there were a few minority councils who had to be brought into line. I should not like to endeavour to recount to the Committee the number of times I have heard it said in the House of Commons that we cannot legislate for minorities and that the only thing we can do is to seek to protect them. I have heard it argued many times that it is impossible to legislate for all the needs of minorities. We shall probably bring this matter out much more boldly when we come to a later Amendment but I believe that this is the reason for promoting the Bill.
The Bill is a huge mistake, and the provisions in this Clause will be shown in the course of time to be a huge mistake. Where local authorities willingly co-operate with the Press and admit the Press to their meetings, the Press usually returns that by respecting the wishes of the local authority. I know from my own experience and from what I have been told by town clerks and other people that they have never found themselves in any difficulty with their local Press when they have asked the Press to respect certain matters which they have wanted to be withheld. [column 27]
In a Bill of this kind one is not getting at the political side but in the main at the chief officers of local authorities. [Hon. Members: “No.” ] Well, this may be argued later on, but generally speaking members of local authorities accept and act upon the advice of professional people whom they pay to advise them. Therefore, indirectly the attack is made not so much on the local councillor, though in the end he “carries the can” when he goes back to his ward, but generally speaking on the officers who do the advising. They really fear that if there is imposed upon them the duty to admit the Press relationships will change, because the Press, in the knowledge that it has the right to go to a meeting, will not be nearly so selective in the things which it publishes concerning the local authority as it is under the mutual arrangements which now exist.
The hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins) is a vice-president of the Association of Municipal Corporations and he will know that what I am saying is true—that there is a great deal of apprehension among local authorities and particularly among town clerks. Because of the very fact that the Bill has been promoted, it is now been forced upon the Minister of Housing and Local Government to provide a code of conduct. It would not have been necessary if it had not been for the promotion of the Bill, and I ask that some serious consideration be given to the wisdom of imposing upon local authorities the obligation to admit the Press to their meetings.
I am sure that it is my fault, but I do not follow the hon. Member's argument. I understand that he is against imposing a code of conduct, but is he against framing any code of conduct?
It is perhaps difficult for my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Cardigan (Mr. Bowen) completely to follow the argument, because if we are to have the Bill then I am in favour of a code of conduct, but I say that a code would not have been necessary if the Bill had not been promoted. We shall have to wait for another Amendment before we can fully develop that argument but I will support the Minister if [column 28]he lays down a code of conduct for the Press if the Bill becomes an Act.
I think that the Bill is quite unnecessary. It does very little more than the 1908 Act, and it will subject the local authorities to an enormous amount of further inconvenience. When the Bill is completed it should be re-named the “Public (Inconveniences) Bill” because that is what it will cause. I am very sorry that anything of this kind should be done which will interfere with the extremely good relationships which the Press normally have with local authorities, and vice versa, but I predict here and now that a very severe strain will be put on the relations on both sides if Clause 1 (1) is approved as it stands.
Mr. Dudley Smith
I do not share the enthusiasm of the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Wilkins)——
The hon. Member is a journalist.
—for saying that the vast majority of local authorities have very good relations with the Press and the public. I go further than my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Iremonger). I think that there are many councils which have bad relations with the Press and the public. I agree with the hon. Member for Bristol, South that local authorities are apprehe, nsive about the Bill, but that it is an apprehension born of misunderstanding.
I have consulted officers of local authorities and councillors in different areas and they all seem not to have read the Bill properly, believing it to be a Bill which will open all committees of all councils to the Press, something which we all know would be undesirable. Once the essence of the Bill is better known, many local authorities will give it a much more general welcome. I think that the safeguards which my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) has incorporated are adequate and that the interests of local authorities and the public as a whole will be well protected.
I reiterate that good councils have nothing whatever to fear from the Bill, which is one of the reasons I oppose the Amendment. The hon. Member for Southall (Mr. Pargiter) implied that the Press of Middlesex was largely against [column 29]the Bill and would not welcome extra facilities. I quarrel with that point of view.
I did not say anything of the kind. I said that the Press in Middlesex was quite satisfied with the position there and was satisfied that it had adequate opportunities to get all the information it required.
In that case, I misunderstood the hon. Gentleman, but I still quarrel with that view, because I think that the Middlesex Press would welcome the provision of extra facilities. Although the record of Middlesex Council's relations with the Press is good, the local Press would welcome the opportunity of going into more committees, particularly those committees which have substantial delegated functions. If we could open up those committees, we should get much more publicity for local authorities.
The hon. Member spoke of money spent on public relations officers and public relations functions, but they are no substitute whatever for the straight reporting of local authority proceedings. We all know from our experience in different walks of life that public relations are all very well, but that public relations officers usually put across the stuff they want the public to know about, but hide the things they do not want the public to know about.
Among some bad local authorities a great deal of hiding is going on. As we all know, minutes can be very bad and very hard to interpret. There are many local authorities whose meetings are purely formal and where all the business is done in committee and where all the business at the council meetings is over in seven or eight minutes; everybody agrees, there is no discussion and the Press does not know what has gone on behind the closed doors of the committees where points will have been put by elected representatives, for and against, involving very large sums of money.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Kirkdale (Mr. N. Pannell) that a code of conduct would be as ineffective as the 1908 Act. There were many abuses of that Act last year during the printing strike when councils like Nottingham and Liverpool operated in the twilight. The whole idea behind——[column 30]
That is why we have the Bill. Why not be honest and say so?
The spirit behind the Bill is to bring the thing into the light.
The hon. Member did not have the courage to say that when he supported the Bill on the floor of the House on Second Reading.
In my Second Reading speech I made the very point that the Bill was aimed at those councils operating in the twilight. Many of the Amendments are purely wrecking Amendments with the idea of negativing the Bill.
Mr. William Small
I do not want the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) to think that I am being belligerent because this is a Private Member's Bill. I have just piloted a Bill through the House of Commons and it is now going through another place. However, the hon. Lady must appreciate that she had the right to select the subject for her Bill, so that the choice was technically hers.
My argument is fortified because, as a Scottish Member, I have to speak for Scottish local authorities and I have had the benefit of their views. I have had correspondence with Glasgow Corporation, which is no mean corporation. Scotland is covered by the national Press.
Order. That may well be so, but it does not happen to be covered by the Amendment.
May I read a letter from the Association of County Councils in Scotland, which represents 33 Scottish county councils covering the whole of Scotland? The Association says,
“It was the view of the Association, however, that it was quite wrong that the Press and its friends should call for legislation which must, of course, affect all local authorities, when their grievances were local and few. This Association would have preferred that a Code of Practice should be drawn up to regulate the admission of the Press to meetings of local authorities.”
The letter goes on in that way and says:
“The general view adopted by this Association that a Code of Practice should be drawn up rather than that detailed provisions should be included in a Bill was fully ventilated in the Second Reading debate. …”
The Town Clerk of Glasgow has sent his comments on the Bill and the submission of the corporation. This week, [column 31]the Scottish Home Department and Scottish local authorities—I do not know about the Secretary of State for Scotland—have been reviewing the Bill with considerable alarm.
I suggest that a code of practice is preferable to provisions in an Act of Parliament. Whether the Press should be admitted to local authority meetings is a matter which concerns town clerks and county clerks who have to give their advice on drawing up agendas. In view of what is not only my personal opinion but the considered opinion of Scottish local authorities, I support the Amendment.
Mrs. Margaret Thatcher
I oppose the Amendment on one main ground. Rightly or wrongly, I came to the House of Commons believing that it was the task of Parliament to make laws and that it was not part of its task to delegate that responsibility to a Minister, except where strictly necessary. If we increase the amount of delegated legislation, we do not fulfil our functions. It is the task of Members of Parliament clearly to indicate the minimum standards which they wish to be laid down. Anything above those minimum standards can then be covered by a voluntary code which can be superimposed on or made a supplement to the law, but that is in no sense a substitute for law made by Parliament.
There is a corollary to that argument. In the Schedule there are mentioned a number of bodies for which my Henry Brookeright hon. Friend has no responsibility. There would, therefore, be not one single code, but a number of differing codes. There are certain common features among all the bodies which it is for us to deduce and for which it is our responsibility to provide. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Scotstoun (Mr. Small) will appreciate that my right hon. Friend has no jurisdiction or authority over Scottish local authorities and I doubt whether he would have authority to lay down a code of practice for Scotland, or whether he would be in order——
It would be simple to add “and the Secretary of State for Scotland.”
Yes, but we would have at least two different codes of practice for a start. [column 32]
Secondly, a Statute is already in existence. It began as a Private Member's Bill, but it is abortive because the bodies to which it refers are out of date and because new local authority legislation has also rendered it out of date.
Much has been said about local government officers and the difficulties which would be imposed on them. I have a letter from the National and Local Government Officers' Association saying that it supports the Bill, and it sends no reservation.
Will the hon. Lady read the whole of the letter?
I agree that the main point which the hon. Lady mentioned against the Amendment is serious. It is something which immediately jumped to my mind when my hon. Friend the Member for Southall (Mr. Pargiter) informed me of the line he intended to take. Nevertheless, in the long run it will cause far less damage to the relations between local authorities and the Press than the Bill's present provisions or, to judge from the attitude hon. Members seem likely to take, from the final provisions of the Bill when we have finished with it.
It has been said that it might be a good idea to have a code of conduct supplementary to the Bill's provisions. That would be all right if all the hon. Lady intended to do was to make it impossible for the sort of thing which occurred last July to happen again. However, the opportunity is being taken to go much further than can possibly be justified by reference to what happened last July, when reporters were excluded from full meetings of councils. We now have a Bill which gives the Press the right to attend many committee meetings and things of that kind.
I agree that it would be absolutely imperative for the Secretary of State for Scotland to be included. I think that if the Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs dared to make regulations for Scotland, there would be far more opposition from Scottish local authorities to regulation coming from him than there would to a Bill referring to the Secretary of State for Scotland. We can get round that difficulty, because my hon. Friend can bring his Amendment into line with those [column 33]views before the Committee meets next week. I hope that, in consultation with all the organisations concerned, the Minister will negotiate with representatives of the Press as well as public authorities and will be able to draw up minimum standards which will meet our wishes.
On a point of order. Is it in fact possible for an Amendment to be amended and for us to have further discussion on it later? Surely we are discussing the very words in the Amendment upon which we must make a final decision.
I take it that we are discussing other Amendments with the first Amendment on the Order Paper and that those other Amendments will not be moved until our next meeting.
I think that the noble Lord is raising a hypothetical question.
The Amendment which I should like my hon. Friend to alter is that in page 1, line 8, which calls for a code of practice and conduct to be prescribed by the Minister of Housing and Local Government and I suggest that he should add “and the Secretary of State for Scotland” . The question before us is the Amendment in page 1, line 5, but I understand that we are discussing other Amendments and I see no difficulty about altering the Amendment in page 1, line 8 before it is moved. 12 noon.
I think that in the code of conduct which the Minister draws up there should be included the minimum facilities to be made available to the Press by local authorities and—this is an important aspect not included in the Bill—there should be a certain code of principles that ought to be observed by the Press in reporting the meetings of councils and in its relationship with local authorities. This Bill makes provision for obligations and imposes duties on local authorities. In its present form it would provide greater advantages and facilities for pressmen than they have a statutory right to enjoy at the moment. Although in many cases it would result in less physical facilities, from the statutory point of view it would give greater rights and facilities to pressmen. Yet there is imposed no standard of conduct on the [column 34]Press and I hope that if, as is asked in these Amendments, the Minister draws up a code of conduct in consultation with local authority associations and the Press, the code will be binding on both sides.
I hope that it will be a minimum code of conduct and give the Press an absolute right to be present at all the main meetings of local authorities. I should not mind were it to take away from local authorities some rights which they now possess under the Act of 1908 to exclude the Press. In fact, I think that it would be necessary to remove some of the wide powers enjoyed by local authorities to exclude the Press from full meetings of the authority. But I hope that such a code will not make it obligatory for local authorities to admit the Press to meetings of its committees. We shall be discussing that in more detail later.
I should expect local authority associations to go further, after discussions with the Minister and the Press representatives, and to say to their members that they should examine seriously the facilities which many local authorities could make available to the Press. In such a Bill as this it is difficult to make provisions covering all local authorities, from the smallest parish meeting to the largest county borough authority. There are over 1,500 such local authorities excluding the 740 parish councils. There are 3,500 parish meetings and we are proposing to impose the same sort of obligations on each and every one of them. Incidentally, it will cost a 1d. rate for some parish councils to install a telephone for the use of the Press. I do not think that in anything we propose in this Bill we can do justice to this problem.
I am sure that the members of the Press will realise that a different problem exists in the different local authorities and I think that the Minister should obtain agreement on a minimum standard of facilities which should be provided, and upon some minimum code for the pressmen to observe in their dealings with local authorities. We were told that local authorities have nothing to fear from straight reporting, and I agree. But unfortunately in a large number of cases there are not straight reports of meetings of local authorities. [column 35]The reports are edited, very often for reasons of shortage of space, and I do not complain unduly about that. But often the reports are interleaved with opinions.
I think it a mistake to assume that the 150,000 members of the major local authorities do not desire publicity. Most of them are anxious to get publicity, and I appreciate the story which the Minister told us during the Second Reading debate of a friend of his who expressed the fear that there would be publicity-seeking by members of local authorities in the committee meetings of the authorities. I do not think that elected members of local authorities are frightened of publicity. The majority of them would complain that they do not receive enough publicity. Perhaps local pressmen would maintain that there is no news value in anything they may say and there may be something in that argument.
I have heard from the four major local authority associations in England and Wales and from the County Councils Association which covers the Scottish county councils. Three out of the four local authority associations would prefer a code of conduct not in the form suggested by the Amendments, but a voluntary form. We have dealt with that matter, but I am certain that they would prefer a code of conduct rather than the provisions at present in the Bill.
As president of one of the associations, I doubt whether the Rural District Councils Association would prefer this form of delegated legislation to the suggestions in the Bill. I do not think the hon. Gentleman is right.
I am prepared to accept that from the noble Lord but I think he would agree that the Association would prefer a voluntary code, though they are not happy about delegated legislation, which is my main argument.
The Association of Municipal Corporations which was referred to by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) when he referred to the four major local authority associations, would have welcomed a voluntary code of conduct. But they would prefer to have the Bill in some [column 36]amended form and not an imposed code of conduct under the statutory powers of the Minister.
That confirms my first point, that they would prefer a voluntary code rather than the provisions in the Bill.
May I put the matter right? The Association would have preferred a voluntary code of conduct. But now the Bill is before Parliament it is prepared to support it, as a means by which the objective can be achieved, rather than the imposition of a code of conduct. But naturally the Association wants some Amendments made to make the Bill workable.
I heard from the Association of Municipal Corporations this morning and, rather than “some” Amendments, it would appear that the Association would prefer a lot of Amendments made to the Bill. I agree that the Association would prefer a voluntary code of conduct and I accept that it would prefer an amended Bill rather than an imposed code of conduct.
No one will dispute that if this Bill, in whatever form, is to be effective it will have to have the support not only of the local authority associations but of individual local authorities. We were told that there are a large number of local authorities which have bad relations with the Press. I was surprised to hear this. In a letter which I received from the Association of Municipal Corporations this morning—I do not think the Association would be annoyed if I read a sentence from it—it states:
“The Association made an inquiry of all its members in the summer of 1958” ——
that is all the borough councils for England and Wales. Here I would correct my hon. Friend the Member for Southall (Mr. Pargiter). The Corporation of the City of Westminster deliberately stayed outside the A.M.C., for no reason which is connected with this Bill, but to retain its right to see the Minister from time to time. The Westminster City Council is not represented by the A.M.C. and can rely only on the Metropolitan Boroughs Standing Joint Committee.
“The Association made an inquiry of all its members in the summer of 1958 whether [column 37]their relations with the Press were satisfactory. The answers mostly varied from, ‘Yes’ to, ‘Most satisfactory’ or ‘Excellent’. In no case did the reply suggest that the relations were definitely unsatisfactory.”
That covers boroughs in England and Wales. It includes quite a number of small boroughs as well.
On the other hand, there are some local authorities which do not give anything like adequate facilities to the Press and where relations with the Press are unsatisfactory. Two instances have been referred to in the Committee where relations broke down for a short period during July of last year. But I still say emphatically that the majority of local authorities have good relations with the Press. Where relations are unsatisfactory it is usually in the case of small local authorities and, mainly, they are authorities which are Tory-controlled or independently-controlled. Almost without exception, and irrespective of political control, the relations of big local authorities with the Press are good.
In the case of a large number of small borough and urban and rural district authorities where there are hardly any Labour members as councillors the relations with the Press are bad because the councillors insist on committees of the council reporting to the general purposes committee first and having a discussion there, from which the Press is excluded, and the full meeting of the authority consists of the same members sitting as a council. I hope that in any code of conduct which may be devised that practice will be stopped.
Mr. D. Smith
I would not disagree that there are some bad local authorities. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that several of my hon. Friends who are supporting this Bill have received a long list of the names of local authorities where the relationship with the Press is bad? The list was supplied by the National Union of Journalists and the British Guild of Newspaper Editors.
I should be grateful if I could see a copy of the list. I should like to know which local authorities the journalists complain about, and it might be useful if the Committee had that information.
Could that list be included in the Official Report?[column 38]
I should like to see the list because I should like to know which local authorities journalists complain about. That would be better than having just the two examples which were given earlier in the discussion.
On a point of order, Sir Norman. I always understood that if a document was mentioned in a Committee, we had the right to ask that either it be laid or incorporated in the Official Report of the proceedings.
That applies only to debates in the House, not to Standing Committee debates.
I get the impression that the main reason behind the promotion of this Bill is to allow the Press the right of entry to meetings of certain local authority committees. Were that provision not, included I should have little objection to the Measure. But it seems that the main purpose of the Bill is to enable pressmen to attend meetings of committees. They seem to have the vague idea that some dirty work goes on there and that if they could report the proceedings and give them the full light of publicity it would be possible to clean up some of the “undercover work” done in local government. I do not know where that idea comes from.
I hope the Committee will agree to the Amendment and may I also express the hope that a code of conduct will be drawn up by the Minister and the Secretary of State for Scotland. If these Amendments are accepted I hope the code will not go so far as to give a right to pressmen to attend the committee meetings of local authorities. I hope it will make clear that the sort of practice which I have described, and which is being followed by some small Tory-controlled and independent-controlled councils, will not be tolerated.
The acceptance of the Amendment will make it a great deal easier for the Minister to get agreement with local authorities and other associations concerned. Despite all that was said about us representing all those interested in all aspects of the problem under discussion, it would be far easier for the Minister to get a code of conduct which laid down minimum standards. I hope that [column 39]a code of conduct, referred to by the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) can be provided in addition to the statutory provisions. I should be in favour of such code of conduct in addition to anything which is given statutory authority.
In view of what has been said about the alleged motive behind the promotion of this Bill, I should like to make one point. It must be within the knowledge of hon. Members on both sides of the Committee that legislation on similar lines to that provided in the Bill has been pressed for by newspaper organisations for a great many years, and from their point of view there is nothing new about it. It does not result from the unfortunate events which occurred within the last few months. The newspaper organisations have pressed for such legislation on the grounds of principle and not because of any allegations of bad relations between the Press and certain authorities or because of wrong actions on the part of individual authorities, although, of course, such things may have happened.
I have no authority to speak for the Press and I have now no interest in Fleet Street, but, as I understand it, the view of the Press—which is strongly supported by, at any rate, many hon. Members on this side of the Committee—is that it should, subject to proper safeguards, have some kind of rights in local authority committees, and in the other public bodies referred to in the Bill, similar to those which are enjoyed in respect of the proceedings of this Committee, for example, or in the House of Commons or in the courts where justices are sitting and so on. That right——
Order. I must ask the hon. Member to relate his argument to the Amendment. He appears to be making a Second Reading speech.
I am sorry, Sir Norman. I said that I proposed to make only one point about the attitude of the Press. I am not in favour of this Amendment because I agree that it is much better to have the kind of code we want in the Bill rather than in the form of delegated legislation. We have the opportunity in this Committee to amend the code as it has been drafted and to [column 40]improve it, if we can. I am in favour of the principle of the code being incorporated in the Bill. For that reason, I am opposed to the Amendment.
I was rather surprised that the hon. Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. D. Smith) said that many local authorities were not observing a reasonable code of conduct. On Second Reading the Minister said:
“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 …”
Therefore, it would be wrong to exaggerate the position. The hon. Gentleman's remarks clearly exaggerated it.
My hon. Friend's Amendment in page 1, line 8, provides for:
“a code of practice and conduct to be prescribed by the Minister of Housing and Local Government after consultation with the Press and with associations representative of local authorities, and other bodies exercising public functions.”
I will now quote another statement made by the Minister on Second Reading. I tried to quote it earlier, but I was then ruled out of order. He said:
“… my first action was going to be to see whether a code of good conduct, as honourable Members have 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. …” —[Official Report, 5th February, 1960; Vol. 616, c. 1431 and 1432.]
That is why I am so apprehensive about Clause 1, which includes subsection (2) which my hon. Friend the Member for Southall (Mr. Pargiter) seeks to delete. I am not apprehensive because I am opposed to the Press. I stated on Second Reading that my local authority—Birmingham—never excluded the Press. I was perhaps mistaken in saying never in thirty years, because I think that there was one occasion when the Press was excluded. But the Birmingham City Council has always admitted the Press to council meetings, to meetings of the Watch Committee and to meetings of the Education Committee. Nevertheless, there is very great [column 41]apprehension about some of the provisions in the Bill, which no doubt we will discuss later.
If it is true that there is the minority to which the Minister referred and if it is right that we should secure the full agreement of all associations, is it not better to proceed in the way that the Amendment suggests? The hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) did not refer to the innumerable difficulties which are, and will be, experienced by local authorities if the Bill goes through in its present form. Therefore, it would be much more satisfactory to accept the Amendment and to have a code of practice.
That does not mean that I think that it is better that the Minister should establish a code rather than that an Act of Parliament should do so. If a clear and unmistakable code could be written into the Bill—obviously that is what we shall try to do—something could be said for it. As I understand it, it will add to the cost and cause more confusion. No doubt we shall have much discussion on subsection (2), which my hon. Friend seeks to delete, about the meaning of “public interest” . The subsection is very wide.
Would not precisely the same point of confusion arise on the code? The only difference would be that we would not be able to consider the code.
Except for the Minister's idea of establishing a code after there has been full agreement with all the associations and after he has had, as he called it, the full backing of the associations.
Hon. Gentlemen opposite ignore completely the very serious criticisms which local authorities are making. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Kirkdale (Mr. N. Pannell) made the most grave reflection, as I understood it, upon the City Council of Liverpool. I am glad that he has now returned to the Committee. I hope that I did not hear him correctly. If I did, he said that the Liverpool City Council would never be prepared to carry out a code of conduct as prescribed. If so, that is the gravest reflection that I have ever heard made upon a city council.[column 42]
Mr. N. Pannell
I did not say that. I said that it was unlikely that the Council would observe a code of conduct if it failed to observe an Act of Parliament.
That is a general indictment. It means the same thing. It is a very serious reflection upon the City Council of Liverpool to say that it would not be likely to observe a code.
I have recounted the facts. The hon. Gentleman can draw his own conclusions. I emphasise that it is a Socialist-controlled City Council.
Mrs. Harriet Slater
That is the reason why the hon. Member is against it.
Did the journalists in Liverpool observe a code of conduct?
That is a matter for later discussion.
I am not concerned with whether it is a Socialist-controlled or Conservative-controlled authority. It could not be said that, because an authority was governed by one political party or another, it would in no circumstances be prepared to observe the code.
The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood me. I said that there are circumstances in which the City Council would not observe it. I did not say that there were no circumstances in which the Council would observe it.
That, again, is a reflection. If there are certain circumstances in which a corporation would not observe a Clause of this nature or an Act of Parliament, one can only say that there should be condemnation. I seriously think that the hon. Gentleman should submit far more evidence than he has submitted to the Committee this morning before he denigrates his own local authority, on which there must be many members of his own Party.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me once more. As you know, Sir Norman, you prevented me from giving the full chapter and verse. I hope that I shall have an opportunity of doing so on a later occasion. I had to abridge my remarks and give the main points.[column 43]
It is not good enough for the hon. Gentleman to say that the Amendment should be not be supported because of the Liverpool City Corporation, or any other Corporation, which he says would be unwilling to operate such a code of practice as outlined in the Amendment. I am rather surprised at the hon. Gentleman, and I think that he will regret having made such a sweeping assertion against a local authority.
The hon. Gentleman also stated that a good deal of experience was against the Amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Southall (Mr. Pargiter). He went on to refer to my hon. Friend as representing or advancing the views of the “softer South” . If I heard him aright on that, are not the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady prepared to examine carefully the memorandum which comes from the County Councils Association in which the views of the Parliamentary Committee of the Executive Council are clearly put forward? The County Councils Association says in Clause 1:
“That the procedures contemplated by the Bill will create considerable difficulties in administration and in the conduct of meetings as well as add to the cost and numbers of staff. They may even reduce facilities at present voluntarily afforded to the Press. It would be much more satisfactory for local authorities to be enjoined to observe a code of conduct prescribed by the Minister of Housing and Local Government after consultation with the Associations representing local authorities (and other bodies) and with representatives of the Press” .
That is why the Association is in favour of an Amendment such as that moved by my hon. Friend. I take it that the County Councils Association represents not only local authorities in the “softer South” , as the hon. Gentleman called them, but authorities in the North also.
To take it even further, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Scotstoun (Mr. Small) referred to the Scottish County Councils Association. I do not think that he referred to the beginning of its Memorandum, which says:
“Prior to the Bill obtaining a Second Reading in the House of Commons on 5th February, 1960, the Association had made it clear to the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Scottish Home Department that it was opposed to the provisions of the Bill. The Association made it quite clear that the action of a handful of local authorities” ——
[column 44]I stress the words “a handful” , because I do not believe that these exaggerated reports are correct—
“in excluding reporters from their meetings did not commend itself to the majority of local authorities. It was the view of the Association, however, that it was quite wrong that the Press and its friends should call for legislation, which must of course affect all local authorities, when their grievances were local and few. The Association would have preferred that a Code of Practice should be drawn up to regulate the admission of the Press to meetings of local authorities.”
That is fundamental evidence on which the hon. Lady should comment.
Mr. F. V. Corfield
Will the hon. Member agree that it is the function of the House of Commons to consider the views of the public, and not merely the views of representatives of local authority associations. The whole question of the admission of the Press is tied up with what the right of the public is to know what is going on. We should not get away from the fact that we represent the public and not merely a series of local authorities.
How many letters have been received by all hon. Members present from members of the public, as distinct from the Press?
Very many indeed.
The hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield) is right in pointing out that our primary duty is to represent the public and that we should weigh up all relevant facts. If he says that the County Councils Association and the Scottish County Councils Association, representing thirty-three burghs in Scotland, are not fit and proper bodies to consider——
I am not saying that.
—or put forward the views of the public in England and Wales or in Scotland, it would not be correct. Any association which disregarded the views of the public would be asking for trouble.
May I point out to my hon. Friend that the concern for the public interest was an afterthought. He will see from the original document which contained the first list of Amendments that that was the first time it was heard of. It was then that it was suggested that the word “public” should [column 45]be substituted for “Press” . I rather suspect that it might have been at the behest of the Minister of Housing and Local Government.
May I correct that? I instructed the draftsman to include the public, but he was not able to do so because of the Long Title.
Could we be clear about that? Does the hon. Lady mean when she presented the Bill or subsequent to the Second Reading?
I am talking about the drafting, and I instructed the draftsman to include the public, but he informed me that he was unable to do so because of the Long Title.
Who drafted the Long Title?
I am afraid that I drafted the Long Title, having been here about a fortnight.
From my own experience, having myself served for six years on the Birmingham City Council, I know all about both the Press and the public being admitted to meetings, and I do not quarrel about that. What I do quarrel with is that here we have a Clause which is sweeping, which means that every committee and sub-committee of a local authority must admit both the public and the Press if one of these Amendments is accepted, without any consideration as to whether such a practice is one which is acceptable, instead of the more reasonable course of obtaining the unanimous views, as the Minister himself is trying to do, of the authorities on these matters, before proceeding with such a tremendous change in our present practice, which seems to me to have been ill thought out.
For that reason, and I do not say this because I am against the Press—I am in favour of the Press being admitted within reason and in certain circumstances—I feel very strongly that it is not only these associations but many more bodies which will realise how difficult it will be for this to be administered in its present form. I would prefer that this subsection should be deleted at present, and that there should be an examination of the matter in conjunction with the [column 46]local authorities. I think that that is what the Minister wants. I supported this view in the House, and, surely, we can proceed in that way. Perhaps the Minister himself may have something to say about this.
I resent the suggestion of one hon. Member that this a wrecking attempt. It is not, but we feel very strongly about this. We think that this method of procedure is wrong, and we should do our best to get the right one written into the Bill.
Mr. D. Smith
The hon. Gentleman has referred to an interruption I made, and has taken me to task for saying that many local authorities were defaulting in their relations with the public and the Press. It was suggested that these were only a minority of local authorities. Would the hon. Gentleman agree with the view that even if they are minorities, a minority is not necessarily small, but that it could be quite large?
I could not give the exact figure, but I think he would be quite wrong in saying that there would be a long list of such local authorities.
The hon. Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. D. Smith) referred to a list supplied by the National Union of Journalists. Could it be made available to the Committee, because it has an important bearing on the matter?
I have no power to ask the hon. Member to do that.
This is a serious matter which has been raised by the hon. Member for Brentford and Chiswick. I think it is important that we should get the document to which he refers and that it should be laid before the Committee today, and not next Wednesday.
I have no power to compel the hon. Member to do this. Hon. Members make statements on their own responsibility. So far as I heard the hon. Member, he said that he had received a letter from some organisation or other, but I did not hear him quoting specifically from it.
Perhaps it would be convenient to the Committee, after an hour and a half of debate, if I gave the [column 47]Government's view on this linked series of Amendments. I do so against the background of the fact that the House of Commons, on a free vote which cut across party lines, gave a Second Reading to this Bill by 152 votes to 59, a substantial majority, which I think must indicate to all of us, even though we legitimately take different views, that it was the wish of the House that something different and better should be substituted for the 1908 Act, which this Bill repeals.
My hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) is responsible for the content of this Bill, and I say frankly to the Committee, as I said in the House, that I should be sorry indeed, as Minister of Housing and Local Government, if the House were to pass a Bill which either were to impose intolerable administrative difficulties on local authorities or other public bodies or were to render impossible the admirable practice which now exists whereby officers of local authorities are able to advise, freely and objectively, the members of their local authorities. I believe that we are all at one on that, and I hope we shall examine the Bill as it goes on with this and other tests in mind.
In the course of our debate on the Amendment, it seems to me that there has been some confusion in the minds of a number of hon. Members who have spoken about the code embodied in this Amendment as though it would be a compulsory code; but, of course, it would not be. The kind of code which I sought to commend, either to be superimposed on this Bill or on the 1908 Act, was essentially a voluntary code. Indeed, I take the view that there is only a minimum which one can impose successfully by legislation.
I hope that I carry the whole Committee with me when I say that there are really two stages, or two steps. There is a minimum, laid down by Parliament, at present embodied in the 1908 Act, and then one would hope that there would be a higher and fuller but completely acceptable code of conduct—whatever sort of document it is enshrined in and whoever has drawn it up—that would be recognised by all the public bodies mentioned in the Schedule to the Bill as something to which they would adhere, even though [column 48]there were no statutory sanction behind it.
I can see little virtue in the concept contained in this Amendment of a statutory code. Let us make no mistake; that is what the Amendment seeks—a code to be arrived at outside the House and then to be given statutory force by an Act of Parliament. I cannot believe that that concept has virtue. Nor do I see how we could make that more than a minimum or impose on a statutorily negotiated code another voluntarily negotiated code, though I believe that it is the latter which we should all like to see operating.
There are material objections to the Amendment. I must say that I have been extremely surprised to find anybody commending to a Committee of this House an Amendment which would empower the Minister of Housing and Local Government to lay down a code of practice and conduct for Scotsmen. But, in addition to that, in the first paragraph of the Schedule to the Bill, there are a number of authorities with which I could not seek to negotiate to get a code of conduct with the local authorities. It is not for me to seek to negotiate a code of conduct with bodies constituted under the National Health Service Act or the Criminal Justice Act. Nor would I expect that the Metropolitan Water Board would be disposed to accept a code of conduct which I had negotiated with the local authority associations.
If this concept were to be adopted, something far more complicated than this Amendment would be required, because different codes would have to be negotiated and made statutory, I strongly suspect, not only for Scotland, as distinct from England and Wales, but for a number of specific bodies mentioned in the Schedule. However, that is a criticism of the form of the Amendment. The fundamental criticism which I have is the one mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley.
May I interrupt the Minister on the point he has just made about the form of the Amendment? The Amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Southall, which we are also discussing—not the one which he has moved—fully recognises the point which the Minister has just made, in that it [column 49]says that amongst the bodies which the Minister should consult are—
“associations representative of local authorities, and other bodies exercising public functions.”
The Metropolitan Water Board could be quite easily dealt with through the Association of Waterworks Organisations. The Minister has a point here, but I would have thought that the Amendment was already wide enough to cover it.
I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman has said, but I was seeking to establish that most of the discussion in the Committee was upon the basis that this would be one straightforward code of conduct, whereas I have made the point, which I think is undeniable, that one would have to negotiate a number of separate codes of conduct, certainly one for Scotland, as distinct from England and Wales—and I would not dare enter into that—and probably, unless they were suitable, for several of these bodies mentioned in the Schedule separately.
The main and fundamental objection is that if the Committee were to accept this Amendment, it would be delegating the content of an Act of Parliament to the Minister. This is Private Member's legislation. It is not a Government Bill, and it may be that that is what the Committee or the House would wish to do. I must say as Minister, however, that I would not care to accept the responsibility of deciding, after these various negotiations, what should be the law on the subject. That is what the Committee is doing. The Government certainly would not have made a proposition of that sort. As Minister, I say that unless there was an overwhelming indication of opinion from the House of Commons that it was the desire of the House that the Minister rather than Parliament should decide what the law was to be, it is not a responsibility that I would assume.
The hon. Member for Ladywood (Mr. V. Yates) said that he wanted to get into the Bill a clear and unmistakable code, but that is exactly what the Amendment would not do. The code, whatever form it took, would be outside the Bill, and the Bill would simply give statutory authority in advance to a code which then, in effect, the Minister or Ministers would settle. [column 50]
I appreciate the motives of those who support the Amendment. I know that they are dissatisfied with the Bill and are seeking to improve it. I hope we are all seeking to improve it, and not to obstruct it. I am willing to consider sympathetically any Amendments that would improve the content of the Bill, but I would ask the Committee to consider very carefully before imposing on a Minister or Ministers the full responsibility of deciding after consultations what the law of the land should be.
I agree with a substantial amount of what the Minister said about delegated legislation as such, and I made the point earlier in my remarks. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the need—and I am inclined to agree completely with him on this—for several codes of conduct, one governing local authorities in England and Wales, one for local authorities in Scotland, one for water boards, one for hospitals, and codes also for the other bodies mentioned in the Schedule, as well as others which in my view should be but are not in it.
The right hon. Gentleman, however, has said that if the matter is left to him he will have to decide what the law should be. I can appreciate his unwillingness to do that, if it can be avoided. I can appreciate his unwillingness to have that burden placed on his shoulders, but he said that he would have to make different laws for different types of local authorities and for the different bodies mentioned in the Schedule. If we accept that as a point made against the Amendment, then I submit that it is a very strong point against the Bill itself, because the words which we are seeking to take out and to replace by the Amendment will apply to all the bodies named in the Schedule.
There is no suggestion that the statutory provisions that will be in the Bill, if it is approved as it stands, should be different for local authorities in England and Scotland or for the hospitals, the Metropolitan Water Board or any other organisations. Whilst I accept the Minister's view, I submit that it must be carried through logically to other parts of the Bill which I am trying to remove.[column 51]
The flaw in that argument is that a code such as the hon. Gentleman is suggesting should be delegated statutorily and which the Minister suggests should follow voluntarily from legislation would be a full code of conduct and would embrace a wide variety of different bodies. But in the Bill this is not a code but a minimum statutory provision which we are laying down with a common ground for all the different local authorities named in the Schedule.
I see no reason why it is necessary that a code of conduct which is to have statutory force should contain any more detail than is contained in the Bill. My own hope is that it will contain rather less, and I made clear earlier that I hope that such a code of conduct would not give the Press the right of admission to certain local authorities—an admission to which I am 100 per cent. opposed. And I have not yet heard a single argument which supports that right of admission.
I think that a code of conduct could be drawn up to cover all the bodies concerned. If it cannot, I maintain that we cannot have one or two Clauses in the Bill which would cover all the bodies concerned. Hon. Members opposite cannot have it both ways. Either we must have a separate provision in the code of conduct of minimum standards for all bodies concerned, or separate provisions in the Bill for all the bodies concerned. One of my arguments in the case against the Bill is that it covers too wide a range of bodies and lumps them together, instead of providing different codes for different kinds of bodies.
I shall be very brief. I have listened to most of the debate. It seems to me that a code of practice as such implicitly means by the words that it should be voluntary. A legally imposed code of practice as suggested in the Amendment is a contradiction in terms. We know that the codes of practice which exist in professional bodies are of a voluntary nature. Therefore, if we are to have a legally imposed code of practice the words contradict themselves. It is far better for the Bill to proceed as it is and for us to have the Clause amended subsequently if necessary than that we should adopt the suggestion that something which ought to be done [column 52]voluntarily should be done by compulsion. I understand the purpose in the mind of the hon. Member for Southall (Mr. Pargiter) in bringing this matter forward. I have a great deal of sympathy with it, but, with respect, I think that it is making a large mountain out of a small molehill.
I was rather surprised at the arguments put forward by the Minister. No one would accuse the right hon. Gentleman of having lacked courage in the past in bringing undesirable legislation before the House of Commons, and indeed bulldozing it through very successfully. We must give him full marks for his courage, and that is why I am surprised that he appears to lack courage in this matter.
What happens with a great deal of legislation? It is very frequently the subject of discussion with local authorities before it is even formulated. The local authorities put their views to the Minister and the Minister puts his views to the local authority associations and there are discussions. The result is that we have legislation which is considered generally by all the parties to be necessary and desirable. I do not know why the Minister in this case should object to what is becoming largely accepted practice.
The Minister says, “Why place on my shoulders a responsibility which should rest on Parliament, because Parliament has given the Bill a Second Reading?” But in effect that is what happens with regulations. It may be anathema to hon. Members that we get so much government by regulation, but the greater part of legislation today is dealt with in the form of regulations. It is accepted by Parliament in our present complicated life that we must have regulations. Parliament formulates the principles and the Minister prepares the regulation and then lays them before the House of Commons.
The final responsibility is with the House as to whether it accepts the regulations or not, under the positive or negative form of procedure. There is nothing wrong with that. It is accepted practice and if hon. Members do not like it they must do something about it. There is nothing in the Amendment in page 1, line 8, which refers to a code of practice, about compulsion on the Minister. It [column 53]refers to his prescribing a code of practice and conduct
“ … after consultation with the Press and with associations representative of local authorities, and other bodies exercising public functions.”
In other words, the right hon. Gentleman is not bound entirely by the nature of the discussions which he has with these bodies.
No Minister could possibly agree to be bound in that way, nor does the Amendment seek to bind him. The Amendment says that he shall seek to consult, and after consultation prescribe. He will then submit for discussion in Parliament a code of regulations which he will be satisfied will be generally acceptable to the House. He is under no less or greater obligation in connection with the Amendment than he is with any other type of legislation which instructs or authorises the Minister to make regulations. Therefore, from that point of view alone there does not seem very much in the Minister's case.
In spite of the fact that I have given the right hon. Gentleman credit for courage in many directions, he does not appear to have the courage of his convictions in this matter. If he had, I am sure that he would have been far more outspoken and that he would have regarded the Bill, in relation to the local authority associations, as something of a mischievous Bill. The right hon. Gentleman is inclined to make the position infinitely more difficult for the future and perhaps his own position more difficult in relation to the associations.
It is true that if we are to have a code of conduct it will have to be one with different applications to different types of body. The necessity for flexibility is admitted, and then those responsible for the Bill proceed to put the whole lot in a straightjacket, never mind what they are or what their circumstances. If it is argued that we must have more than one code of conduct, that argument cannot be used in favour of the Bill. If the Minister says that he does not like the Amendment, and we do not like the Bill, and he hopes on Third Reading that the House will have none of it, we shall be very happy. In those circumstances, the sooner we have a Third Reading and the Minister comes out into the open, the happier we shall be. We shall know where the Government stand in this [column 54]matter. If the Front Bench opposite were less susceptible to the more reactionary back-benchers opposite, that might happen.
The hon. Lady the Member for Finchley said she opposed the Amendment simply on the grounds that it was not the duty of Parliament to delegate responsibility for the making of laws. That is perfectly true and accepted, but what is the purpose of laws? It is to regulate people and bodies who cannot be regulated in other ways. I may be very new to all this, but I have always understood—and before I came to the House of Commons—that the basic principle of law-making is that we do not make laws simply for the sake of making them but because they are necessary.
We on this side of the Committee say that, strictly speaking, the provision in this Bill is not necessary. Since the Bill has had a Second Reading we shall do our best to make it operative, but it is certainly putting forward a new concept to suggest that it is the duty of the House of Commons always to make laws and that if someone says that a Bill is not necessary that is to be regarded as abrogating the duty of law-making. It is nothing of the kind.
All laws are restrictive and I should have thought that hon. Members opposite would wish to have fewer laws which are restrictive of the individual. If the argument against the Amendment is that it is necessary to have the Bill for the sake of the formulation of laws, I hope that the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley will reconsider the matter. There was a letter from the National and Local Government Officers' Association which the hon. Lady referred to but has not yet quoted.
The hon. G. A. PargiterMember shall have it tomorrow.
Yes, and perhaps we can have it on the record. Members of N.A.L.G.O. are probably not the very senior members of staffs of local authorities, who are very much concerned about the operation of the Bill. Would not the hon. Lady like to write to town clerks, or to the Society of Clerks of the Peace of Counties and of Clerks of County Councils, who will be mainly concerned with the Bill, and ask them [column 55-56]if they are in favour of it? If the hon. Lady wants an objective view, she should not be quite so ex parte as to quote a body which, in the absence of full knowledge, expresses views which may be contrary to those of more senior members of local authority staffs. But we shall come back to this, and later we shall come to the increasing difficulties which are the basic reason for my having put forward the Amendment.
Some reference has been made to a very notable city and to its attitude in the past in one particular instance. But when one starts talking about people's bad behaviour and one confines it to one instance, the assumption is that they are generally well-behaved. One must accept that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Kirkdale (Mr. N. Pannell) did not mean to impugn the honour and sense of justice of Liverpool City Council as a whole.
Mr. Pannell indicated assent.
Mrs. Thatcher rose in her place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.
Question put, That the Question be now put:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 15, Noes 8.
Division No. 2.]
Bishop, F. P.
Bowen, Roderic (Cardigan)
Brooke, Rt. Hon. Henry
Corfield, F. V.
Galbraith, Hon. T. G. D.
Iremonger, T. L.
Jenkins, Robert (Dulwich)
Pannell, Norman (Kirkdale)
Smith, Dudley (Br'ntf'd & Chiswick)
Thatcher, Mrs. Margaret
Pargiter, G. A.
Reynolds, G. W.
Slater, Mrs. Harriet (Stoke, N.)
Stewart, Michael (Fulham)
Symonds, J. B.
Wilkins, W. A.
Yates, Victor (Ladywood)
Question put accordingly, That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Clause:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 16. Noes 7. Division No. 3.]
Bishop, F. P.
Bowen, Roderic (Cardigan)
Brooke, Rt. Hon. Henry
Corfield, F. V.
Galbraith, Hon. T. G. D.
Iremonger, T. L.
Jenkins, Robert (Dulwich)
Pannell, Norman (Kirkdale)
Smith, Dudley (Br'ntf'd & Chiswick)
Stewart, Michael (Fulham)
Thatcher, Mrs. Margaret
Pargiter, G. A.
Reynolds, G. W.
Slater, Mrs. Harriet (Stoke, N.)
Symonds, J. B.
Wilkins, W. A.
Yates, Victor (Ladywood)
It being after One o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Committee adjourned till Wednesday next, 23rd March, 1960, at 10.30 a.m. [column 57]
The following Members attended the Committee:
Hulbert, Sir Norman (Chairman)
Brooke, Mr. H.
Glyn, Dr. A.
Hall, Mr. Glenvil
Jenkins, Mr. Robert
Pannell, Mr. N.
Smith, Mr. D.
Stewart, Mr. M.
Williams, Mr. Dudley
Yates, Mr. V.