PUBLIC BODIES (ADMISSION OF THE PRESS TO MEETINGS) BILL
STANDING COMMITTEE C
Wednesday, 23rd March, 1960
[Sir Norman Hulbert in the Chair]
Clause 1.—(Admission of press to meetings of local authorities and other bodies.)
Mrs. Margaret Thatcher
I beg to move, in page 1, line 8, to leave out “press” and to insert “public” .
Hon. Members will be aware of the shortcomings of the Title as at present drafted. When I drafted the Long Title I followed precedents in existing Acts and also the precedent of previous attempts by private Members to bring the Local Authorities (Admission of the Press to Meetings) Act, 1908, up to date. Such Titles made no reference to the public, and, therefore, when I came to draft the detailed provisions of the Bill, I was very perturbed to find that I could not include in the Bill a provision to enable the public as of right to attend meetings of local authorities.
By various procedures of which the Committee will be aware, there is now an opportunity to remedy this defect. The object of this Amendment and the consequential Amendments is to enable the Bill to apply, in the first place, to the admission of the public and then to give the Press only such special rights as are necessary in order to enable it to perform its task of reporting to the public properly. Such special facilities as are found in Clause 1 (3, b and c) would remain, but, apart from that, the word “public” would be inserted instead of the word “Press” . Public bodies and their committees would have precisely the same rights to exclude the public as in the Bill as it now stands are given to exclude the Press. I trust that the Committee will accept the Amendment.
The Committee will observe that there are a large number of consequential Amendments dealing [column 60]with the same point. It might be convenient for the Committee to discuss with the hon. Lady's Amendment the Amendment to it in the name of the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Wilkins), after “public” , insert:
“whenever reasonable facilities for accommodating the public can be provided” .
Mr. Victor Yates
On a point of order, Sir Norman. I am not quite clear what you have in mind. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Wilkins) has tabled an Amendment to the hon. Lady's Amendment. Is that to be discussed at the same time?
I think it would be convenient for the Committee to discuss it at the same time as the hon. Lady's Amendment, but I am in the hands of the Committee.
Mr. W. A. Wilkins
Do you desire that I should move it now, Sir Norman?
No, but the hon. Gentleman can speak to it now, and, of course, if he wishes, there can be a Division on his Amendment.
In that case, I will say the few things which I have in mind about it now. My Amendment to the proposed Amendment is very important inasmuch as there are, without question, many local authorities which just do not have the accommodation to provide for both the Press and the public or one or the other. Further, I think an explanation of the legal position will be required, assuming that the Amendment of the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) is carried.
If the hon. Lady's Amendment and the consequential Amendments are made, that is to say, if the word “public” takes the place of the word “Press” , we may well be confronted with the problem of distinguishing between the two. The hon. Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. D. Smith), in an observation which he made earlier in our proceedings on the Bill, referred to the fact that the Press considered itself to be the public. In my view, a great deal of confusion can arise.
Hon. Members generally, particularly those who have served on local authorities such as urban district councils and parish councils, will know that many of [column 61]them often have a severe lack of accommodation. Indeed, this has been admitted already during the course of our debates. Therefore, we must consider whether we should, by legislation, compel many local authorities throughout the country to provide additional accommodation to enable them to meet the commitments which will result from the passage of this Bill. It will be a serious matter.
Only last week, a few hours after our sitting, one hon. Member came to me and said that in his city, a very large and highly industrialised city, the local authority, owing to lack of accommodation—it may seem rather astonishing in such a large city—often had to hold committee meetings in the town clerk's office. He asked this very question, “Will it be necessary, as long as we have to do this, to make provision for the public and the Press or for one or the other?”
I emphasise the seriousness of the matter by instancing what happened in my own city until two or three years ago. We had what we thought was fairly commodious local authority accommodation. We had a very large council chamber. But when 112 members were present in the chamber, with all the desks which had to be provided, even the Press itself, although reasonably provided for, had to be accommodated down just one side of the chamber by the wall. There was no public accommodation whatever until we provided our new municipal building in which we incorporated a public gallery. This, I suggest, shows the desire of local authorities, where they possibly can, to make provision to enable the public to hear their debates, which are, I think all hon. Members will agree, an important feature of local government.
I tell the hon. Lady at once that I am not opposed to her Amendment as such. In my view, it is very desirable that the public should be admitted to the meetings of local authorities and to the meetings of a fair number of committees, though there will be points of disagreement on certain matters. What I have just said about my own local authority goes for most local authorities throughout the country; they would wish to provide the accommodation, but whether they can do it is another matter, especially in [column 62]the smaller places where it would be quite a costly business to make such accommodation available.
Next, what will be the legal position? I have known meetings of local authorities in quite small rooms, rooms half the size of the smallest committee room in this building or even smaller. At such meetings, when what accommodation there is is occupied by members who are entitled to attend, there may be room for only a card table and one chair for a representative of the Press. When the wording is changed from “Press” , to “public” , who will have priority of admission to the meeting? Would the admission of a member of the public or one representative of the Press, which calls itself the public, constitute legal fulfilment of the requirements in the Bill when it becomes an Act? It is very important to know whether finding one odd corner in a very tiny room for one person, either a representative of the Press or a member of the public, would satisfy the requirements of the Bill.
I believe that what is here suggested will cause a great deal of trouble to local authorities if they are required to fulfil the conditions of the Bill and are thereby put to considerable expense in providing new buildings or structural alterations to their existing buildings in order to accommodate members of either the Press or the public or both. I await with interest the observations of the hon. Lady about that. Perhaps the Minister of Housing and Local Government will tell us what financial aid he would give local authorities if they were involved in any extensive building operations in order to comply with the provisions of the Bill.
I think I have shortly and plainly stated what I see as a fundamental objection to the hon. Lady's Amendment as it stands. It is only an objection, really, from the material point of view and I do not make it in order to frustrate the purpose of admitting either the Press or the public because, as I hope to say in due course, I am completely in sympathy with the object of admitting the public and the Press to these meetings. I hope to enlarge on that later. There are certain conditions, qualifications and responsibilities attaching to the admission of Press or public, but, on this simple [column 63]point of the physical difficulties, particularly in parish and urban local authorities, I feel that my Amendment should be made. I do not think that it applies quite so much to the boroughs, which may have sufficient financial resources to enable them to comply with the requirements of the Bill, but I can envisage a fair amount of trouble being caused in the smaller local authorities.
I await with interest what the hon. Lady has to say and, with all respect to her, I await with even more interest what the Minister of Housing and Local Government may be able to say by way of promise to local authorities which have to involve themselves in expenditure in order to fulfil the requirements of the Bill.
The Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs (Mr. Henry Brooke)
I think it may be convenient for the Committee if I rise at this stage. The hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Wilkins) has referred to me, and, naturally, I read with interest and care the Amendment which stands in his name.
As to the Amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), I hardly think that there will be any dispute in the Committee that if we are to have a Bill to admit the Press to certain bodies, it should extend to the public, too. The hon. Member for Bristol, South has raised various questions about the legal consequences if his Amendment is not written into the Bill and my hon. Friend's Amendment is accepted. I have taken advice about that.
The advice available to me is that, if my hon. Friend's Amendment is accepted, the result will be to place on the public bodies and their committees as may be set down in the Bill the duty of admitting the public and the Press. They will not be able to fulfil their statutory duty by having one reporter in and saying that he is the public.
The Minister says that they will not?
They would not. In order to make the matter clear, I will remind the Committee that reporters would be entitled to admission because they are specially mentioned in Clause [column 64]1 (3, c), and it would not be open to a body to exclude reporters on the ground they were members of the public and that all the accommodation was already occupied by members of the public who had got in before them, because, in that event, subsection (3, c) would be infringed. Nor would it be open to the body concerned to refuse to admit members of the general public because the seats were occupied by reporters.
I should like to get this point clear, because it is rather important. What the Minister is saying, in effect, is that, although the Bill, if amended, will cover the public, the Press will have first priority of admission. The Minister has said that because of subsection (3, c) a local authority could not refuse admission to the Press. What he is saying is that the Press has first priority of admission.
No. The hon. Member has not got it quite right. The reporters and the public will have a right. That right is well represented in these Committee rooms, because there are places for reporters and places for the public. If the public gallery is full, that does not entitle members of the public to occupy the seats set aside for the Press. Nor would it be proper, if members of the Press attended one of these Committees in enormous numbers, to say that only reporters could come in and that provision could not be made for the public.
I appreciate the concern of the hon. Member, but this will work quite easily if the bodies concerned make the normal arrangements which are common at meetings of all sorts, namely, to have seats available for the public and for the Press. How many seats would have to be provided would depend on the circumstances. If the Bill is passed with my hon. Friend's Amendment, there will be no statutory obligation on these bodies to provide seats for every person who wants to attend. We do not dream of doing that in the House of Commons: yet we claim, justifiably, that we sit in public. The Standing Committees sit in public, but if, by some extraordinary chance, so many members of the public wished to listen to our proceedings that they could not all get into the room, [column 65]I am advised that the proceedings would not be invalidated, because there would be no doubt that we were debating in a manner open to the public.
If my hon. Friend's Amendment is accepted, it must follow that the obligation is to provide such accommodation as is reasonable having regard to all the circumstances, including the nature of the body, the functions and the premises available to it. I agree that many small authorities have only limited accommodation at their disposal, but the ordinary small authority does not meet in a large and capacious building.
There are one or two points on which I should like to comment. It is legitimate to expect the local authorities and other important bodies mentioned in the Schedule to meet in a place which allows reasonable accommodation for the public. When I attended a meeting of a borough council, not in London, I was told afterwards by the Mayor that I was the only member of the public who had ever sought to attend a council meeting in living memory. Also, I was a visitor to the place, not a resident. Nevertheless, it would be incompatible with the ordinary procedure to expect any council to arrange its meetings in such a way that no member of the public could get in. I therefore think that no unreasonable obligation would be imposed if my hon. Friend's Amendment were accepted, carrying with it an obligation to provide reasonable accommodation for the public. So much for the bodies themselves as distinct from their committees.
Not all committees of local authorities are caught by the Bill. One or two hon. Members a week ago spoke as if they were. The committees that are caught are those whose normal functions include a substantial amount of delegated work. I should say that in local government generally committees of the larger authorities are more likely to fall into that category than committees of smaller local authorities. In my experience, small local authorities have little cause to delegate functions to their committees. Delegation is pursued when a local authority has such a burden of work that it could not complete its full council meeting if every decision had to be taken in full council. Therefore, under its standing orders, it provides for certain delegation to committees. [column 66]
However, as I say, smaller local authorities do not have cause to do that. Such a measure would not be popular with the members of the committee. The load of work for the council is not intolerably heavy as it is. There is no material reason why such committees should not have discussion and then put their recommendations to the council for the council to reach decisions on them. In such a case, the committee would not be caught by the Bill, because it would not have a substantial amount of work delegated to it. We are thinking of the committees of larger authorities.
I grant to the hon. Member for Bristol, South that the committee rooms of smaller local authorities may be cramped, but I should have thought that all larger authorities could so organise their arrangements that there would be room at the meetings of their committees which discharge delegated functions to admit both the Press and the public. I agree that some rearrangement may have to be made. It is premature to discuss this, but if evidence appeared that it would not be possible to get all the arrangements made by September, having in mind the date when the Bill receives Royal Assent, I would think that it was not unreasonable to look at the date of commencement of the Measure to ensure that after the Bill received Royal Assent there was time for each local authority to work out its arrangements. One might take 1st January instead of September. I am sure that these objections are not insurmountable.
I think that it would be unwise for two reasons if the Committee were to write into the Bill words such as those suggested by the hon. Member for Bristol, South. First, I am advised, and I must advise the Committee, that the Bill as drafted goes no further than to require the bodies concerned to provide reasonable accommodation. It is difficult to believe that either the bodies concerned or their committees exercising delegated functions meet in rooms so small that it is impossible to provide even a few seats for the public or Press.
There is, however, another reason why I must advise the Committee not to write into the Bill the words suggested by the hon. Member, namely, that it would imply that the public and the Press could be excluded from the meetings [column 67]of a full council purely and simply through lack of accommodation. That should not be so. Whatever the law, I should have thought that it would be accepted on both sides of the Committee that such bodies ought to meet in public and provide reasonable accommodation for the public. If we were to write these words into the Bill, it would suggest that the public could be legitimately excluded through lack of accommodation. I suggest that the possibility of total exclusion of the public because of lack of accommodation should not be either contemplated or written into the Bill.
That is the best advice that I can give the Committee. I have put at the disposal of hon. Members the understanding that I have of these matters. I can assure the hon. Member for Bristol, South that my hon. Friend's Amendment would not require a local authority to provide a seat for every member of the public who cared to attend. Nor could there be any question of Government grants for this purpose. Indeed, the average local authority would be insulted if it were told that it was thought reasonable to provide accommodation for the public unless the taxpayer gave them the money.
Let the right hon. Gentleman tell them that.
Local authorities have their pride. The vast majority of them are anxious to play fair by the public, and I do not think that even Bristol could establish a further claim on public funds on this account.
I am staggered at the Minister's answer. He seems to imagine that this is a very small matter, especially as it affects larger authorities. I am sure that every hon. Member would agree that if the Press is admitted to meetings of a public body, the public should also be admitted. But what is the problem with which we are faced?
My experience has been with a large authority, the kind which the Minister has in mind. What does the Minister mean by saying that such authorities should make normal arrangements? The Birmingham authority makes normal arrangements for the admission of the Press to council meetings. There are twelve city council meetings each year [column 68]in Birmingham. We have a public gallery, and reasonable facilities are provided. There has been, to my knowledge, a very large public attendance at the city council meetings in Birmingham for the last thirty years. Arrangements have to be made to regulate the public coming in and going out. The police, for instance, have to be there.
The Birmingham education committee also meets with the Press present, but it meets in the council chamber, and, therefore, the public gallery is available. If the Press and public are admitted to every committee and sub-committee, which would be largely the case in Birmingham, we shall be faced with a very serious problem. Last year there were 367 meetings of committees in Birmingham. We have 33 standing committees, and most of them deal with delegated matters. We also have a very considerable number of sub-committees. Besides the 367 meetings of committees, there were 1,281 meetings of sub-committees.
If the hon. Member will forgive me for interrupting him, I do not read anything about sub-committees in the Bill.
Mr. William Small
The Bill refers to “any meeting” .
We have to be quite clear about this because the Bill refers to
“any meeting of a local authority.”
The anxiety of Birmingham is that the Bill will refer to meetings of sub-committees dealing with matters delegated to them.
Mr. Robert Jenkins
I should like clarification on this. The hon. Member has given the actual figures of the number of meetings of committees and sub-committees of Birmingham Corporation. Is it possible for him to tell us how many of those would be affected by the Bill? The Bill would apply not to all the sub-committees or committees but to those which have work delegated to them.
I cannot give the exact figures offhand, but I could get that information. I have pointed out that there are thirty-three standing committees of the city council. Some meet monthly and some fortnightly. Those committees do not meet with the Press [column 69]present. If they and the sub-committees had to meet with the Press and public present an alarming situation would arise over the accommodation. We have no definition of the word “meeting” . The acting town clerk of Birmingham used these words, which I hope the Minister will note:
“It will be difficult enough to find accommodation for the Press in the committee rooms in Birmingham and it would be quite impossible to arrange facilities for the general public.”
That is assuming that at all these meetings of committees and sub-committees—1,648 in total—accommodation had to be provided for the Press and the public. It is utterly fantastic and could not be accepted for a moment. Look at the enormous expense which would be thrown on the local authority in making provision for meetings of this kind. If the Minister thinks that he can compel a large city like Birmingham to spend thousands of pounds on different types of accommodation and on provision of personnel to regulate the public coming in and out of committees and sub-committees without any contribution being made from the Exchequer, he is barking up entirely the wrong tree.
This is a very serious matter. It would be quite impossible to provide the kind of facility for those meetings that we can provide for meetings of the city council. I believe the public should be admitted to meetings of public bodies. It would have been more satisfactory if we had said that the city council should meet in public and that every committee should report to it at least twice a year so that any matter concerning the committee could be discussed in public, which is what is done in Birmingham.
Mr. Martin Maddan
If that were done surely we should be back right where we were before. The whole matter would merely be decided at a council meeting, perhaps by a unanimous vote. There would be no discussion if the councillors present did not wish the matter to be discussed.
The hon. Member is quite ignorant of what happens in large councils like that of the City of Birmingham. He must be ignorant of that to make such a statement. Every committee of [column 70]the city council is obliged by standing order to report to the council twice every year and it is competent for every member of the council to raise any matter. I have myself raised many matters on which chairmen of the committees report, ranging over the whole of the departments. Other councils can do the same.
That is clearly safeguarded, but if we were to write into the Bill that the Press shall be admitted to every meeting of an authority where powers are delegated we should impose an almost impossible burden on larger authorities. It might not be so difficult for smaller authorities, but it is quite impossible for a city authority as large as Birmingham, which has thousands of meetings of committees and sub-committees, to see to it that the Press and public are always present. It is utterly absurd and ridiculous. The council would not be more efficient but would be lumbered with a lot of paper work and officialdom which would be quite unnecessary for it to carry out its legitimate functions in an efficient and proper manner. If the Minister or the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) have not a different interpretation of the purpose in asking that all meetings which have powers delegated to them must have facilities for the Press and the public to attend, the burden on local authorities will be unnecessary and cumbersome.
Mr. Leonard Cleaver
I think the hon. Member for Ladywood (Mr. V. Yates) has exaggerated the position. It is quite true that the City of Birmingham delegates a great deal of its authority. I think it has the reputation of being the most delegating authority outside the City of London. The hon. Member suggested that if matters were reported on to the council every six months that would be quite satisfactory and, by implication, that the ratepayers should be satisfied, but it would often be much too late. People would be told when they made a complaint, “I am sorry, but this is a fait accompli.” That is the precise position which we want this Bill to remove.
The hon. Member mentioned more than a thousand committee meetings, but he was not able to say how many of those meetings would be cleared by the exemptions in the Bill.[column 71]
The hon. Member should remember that, even though we wish to give permission to the public to come in, all the public would not necessarily wish to attend on the same day at the same time every one of those committees. If we give permission to the Press to attend, the Press act as proper representatives for the people under those conditions. The Amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) is quite adequate.
Mrs. Harriet Slater
There ought to be very little difficulty in accepting the Amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Wilkins). I represent a constituency which has a large authority. Since the 1908 Act it has become more and more the practice for local authorities to give executive powers to its committees. As the Minister said, in what I thought was an unfortunate phrase, more and more committees of large authorities would get “caught” by this Amendment. We have to face the problems which will confront local authorities.
My authority has never hesitated about admitting the public and the Press to full council meetings and full meetings of the education committee, the watch committee and the joint committee for the North Staffordshire Technical College. We encourage people to attend our council meetings. We encourage the schools to send parties so that a civic consciousness can be aroused in the scholars. The Press also has never failed to attend meetings which it is entitled to attend.
Because of the way in which it has grown, Stoke-on-Trent has several town halls. The local authority uses two town halls for meetings, Stoke town hall for the main committee meetings and Hanley town hall for education committee meetings. It would be extremely difficult to find accommodation available for the Press and the public in most of our committee rooms. One has to remember that in a large authority like Birmingham or Stoke many committee meetings are going on at the same time. The task of a member of a local authority is becoming a full-time job. Every [column 72]available space in a town hall may be used for committee meetings at the same time all day, not just in the mornings, but also in the afternoons and till late into the evening. The Minister will be visiting Stoke during the next fortnight. He can have a look at our committee rooms when he comes there. Officials have to attend the committee meetings, as well as members of the committees. If we had to find room for the Press and the public as well it would be very difficult.
I thought the right hon. Gentleman was very unlike himself at the beginning of his speech. He was coming along very nicely, but at the end he showed his hand. He said that if this provision were passed and local authorities were faced with the problem of having to find alternative accommodation we could not expect any help from the Ministry to build bigger and better rooms for committee meetings. Another argument put forward was that all the public and all the Press would not want to attend at the same time. It may seem that we are crossing our bridges before we need, but sometimes once a matter like this has been passed into law someone makes a song and dance about it and problems are created afterwards.
While I certainly agree that the public should know what is going on in a local authority and the more interest we can arouse in the public the more we can carry it along with us in the difficult job of local authority work, there are limitations which have to be considered. It appears to me that the Amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South would at least enable local authorities to be protected if they were in a difficult position.
Mr. F. V. Corfield
Could the hon. Lady help by telling us why this problem is so very different from the problem in the courts? I understand that there is a common law right, which is not restricted in any way at all, by which the courts must sit in public unless they have special authority to do otherwise. So far as I know there is no difficulty at all about admitting the public there. Why should there be a different problem here? Obviously no court of law could allow everyone who wished to do so to come in at the same time.[column 73]
Most of the courts of law were built earlier than our local authority buildings.
I suggest that when one of the more sensational cases is on the hon. Lady should try to get into the public gallery at the Old Bailey.
We are talking about not sensational cases but the everyday happenings of a local authority.
Mr. G. W. Reynolds
My hon. Friend is not objecting to the public coming into a normal council meeting, which is equivalent to normal court procedure. Would she not agree that the position which would be more nearly equivalent to that which the hon. Gentleman raised would be the admission of the Press and the public when a judge was dealing with a matter in chambers?
Order. That is not in order on this Amendment.
I have no objection to local authorities admitting the public and the Press to the larger meetings, which most of them have done for years. I am saying that when one is considering a Bill of this kind one has to consider what facilities are available at the present time. Many town halls were built a long time ago, before it was considered that committees would be as large as they are now or that this provision might be thought of. Therefore, unless local authorities are helped to make that provision the only protection for them is to have my hon. Friend's Amendment written into the Bill.
Mr. Robert Jenkins
There is only one point that I should like to put to the hon. Lady or to the Minister. We are all agreed that it is a good thing for the Press and the public to be admitted to local authority committee meetings. It is a question of the practical effect of the legislation which is being passed. Suppose it was the case—it is likely that there will be many hundreds of these cases throughout the country because of the number of local authorities—that substantial numbers of the Press and public wanted to attend a meeting but there was room enough only for the members of the council and the officers, and, as it was an important matter, junior officers also had to be present. [column 74]The London County Council finance committee meets in a room at County Hall—probably the Minister knows it also—where on occasions all the seats are taken; it is extremely difficult to accommodate the Press but they are somehow fitted in. Suppose at a local authority meeting there was no accommodation at all for the Press and the public. Unless something on the lines of what has been suggested is written into the Bill, such a local authority will be put in an almost impossible position. From long experience of local government I believe that that kind of circumstance will arise in many cases over the next two or three years until arrangements can be made for more accommodation.
Will the Bill as it is at present before the Committee take care of that position? Unless the hon. Lady or my right hon. Friend can say that it will be taken care of, it will make it very awkward for a large number of authorities. I would not go all the way with what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. V. Yates) said, but I believe that great difficulties may arise for many local authorities. From what was said by my right hon. Friend I got the impression that it was taken care of. If we can have that assurance, the Amendment is unnecessary to produce the desired result.
I should like information about the definition of “the public.” Provided that this becomes a right, the Press will be given edited minutes. I assume that at a major meeting dealing with rents, for example, minutes will be provided for the public. Would that be the responsibility of the local body?
In Scotland—in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow—many schools take their pupils to public meetings. Will they be regarded as the public, or will the definition of “the public” be confined to electors over the age of 21? Teachers in Scotland have been encouraging civics and attention to local government for the last five years. When an important matter comes before a local authority, will those people be excluded under the terms of the Bill as not being electors within the electoral area? Is there to be a prescriptive right, or is it to be restricted to electors? Secondly, will they have the same status as the Press in receiving [column 75]minutes to help them follow the proceedings?
Mr. Glenvil Hall
I hope that before we pass from this Amendment a reply will be given to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Scotstoun (Mr. Small). I want to put a couple of questions and I hope that either the hon. Lady or the Minister will give us a reasonable reply to them.
I agree with the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins) that there is no division of opinion on either side of the Committee on the Amendment. We want to insert the word “public” instead of “press” . It is essential that the public should attend these meetings if only to act as some sort of safeguard against some of the excesses in which occasionally the Press are liable to indulge. If the public are present they can to a large extent check on what the Press makes of any particular speech in any committee or local authority meeting.
But they have not got a 100,000 circulation.
Mr. Glenvil Hall
One of the questions is why the Title to the Bill is not being amended.
Mr. Michael Stewart
There is a later Amendment on that.
Mr. Glenvil Hall
I am talking about the Long Title, “Public Bodies (Admission of the Press to Meetings)” . I take it that something will have to be done by way of Amendment to change that. During the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. V. Yates) the Minister intervened to indicate that there was nothing in the Bill about admission of the Press or the public to sub-committees. If that is so, that is a matter that we ought to make clear at the earliest possible moment. If there is any ambiguity in the Bill it should be cleared up.
Would it help if I cleared that point up now?
Mr. Glenvil Hall
May I finish, and then the right hon. Gentleman can have the Floor to himself?
Those were the only two questions I wanted to ask. Having put them, I will willingly give way to the Minister. The [column 76]question I have just asked is an important one, and we should clear it up before we go very much further.
I was proposing not to make another long speech but simply to intervene to put beyond doubt, so far as I could, what the Bill means as regards sub-committees. We are now discussing Clause 2 which we have not reached, but mention has been made of sub-committees. All I can do is to seek to expound to the Committee as best I may how I read the Bill, taking Clause 2 with the Schedule in the light of Clause 1.
As I read the Bill, it will apply to the bodies which are listed in the Schedule, and committees of those bodies. It will, therefore, apply to a committee of a local authority, but, as at present drafted, not to a sub-committee of a committee of a local authority. On the other hand, some of the bodies mentioned in the Schedule are themselves committees; for example, the watch committee. If therefore a Watch Committee—I am speaking hypothetically now—were to set up a committee of itself and call it a sub-committee, that would, as I read the Bill, be caught by the provisions of Clause 2. But with the Bill as it is at present drafted I think I can advise the Committee that it would not apply to what we normally know as sub-committees of a local authority.
Mr. Glenvil Hall
The right hon. Gentleman cannot get away with that. It is not what his reading of the wording of the Bill may be, important though that is. It is what gloss the courts will put on the wording of Clause 2 (4). The Minister will find there that, quite definitely, the Bill is to bite on
“all committees for the time being appointed by them” .
I am sure that some courts, if they had to adjudicate on this, would say that that would include sub-committees. How low has a sub-committee to be before it ceases to be a committee of a council or some other authority set up by it? With respect to my own Member of Parliament, his writ will not run to the courts of this country, and they will put their own meaning on these words. We ought to make the wording quite clear.[column 77]
I am sorry that I am not giving satisfaction to the right hon. Gentleman. All I can do in a discussion on an Amendment to Clause 1 is to tell the Committee how I read Clause 2 and the Schedule. That Clause and that Schedule have not been reached, and are open to amendment. If the right hon. Gentleman differs from me on my interpretation, that is clearly a matter that can be discussed when the time comes.
Mr. Glenvil Hall
I accept that.
I am seeking to do all I can for the benefit of the Committee and to tell the Committee my understanding of the provisions under the Bill as it is printed. It applies to the bodies which are listed in the Schedule and to committees of those bodies but not to sub-committees of committees of these bodies.
Do I understand that in the case of an education committee or health committee which delegates authority to a sub-committee, those sub-committees, where they have executive powers delegated to them, would not be involved? That is the point which the legal authorities of Birmingham say is not covered.
That is my understanding of the Bill as it is printed, but it may be amended when we come to Clause 2 and to the Schedule.
We shall not know where we are about sub-committees until we get to Clause 2 of the Bill, but we are obliged to give the matter a little consideration now, because whether or not it is practicable for a local authority to comply with this obligation to omit the public may be partly determined by whether the Bill could in any circumstances apply to sub-committees as well as to committees.
With respect to the Minister and in spite of his assurance, there are two reasons why we may still be a little anxious about that. First, do we know for certain whether the courts have had to decide whether the word “committee” , meaning a committee of a local authority, does or does not include a sub-committee? I do not think that one can tell, by the light of nature, what the decision of a court would be. A local [column 78]authority appoints committees. Those committees appoint further committees. Would a court of law say that the further committee, the sub-committee, was a committee of the council? It is important to know whether the courts have had to decide that, and if so, how they have decided it. 11.30. a.m.
Our other cause for anxiety arises from the fact that Clause 2 (2) is made to apply to committees of any body to which the Bill applies. The “Barchester City Council” would obviously be a body to which the Bill applied, and under Clause 2 (2) the housing committee of that city council would become a body to which Clause 1 applied. In Clause 2 (4) certain obligations are imposed on a body to which the Bill applies, and reference is made to committees which such a body may appoint. The housing committee has been made a body to which the Bill applies, by virtue of Clause 2 (2), and, therefore, it may fall within the ambit of Clause 2 (4). I need not develop the argument. My point is that it is not self-evident that sub-committees are excluded from the operations of the Bill, and I hope that when we deal with Clause 2, we shall, on the entreaty either of the Minister of of the hon. Lady who introduced the Bill, have a Law Officer of the Crown to advise us on the rather difficult matters that arise in connection with that Clause.
I share the anxieties expressed by the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins) on the main issue, and unless they can be resolved I hope that the Committee will agree to the Amendment. In the earlier part of the Minister's speech I got the impression that the duty which will be imposed upon a local authority and such of its committees as the Bill touches will be to see that when the council or those committees meet a reasonable amount of accommodation is made available for the public and a reasonable amount for the Press, separate from each other. I presume that some regard will be had to the size of the room in which the body is meeting.
That is the result I want. Most councils would be prepared to comply with that. Nevertheless, since we are dealing with this matter not by consultation between the Press and local authorities, as I would prefer, but by way of [column 79]legislation, we must consider what will happen if somebody—a group of journalists, a section of the public, or a local authority—chooses to turn awkward.
Let us suppose that a certain section of the public, consisting, perhaps, of only a few hundred people—a small minority of the electorate with a special interest of their own, who cannot claim to be representative of the public but are much more numerous than the members of the council and the number of seats likely to be available in the gallery of the council chamber, or whatever accommodation is set aside in the committee room—make a point of all coming along together. They will be told that there is not room for them all. I assume that it will be said, “You need not worry about that; the council has fulfilled its reasonable obligations, and that is that.”
But suppose, conversely, that the council is awkward and deliberately arranges things so that there shall be as few seats for the public as it can decently get away with. In such a case the public will feel that they have been unreasonably excluded and may want to do something about it. What action can they take? What, if any, is the sanction behind the Bill? We are told that my hon. Friend's Amendment, containing the words “reasonable facilities” , is not necessary because that is what would be assumed throughout.
But let us suppose that a member of the public is excluded from a meeting on the ground that reasonable facilities have been provided already and, unfortunately, he was not one of those who were able to get in. Let us further suppose that he thinks that that is not so and that the council has not provided reasonable facilities. What can he do? Can he go to a court? If he can, and if the court decides that the council has not provided reasonable facilities, what can it do? Can it invalidate the proceedings of the council? The Minister said that if large numbers of the public came here and were not able to get in because there was not room the proceedings of this Committee would not be invalidated. I agree. But are we to conclude that if it were held by a court that members of the public had been unreasonably excluded the proceedings of the council meeting would be invalidated—or would the court merely have the power to make an order that in [column 80]future the council would be required to provide certain facilities? Those are matters upon which we should be informed before we are asked to reach a decision on the Clause.
Another point which caused me some disquiet was the Minister's reference to making arrangements and the time necessary for doing so. I appreciate that it would be entirely reasonable to ask a council to make the best arrangements it could within its existing buildings. If the Bill becomes law I can imagine certain councils saying to themselves, “Where shall we put this committee and that committee?” in order to make an honest, bona fide attempt to comply with the law and to provide reasonable facilities. But some councils will find that even when they have done that the amount of accommodation in some committee rooms will be rather limited. Under the Bill, could they be required to build an extension to the town hall? That would not be reasonable. I hope that we can be assured that that will not have to be done.
I want to see councils required to do their best within their existing buildings or within any that they may for other reasons be thinking of providing, to see that the public and the Press have access to meetings of the full council and the committees covered by the Bill. Some of us are afraid that without the Amendment they might find themselves put under order by a court to do something much more than that, or be made the victims of small groups of unreasonable people. When we pass legislation we must take into account the fact that some people may act unreasonably. The Amendment is a safeguard against that. As I follow the argument at present, therefore, I am very much inclined to support the Amendment.
The Minister has given his opinion on the question of whether or not sub-committees are included. I noticed that when he was informing us of his opinion he made it clear that it was his opinion and yet when he was giving us some advice a short time ago on another point he said that he had been advised that what he was saying was the case. I do not know whether there is any significance in that, but I noticed that there was a great difference between the way he expressed himself on the [column 81]two occasions. When he said that he had been advised, we assume that he meant that he had been legally advised, but when he referred to his interpretation of the question of sub-committees he said that he was of the view——
In the first case I was dealing with Clause 1, which we are now discussing, but in the second case I was asked, in the middle of a debate, whether I could express a view upon certain words in Clause 2 and in the Schedule, and, therefore I used rather more cautious language.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that explanation; it was more or less as I thought. Nevertheless, I have some serious doubts about the meaning of this. I am advised that as I am a member of a finance committee of a non-county borough and that I have full delegated powers from the council and the finance committee to deal with all matters appertaining to the raising of loans, it may be interpreted that I form a committee of the council, comprising one member of that council, to deal with matters concerned with the raising of loans—and that as that committee, consisting solely of myself, normally conducts its business either in the borough treasurer's office or on the telephone line between my house and the borough treasurer's officer, it may be that I should have to have another connection to the local newspaper office so that I could give it a ring three days before I was going to discuss with the borough treasurer any matter concerned with the raising of a loan or mortgage so that the newspaper could listen in.
In the case of a sub-committee or a committee of one—I do not think that there is any great legal distinction between the two—it might be that the member concerned would commit an offence under the Bill—although no penalty is provided—if he did not allow the Press to listen in to the telephone conversation with the borough treasurer concerning a question of a loan. That is one of the difficulties in which we find ourselves at the moment.
I have also been advised by other authorities that, as their legal advisers interpret the Bill, most of the committees of these councils will be under an obligation to admit the Press. [column 82]Therefore, assuming that most of their sub-committees with delegated powers will also be under such an obligation, if the Minister's interpretation is correct the whole of the Bill is a waste of time. If a health committee with delegated powers can re-delegate all its powers one stage further to a sub-committee consisting of all the members of the health committee except one, under the Minister's interpretation of “any committee” the Press and the public would not be allowed to be present at meetings of that sub-committee. That makes a farce and a mockery of the Bill.
A local authority will get round this provision by appointing sub-committees with memberships identical to those of the full committees—less one—and put all the business through the sub-committees, doing no business in the council chamber. Eventually the committees will receive reports from their sub-committees, consisting of all their members except one—and they will make sure that that one member is not interested in being on the committee anyway and so will never raise any points at the full committee meeting. The whole thing will become an absolute farce.
We are dealing with an Amendment which, in my view, was not in the minds of those people who supported the Bill when it was first drafted, either now or on previous occasions when it has appeared in a slightly different guise. The majority of those supporting the Bill do not care a tinker's cuss whether or not the public are admitted to council or committee meetings of local authorities. What they want to ensure is that representatives of the Press shall be admitted to those meetings. I use the word “representatives” deliberately, because it is included in the 1908 Act.
Mr. Maurice Edelman
My hon. Friend seems to be using the phrase “representatives of the Press” in a rather pejorative sense. Can he tell the Committee how the Press could be admitted to a committee meeting otherwise than by its representatives?
I agree entirely about that. In the 1908 Act the expression is:
“representatives of the Press shall be admitted” .
The Long Title of the Bill also refers to “representatives of the Press” , but [column 83]the Clause and the Amendment with which we are now dealing refer merely to “the Press” . The first definition of “the Press” that I could find in a dictionary was:
“An instrument or machine by which pressure is communicated.”
That is the definition given in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary. It might be a good description of the newspaper world; anyway, it is the first one that I came across. It struck me as odd that, although legislation which has existed for 52 years contains the phrase “representatives of the Press” , when we are intending to wipe out that piece of legislation and replace it with another piece we suddenly alter that phrase. I would prefer to see it retained, but my Amendment to that effect has not been called. Nevertheless, there may be an opportunity of dealing with the point at a later stage. I shall not say any more about it, except that I really want to see the word “Press” taken out of the Bill without the word “public” being put in its place. 11.45 a.m.
In my view, those who want to bring the public, or for that matter, the Press, into the committee meetings of local authorities are really endeavouring to wreck the committee system of local government as we know it today. Again, in speaking about this, I insist upon using the word “Press” because this idea about admitting the public came only as an afterthought to meet a certain amount of pressure which became apparent in the House on Second Reading. People wish to bring the Press into the committee meetings of local authorities because they have a vague idea that, if only they can get some reporters there, they will be able to dig out a lot of scandal and a lot of dirt which has hitherto been hidden, for some reason or other, under the carpet.
If we provide facilities for bringing in the public as well as the Press, this will create, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. V. Yates) said, immense difficulties in local authorities. I am pleased to notice that my hon. Friend the Member for Southall (Mr. Pargiter) is now in his place, because I know that he is well aware and will be able to inform the Committee of the facilities which are available to [column 84]one of the biggest county councils in England and Wales, the Middlesex County Council.
I had the pleasure—I am not quite sure that it was a pleasure—of serving for three years on the health committee of the Middlesex County Council which meets in what I believe, subject to correction by my hon. Friend, to be the largest committee room that the county council has in the Guildhall on the other side of Parliament Square. I can tell the Committee that if one did not arrive on time for a meeting of that committee one had to scratch around and look for a spare place to sit in order to participate in the meeting. That was the position in which members of the authority were placed in their own committee room, and there was just not any place available for the public.
By a rearrangement of chairs and tables and so forth, no doubt the county council could provide facilities for one or two representatives of the Press in that particular room; but any suggestion that facilities for members of the public should be provided in the committee rooms of the Middlesex County Council—one of the larger authorities which the Minister said he did not think would be unduly troubled by the physical arrangements—would present very serious difficulties indeed. The Middlesex County Council's committee rooms, of course, are in the centre of London where there is no room to expand in any event, and any such requirement would virtually mean that the county council would have to move its meeting-place out of the centre of London or pay a colossal amount of money to acquire additional land in order to provide proper facilities for the public.
This larger authority could comply with the provisions of the Amendment, if it be inserted into the Bill, only by having its committee meetings in the council chamber itself at the Guildhall. We have already been told—I know that this applies to the Middlesex County Council—that many of the larger authorities very often have more than one committee sitting at the same time. Most committees of the larger authorities will have delegated powers. Such an authority would be faced with the necessity of deciding that one committee should use the council chamber in order to [column 85]admit the public while other committees would have to be squashed into tiny rooms where there are simply no facilities at all for the public.
It is part of the essential nature of local authority committees that at their meetings detailed matters are discussed. Unlike members of Committees of the House of Commons, the members do not make long speeches, and they deal with comparatively minor points, saying a few words here and there, jumping up to speak for a few minutes and then sitting down again. In this way, we find in local government committees the atmosphere which is typical of them, but if such meetings had to be held in the council chamber, usually a vast room, the atmosphere would be quite different. The room would be too big for the committee and the committee atmosphere would be completely destroyed. The work of the council through its committees would suffer, and, ultimately, of course, the public itself would suffer as a result.
This is the first time that we have discussed either in the Committee or in the House the admission of the public to these meetings. We did not discuss it on Second Reading and we did not discuss it on the Instruction which the House passed. This is the first time that we have, within the terms of the Bill, discussed the admission of the public to both the full meetings of local authorities and committee meetings. As I understand it, the Instruction simply says that we may make provision and we may discuss the admission of the public if we so desire. It is not, as one would usually expect from the title “Instruction” , an instruction that we must do it; it simply gives us permission if we wish to do so.
I suggest that it would be most unwise to give public and Press exactly the same facilities under this legislation. The hon. Lady's Amendments themselves are not designed to do that and do not give public and Press the same facilities. They give the public the right of admission but they do not—I assume that this is quite deliberate—give the public a right to possession of the documents which the Press will be entitled to have. Thus, even the hon. Lady is not trying to give Press and public the same facilities. [column 86]
In my view, we must try to give them facilities which are similar. It is not possible to give exactly the same facilities to both. It will be bad enough if the Press is present at committee meetings of local authorities. The officers of local authorities will be gravely inhibited, as I said on Second Reading—I shall have more to say about this later—from giving unbiased, straightforward professional advice to the committees themselves. In any event, if the Bill goes through and local authorities are forced to have the Press present, I think that the vast majority of local authorities will have legal advisers astute enough to get round the provisions of the Bill so that there will not be either Press or public at many committee meetings, although the assumption of the sponsors is that they will be there.
However, if the Press is there, the committee will have power, under the provisions of the Bill—I hope t, hat they will be strengthened in due course—to exclude the Press from time to time. But let us be practical about it. What is most likely to happen when the Press is present at a committee meeting of a local authority? On most occasions, the local committee will not go through the rigamarole of passing a resolution to exclude the Press, waiting a moment or two while the representatives of the Press are shepherded out, then having its discussion, after which someone will go out to tell the reporters that they can come back again. In the majority of cases, that will not happen when the Press is entitled to be present at committee meetings.
It is far more likely that the representatives of the Press will be informed by the chairman of the committee, or even by someone standing on his feet, “We do not want to kick you out, but please take no notice of what happens during the next five minutes. You can stay, but do not report it” . That is the sort of informal arrangement which is usually come to in a very large number of instances in local authority work today, especially in those cases where a local authority already of its own choice admits the Press to committee meetings. They do not kick the reporters out in the vast majority of cases. Local authorities do not impose too much upon the Press. The Press honours that kind of [column 87]bargain and does not publish the material which it has been informally requested not to publish.
What is to happen if, as well as the Press, members of the public are present? One can have that kind of informal arrangement with the Press, asking reporters not to publish this or that, but one cannot say to Mrs. Jones, “Don't forget. When you are talking over the garden fence to Mrs. Smith tomorrow morning, do not say anything at all about what we shall discuss during the next five minutes” . One just cannot do that.
Once the extension which is now proposed is made and once members of the public are admitted as well, a greater number of exclusions of the Press from committee meetings will result, and this, after all, is what hon. Members say they are trying to avoid. Committees will pass resolutions so that they may continue their deliberations in private, and this will be done far more than is really necessary if only the Press is bound to be present.
In my view, hon. Members opposite do not really care whether the public is to be present or not. They support this proposition only because of what the Minister and several hon. Members said on Second Reading about the Bill being unlikely to go through unless similar provision is made for the public. They are, therefore, reluctantly compelled to agree, since they want facilities for the Press, to do something for the public. I argue that, in doing this, they are at the same time injuring the facilities which will be available to the Press. That is the dilemma facing hon. Members who support the Bill.
There is nothing in this series of Amendments, either those which we are discussing now or any others, which will straighten out the position as between public and Press in the matter of what documents each should be entitled to have. I have tabled Amendments the object of which is to give the Press certain rights which the public has at the present moment. At the same time, if the public is to be admitted to committee meetings as of right, I do not see why the public should not be given a right to have the documents on the basis of which the discussion to which they are listening is taking place. I should [column 88]like to know from the hon. Lady why she herself does not provide for this. We have been told that, of course, when representatives of the Press come along to meetings, it is necessary to make sure that they have the documents because otherwise they would sit there just hearing numbers called out and not know what was going on. They must have the documents. Why should we not make provision for the public to be entitled to the documents if they are to be admitted to meetings? Otherwise, they will be in the ridiculous position of not knowing what is going on.
Many other serious snags arise. A local authority committee which usually has delegated powers, particularly in larger authorities, is the planning committee. To allow the Press to be present at planning committee meetings would be bad enough, but if we allow the public to be present also all kinds of undesirable consequences may follow. A major developer may have put in a substantial application for permission to build huge blocks of flats or to demolish and redevelop a certain area. Also, many members of the public who have, perhaps, put in applications for small extensions to their houses or for the erection of garages will wish to be present to hear their applications discussed. These latter cases may not matter quite so much, because, in the majority of instances, planning permission is given, or, if it is not, refusal is given on public health grounds or because of the byelaws, and the applicant can straighten the matter out fairly easily.
Quite another situation arises if an application for a large development is discussed. The developer puts in his application to the local authority and, since the public are to be admitted, he will almost certainly instruct his solicitor or some other representative to be present at the committee meeting in order to hear the application discussed.
On a point of order, Sir Norman. Are not these remarks related to line 3 of subsection 2?
I think that the hon. Member's speech is generally directed to whether the public should have an opportunity of knowing what is going on in the committee.[column 89]
Thank you, Sir Norman. I am endeavouring to do that, but, of course, because of the rather awkward position in which we are, not knowing anyone's attitude on a large number of other Amendments, it is a little difficult sometimes to avoid making passing reference to other Amendments in developing one's argument.
In general, I am trying to describe what the position might be if the hon. Lady's Amendment is accepted and the public are admitted to committee meetings of local authorities, particularly the meetings of the planning committee which may well have before it substantial applications for development. I am perfectly certain that, in such a case, if an application was put in by, for instance, one of the large city development corporations, the corporation would make sure that a solicitor or some representative would be present at the meeting where its application was discussed. If we put in the word “public” , it would be perfectly entitled to do that.
A really awkward situation could develop. The planning officer or other responsible official of the Council concerned might well be of the opinion that the development proposed, while not perhaps desirable, was in order and might advise the council or the planning committee of the council that it should be allowed. But, of course, as every hon. Member knows, it is for the elected members of the committee to decide whether or not to grant permission for the particular form of development being discussed. They may wish to argue with their planning adviser. They may well in the end—I have seen this happen on several occasions—decide not to accept his advice and, for purely policy reasons of some kind or another, refuse the application.
In this example, the solicitor representing the company has been sitting in the public gallery listening to all the proceedings. In due course, no doubt, the developers will appeal to the Minister against the decision of the local planning authority. They will appear before an inspector appointed by the Minister at a public inquiry and will be able, after having heard what was said at the committee meeting itself, to say that the planning officer or [column 90]technical adviser to the council apparently had no objection to their development but the members themselves—who are, after all, elected to look after the interests of the people in the area—refused permission. The applicants will undoubtedly sub-poena the planning officer of the authority to appear as a witness at the inquiry and will question him. He will, in effect, be giving evidence against the expressed wishes of the local elected people who are his employers and whose interests he is employed to further. It very often happens in planning applications that the officer says one thing and the committee takes an opposite view. A fantastic position will arise, specially in planning committees, if the public is to have the right to sit in when this sort of thing is being discussed. It will make a mockery of the committee system of local government. It is not only in planning committees that this problem arises.
Mr. Roderic Bowen
Is not that the position with regard to the Minister? When an inspector holds an inquiry, the public eventually gets to know the view of the inspector and frequently the final decision of the Minister is contrary to the inspector's advice.
That happens under the legislation which was passed a few years ago.
Although it is embarrassing for him, why should it be embarrassing for the local authority?
I do not like the legislation which was passed a year or two ago. Two wrongs do not make a right.
In this instance, the Minister has to make the final decision. He acts on the advice of an inspector whom he appoints. It is his duty to make the final decision. We all know that from time to time the Minister's decision is contrary to the advice of the individual he appointed to carry out the inquiry. That is the final stage. The matter cannot go any further. I am instancing the case in which there is still a further right of appeal. It is possible for someone who may want to make use of that appeal to have what I consider to be unfair access to the reasons and arguments of the local authority in rejecting his application.[column 91]
I do not appreciate my hon. Friend's reference to unfair access. Surely a local authority will want to make all the relevant information available to the inspector at the inquiry. I did not suggest that the local authority should deliberately conceal technical advice which had been tendered to it.
This is not a question of deliberately concealing the advice which has been made available to the authority. This is a question of appeal against the decision of a local authority. It is well known that local government work is carried out on the assumption that people who make the decisions are lay members with no technical knowledge, but who, after considering all the information given to them, decide what they consider is best for the people who have elected them. They employ full-time professionally qualified advisers to give them that information. When they employ men to do that on their behalf, it is placing the community as a whole in a ridiculous position if persons who have a vested interest in the decision which is to be taken and against which they have a right of appeal are entitled to be present at the discussion when the advice is being given. That will be so if the Bill is passed.
I know perfectly well that that will not actually happen because a planning officer will not give information of this nature to the planning committee if the public and the Press are sitting in the gallery. He will meet the chairman of the planning committee and one or two other members of the committee in his office or some other part of the building for an hour or so before the meeting starts. He will make the views that he has to put forward clearly known at that meeting. It will not be an open meeting. No notice will have been sent out by the town clerk calling the members together. The officer will give the information that he wishes to impart then and there.
That is what will happen in practice. The work of the committee will be made very much more difficult than at present. Onerous and unnecessary burdens in terms of time, concentration and other matters will be imposed on the elected members of the local authority and it will be more difficult for the officer to give advice to the members of the [column 92]local authority. He will not give those little bits of dirt and other snippets for which the Press is looking by trying to get into the committee meeting of the local authorities.
This is the second time that my hon. Friend has used the term “snippets of dirt” to describe the interest of the Press in local affairs. Surely that is a slander on the whole of the Press. I hope that my hon. Friend will withdraw such terms as a description of the interest of the Press in these matters.
My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North (Mr. Edelman) has misrepresented what I said. I was not talking about the bits of dirt that are of interest to the Press.
The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) must not suggest that another hon. Member has misrepresented him.
Perhaps I can say “unintentionally misrepresented.” I did not mean to imply anything else.
The hon. Member must withdraw the word “misrepresented” .
In that case, I withdraw the word. I cannot use the word “misunderstood” , because I am saying that my hon. Friend has given information to the Committee purporting to be what I said, but it is not what I said.
Mr. Glenvil Hall
Is it your Ruling, Sir Norman, that to say that someone has misrepresented something is out of order? Surely one can indicate that, in one's view, what a certain hon. Member has said was wrong.
It has many times been ruled that an hon. Member cannot say that another hon. Member has misrepresented him.
Further to that point of order. Could you, Sir Norman advise us about a word that we can use when we are misrepresented?
The Chairman has many duties, but that is not one of them.
While thanking you, Sir Norman, for your protection, perhaps I may say that I am satisfied with my hon. Friend's explanation.[column 93]
My hon. Friend the hon. Member for Coventry, North has informed the Committee that I said something which I maintain I did not say. Whatever it was, I do not think that any one word would save me a long explanation. I did not say that the Press is interested in little bits of dirt under the carpet. I do not think that that is the case. What I said was that members of the Press are interested in gaining admittance to committee meetings of local authorities because they are under the impression that once they get there they may find bits of dirt or scandal being consumed by the council.
The Press is under a completely wrong impression. I think that its members, having attended one or two local authority meetings, will be so fed up with the proceedings, which they will find dry and uninteresting in 99 per cent. of the cases, that they will not want to go to any more until one or two things start to blow up. Ordinary local authority meetings do not often get large attendances. There may be half a dozen people in the public gallery.
Mr. Philip N. Hocking
Is not that largely because so much of the work of many committee meetings is delegated? Local authority meetings which have to deal with only a small amount of delegated work have good attendances.
I would not accept that for one moment. The Minister told us earlier that most delegated work is carried out in the larger local authorities. The work of full council meetings cannot be called uninteresting. To suggest that the work of the local authority across the river is uninteresting to the public would be a slight on the hon. Member opposite and his colleagues who do their utmost to make it as interesting as possible every fortnight. The same applies to the local authority on the other side of Parliament Square whose main meetings are quite interesting, despite having to endeavour to carry out the one thousand and one duties for which it is responsible, which is inevitable in authorities of its size.
That type of authority is the exception to the rule. There is only a comparatively small number of large county boroughs and large county councils. The Bill applies to 1,500 major authorities [column 94]in England and Wales, 200 or 300 major authorities in Scotland and 11,000 parish councils throughout the country. Do not let us base all the arguments, either for or against the Bill, on the 30 or 40 very large authorities. A comparatively small number of people attend the monthly, quarterly or whatever it may be, meetings of the normal sized authority. There are perhaps half-a-dozen authorities which provide seats for 30 or 40 people, but we know that very often local pressure groups whip up enthusiasm and along come a large number of people.
For some reason or other, the local Conservative Party has for the last six months been wheeling along about 30 of its supporters to the monthly meeting of the Acton Borough Council, of which I am a member, and they completely fill the public gallery. I do not know why its members do it—I doubt whether they know themselves—but, nevertheless, we like to see them in the public gallery. This is the sort of thing that pressure groups do from time to time. I have a vague idea that the object of this manoeuvre is to show up the poor opposition which the Conservative members provide on the council. If the Bill were in operation, this would be done not only at the council meetings but also at committee meetings. Local authority members of the Conservative Party are always saying publicly. “We do not oppose much at the council meetings; we do our opposition at the committee meetings” , and I am certain that their colleagues outside would want to see them fighting for the electorate at committee meetings. I am sure they would be greatly disappointed, but no doubt they would want to go along.
When a full meeting of a local authority is considering matters like increases in council rents, not only is the public gallery full but there are often hundreds of people outside the town hall. The consideration of increases in rents take several months. The matter will come before the housing committee. Housing committees, definitely in large authorities and often in medium-sized authorities, have a substantial amount of delegated work, although not concerning the fixing of rents. If the public had the advantage of being present at the meetings of housing committees. I think that we must accept the fact that large [column 95]numbers of tenants would turn up at the meetings of housing committees to hear all the discussion on rents and proposed changes in the rents of houses on local authority housing estates. Once again, this would make it impossible for the treasurer of the authority or any other officer to give adequate advice to the members of that authority at the committee meeting. The little groups would be meeting outside and officers would give their advice long before the committee meeting started. This would be a great disservice to local government.
The Bill is being foisted upon this Committee, upon the House of Commons, and, far more important, upon local authorities, because small groups of hon. Members want to make sure that the Press can get into committee meetings. There is a great deal that I could say on this subject, but there is a large number of Amendments on the Order Paper, and when we consider them many other points on the fringe of this matter can be tackled.
On Second Reading, the Minister, having given his views on several matters, said:
“Now that the Bill is before us, I personally intend to vote for it, as I think does the hon. Member for Fulham, and I am ready to help her” ——
that is, the Minister's hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher)—
“to improve it in Committee so as to rub away the sharp corners and to remove any causes for legitimate criticism there may be in the Bill.” —[Official Report, 5th February, 1960; Vol. 616, c. 1433.]
I look to the Order Paper for the improvements that the Minister or some of his hon. Friends, with his assistance, wish to make to the Bill. Until we know what those improvements are, it will be difficult to make up our minds on this Amendment and a large number of other Amendments.
I am worried about this Amendment, which, if it is passed, will admit the public, because I cannot see what will happen during the rest of our consideration of the Bill. I do not know the Minister's proposals. I do not know what sharp edges he wants to rub off or what assistance he will give to his hon. Friend to make this Bill workable. The Minister has not yet indicated the assistance which we were promised on Second Reading. We are being asked to make up our minds on a major issue, [column 96]the admission of the public, when we do not know what the Minister will do in future. We do not know whether he will stick to the promise that he made on Second Reading.
My objection to the Amendment, and, for that matter, to the whole Bill, is to the provisions contained in Clause 2 (2, 3, 4) part of which the Amendments in line with this Amendment will affect by the insertion of “public” instead of “press” . My objection to those subsections is that they would allow the public to attend committee meetings of local authorities, something which is unnecessary and which would ruin the committee system of local government. The Minister told the story, which had a certain amount of truth in it, about publicity-seeking by members of councils. That would be detrimental to these committees. While those subsections are in the Bill, I shall oppose this Amendment and any others which would give the public certain rights in attending committee meetings of local authorities.
Far too many local authorities have a committee of the whole council, often called the general purposes committee, which meets before the council meeting and considers all the matters concerned. It has no delegated powers, but all the discussion is carried on in that committee, and when the council meets it is a pure formality. I should be only too pleased to see the Press represented at committee meetings of the whole council. That would stop a racket in which local authorities are doing a disservice to the whole country. We should also place an obligation on local authorities to make available in some form details of the decisions taken by committees under delegated powers. Most local authorities do so at the moment, but that ought to be given statutory effect.
We are wasting our time in discussing whether the public should be admitted to committee meetings, because no one in this Committee wants the public to attend the committees of local authorities. Some hon. Members want the Press to attend committee meetings, but no one genuinely wants the public to attend committee meetings of local authorities. So far no one has interrupted me on that point. If hon. Members want the public to attend committee [column 97]meetings it is a pity that that advice was not give in the past to the hon. Lady and to the Minister before the Bill was prepared. It might have avoided the obstruction a few days ago.
Delegated legislation should be reported in some way so that it is easily available to members of the public and the Press, but I am against the Press and the public being admitted to committees of local authorities, I hope the Committee will not be prepared to allow that. I hope the Minister and the hon. Lady will see the wisdom of what has been said about the difficulties which will arise if the Press and the public attend committee meetings. I hope they will have another look at the matter to see whether we can finish with a Bill which will give the Press the right to attend all full meetings of local authorities. That would be satisfactory to most of us.
Mr. G. A. Pargiter
On a point of order, Sir Norman. I am a little worried about your recent Ruling. I wonder whether you could go a little further with it. It is well within my recollection that a particular phrase has been used in the House on many occasions and has not usually been challenged by Mr. Speaker when it has been used. I assume that the precedents of the House are taken for the purposes of Committees.
That is so. I refer the hon. Member to page 459 of Erskine May, where it is perfectly clearly set out that misrepresentation of the language of another hon. Member is definitely out of order.
Mr. Glenvil Hall
Misrepresentation certainly, but, if my recollection is right, that stems from one hon. Member calling what some other hon. Member has said a lie and calling the individual concerned a liar. That obviously is unparliamentary and would not be allowed, but to say quite courteously, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) did, that my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North (Mr. Edelman) had misrepresented what he had said surely is well within the permissible bounds of debate. Otherwise we can say anything we like and charge other people with having said things and no one would have a right to correct the [column 98]statement concerned. That, if I may say so, seems quite wrong. Although quite obviously what you have read from Erskine May is correct I think that what my hon. Friend said was well within the rules of order. I hope that if a similar situation arises the individual concerned will be allowed to correct a misstatement.
It has, further, clearly been set out in many precedents that the accusation of misrepresentation is out of order.
Sir Robert Grimston
I think we ought to be clear on this, Sir Norman. As you read it, Erskine May said that it was out of order to misrepresent an hon. Member, but it surely cannot be out of order for the hon. Member to say that an hon. Member has misrepresented him?
An accusation of misrepresentation is out of order. An hon. Member can say that another hon. Member is mistaken.
Further to that point of order, Sir Norman. It must be in the recollection of all hon. Members present that the phrase is used, “I am sure the hon. Member does not wish to misrepresent me.” That has often been said in the House, and it has gone unchallenged. The implication is that accusing an hon. Member of misrepresenting deliberately or of malice is out of order, but not that it is out of order to give a correct account of what was said. If one is unable to say that, it will be quite impossible to correct any false impression or inaccurate impression of what one might have said. It may be that since Erskine May was written there has been a change in the kind of emotional content that we give to the word “misrepresent,” but I should have said that whether one is misrepresenting somebody is a matter of fact. It may be done intentionally or unintentionally. To accuse someone of intentionally misrepresenting would, I agree, be out of order, but it was perfectly clear that my hon. Friend did not do that at all. I suggest that to say that an hon. Member has ascribed to one opinions that one did not express cannot be out of order.
That may be “mistaken” , but we must not use the word [column 99] “misrepresentation” in any form whatever.
It is not very much in my memory now, but I think I said that the hon. Member misrepresented what I said. I must admit that I was surprised when you, Sir Norman, then called me to order for using that phrase. I wish to ask whether the matter can be looked at and whether, when you have had the benefit of an opportunity of looking at it, you will give your further opinion. I could not think of any other way of saying or imputing the type of thing I wanted to say without using a dozen or so words. I wonder whether when the Committee has finished this sitting you would look again at the matter and later give us the benefit of your advice?
I shall certainly look at the matter, but the imputation of misrepresentation is out of order, and that is my Ruling.
Mr. Glenvil Hall
Can we take it, Sir Norman, that at the next sitting of the Committee, at the beginning of the proceedings, you will be good enough to indicate what the position is and whether the hon. Member for Westbury (Sir R. Grimston) was right in suggesting that it is in order perfectly courteously to point out that one has been misrepresented if one undoubtedly has been mispresented?
In reply to the right hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Glenvil Hall), I shall certainly look at the matter before the next sitting.
Mr. Robert Jenkins
I want to deal quite shortly with the point raised by the right hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Glenvil Hall) about sub-committees, on which there has been some discussion this morning. My right hon. Friend the Minister gave us some very valuable information and stated more or less categorically that sub-committees would be excluded.
I wish to point out what I believe the present position to be so that, if he desires, my right hon. Friend may have a little time to look at the point I am making. At present, if a body delegates powers to a committee to act, that obviously comes within the Bill, but suppose a sub-committee has delegated powers given to it by the committee to [column 100]which the body has given delegated powers. What then is the position? As an instance of a committee of that kind, Liverpool Corporation has a special allocation sub-committee of the housing committee which allocates houses outside the ordinary sphere. It does that on its own by virtue of delegated powers from a committee to which powers have been delegated.
The point I hope my right hon. Friend will consider is this. This morning he said that sub-committees did not come within the ambit of the Bill. What happens when a committee to which delegated powers have been given delegates powers to a sub-committee? In effect, surely it is the body itself which is delegating powers to the sub-committee. I do not want to make a legal argument about it, but I think the point is a valid one which should be looked at. I summarise it as follows. If a committee to which delegated powers have been given delegates those powers to a sub-committee and if it is a fact, as I believe it to be, that the body itself has to approve of the second delegation, the question is whether or not that body has, in fact, done the delegation itself. In those circumstances, if my interpretation of present procedure and the law is correct, it would appear that the sub-committees would come within the ambit of the Bill. I put that to my right hon. Friend in the hope that at some future date he will be able to tell us whether that is so or not.
The hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins) has raised a very important and vital question. It is the one which I tried, perhaps imperfectly, to raise earlier this morning. It is the main ground of my charge that we are considering admitting the public and the Press to a limited number of committees and that if we are to admit the Press to a very large number serious difficulty will arise.
We have had a long discussion on this matter but we have not had any word from the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), except when she moved her Amendment. She must realise as a result of our discussion this morning that we are very much concerned about interpretation. I am concerned with Clause 1, which says:
“any meeting of a local authority”
[column 101]and the governing words are:
“exercising public functions.”
The Minister said that that does not include sub-committees, but when moving the Second Reading of the Bill, the hon. Lady said:
“The Press will be admitted to the main council meetings of local authorities and to those meetings which effectively discharge the functions of the council; that is, the committees with substantial delegated powers.” —[Official Report, 5th February, 1960; Vol. 616, c. 1353.]
The hon. Lady did not say committees or sub-committees; she used the words in Clause 1, “meetings of local authorities” . I was seeking to put what I thought was the difficult position of a large local authority like the City of Birmingham.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Mr. Cleaver) accused me of exaggerating the position. Surely he is in possession of the memorandum issued by the town clerk of Birmingham setting out these matters in full. He and I, with others, were present when these fears were expressed by members of the General Purposes Committee and the town clerk at the Council House in Birmingham. I would refer again to the words in the memorandum in which the town clerk said:
“It will be difficult enough to find accommodation for the Press in the Committee Rooms in Birmingham and it would be quite impossible to arrange facilities for the general public.”
My next question has a bearing on what the hon. Member for Dulwich said. The town clerk of Birmingham said:
“Is it clear that a sub-committee consisting of less than the full number of the members of the full committee, which exercises executive powers delegated to it by the full committee, is caught by the provisions of the Bill and the Press entitled to be present?”
If that is not the position, surely the hon. Lady is in honour bound to tell us, because it makes a difference if all these committees are not to be included.
When I was quoting Birmingham, I was quoting from the official document issued by the City of Birmingham which shows the number of committees and sub-committees held in 1959. I said that from 1st January, 1959, to 31st December, 1959, there had been 1,281 sub-committee meetings. The Minister [column 102]intervened to say that he did not think sub-committees were included, but I also included a figure of 367 committee meetings at many of which delegated powers were exercised.
From my experience I know that there are education, health and welfare, and children's committees. The education committee gives delegated powers to a sub-committee. I have been on the special schools sub-committee and other sub-committees which have authority from the committee and which do not have to seek the approval of the authority for dealing with certain matters which have been handed over from the full committee. It is clear that the town clerk has read into these words a different meaning from what the Minister has given as his interpretation of them. Therefore, if we are to vote for the Clause as it stands, and on the interpretation which the hon. Lady gave on Second Reading, we cannot help but feel concern for the enormous problems which will arise in great cities like Birmingham and Liverpool. I hope that the hon. Lady will give us some more information on this before we proceed any further.
Now that I have a chance to get in a word about this, I will attempt to deduce the meaning from the language itself. If hon. Members will follow me, I will go through the relevant Clauses and subsections which throw any light on this question. Clause 1 (1) says:
“… any meeting of a local authority or other body exercising public functions, being an authority or other body to which this Act applies …”
To see which is
“an authority or other body to which this Act applies”
we proceed to Clause 2 (1) which says:
“This Act shall apply to the bodies specified in the Schedule to this Act, and to such bodies as may for the time being be added to that Schedule …”
So far the Act applies only to the bodies in the Schedule, but we then go to Clause 2 (2) where is a reference to bodies and the Schedule. It says:
“… where this Act applies to a body, and the Schedule or the order adding the body to the Schedule does not exclude committees of the body” ——
I pause to point out that there is a clear distinction already in the language [column 103]between the bodies and the committees of the bodies—
“the foregoing section shall apply in relation to any committee” ——
Not just any committee. The word “committee” is later qualified—
“of the body whose normal functions consist to a substantial extent of discharging functions of the body under powers delegated to the committee by the body …”
Those are the words. We already have the dichotomy between the body and the committee in the language. The only committee to which, by virtue of this subsection, the Bill could apply, is the committee exercising powers which have been delegated to it by the body. It could not apply to a sub-committee because the powers operated by the sub-committee could not have been delegated to it by the body but by the committee.
Mr. Robert Jenkins
In the statement that I made I said that at the present moment the way in which a committee could give delegated powers to a sub-committee was only by and with the consent and approval of the body. It is the body which confers the delegated powers on the sub-committee because it is necessary for the committee to obtain approval and consent. Because of the proviso which is necessary in law, the committee cannot delegate powers to a sub-committee without the consent of the body. It would therefore seem that subcommittees come within the ambit of that Clause.
Mr. Glenvil Hall
Not only is that so, but, as I understand it, almost invariably when powers are given by a body to a committee of that body, provision is made in the regulations governing the body that it shall have power to appoint sub-committees. If that is not there, it cannot do so.
There are two distinct points: power to appoint a sub-committee, and power to delegate a power which has been delegated to one. There is an important legal principle against delegation of a power which has been delegated to one. Perhaps the hon. and learned Member for Cardigan (Mr. Bowen) will correct me if I am wrong. I do not remember the Latin tag. As the [column 104]Bill is drafted it hits only at those committees whose power has been delegated to them by the body itself. That is the intention. Clause 2 (4) to which the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) drew attention bears out that interpretation because it says:
“Where a body to which this Act applies appoints Committees” ——
It is still the body appointing the Committee—
“… the body shall maintain a list of all committees for the time being appointed by them …”
That is my interpretation and the meaning which I think the Bill should bear at the moment. I will look into that further before we meet again, but, as I am at present advised, the Bill refers not to sub-committees but only to committees.
I am glad that the hon. Lady will look at this again because there is no question that if powers are delegated by a body to a committee they can be delegated further only with the authority of the body. It must therefore rest with the body which has delegated them. Whether it is taken one, two or three stages further does not matter. It is the body which has done the delegating to a particular body. It is done only with that authority.
On that basis, if a committee had power, having had powers delegated to it to do as it liked, it could say: “We need not meet for the next six months. We will have two or three sub-committees which can handle this delegated power” . That would be quite fantastic, and no local authority would, even if it were legally possible, give that power to exercise the necessary authority. I am satisfied that legally it cannot do it.
At its annual meeting my local council gives its committees some delegated powers and the sub-committees of those committees delegated powers. The estates, baths and markets committee has some delegated powers, and the sub-committee which appoints stallholders for the markets is also given delegated powers by the body. Under this Bill that sub-committee would be entitled to have members of the public and the Press present at its meeting. It is the same with the planning committee, or the reconstruction committee in [column 105]my authority. The body has delegated powers not only to the committees but to the sub-committees. No committee has the right to take unto itself delegated powers for a sub-committee without the authority of the full body.
Perhaps I might look at that before the Committee meets again. It was not the intention of the wording as at present drafted that the provision should be applied to sub-committees.
The right hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Glenvil Hall) made a point about the Title. There is a later Amendment to deal with that.
Mr. Glenvil Hall
I am sorry. I missed the Amendment when I raised that point.
The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) made a point about the power of a local elector to sub-poena the local planning officer. I have looked at this in the light of Section 90 of the Local Government Act, 1933, and, as I understand it, it is only the inspector who has power to sub-poena. The appellant has no power to do so. The difficulty the hon. Gentleman mentioned could not therefore arise.
I am conscious that when we discussed this measure in the House the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) asked that we should have competent legal advice. As I understand it, without the Amendment moved by the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Wilkins) the position with regard to the admission of the Press and the public would be that the local authority would have to provide such accommodation as was reasonable having regard to all the circumstances, including the nature of the body, its functions, and the premises available.
Is that the position after the incorporation of my Amendment?
No. That is what I understood to be my right hon. Friend's interpretation of the requirement without the Amendment of the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Wilkins). I notice that the words in his Amendment have a certain legal flavour about them, and I was hoping that the hon. Member for Fulham would take that as competent [column 106]legal advice and would not dream of putting any gloss of mine upon it.
The Michael Stewarthon. Member for Fulham asked about sanctions in certain events. In the Second Reading debate I attempted to give some idea what the sanctions would be. As I understand it, they would be as follows. If a member of the public wanted to challenge the fact that he could not get into a meeting his only method of doing so would be to apply to the Attorney-General for the Attorney-General to lend his name to an action for a declaration that the act of the local authority was illegal. In order for the Attorney-General to lend his name to such an action he would have to be supplied with a certificate from a solicitor saying that there was a bona fide case. So we have a kind of sieve which will prevent the bringing of actions which have no good grounds. That will be sufficient to deter anyone except the person who has an extremely good case.
The only effect would be that there would be a declaration that the act of the local authority was illegal, in which case the person bringing the action would be entitled to costs. Such a declaration would in no way affect the validity of the proceedings which took place at the meeting of the authority or committee concerned.
What happens then? If an action has been declared illegal and the local authority continues to act illegally, what happens?
An injunction is applied for to restrain it from acting in such a way on future occasions. The two may be combined in one form of action.
Would it not also follow that the individual members of the council would be surcharged in relation to those costs?
The Roderic Bowenhon. and learned Member for Cardigan is quite right. There is power for the district auditor to surcharge individual members of a local authority in the event of costs being awarded against the authority, if it is shown that individual members have been guilty of misconduct. The [column 107]requisite wording is contained in the Local Government Act, and I believe that I quoted it in the Second Reading debate.
Having regard to the interpretation given by my Henry Brookeright hon. Friend about the requirements for accommodation, I shall resist the Amendment of the W. A. Wilkinshon. Member for Bristol, South.
We have had a long debate on the Amendment, and my Amendment to it, but I hope that no hon. Member feels that we have wasted our time. It is obvious that real anxiety exists about the interpretation placed upon the words in my Amendment and also on the words “press” and “public” . I am afraid that the explanation offered to us by the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) has not completely allayed our anxieties. It has gone some way towards doing so, but it must have caused great anxieties among her hon. Friends. I should have thought that they, more than hon. Members on this side of the Committee, would welcome her further examination of what the words mean, how they will be interpreted, and what they will do.
I had thought that we might be able to arrive at a decision on the Amendment this morning, but in the light of our debate I question the wisdom of doing so now. I am not trying to delay the proceedings. Genuine doubts have arisen in the matter; indeed, the hon. Lady has said that she would like to examine the words again and give us a considered interpretation of them. In order that she may do so, it would seem convenient for us to adjourn now so that she can give us the information at our next sitting.
I am more concerned about my Amendment and what it means in material terms. The Minister of Housing and Local Government is what I would call a master of rejection combined with sweet reasonableness. I do not know how many times I have heard him talk his way out of things he does not want to do and make his listeners believe that he is doing it in their interests. I have been trying to reconcile some of the things he said with his suggested rejection of the words contained in my Amendment.
I should like to see the discussion adjourned until our next sitting for yet another reason. I should like the [column 108]opportunity to read the words of the right hon. Gentleman, as read to us by the hon. Lady a few moments ago, in order to see how they fit in with the wishes of hon. Members on this side of the Committee. When I listened to those words I was not at all sure that we ought to invite the Minister or the hon. Lady to put down an Amendment couched in the terms he used.
I am still not satisfied with the explanation offered by the Minister on the question of accommodation. He seems to reject the views of hon. Members on this side of the Committee, and so I will call in aid the advice given us by his hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. D. Smith) when he made his maiden speech on 5th February. He said:
“I have always believed as a journalist, and I think that many members of the public believe, that the Press represents the public and on many occasions is the public. Certain local authorities lack room to accommodate the public, but the Press can be accommodated and can be there to see that justice is done.” —[Official Report, 5th February, 1960; Vol. 616, c. 1387.]
It is true that many local authorities just have not got adequate accommodation for the public, whatever their desires may be to admit the public. Generally speaking, local authorities have found by long experience that it profits them to have good relations with the Press. This Bill will destroy those good relations. I have ten years of local authority experience, and I very much doubt whether the Bill will achieve the objects which some hon. Members think it will.
Mr. Dudley Smith
Does not the hon. Member agree that in the vast majority of country courts there is hardly any provision for the accommodation of members of the public?
I am one of those fortunate members of the public who have never been called before a court except on a charge of parking my car in the wrong place, and I hope I shall never again be called before a court. So I cannot say what accommodation is provided in those places.
Mr. F. P. Bishop
Has the hon. Member ever had the experience of sitting as a member of a Standing Committee in Room 12 or Room 11 and seeing what the conditions are there?[column 109]
Yes, I admit there is not much room there. I was going to mention that.
I want the Bill to be worded in such a way that local authorities can easily interpret it. I am concerned to know whether we can frame a definition of satisfactory arrangements for the admission of the public or the Press. Some minimum accommodation should be required. Will accommodation for one person, two persons, three persons or six persons be considered sufficient? How much accommodation will be required to satisfy the provision contained in the Bill that the Press and members of the public shall be admitted? I have been told by a journalist that this provision would mean that an advantage would accrue to the National Union of Journalists, because it would be able to arrange to cover a meeting with only one reporter. Reporters would be able to work on a rota basis, or a quid pro quo basis——
rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.
Question put, That the Question be now put:——
Mr. Reynolds (seated and covered)
On a point of order, Sir Norman. Is it in order for the hon. Member to move, “That the Question be now put” , when my hon. Friend, who is one of the persons involved is replying to the debate and when the Committee itself is in a complete muddle as to what its vote should be, because it has not had legal advice on the matter?
For the information of the hon. Member, I would point out that he does not have to remain seated and covered when raising a point of order in a Standing Committee.
I apologise for that, Sir Norman. I can only say that a [column 110]previous Chairman of a Standing Committee insisted on my being so covered.
The hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) is quite in order in moving the Closure, and I have accepted it.
The hon. Lady did not move the Closure. This appears to be a put-up job between her and the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield), in order to prevent proper discussion of a long series of Amendments. It is a gross discourtesy to hon. Members who are interested in seriously discussing the Bill.
I apologise to the hon. Lady.
Did not the hon. Lady say that she would obtain advice upon many of the questions raised this morning, so that the Committee could be assured about them? In the light of that fact, does she want her hon. Friend to persist in moving the Closure?
The hon. Member has moved the Closure, and I have accepted the Motion.
If the Motion is agreed to, can we ask, through you, Sir Norman, whether the hon. Lady, if she looks again at the question to which she referred and finds that she is wrong and we are right, will be prepared to give the Committee an undertaking that she will find a suitable form of words to insert at a later stage?
That is not a point of order.
Am I not right in thinking that it is open to the hon. Lady to do the only thing which will help her to redeem the promise made to the Committee, namely, to vote against the Closure?
The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 9. Division No. 4.]
Bishop, F. P.
Bowen, Roderic (Cardigan)
Corfield, F. V.
Grimston, Sir Robert
Hocking, Philip N.
Smith, Dudley (Br'ntf'd & Chiswick)
Butler, Mrs. Joyce (Wood Green)
Hall, Rt. Hn. Glenvil (Colne Valley)
Iremonger, T. L.
Pargiter, G. A.
Slater, Mrs. Harriet (Stoke, N.)
Stewart, Michael (Fulham)
Wilkins, W. A.
Yates, Victor (Ladywood) [column 111-112]
Whereupon The Chairman declared that the Question was not decided in the Affirmative, because it was not supported by the majority prescribed by Standing Order No. 30 (majority for closure) and Standing Order No. 57 (Standing committees (constitution and powers)).
It being after One o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Committee adjourned at two minutes past One o'clock till Wednesday, 30th March, 1960, at half-past Ten o'clock.
The Following Members Attended the Committee:
Hulbert , Sir N. (Chairman)
Balniel , Lord
Bishop , Mr.
Bowen , Mr.
Brooke , Mr. H.
Bullard , Mr.
Butler , Mrs.
Cleaver , Mr.
Cordeaux , Lieut.-Colonel
Corfield , Mr.
Edelman , Mr.
Galbraith , Mr.
Gammans , Lady
Glyn , Dr. A.
Grimston , Sir R.
Hall , Mr. Glenvil
Hocking , Mr.
Iremonger , Mr.
Jenkins , Mr. Robert
Maddan , Mr.
Pannell , Mr. N.
Pargiter , Mr.
Renton , Mr.
Reynolds , Mr.
Rogers , Mr. G. H. R.
Slater , Mrs.
Small , Mr.
Smith , Mr. D.
Stewart , Mr. M.
Symonds , Mr.
Thatcher , Mrs.
Thomas , Mr. Iorwerth
Wilkins , Mr.
Yates , Mr. V. [column 113] Appendix
PUBLIC BODIES (ADMISSION OF THE PRESS TO MEETINGS) BILL
STANDING COMMITTEE C
Wednesday, 30th March, 1960 [Sir Norman Hulbert in the Chair]
At the last meeting of the Committee the right hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Glenvil Hall) and the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) asked if I could add anything to my Ruling about one Member accusing another of misrepresentation.
I should first of all say that I am quite satisfied that the hon. Member for Islington, North, when he first used the expression, had no intention whatever of offending, but hon. Members will realise that the Chairman, in carrying out his duty of preserving order in the debate, must guard against the use of expressions which by exacerbating feelings may give rise to breaches of order, as well as against expressions which are un-Parliamentary in themselves.
I would draw the attention of hon. Members to the words used in the First Edition of Erskine May. They are:
“The use of temperate and decorous language is never more desirable than when a Member is canvassing the opinions and conduct of his opponents in debate. The warmth of his own feelings is likely to betray him into hasty and unguarded expressions, which the excitement of his adversaries will exaggerate; and he cannot be too careful in restraining himself within these bounds which Parliament has wisely established. The imputation of bad motives, or motives different from those acknowledged; misrepresenting the language of another, or accusing him, in his turn, of misrepresentation; charging him with falsehood or deceit; or contemptuous and insulting language of any kind; all these are unparliamentary, and call for prompt interference.”
It was in this light, and because in the circumstances of the particular case I thought that the use of the phrase might cause heated and disorderly reactions, that I asked the hon. Member to withdraw, which he very properly did immediately. [column 114]
The words on which I based my Ruling have been repeated without any substantial alteration in every edition of Erskine May from the First in 1844 to the Sixteenth in 1957, but since the last meeting I have studied the examples given in Erskine May and have taken further advice on the recent practice of the House. These do not bear out the full severity of the literal interpretation of the rule as stated in Erskine May. I shall draw the attention of the editors to this, and will rule for the guidance of Members of this Committee that provided there is no accusation of deliberate misrepresentation, and provided that there is no intention or likelihood of offence being caused, I shall not in future insist upon the word being withdrawn.
Mr. G. W. Reynolds
I am very much obliged to you, Sir Norman, for looking further into this matter. I assure you that, as you have said, there was no intention when I first used the word of imputing motives to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North (Mr. Edelman). I was glad to hear the last few words of your Ruling because they are in accordance with what happened in the House the other day when Mr. Deputy-Speaker and Mr. Speaker were at different times in the Chair. Allegations of misrepresentation were made then, and though I challenged the use of the word Mr. Deputy-Speaker did not ask that the word be withdrawn and Mr. Speaker took no notice of its use. Since it is clear that the practice of the House has been to drift away from the words in Erskine May I am glad that you propose, Sir Norman, to draw the attention of the editors to the matter. I thank you very much.
Mr. Glenvil Hall
I should like to say how much I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) has said. I and, I am positive, the whole Committee are extremely grateful to you, Sir Norman, for the trouble you have taken to elucidate this point of order. The matter is now crystal clear from what you have said, and if, as you have promised, you draw the attention of future editors of Erskine May to the ambiguity of the phrasing in the present edition we shall all feel that the matter has been well worth raising. [column 115]Clause 1.—(Admission of press to meetings of local authorities and other bodies.)
Further Amendment proposed [23rd March], In page 1, line 8, leave out “press” and insert “public” .—[Mrs. Thatcher.]
Question again proposed.
Mr. W. A. Wilkins
As you will recall, Sir Norman, when our proceedings on Wednesday were abruptly terminated by the intervention of the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield) I was bringing my remarks to a close. I had suggested that as we were approaching the time when our deliberations would cease for the sitting it might be as well if we adjourned our discussions until the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) had an opportunity to re-examine the legal interpretation of delegated authority with regard to sub-committees as she had promised us twice to do in her closing speech. Fortunately, the attempt of the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South to stifle our discussion and at the same time to prevent his hon. Friend from fulfilling a promise she had made to look into the point we had raised and give her considered view upon them, to use her own words, when the Committee met again, proved abortive, but we are a little concerned at the antics of the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South who, in his great anxiety, it would seem, to accord far greater freedom to the Press seeks to obtain it by gagging hon. Members who, after all, are only seeking to improve the Bill or to write into it provisions which we hope will provide safeguards in the future.
It seems to me a rather ironic commentary on the hon. Member's urgent endeavours to seek even greater freedom for the all powerful Press, that in all circumstances the Press will always have the last word, as the hon. Member will find out if he writes to the editor of his newspaper criticising any reports which it prints. The paper will, of course, print his criticism, but it will be followed by a footnote to show how right the newspaper was. The hon. Member wants to afford greater freedom to these people and to do that he wants to stifle our efforts in this Committee. I hope that we shall not have any more [column 116]of this nonsense from people who proclaim themselves to be apostles of the freedom of speech and of the written word.
I have little to add to the observations which I made towards the end of our last meeting, but since that meeting we have had an opportunity of reflecting on the words of the right hon. Gentleman the Minister for Housing and Local Government and of the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley. It will be recalled that the Minister in his speech referred to such accommodation “as is reasonable” on no fewer than three occasions. This is what he is reported in the Official Report as having said last Wednesday:
“If my hon. Friend's Amendment is accepted, it must follow that the obligation is to provide such accommodation as is reasonable having regard to all the circumstances …”
Later he said:
“I therefore think that no unreasonable obligation would be imposed if my hon. Friend's Amendment were accepted, carrying with it an obligation to provide reasonable accommodation for the public.”
Then again he said:
“First, I am advised, and I must advise the Committee, that the Bill as drafted goes no further than to require the bodies concerned to provide reasonable accommodation.” —[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 23rd March, 1960; c. 65–6.]
The hon. Lady the Member for Finchley reiterated what her right hon. Friend had said. She said:
“As I understand it, without the Amendment moved by the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Wilkins) the position with regard to the admission of the Press and the public would be that the local authority would have to provide such accommodation as was reasonable having regard to all the circumstances.”
Then she said:
“Having regard to the interpretation given by my right hon. Friend about the requirements for accommodation, I shall resist the Amendment of the hon. Member for Bristol, South.” —[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 23rd March, 1960; c. 105–7.]
That interpretation or that qualified obligation completely satisfies me. I shall be most happy not to press the Amendment to the Amendment if an assurance can be given by the hon. Lady perhaps in agreement with her right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government that on Report there will be written into the Bill words which [column 117]will make that intention clear. I do not know how many times I have read the Bill, but I cannot find any words in it which appear to incorporate this suggestion of “as is reasonable” . I should be grateful if the Minister and the hon. Lady would point out to me in what Clause I can find this interpretation. If an undertaking is given to write into the Bill the words “as is reasonable” I shall be happy not to press the Amendment to the Amendment.
I have only one other point to make and that is again on the subject of accommodation. Since our last meeting I have been amazed at the number of hon. Members who have come to me and advised me that this matter of lack of accommodation not only for committees but also for main council meetings is a very serious problem and especially so to the urban, rural and parish councils. Only last night I was told by an hon. Member that in the principal town in his constituency, Castleford in Yorkshire, owing to the enlargement of the council because of the growth of population, the main monthly meeting of the council cannot be held in the town hall. A room has to be hired in a café and the same room has also to be hired for the mayor-making ceremony.
We understand from what we hear that there are dozens and probably hundreds of similar cases. We hope that, before all stages of the Bill are completed, to bring to the Committee or to the House factual evidence of the existence of this problem all over the country. Our assessment from what we hear is that probably up to 90 per cent. of councils have not the accommodation which would enable them to fulfil the legal obligations which the Bill would require.
I am certain that it is possible to write into the Bill provisions which would safeguard these authorities who will be physically unable to carry out these requirements. I emphasise the words “physically unable” because I am still of the opinion that the majority of local authorities have no objection to either the Press or the public coming into those meetings which are suitable meetings for them to attend; that is, where such things as estimates and property purchases are not involved. [column 118]10.45 a.m.
I ask the Minister whether he will again look into this question of accommodation. It is highly probable that in order to comply with the Bill many local authorities will either have to alter existing structures or be forced to build new accommodation. The Minister seems to be completely out of touch with the true circumstances of many local authorities. I can only surmise that his judgment in this matter is completely coloured by his knowledge of the ample accommodation which he enjoyed when he was a member of the London County Council, which then had commodious premises at its command.
If he insists upon this requirement for accommodation to be made available for the public and the Press without writing into the Bill the words, “as is reasonable” , he should give serious thought to giving financial assistance to those local authorities who will be put to considerable expense in order to comply with the provisions of the Bill. I hope the Minister will now agree to write into the Bill his own words—not ours—to satisfy us on this point.
The Solicitor-General (Sir Jocelyn Simon)
At our last sitting it was clear that many hon. Members wished for advice from a Law Officer as to certain matters which arose in discussion. I am very glad to be able to comply with the requests then made. It seems to me that three questions arise. First, what are the implications of the words to which the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Wilkins) has just referred, namely, what obligation is placed upon a local authority if its proceedings must be open to the public? Secondly, how far do those obligations extend to sub-committees? And, thirdly, what sanctions are available for non-compliance? If any other legal points arose at the last sitting I shall be pleased to try to deal with them.
I do not propose to deal with the policy considerations to which the hon. Member has just referred, or to any other policy considerations. If I spent the rest of my life in local government I could not hope to match the experience and expertise which exists among hon. Members on both sides of the Committee.
In my opinion, there is no doubt about the effect of the Bill, as drafted, upon [column 119]the question of reasonable accommodation being provided. With the Amendment which my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) seeks to make, subsection (1) will read:
“Subject to subsection (2) below, any meeting of a local authority or other body exercising public functions, being an authority or other body to which this Act applies, shall be open to the public.”
In addition to that reference to the public there is a specific reference to representatives of the Press in subsection (3, c), so that if my hon. Friend's Amendment is accepted we shall be concerned with members of the public generally and with certain specifically mentioned members of the public, namely, representatives of the Press.
Mr. Charles Pannell
I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will deal with the rather narrower point which is involved in this question of accommodation. There might be a certain amount of selectivity between one section of the public and another. A ratepayer within a borough who is not a member of the Press might have priority over a member of the Press who is not a ratepayer. All these considerations arise. The hon. and learned Member will appreciate that he himself has a considerable past in this matter. He started all this with his Ten-Minute Rule Bill in 1956, and he has set his hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) an example which has led her astray in introducing this Bill.
I said that I was not going to mention any policy considerations. I will merely say that I strongly resent the way in which the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) has put his point. I was going to deal with the pertinent matter to which he was referring.
The duty imposed upon a local authority, under the Clause as amended, will be to choose a room big enough to take some members of the public and some reporters. It will not have to provide accommodation for an unlimited number of each. It should not admit one group at the expense of another. In other words, it should not admit members of the Press at the expense of members of the public. A certain number of places should be allocated to each group. In [column 120]that way the authority will be complying with its statutory obligation.
The hon. Member for Leeds, West asked about the choice between specific members of the public. The usual way in which any body whose deliberations are open to the public complies with its obligations is by providing reasonable but limited accommodation for members of the public and then allocating it on the basis of first come, first served. That arrangement works reasonably. For instance, if a large body of lobbyists or a large body of ratepayers with some specific interest arrived here, or at the headquarters of a local authority, wishing to safeguard those interests by watching the proceedings, and space were available for them when they presented themselves for admission, there would be a non-compliance with the duty to sit in public if they were excluded.
That applies not only to Parliament, and to local authorities under the 1908 Act in regard to the admission of the Press, but also to any court whose duty it is to sit in public. That does not mean that unlimited accommodation must be provided; it means that there must be reasonable accommodation, and if somebody presents himself for admission at a time when accommodation is available and he is excluded the court is not fulfilling its duty, and in that case its proceedings would be voidable.
Conversely, if all the available seats which are reasonably made available are already filled, there is no right of any further member of the public to demand admission. We see great queues extending down St. Stephen's Hall and outside into the street when we have an important debate, but nobody would claim for a moment that that meant that the proceedings of Parliament are not open to the public.
I hope that I have thrown some light upon the matter. The situation was put admirably by my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley in the passage to which the hon. Member for Bristol, South drew attention. There is a duty to provide such accommodation as is reasonable, having regard to all the circumstances, including the nature of the body, its functions and the premises available. The hon. Member for Bristol, South gave the example of the Castleford local [column 121]authority which, at the moment, cannot admit any members of the public at all. To the extent that it cannot do so it may already be infringing the provisions of the 1908 Act.
There must be hundreds of local authorities in that situation.
That may well be so, but that is inherent in the existing state of the law. We must have regard to the premises available, and it would be unreasonable to expect a major rebuilding operation to be undertaken in order to provide independent Press galleries and public galleries of great luxury.
I gather that the hon. Member for Bristol, South does not now wish to press his Amendment to the Amendment, to insert the words:
“whenever reasonable facilities for accommodating the public can be provided.”
In any case, I would advise the Committee that from a legal point of view it would be inadvisable to accept his Amendment, for the reason given by my right hon. Friend at our last Sitting.
That happens to be contrary to what the hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) said. Her first observation on my Amendment was that it bore a legal flavour. If the hon. Lady will look at the Hansard Report she will find that she said that my Amendment bore a legal flavour. I have no connection with the legal profession. I consulted no one before putting down the Amendment to the Amendment and I was not aware that it had any legal implication.
The imputation of legality, coming from a lawyer, is a very soft impeachment, which the hon. Member need not resent.
My right hon. Friend said that the words suggested
“imply that the public and the Press could be excluded from the meetings of a full council purely and simply through lack of accommodation.” —[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 23rd March, 1960; c. 66–7.]
Mr. Glenvil Hall
Is not the Solicitor-General saying that if the accommodation is not there there is no need for anybody to go out of his way to carry out a vast building project in order to provide it?[column 122]
There is an obligation to sit in a place which provides reasonable accommodation. In view of the fact that there is no [sic] obligation under the Bill as at present drafted for local authorities to provide reasonable accommodation, it would be argued that this must mean that the local authority need not go out of its way to sit in public at all, unless the accommodation were immediately available.
Mr. Glenvil Hall
That is one of the difficulties which local authorities feel they are up against. If the Bill is passed they feel that they will have to spend a lot of money in order to make accommodation available and provide the staff to go with it. They think that it is unfair.
I desire only to say that that is not the kind of matter with which I would wish to be involved today, because the Committee will want from me an interpretation only of the meaning of the words. It is for the Committee to come to a conclusion as to the obligations which those words will impose upon local authorities, and how far they are reasonable, but I can say that the Clause, as sought to be amended by my hon. Friend and without the further Amendment of the hon. Member for Bristol, South, does not impose upon an authority any further obligation than to provide facilities which are reasonable in all the circumstances.
As I was saying, local authorities will have to choose a room big enough to take some members of the public and some reporters, just as, at the moment, they have to choose a room big enough to take some reporters. The hon. Member put forward the inclusion of the words “as is reasonable” as an alternative, to be added on Report. I should be very sorry to see those words written into the Clause, because they would throw doubt upon the meanings of other Statutes, where there is an absence of similar words. The courts proceed on the basis that what Parliament lays down is a reasonable requirement. It is not an absolute duty. Therefore, since those words are not necessary, I should be sorry to see them pressed.
I have never heard this question asked before, although it may have been asked. It concerns the words [column 123] “as is reasonable” , which are not in the Bill. The hon. and learned Gentleman has knowledge of the courts. Suppose that a challenge were made to a local authority—I am thinking in terms of a ratepayers' association—by a body which was trying to get into a local authority meeting dealing with matters in which that body was interested. Suppose it was excluded because accommodation was not available, or for a similar reason, and such a body challenged the position. Would a court of law accept the interpretation given by the Solicitor-General, by his right hon. Friend the Minister and by the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) of the words in the Bill? Would it be accepted as evidence? Would a judge accept the qualification “as is reasonable” although it is not written into the Bill?
There may be two questions implied in that and I can answer both of them without any doubt. The first is whether the courts would construe the obligation on the local authority as being to provide unlimited accommodation or reasonable accommodation. I have no doubt whatever that it would be to provide reasonable accommodation. The hon. Member also asked whether what we have said in this Committee would be admissible as evidence in a court of law. The answer is “No” .
So it does not count for anything.
No. I hope that it may weigh with my colleagues in this Committee, but it would not weigh in a court of law.
What is reasonable depends upon the nature of the subject matter and the nature of the body. We have a much smaller public gallery in this Committee Room than in the main Chamber of the House.
Having said that, I pass now to the second question relating to subcommittees.
Mr. C. Pannell
Will the hon. and learned Gentleman bear in mind the kind of local authority—Birmingham is an example—where there is a great degree of delegation and where six committees might be meeting in the same building [column 124]simultaneously all with delegated Powers? I could refer to a small local authority not far from here which is known to the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), where two sets of committees run contemporaneously almost from morning to night on one day of the week to dispose of their business. In effect, accommodation has to be provided for the Press and public in every room.
That may be so. I have no doubt that the obligation which the Clause imposes is to provide reasonable facilities, reasonable in all the circumstances—on any body, including the committees which are caught by the Bill; there is an obligation to provide the accommodation for the public and for the Press that is reasonable in the circumstances.
That brings me to the question of the sub-committees. What the courts will look at is the reality and not the name. It does not matter whether the body is called a sub-committee. What matters is whether it is a body to which the functions of a body listed in the Schedule are committed. That leads me, first, to say that clearly some sub-committees are within the Bill, because a number of bodies listed in the Schedule are themselves committees. There are the standing joint committees and watch committees, which are the police authorities, under paragraph 1 (c) of the Schedule, probation committees under paragraph (1, i,) and so on. If any of those bodies form a sub-committee directly, the Bill will apply to them provided they come within Clause 2 (2), which states that
“the foregoing section shall apply in relation to any committee of the body whose normal functions consists to a substantial extent of discharging functions of the body under powers delegated to the committee by the body” .
The second question arises on sub-committees in the sense of committees formed by the main committees to which functions are delegated. In my opinion, they will be outside the Bill.
Mr. G. A. Pargiter
Will the hon. and learned Gentleman repeat that? It is important.
Take the case of a local authority; it is the easiest one because we do not have to use the word “committee” more than once. A local [column 125]authority has, say, a health committee to which the functions of the authority itself are committed. If the health committee forms sub-committees, those sub-committees will be outside the Bill.
Mrs. Harriet Slater
Suppose that the health committee delegates powers to, say, the sanitary committee, which deals with slum clearance. Is that caught?
If the Committee will hear me out, I think hon. Members will find that I shall cover these cases which they have in mind.
The first case which I was taking was the local authority itself. It delegates a function to the health committee. The health committee forms sub-committees. Those sub-committees will be outside the Bill, because they are not, in the words of line 40, page 2, a “committee of the body” .
I shall want to challenge this.
I can only give my opinion and I have no doubt about this at all—so far.
Mr. Glenvil Hall
May we clear this up as we go along? Surely, it all depends on whether the central body delegating functions to a sub-committee gives that sub-committee power again to delegate certain functions to a second sub-committee. If so, I should have thought that it would be caught. I do not want a committee of that kind to be caught. Later, I expect, we shall ask the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) to make that clear in the Bill. At the moment, however, all we are doing is to clear up what the Bill as written states.
I intended to deal particularly with that point. If the Committee will allow me to proceed, hon. Members will probably find that I shall deal with the instances which they have in mind. I thought I had better approach them one by one.
The second sort of case I wanted to take was where the council delegates direct to what is called a sub-committee. That can happen in some cases. That will be within the Bill, since that is, whatever its name might be, a committee of the local authority.
Mr. C. Pannell
And that is caught?[column 126]
Yes, that will be caught by the Bill. Where there is a direct delegation by the local authority to what is called a sub-committee, that will be within the Bill.
Mr. Robert Jenkins
We now know, on the advice of my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, that a sub-committee can be caught within the Bill because there has been direct delegation to that sub-committee. Is it not a fact that a body having delegated powers to a committee, that committee may not in law delegate any of those powers to a sub-committee without the consent of the body? I understand that that is the law today and that cases have been examined with regard to it. No delegation is possible by a committee having delegated powers to delegate those powers. Therefore, they have to go back to the body in order that the power can be conferred upon the sub-committee. In those circumstances, there is—automatically, it would appear to me—a direct delegation by that process in two stages of the sub-committee of the committee having direct delegation from the body. Therefore, with respect to my hon. and learned Friend, I would say that in practice and in law, there is no question that those also would be caught.
I was about to deal next with the precise point that my hon. Friend has put. It would be easier if I gave all these cases in turn and gave my view of them.
To recapitulate, we have, first, a committee of the local authority. Clearly, that will be within the Bill. Secondly, we have a sub-committee formed by a committee of the local authority without anything further; clearly, that will be outside the Bill. The third case is direct delegation by the local authority to what is called a sub-committee; clearly, that will be within the Bill, because it is, in exercising those functions, a committee of the local authority.
The fourth case is that put to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins). I shall not try to answer the general question as to whether a committee of the local authority to whom functions have been delegated can delegate them further. I [column 127]do not think the law is clear on the subject. There is an old tag of the law which I quoted in Latin to my right hon. Friend yesterday, but as he did not understand the pronunciation which we have in the law courts, it is, perhaps, safer to give it in English, which is, that a delegate may not himself delegate.
The hon. and learned Gentleman is now making it more complicated than ever.
It is well known to the hon. Member. That is a general principle of our law, but it is not absolutely certain how far it applies in the local authority field.
It is sufficient for me to say that it is generally considered to apply. It is for that reason that frequently, when a committee of a local authority wishes its functions to be exercised by a sub-committee, it goes back to the local authority to have that situation dealt with.
That situation can be dealt with in two ways. The first is a direct delegation of functions by the local authority to the sub-committee. That is the third case which I have dealt with, where the sub-committee will be within the Bill because it is acting in that respect as a committee of the local authority. What sometimes happens, I understand, is that the local authority in those circumstances delegates power to a committee and gives it power to sub-delegate. Certainly, express statutory authority is given in certain Acts to that practice. It is not necessary to examine how far in general it may be valid in law, because there are certainly statutory instances where it is perfectly valid. So that we then have the case of a local authority given power to authorise one of its committees to sub-delegate delegated functions to a sub-committee. In that case, the sub-committee will be outside the Bill because it is not a committee of the body.
Those are, I think, all the cases which have been put, except the case put at our last meeting by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds), in which he was a one-man committee. I do not consider it necessary to deal with that case, because nobody suggests that the public should be admitted to hear him talking to himself. I think there is doubt [column 128]whether a committee in this sense would be construed as being more than one person. I am inclined to think that it would. If the court had to construe “committee” here, it would construe it in its ordinary sense as a body rather than its strict sense of a single person to whom functions are committed. But I do not think that it would create practical difficulties in this field.
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for looking into that question. Even if the view had been expressed the other way round, I am not sure that I should want to exclude the Press from their right to listen to me talking to myself. It may be useful for the electorate to know how difficult it is for a local authority to borrow money at present under right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite. As the Bill is drafted at present, it would be easy enough for a committee or for the body itself to delegate functions to an individual as a committee of one, or to delegate a function to a chairman, which is often done, and thereby incur no obligation whatever under the Bill for having to give any publicity to the time when the chairman is to come to any decisions or allow the Press to be present. That can be done with one individual, but if the body sets up a committee of two, with delegated powers to do something, or a committee of three or four, or any number, so that there is a wider representation of the council to deal with it—less nepotism, more people involved—then the Press have to be present or may well have to be present. A committee of one can get round it if the council so desires. Is that the position?
If it is a sub-committee of the body, it makes no difference whether it is composed of one, or more than one, person. The sub-committee is outside the Bill, except in the case I gave where it has directly delegated functions. In a case where the council as a whole has delegated functions to a single member, which might happen sometimes, my own view—but I do not say this with any confidence—is that the courts would not construe that to be a committee. I think that the courts would construe “committee” in the ordinary sense, namely a body of two or three persons to whom functions are [column 129]committed. In any case, I do not think that it is a practical problem, because if it is a one-man committee the admission of the public and Press is not a relevant consideration.
The Solicitor-General is being very helpful to us. Can he clarify this position for me? In some local authorities, certainly in my own, committees, having been appointed, then meet and they themselves appoint sub-committees. Examples are the sites and buildings sub-committee, which is a very important one, being concerned with buying land and property, and the special services sub-committee. Those sub-committees having been appointed, there appears on the council agenda a list of all the committees with the names of the persons who have been appointed to the sub-committees, and they are submitted to the full council for approval. If approval is given to a printed list of names, would that constitute delegated authority to a sub-committee which had been appointed from a principal committee? Has the hon. and learned Gentleman appreciated the point?
No, I am not sure that I have.
I give as an example the local education authority, which is an authority on its own. It has a meeting and appoints people to numerous sub-committees. A local education authority usually has a number of sub-committees, which can include the special services sub-committee, the sites and buildings sub-committee, and such sub-committees. By virtue of the fact that those names have been printed on the council agenda and submitted to the full council for approval, does that then constitute delegated authority from the full council to the sub-committee?
May I help my hon. Friend? Under the Education Act, 1944, this happens to be one of the committees which can delegate. Statutorily, it has the right to appoint sub-committees. As it has the right to appoint sub-committees, it is probably not caught.
That is what I am asking.
I think that that is covered by the example I gave, [column 130]and that the mere sanctioning of names would not be taken to be a direct delegation of functions. We are concerned with the functions of a sub-committee rather than its constitution. The hon. Member for Southall (Mr. Pargiter), with his experience of local government, is quite right in saying that that is one of the statutory examples which I mentioned where there is power to sub-delegate.
That raises the point of how far the education committee then appoints sub-committees with delegated powers which would come within the provisions of the Bill. It might delegate powers to the sites and buildings sub-committee to negotiate for land.
In my view, all those sub-committees are outside the Bill.
Mr. C. Pannell
These are not the sub-committees which bother me very much. In his argument the Solicitor-General referred to a specific sub-committee set up by the local authority itself, presumably by special resolution of the council, to deal with a special subject. It might be concerned with the conduct of a chief official. It might be concerned with the conduct of a councillor, having to inquire into whether there had been betrayal of confidential documents. That is a specific recommendation to set up a sub-committee with the full powers of the council, probably presided over by the mayor. It has a character which is almost judicial, with functions concerning people. Where would such a sub-committee stand? The hon. and learned Gentleman can envisage the sort of sub-committee set up to deal with something where it is not desired to pitchfork a chief official into litigation and where it is desired to deal with the subject as humanely as possible. What happens then? Under the Bill, does such a sub-committee have solemnly to meet and then pass a resolution excluding the Press from its discussions? The sub-committees of the health committee or the education committee do not trouble me very much. I can see my way through them. I am concerned with the official sub-committee which might be set up to deal with a highly important matter, often concerned with the conduct of officials.
Such a committee, exercising delegated functions of [column 131]the local authority, would certainly be within the Bill unless it were excluded under subsection (2), in other words, by a resolution.
Mr. C. Pannell
I have argued this before, even with prominent persons on the Press Council. What protection, what limited privilege, have the members of such a sub-committee against libel or slander? Presumably they would still have a very limited privilege.
I am very anxious not to be drawn from the subject on which I came to advise the Committee.
Mr. C. Pannell
The hon. and learned Gentleman cannot escape that. He started this hare in 1956.
If the hon. Gentleman will look at Clause 2 (6) he will find the answer to the question which he has just asked. No doubt it can be debated when the Committee reaches that subsection. I should be very glad to come and give what assistance I can to the Committee then.
Mr. Robert Jenkins
I am concerned about the reply given by my hon. and learned Friend to the point which I and other hon. Members put to him about sub-committees coming within the Bill. His statement will go throughout the country to all the town clerks of all large cities and small towns. For many years past they have acted on the assumption that a delegate cannot delegate. I do not think that there is a single local authority—there certainly would not be one within the membership of the Association of Municipal Corporations—which would act in that way. For years they have assumed that a delegate cannot delegate. I am instructed that what is happening now is that on every occasion when a local authority sets up a committee with delegated powers and that committee delegates its powers to a sub-committee, consent to do so is always asked. If consent is not received there is no delegation. Are we to assume therefore, that the advice tendered to us by my hon. and learned Friend this morning is that that is not the law as he sees it? If that is so, the statement he has made this morning will naturally be taken by [column 132]the town clerks in this country as exonerating them from taking that view. Secondly, if a sub-committee cannot delegate delegated powers, but has to go back for consent to the local authority, that is a direct delegation. The very fact that consent by the body is given at the request of the committee shows that powers can be delegated to a sub-committee, and this must be just one step in the delegation of authority given by a body to committees.
There are two points there. First, I ask my hon. Friend to read what I said. I certainly did not say that the view of the law which is taken generally throughout the country is incorrect. There is a good deal of authority to suggest that it is correct and, as I said, there is the general principle that a delegate may not delegate. There is certainly no need as a result of anything I have said for local authorities to alter their practice.
As to the second point, I can only say that I differ from my hon. Friend. It seems to me to turn on the words of the Bill:
“the foregoing section shall apply in relation to any committee of the body” .
I cannot read that as meaning a sub-committee to which functions have been delegated under authority given to a committee. It is a question of construction, and it may be said that it is all part of one process. Of course it is, but it is a question of what the words in the Bill mean.
I pass now to the third point, which is on sanctions. I do not think that there is very much doubt among hon. Members about this. To enforce the injunctions laid down in the Bill it is necessary that proceedings shall be taken in the name of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General for a declaration. That is normal, as hon. Members know, in the field of public authority, because Parliament proceeds on the reasonable assumption that local authorities will obey the law when it is declared to them. Therefore, in our view it would be very inadvisable to put specific criminal sanctions in this sort of field. It is open to any member of the public in the sort of situation I indicated, where there are free seats in the public accommodation but for some reason he is wrongfully [column 133]excluded, to start proceedings for a declaration that he should not have been excluded.
The proceedings of the local authority are not thereby invalidated, and I am sure that the Committee will think that that is entirely reasonable. It would be quite wrong to invalidate proceedings merely because some procedural requirement which does not relate to the proceedings of the authority itself has not been complied with. I hope that I have covered all the matters raised on the last occasion, but if I can be of further assistance this morning I am, of course, at the disposal of the Committee.
It was only at considerable self-sacrifice that I refrained on a number of occasions from interrupting the Solicitor-General, because what he said has left so much unsaid that we are probably worse off now than when we started. We are told that it is the duty of a local authority to provide reasonable, although limited, accommodation. What, in this connection is the interpretation of “limited” ? The hon. and learned Gentleman may say that the accommodation must be reasonable, so I want to know what is meant by “reasonable” . Quite frankly, the whole thing is so wide open that it does not mean anything at all.
I want to draw attention to the position of a large authority. My authority has a number of committee rooms, all of which—all of which—are occupied for most days of the week. It is not a question of moving from a smaller committee room to a larger one because a committee with delegated powers must admit the public and the Press. Even if it could be done, there is still not sufficient room for the public. It may be pointed out that we have a very nice council chamber, but when three or four committees are sitting at the same time one of them has to use the council chamber. There are other things that we could do, of course. We could tell the court of quarter sessions that it can have only one court room instead of two—and the court of quarter sessions already seeks the use of three court rooms——
That precise circumstance exists in Bristol, where the court [column 134]of quarter sessions has to use the old council chamber as a court room.
Yes, when quarter sessions meet in the same building that is another factor.
There is no definition of the word “limited” . I do not think that it can be defined and we may know the answer to the question what is reasonable accommodation only after a lot of case law has been laid down. It means that if they are to comply with the terms of this Measure in this respect the majority of authorities will be obliged to incur very considerable expense. Perhaps the hon. and learned Gentleman would give me his attention, as it is to his remarks that I am addressing myself. I appreciate that he probably does not want to give a definition of “limited” and “reasonable” , but I was instancing cases where facilities are extremely limited and would certainly not be regarded as reasonable.
We can take the case of an authority that has 26 county districts, all in a very small area—not so far away as not to be interested. There are 26 of them within the county, and not fewer than 28 newspaper representatives regularly attend. At present, the committee rooms will accommodate only the committees, and in some cases the accommodation is expanded almost to bursting point to admit committee members alone. How that will be dealt with, I do not know, except, as I say, by incurring very considerable expenditure. We are already hard pushed for office accommodation in general and we may have to look at that in the future, but we must also look at the position which will exist if this Bill becomes an Act. Local authorities must have better guidance, and it is the duty of Parliament not to legislate in such a way as to leave them out on a limb.
We may as well now clear out of the way this issue about committees and sub-committees. Some Acts provide for the appointment of committees, and authorise such committees to appoint sub-committees. Some of these bodies are often called committees and nothing else, and some have statutory power to delegate. This can be done under the Education Act, 1944, the National Assistance Act, 1948, the National Health Service Act, 1946, the Children Act, 1948, [column 135]the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, and the Agriculture Act, 1947. It would seem that those Acts give statutory authority to appoint sub-committees which, presumably, would not be caught by the Bill. On the other hand, Section 85 of the Local Government Act, 1933, provides that, except where the Statute authorises or requires the appointment of a committee, the council may appoint committees and delegate its powers. There are certain exceptions, but the Act itself does not empower the council to authorise a committee to delegate its delegated powers to a sub-committee. In that case, there is no statutory authorisation, and that is the important difference between that Act and the others I have mentioned.
That a delegate may not delegate is, presumably, accepted as the basis of the law in this matter. If that is accepted, and there is no authority under the Act for a local authority committee to delegate to a sub-committee—and the Act itself authorises local bodies to delegate their powers, under a limited authorisation—it means that there is no legal authority at all for any committee to appoint a sub-committee and authorise it to exercise powers which have been delegated to the main committee.
I am fortified in this belief by the advice of those who are looking at the operation and application of the Local Government Act almost every day of their lives. They are very senior officers, and I do not think that their views can be lightly set aside. If these were just my own views, I would at once give way to the learned Solicitor General and admit that he knew better, but these are the views of those who deal with the application of powers under the Local Government Act, as I say, almost daily. What they say is entirely contrary to what the hon. and learned Gentleman said——
It is quite apparent that I did not make myself clear. I certainly did not say that the view taken that an ordinary committee, without special statutory powers to sub-delegate, may not sub-delegate is incorrect. On the contrary, I quoted the general principle of the law that a delegate may not sub-delegate.[column 136]
In effect, therefore, it does two things. If it delegates delegated powers which may have been exercised by sub-committees since at least the passing of the 1933 Act, the exercise of those powers must have been illegal acts, or it must be assumed that the sub-committee derived its power from the local authority committee. The hon. and learned Gentleman cannot have it both ways. If the delegate may not delegate, which we accept, authority from elsewhere is required. That means that all sub-committees except those which are appointed by statutory authority must come within the purview of this Measure, and that is precisely where we shall finish up.
At a later stage, I hope to move an Amendment to deal with this point, and to make it perfectly clear that sub-committees do not come within the purview of this Bill. If that Amendment is accepted by the Committee it will get us over this sub-committee problem. The only way we can do that is to say that sub-committees will not be affected in this way by this Measure. We shall then know exactly where we are.
That, of course, would defeat the objects of the Bill, because once a committee can delegate to a sub-committee, the main committee may be in exactly the same position as is now complained of; that the committee is doing all the work, and that very little is being reported. Therefore, whichever way we go, we get into a jam. In the one case, sub-committees working in this way may create an impossible situation. Alternatively, delegated functions will be open to the public—and that is what this Bill seeks—and private and other matters openly discussed.
I do not object to the principle. The public are entitled to know what a local authority does in their name. That is a good principle, and one which should operate as reasonably as possible, but we want to know how far we can go. All that was said at our previous sitting shows the enormous difficulties there are purely on the legal position—even before we discuss the tremendous administrative difficulties involved. The whole structure of the Bill wants looking at afresh. Something more should be done to it, and it is on those terms that this Committee should report to the House.[column 137]
Mr. Michael Stewart
I hope that my remarks will, like the accommodation which local authorities are required to provide, be both limited and reasonable. We are indebted to the learned Solicitor-General for his explanations. They were clear and we now understand what the law is——
My hon. Friend must speak for himself.
I will tell my hon. Friends what I think the position is, and the hon. and learned Gentleman can correct me if I am wrong.
One point that seemed clear also seemed surprising. As I understand it, the important question from the point of view of this Bill is whether a group of councillors has had powers directly delegated to it by the whole council. If that is the case, that group is caught by the Bill, and it does not matter at all whether, in local government parlance, that group is called a committee or a sub-committee. If it has had powers directly delegated to it by the council, it is caught by the Bill. Conversely, if it has no had powers delegated directly to it, it is not caught—and, again, it does not matter whether the group is called a committee or sub-committee. From the point of view of this Bill, whether the committee is the main committee or a sub-committee is irrelevant; the main thing is whether the powers have been directly delegated to the group by the council.
So far, so much sense. But we then come to the other point which the hon. and learned Gentleman made clear in response to a question by his hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins). As I understand it, it works like this. The local council appoints a housing committee to which it delegates certain powers. The housing committee appoints a lettings sub-committee. If the council expressly delegates some powers to the lettings sub-committee, that lettings sub-committee is caught by the Bill——
I did not draw the attention of the Committee as, perhaps. I should have done, in view of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, to the words
“Whose normal functions consist to a substantial extent of discharging functions”
[column 138]of the main body. The words are “to a substantial extent.”
I am much obliged. I think that I can reasonably ask that that assumption should be made throughout the whole of what I am saying.
I have made it.
Granted that, I think that what I am saying is correct, that if the council says, “We delegate to a letting sub-committee certain powers” , the letting sub-committee is caught by the Bill, but if the council says to the housing committee, “You may delegate some of the powers which have been delegated to you out to the letting sub-committee” and the housing sub-committee does that, then I gather that the letting sub-committee is not caught by the Bill.
I am sure that that is the law if the Solicitor-General says so, but it seems to me a curious result, because although what the council has done in the second case may well be different in law from what is done by the plain and direct action of delegation, in effect it is substantially the same thing. I do not particularly mind that being the law, but it seems to me to have the result that if any council does not want the Bill to apply to its sub-committees it carries out the process of delegation not by simple and direct act but by saying to the committee that it can—and with a broad hint that the council wants it to—delegate its power to a sub-committee. If that is done the Bill does not apply.
Mr. Roderic Bowen
Would my hon. Friend not agree that the position is still incongruous where an Act of Parliament provides precisely for that delegation from the body to a committee and then to a sub-committee?
Yes, it seems odd indeed. I do not mind its being odd, because I am forming more and more the opinion as we debate the Bill that if in any locality there is a genuine attempt between the local authority and the Press to behave properly things will be all right, and if there is not, things will not be all right. That will remain true whether we pass the Bill or not. That is more and more the opinion I am forming. [column 139]
We know what the law is and we can proceed on that assumption, but why are we discussing sub-committees on this Clause at all? As far as I can recollect, and one has to cast one's mind back some distance, it is all connected with accommodation. The genuine trouble of many local authorities is that if, as they now find, any committee or sub-committee however small, provided it does not consist only of one person, to which powers are directly delegated is caught by the Bill, they are under some sort of obligation to see that there is limited but still reasonable accommodation for the Press and the public for the meetings of every one of those committees. In certain cases, quite frankly, it will not be possible.
What we want to be sure of, if a local authority is doing its best to act reasonably but none the less is brought up every now and again against the fact that it physically cannot provide the accommodation for every one of the bodies caught by the Bill, is what is its legal position. In the last resort, that question can be answered only in the courts, and this is where we are obliged to the Solicitor-General for his advice about sanctions. I understand that he confirmed what the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) told us—that if any member of the Press or of the public feels that he has been unreasonably excluded he first goes to the Attorney-General to ask for a declaration that the law has been broken.
It all depends on who is the Attorney-General. The Bill is backed by a former Attorney-General, the right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald). He said on Second Reading that the whole idea of admitting the public was a mere red herring. He did not regard the admission of the public as of the smallest importance compared with the admission of the Press. Therefore, it seems to me that a member of the public appealing to an Attorney-General like that would be in for a thin time indeed. If, however, he gets past that hurdle, legal machinery can be set in motion and finally the aggrieved person would be let into the next meeting of the committee, the sub-committee or the main body, or whatever it might be. [column 140]
I have been trying to think how on earth it is possible to pass legislation which will make this rather tangled situation better. I have formed the opinion—though I fully understand the motives for it—that the Amendment down to the Amendment will not make the situation any less tangled or better from everyone's point of view. We understand that the obligation, such as it is, to provide reasonable facilities exists anyhow.
We did not know that before the Amendment to the Amendment was tabled and the position was explained to us.
I said that that was so only as far as the Press were concerned.
But will there not be an obligation under the Bill to provide a reasonable accommodation for the public also?
I agree that it was excellent to table the Amendment to the Amendment, otherwise we should not have got near understanding the position. Now we are somewhere near understanding it. Without my hon. Friend's Amendment to the Amendment, the nature of the obligation is to provide a reasonable though limited accommodation. If the Amendment to the Amendment is adopted I do not think that it will alter that fact at all. But it seems to me that, as it is worded, the Amendment to the Amendment will have the result of providing that a local authority must admit the public whenever reasonable facilities for accommodating the public can be provided.
Suppose that the facilities are not provided at the moment. If the matter were brought before it, a court might decide that that accommodation could be provided. Might not a local authority be in a position where a court had said to it that reasonable facilities could be provided in that case? The court might say, “You can clear all that old lumber out of committee room 16 and move the sub-committee into another room.” The court might also say, “There is a nice stretch of open space adjoining the town hall. You can build on it. Facilities can be provided and [column 141]therefore ought to be provided.” I wonder whether the Amendment to the Amendment might not make matters more difficult for the local authority than they are. At any rate, we seem to be in the position that if we pass the Bill as it stands local authorities will have to provide reasonable accommodation for Press and public and “reasonable” must be considered in the light of the circumstances, largely physical and geographical.
If there are unreasonable people on either side, the matter finally, after a long legal process, would have to be decided by the court. I do not know that that is a happy situation. I honestly do not see how we can make it any better if we proceed with the Bill and we are left with the final situation that the extent to which the Bill applies to sub-committees can really be determined by advice on the part of the council and by deciding whether it will use the method of plain and direct delegation or the method of advising its committees to sub-delegate in turn. It is a very odd situation. I am not sure that any useful purpose is served by putting the Clause into law at all. One can only hope that everyone affected by it will try to act as reasonably as possible, otherwise the results will be profoundly unsatisfactory.
Mrs. Joyce Butler
I did not seek to intervene in the debate before because I was anxious that there should be an opportunity of clarifying the legal position. We are all well aware that unless we can get the legal position absolutely clear the local authorities will be in great difficulty. I think that we all have in our localities certain individuals who take a delight in trying to catch out public bodies. This discussion has definitely helped to clear the air and show as plainly as possible where the local authorities will stand if the Bill becomes law.
I want to speak of one or two matters not of a legal nature but arising out of practical experience which I think may help the discussion. As I said on Second Reading, in Wood Green we have admitted the Press to council committee meetings over the past ten years and for the last nine years we have admitted the public. It seems to me that this is a practical matter, and from practical [column 142]experience I would say that the public do not tend to come in large numbers to council committee meetings. I think that it will be the experience if the Bill becomes law that local authorities will not have to make any very large provision for the public attending committee meetings.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) that this in the end will resolve itself into local authorities and the Press and the public all behaving as reasonably as possible, but I think that what will happen will be that the local authorities when they consider this provision for the accommodation for the public and Press will have to do as they do now in the majority of cases. The chairman and clerk discuss the agenda before the meeting. They will have to pay some regard now to whether items on the agenda are likely to be such as to attract the public or otherwise. There will be many meetings of local authorities which they will know at once will not be likely to induce the public to come in large numbers because the subjects discussed will be dull routine matters in which the public are not interested. Therefore, if there are several committee meetings at the same time it will be a matter of adjustment and of putting the committees of less public interest in the smaller rooms, perhaps with one or two spare chairs, and the meetings of more interest in the larger rooms if they are available. I imagine that is what happens in the Palace of Westminster. We are holding this Committee in this Room because we know that the Press will be here and some members of the public will be interested, whereas the Committee on the Radio-active Substances Bill which I attended yesterday meets in a smaller Room where there is less accommodation for the Press and the public.
My hon. Friend is speaking from what I might term the perfect position, in that there is a new civic centre in her constituency.
I was coming to that. I intended to express my sorrow that so many local authorities are not in the position of Wood Green which has a brand new civic centre with adequate provision for the Press and the public at committee meetings. However, we started admitting the Press and the public [column 143]when we were in an old building which had limited accommodation.
I recognise that there is a difficulty here, because my other authority, Tottenham, has written to me to say that it has the problem of two committees meeting at the same time and having nowhere to accommodate the public and the Press. I think that this can be adjusted, because I do not expect that there will be large numbers of the public coming to most meetings. Where it is expected that the public will be interested, the local authorities will have to look at the problem and see what they can do to meet it.
I wanted to speak on this matter also because I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) that all hon. Members in this Committee are not in favour of admitting the Press to council committee meetings. He said that the other day and he said that no one could challenge him on that point. I do challenge him, because I want the public to attend committee meetings. It is a good thing that they should be as closely informed as possible about what their local authorities are doing. 12 noon.
As I said, one way out of the difficulty is to anticipate what the public will want to know and what they will want to attend and then do as we have done in Wood Green. We all realise that council tenants are very interested in the work of housing committees, the committees which deal with council house administration, by whatever name they are called in different authorities. Therefore, when the housing committee meets tenants are likely to arrive in large numbers. The committee can prepare a room with plenty of accommodation, or it can meet the need in another way, as has been done in Wood Green. There we have set up a Tenants' Advisory Committee, at which representatives of each of the Council's housing estates meet members of the Housing Committee to discuss their common problems.
The Bill will mean that local authorities will have to give a little more thought to their public relations and to the way in which they can meet the real need for making their work known to the public. I am sure hon. Members will agree that [column 144]one of the big problems of local authorities is to know how to interest the public in their proceedings.
Knowing that local authorities are anxious for the public to be interested in their work it has surprised me that some hon. Members have suggested that local authorities want to keep their work away from the public. I am sure that is not true. I know that there are certain confidential matters, and matters involving the giving of advice by officials, where it is not proper for the public to be present, but those matters can be dealt with at a later stage in our proceedings.
I turn now to the question of planning. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North spoke of the difficulty of making meetings involving planning considerations open to the public, and put that forward as a reason why the public should not be admitted to the meetings of planning committees. He also mentioned the question of redevelopment. There is wide public interest in redevelopment and larger planning matters, and local authorities would be well advised to take account of that. I can quote only from Wood Green's experience; I know that it is a small authority compared to some, but it illustrates what can be done. We have arranged meetings with all the parties concerned is redevelopment. We have invited them to come to the Town Hall, and we have special meetings for owner-occupiers, industrialists, shopkeepers, tenants, and owners who are not occupiers, respectively. At these meetings the interested parties meet representatives of the Planning Committee and its officers. We have told the people exactly what we intend to do and have asked them for their views. In that way we have created a real interest in our work. More important, we have created a community feeling on the subject of redevelopment, so that the council, the committee and the public all feel that they are participating in something worth while on behalf of the community.
I mention these examples to show that many of the difficulties which hon. Members expect to arise can be met if local authorities will look ahead and try to cater for the public interest in certain aspects of local authority work. There are many aspects in which the public are not interested. They are quite content for council committees to [column 145]sit without them. Only one or two members of the public will want to attend, but on subjects in which the public are interested, instead of a local authority being frightened and saying that it has no accommodation it should seek to find ways to meet this interest.
If local authorities can do that, although there are many legal and practical difficulties in the Bill, I think that it will be a step forward towards a better public understanding of the work of local authorities, and that it will help local authorities themselves—because our experience is that there is much to be learned from public contact. Normally a planning committee sees only one side of the problem, but when it has public contacts, and is made aware of public reactions, it gets a fresh view of the situation, which may cause it to modify its plan. Out of that democratic process something which is very worth while for local government can emerge.
The Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs (Mr. Henry Brooke)
I suspect that we have all listened with a good deal of approval to the constructive speech of the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler), if only because she has so admirably stated what should be the attitude of a good local authority towards the public whom it exists to serve.
That is the attitude of very many local authorities.
Perhaps I may be allowed to make my own speech. I am not anxious to enter into controversies, and I rise now because I may have to ask the forgiveness of the Committee if I am not able to stay until One o'clock.
At this stage we might try to get untwisted some of the many threads which have been getting twisted up in our debate. This morning's debate has been of the utmost value, not only to the Committee but to local government generally. We have had the views of the Solicitor-General, and I am sure that all future discussion of this matter, whether here or elsewhere, will take place against the background of those views.
Listening to the debate I have been struck by the fact that very much of the discussion, both at our last sitting and today, has been concerned with matters which will not arise in detail [column 146]till we reach Clause 2. I do not believe that anybody would oppose the substitution of the word “public” for the word “press” generally in this Clause 1. I have been most anxious not to squeeze out a discussion of the Amendment to the Amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Wilkins). If I understand the position rightly, the hon. Member has not moved his Amendment to the Amendment, but we are discussing it.
We were told that we could discuss it.
One of the reasons why I felt that it would not be right for me, as a member of the Government, to vote for the Closure Motion at the end of the last sitting was that it seemed to me that the effect of that Motion might be to exclude any possibility of the hon. Member for Bristol, South being able to move his Amendment to the Amendment. In the light of what has been said, I do not know whether he wishes to do so.
I suggest that the Committee might consider approving the substitution of the word “public” for the word “press” in this case, on the understanding that we shall have to consider a number of difficult questions—not made easier by the further clarification we have received today—when we reach Clause 2. There are some very genuine points which will have to be cleared up before we approve the Bill, but we shall never reach them if we continue debating indefinitely an Amendment which has the unanimous support of the Committee.
That was why I wondered whether it would be possible to come to a conclusion this morning that we wanted the Bill to apply not only to the Press but to the public and then proceed to debate the further Amendments to this Clause and, in due course, the Amendments to Clause 2. As I read the Bill and the Amendments it is impossible for us properly to examine this interesting and intricate question about subcommittees, in relation to committees, councils and the Bill, until we reach Clause 2 and the Amendments to it.
I do not wish to rush the Committee to make decisions on those matters, but I submit that we have had an extremely [column 147]interesting debate, going beyond the provisions of the Clause and referring to the provisions of Clause 2, and that we are really all agreed that we would like the Bill to apply to the public and not only to the Press.
Mr. Victor Yates
The Minister has made a very reasonable statement. It is true that we all feel that we could not exclude the public if we admitted the Press, but many statements have been made which should be cleared up at this stage. My hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) has mentioned her own small authority, but there is no comparison between an authority which has less than 50,000 inhabitants and Birmingham, which has one million. Most of my hon. Friend's remarks we shall all applaud, as they apply to public relations. We all agree that good public relations should be pursued by all local authorities.
At our last sitting the Minister said:
“I should have thought that all larger authorities could so organise their arrangements that there would be room at the meetings of their committees which discharge delegated functions to admit both the Press and the public.” —[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 23rd March, 1960, c. 66.]This morning the Solicitor-General lifted us to the top of the hill. I am asking myself the question, “Here we are; where are we?” He has such a disarming manner, and is so cordial and genial in putting forward his case, that one feels difficulty in opposing him. I would rather talk to him about Purchase Tax.
However, I want the Minister to be clear about the position of Birmingham. Last week I raised the question of the number of committees or sub-committees which might be called upon to find accommodation.
And called upon at the same time.
I made certain statements about Birmingham, and the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins) rightly asked if I could give him more information about Birmingham's position. I told the Minister that the Council House at Birmingham was built in 1878, when the [column 148]population was not half what it is today. We do not propose to build a new Council House. I do not know what the ratepayers would say if we attempted to do so. I understand that the acting Town Clerk of Birmingham has informed the Minister of the difficulties involved.
I have received a letter from the Town Clerk, but the difficulties to which he draws attention are all ones which would arise in our discussion of Clause 2, dealing with committees and sub-committees. They do not refer to this Clause.
I am not referring to that letter. I am referring to a letter from the acting Town Clerk saying how many meetings will have to find accommodation for the public. Last week I said that during the last municipal year 367 meetings of committees were held in Birmingham—not sub-committees, but committees. The acting Town Clerk says:
“In my opinion the whole of the 367 meetings of committees which were held in the last municipal year would have come within the provisions of the Bill” .
He goes on to argue that they exercise a substantial amount of delegated powers. Approximately 220 sub-committee meetings would also have been caught on the assumption that sub-committees come within the terms of the Bill. The Solicitor-General has said that sub-committees come within the terms of the Bill
They may, in certain ways, come within the terms of the Bill. According to the Acting Town Clerk of Birmingham, 33 Standing Committees have these delegated powers. He states:
“As a matter of law (because of the provisions of Section 85 of the Local Government Act, 1933) there are two matters which cannot be delegated to a committee, namely, the power to make a rate and the power to borrow money. It is a fair statement to say that in Birmingham, with the exception of those two matters, we delegate everything to committees.”
On the point mentioned by the Solicitor-General about the power to delegate from a committee to a sub-committee, the legal authorities in [column 149]Birmingham are of opinion, according to the Acting Town Clerk, that:
“A general rule of law is that a person or body with delegated powers cannot delegate them once more to another person or another body. The Latin tag is ‘Delegatus non potest delegare’. Consequently, as a broad principle, any of the committees exercising delegated powers from the Council cannot, in their turn, give a sub-committee of the committee power to make final determinations on those matters. However, the Council can and sometimes does delegate directly to a sub-committee, which then is deemed to be a committee of the City Council. For example, we do this with Health Committee sub-committees” —the Solicitor-General quoted health committees this morning—
“to authorise the issuing of notices and prosecutions. Whilst nominally sub-committees, they are, in practice, full committees when exercising delegated powers directly from the City Council.”
The Solicitor-General says that the local authority must use a room big enough to include some members of the public and some reporters. He says that there is an obligation to use a place which could be regarded as having reasonable accommodation. If a local authority has to accommodate 367 full meetings of committees and 220 sub-committees——
Not all at once.
Not exactly all at once, because, according to the authorities in Birmingham, there is a limited number of rooms that can be occupied. There are six committee rooms and they are fully engaged every day, obviously, with all these committees and sub-committees. The largest of the rooms has 816 sq. ft. of usable space and when committees are sitting with their 17 members, and often with as many as eight officers, very little space is left if business is to be conducted in anything like a reasonable fashion. There is not the accommodation for an authority like Birmingham to admit people to all these committees.
I rather agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) that if we accept the Amendment to the Amendment or leave the position to be governed by the words “reasonable facilities” we are still in obvious difficulty whichever way it is done, till we can make ourselves clear on the next Clause whether we include these [column 150]sub-committees, which last week the Minister did not seem to think would be included.
In Birmingham, we have a number of committees which are called sub-committees and which consist of every member of the main committee. Will such a sub-committee be caught by the Bill? For instance, the Watch Committee has a judicial sub-committee consisting of every member of the Watch Committee. It cannot take executive action; it simply reports back all its decisions. I cannot think that that sub-committee and committees of that nature would not be caught.
I am trying to establish a case on behalf of a local authority which has this enormous number of committee meetings to be held. The Public Works Committee, for example, must meet a quarter of a mile away from the Council House, in the office of the City Surveyor. In these circumstances, it is extremely difficult for an authority to have to make arrangements for the Press and for the public. It would be only a limited number of the public who could be accommodated even with better accommodation. It will be an impossible task.
I quite agree that the matter is not improved whether we accept or reject the Amendment to the Amendment. It is all extremely difficult and complicated for local authorities. I sincerely hope that what we have said will be carefully noted, especially when we pass to the next Clause.
I rise to correct a point of view, because my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) has misinterpreted it. It is not that we who spoke last week are anxious to exclude the public because we do not want a good relationship with them. Some of us have made it clear that we have encouraged the public, even school-children, to attend some of our meetings, because we realise that in doing this we are building up not only good public relations, but civic consciousness in the work of the local authority.
It may well be that the admission of the public is the only way in which a local authority could, in some circumstances, answer an unfair report of its business. The admission of the public could be a kind of counterblast to the [column 151]local Press. I am not saying this of my own local authority, but in some places it has happened that the local Press has deliberately misinterpreted the work of a local authority. If the public were in attendance and could put their point of view outside, this could help to correct any misinterpretation.
Our only concern at this stage of the Bill is to protect those local authorities who are not so fortunate as Wood Green. My own Town Clerk has written to me and, I understand, to the Minister to point out that certain committees will be caught by the interpretation of the Bill and that our local authority is in such a position that even with the use of well thought out rooms and using the council chamber, in which provision is made for the public, there might well be other committees meeting at the same time which would not be able to have adequate provision for the Press, never mind the public, and where it would be uncomfortable and a sheer impossibility to make this provision.
In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green, I should imagine that most local authorities of any size have for many years tried to do what my hon. Friend quoted as an example in relation to town planning. To give an illustration from my own local authority, we are at the stage where we hope to redevelop one of the six towns—Hanley—which is our main shopping centre. We have had a plan for which we now have some measure of approval. Before the plan was submitted, we met the shopkeepers, the public generally, the people who are likely to have property in the area, architects who might represent large concerns, and all kinds of bodies. It has been the job of the officer concerned to go to great lengths to explain the scheme. All that kind of thing has been done to try to prevent misunderstanding.
We are now at the stage that we are beginning to consider putting the plan into operation. The planning authority is at the stage of discussing the buying of property and all kinds of things concerned in the development. A large outside firm has suddenly become interested. At meetings of the planning committee, which by the interpretation of the Solicitor-General would be caught within [column 152]the Bill, interested persons might want to be present at delicate discussions purely from a mercenary, and not from any well-intentioned, point of view. That could create difficulties, not only for the local authority, but for the citizens, who could be seriously affected by the interest of this large body which has become interested in the development.
I am not against the public being interested in what a local authority does. I should like to see much more interest by the public in all kinds of matters which a local authority undertakes. If people were more interested, when rents have to be raised and people use the occasion for political advantage, we might not have silly folk saying that the local authority is wasting its money, if they really understood what the authority was attempting to do. I simply wanted to make the point that we are not against the admission of the public. At this stage, we are simply putting forward the real difficulties which local authorities might encounter because of the physical limitations which are put upon them and by the interpretations which some form of pressure might attempt to impose on the local authorities in those circumstances.
Mr. C. Pannell
I hope we can make progress. I have made my position clear. Although I am against the principle of the Bill—I opposed the principle on a Ten-Minute Rule Bill that was brought in too late in the Session in 1956 to make progress—I have always taken the view that on the basis of equity, the public must be included with the Press. I would enunciate the principle that the public must be considered not as superior to, but as part of, the Press.
Mr. G. H. R. Rogers
My hon. Friend means the Press is part of the public.
Yes, the Press is part of the public. It can speak for the public. When that is appreciated, it will be seen that my earlier intervention was appropriate.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend has seen the North London Press a newspaper published in the area adjacent to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler), in which a strong leading article concerned primarily with [column 153]attacking me finished by saying that “Press” was not covered by “public” in the context of the Bill. I think that is wrong. One of the things I should like to know is whether it is right.
I have quite enough trouble in putting up with the Yorkshire Post. I must ask my hon. Friend to settle his own little constituency differences himself. He is quite able to. If a small local paper has enunciated that principle, my hon. Friend, who has been a local government officer for the Labour Party, should be able to put it right. He should not intervene in my speech. The hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) might gain the impression that there is a filibuster on this side. I should not like anyone to gain that impression.
Though we shall, obviously, vote for the Amendment, I hope that the hon. Lady realises that all the difficulties spring from the way in which the Bill was originally presented. These are matters of substance to members of local authorities.
The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) that very often there is a sub-committee of one seemed to come as a surprise to the Solicitor-General. I do not know whether the hon. and learned Gentleman can appreciate the position of local authorities during the last war. For the whole period of the war, from 1939 to 1945, I was given plenary powers on behalf of a local authority. I was a committee of one during the last war on civil distress following enemy action. We could not call a committee. Very often, we had to feed 2,000 people a day. Very often we ran up against a case of dereliction of duty by an official, on which a sub-committee of a committee had to report.
There is very little against a sub-committee of one. One remembers the words of George Bernard Shaw on this subject. He was once accused of talking to himself and asked to comment on it. He said, “I always like talking to an intelligent man. I always like listening to one.”
The hon. Member will remember also Bernard Shaw's definition of a committee as “a body which takes minutes and wastes hours” .[column 154]
That is still an argument in favour of a committee of one.
The matter on which I intervened earlier is important. When I entered local government in about 1929 there were representatives of vested interests in those days who used to get themselves elected on the council only to watch estate development. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mrs. Slater) said that today, with almost 100 per cent. Labour councils in some towns in the Black Country——
Not the Black Country.
I am sorry. I seem to be corrected so many times this morning. There is an undue degree of sensitivity in the Committee about local councils. In a 100 per cent. Labour council those interests cannot get on now, and they obviously want to get in on the ground floor.
I want to speak on the matter on which I intervened, namely that a council from time to time may set up a special sub-committee to consider a specific subject. We must face the Government with cases, not generalities. Prior to taking over the leadership of one council in 1938, there had been continuous reports to the chairman of the finance committee about sloppiness in internal audit. An internal auditor reported to the new chairman of the finance committee. We had to set up a sub-committee with the power to act and consider what should be done. All that was a financial matter. We had to make a special selection of councillors who would know what they were deliberating about, because they were arguing between professional men. That made it difficult. On the other hand, after one has taken such a matter through a long series of committees one cannot report to a larger uninformed body. One has been given power to act. This is well within the usual practice of local government.
That was a technical matter, but I can remember other cases in which the conduct of chief officials or of an official has been in question. Again a sub-committee specially appointed has sometimes to meet to make decisions. It meets in a judicial capacity. This is what I call the day to day bread and cheese work of local government. It all comes down to the statement made [column 155]by the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. Wise) in the House:
“One cannot administer in a goldfish pond.” —[Official Report, 5th February, 1960; Vol. 616, c. 1407.] The local authority is an administrative body for all these things from day to day.
The question of delegation and of the right of the Press to attend local authority meetings seems to become more difficult the more one considers it. Has the hon. and learned Gentleman ever considered that sometimes a local authority committed with delegated functions never meets in the council building? It may meet on a building site. Its members may have to walk round a building site or a school. Its members sometimes have to go up ladders—presumably with the Press and the public following! What happens in such cases? When there is to be a statutory meeting of a council now, a notice has to be served that a meeting will be holden, to use the old phraseology still employed by many local authorities, at the town hall at such and such a time. Is it to be suggested that notice must be given if a committee is to meet on a building site at a certain time so that members of the Press can turn up? One can imagine this dreary collection of committee men and Press men following one another round.
The Press would not attend any such committee. Much of the clamour for the Press to have the right of entrance to committees is completely spurious. One has only to read the papers up and down the country to discover that there is a high degree of selectivity in the news which is printed. If I may advise the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley on anything—I hope that she will not take it badly from me—if she reads Hasluck's “Local Government in England” she will see some very severe castigations, not only on the elected element, but on the Press, for precisely this sort of thing.
One of the difficulties facing local government is that it is not treated seriously in the Press. If there is a local row or a suggestion of a local scandal, there will be a terrific outburst. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North mentioned the North London Press. That [column 156]paper has devoted a complete leading article to him. In fact, I think that this is the second leading article the paper has devoted to his conduct on the Bill, but it has not printed one word of what he has said in Committee.
Or on Second Reading.
It has devoted two leading articles to my hon. Friend's conduct.
So far, the provincial Press has boycotted the proceedings of this Committee. That proves how interested in it they are.
I am dealing merely with my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Wilkins) will presumably deal with the Bristol Press through the Typographical Association or some such body.
I am merely pointing out that the North London Press has devoted two leading articles to criticing the conduct of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North but has not ever given its readers the opportunity of knowing what exactly goes on in this Committee. No hon. Member opposite will defend that. I have had similar treatment from time to time in the Yorkshire Press.
Order. I fail to see what the hon. Member's experiences of the Press have to do with whether the public should be admitted to council meetings.
Sir Norman, last week we were in great difficulties with the word “misrepresentation” . With great respect to the Chair, it should not anticipate what a Member is not going to say. I was not going to refer to general misrepresentation by the Press. I was going to refer to it only in so far as it concerned the proceedings in this Committee. The mere fact that the North London Press has devoted two leading articles to my hon. Friend's conduct in this Committee, without printing one word of what he has said in the Committee, is appropriate subject matter in a discussion on the Bill on the relations between Press and public. I was merely going to say that I have suffered the same fate, in a more general sense, of sometimes having a leading article addressed to me without telling the readers of the paper what I had said. [column 157]
Returning to what I was saying, it can be safely assumed that if it is a little working committee condemned to walk over building sites and such places, the Press will not betray a great deal of interest. The Press interest in local government is selective. It is not so much a public interest with which we are concerned. In so far as the Press have a right to go in, I am all in favour of seeing that the public have rights which are not inferior.
On the question of accommodation, I have before me a verbatim report of the proceedings of the City Council of Leeds on 29th July, 1959. Hon. Members may remember that that was during the recent printing dispute. I hope I am in order on this, because curiously enough the question was raised whether the Chairman of the Finance Committee had exceeded his powers in deciding that the Press, for the period of the industrial dispute, should be excluded from the amenities of the Press room. In spite of what has been said to the contrary, the Leeds City Corporation did not exclude the Press or deny to the Press any of their statutory rights, even envisaged by the hon. Lady under the Bill, during the recent printing dispute. What it denied to the Press was accommodation and amenities which went with statutory rights. When it is borne in mind that there was an industrial dispute, with which some people agreed and some did not——
Order. The matters to which the hon. Member is now referring are covered in another Amendment.
Very well, Sir Norman. I will accept your guidance. I shall come back to this subject on the later Amendment.
On a point of order. May we take it from the remark you have just made, Sir Norman, that there is no doubt that the Amendment to which you have just referred will be called?
Yes, I propose to call it.
I was uncertain of that, Sir Norman. Therefore, as I represent the City of Leeds I wanted to disabuse hon. Members of a completely mistaken [column 158]impression which had got abroad. I was pursuing a line which I will reserve for later.
I am quite prepared to accept the Amendment. I shall vote for it, to ensure that wherever the word “press” appears the word “public” shall be substituted. However, it will be noticed that in this Clause 1 alone it will mean no fewer than six substitutions, because “press” appears all over the place. There is no doubt that it was the original intention to limit the Bill to the Press and place the Press in a privileged position. In so far as there is a retreat from that and it is sought to give the public rights not inferior to those of the Press, I am prepared to vote for the Amendment.
Mr. Arthur Skeffington
As we have had the benefit of the presence of the Solicitor-General, I wonder if I may put two points to him. They arise specifically on the Amendment. In doing so, let me say how very much we have all appreciated the benefit of the advice the hon. and learned Gentleman has given to us this morning and the fact that he has had the courtesy to stay for the whole of the proceedings.
On what the hon. and learned Gentleman said earlier I wish to say this. On his first three categories of committees to which the Bill applied it seemed to me that the position was absolutely clear. The fourth category was where delegated responsibilities are given to a committee which then delegates its powers to a further sub-committee and this action is confirmed by the main body. I think that there the position is open to doubt, though I hesitate to challenge the Solicitor-General's authority. It still seems to me that those sub-committees are exempt by the Bill. I only hope that it will be possible to look at this point again, because there is doubt. I have had a talk with one or two members of the Committee very experienced in local government matters. They still feel that the position is not clear. I think that all hon. Members would like to know about that before we finish with the Bill.
The first of my two specific points concerns the substitution of the word “public” for “press” . We were very surprised to find the word “press” used in the first place. I do not refer merely [column 159]to the apparent oversight of forgetting the public until Second Reading, but “press” is itself a pretty crude definition. One conjures up a picture of two or three men wearing cloth caps carrying a heavy printing machine and saying they are from the Press and want to be admitted.
We are now to substitute what we all agree is the much better constitutional conception of the word “public” , but it would help the Committee if the learned Solicitor-General could give us some idea of what he thinks that word legally connotes, or whether he does not think that it might be worth while at a later stage to introduce into the Bill some definition. This conception has been referred to in various Statutes, but the courts have given rather different interpretations.
Dealing with Section 21 (6) of the Finance Act, 1922, Lord Justice Scott came to the conclusion that “public” meant
“The community as an aggregate, but not in its organised capacity; hence, the members of the community.”
I am not quite certain what that means, although it has the authority of Lord Justice Scott behind it.
Again, in Section 27 (2) of the Railway and Canal Traffic Act, 1888, there is reference to the public which has been variously interpreted, the more generally accepted version being that given by Mr. Justice Wills, who said:
“I think ‘the public’ there includes any considerable proportion of the population not being the parties or their servants.”
He was, of course, referring to the dispute then before the court.
In this connection, we ought to know just what “public” means. Ratepayers in the locality will obviously have rights, particularly as they are given certain rights in another part of the Bill. But will the definition include residents in the district, or just anyone? If it means residents, we should say so——
Mr. Robert Jenkins
If “public” is to include the Press, that is one thing, but suppose a Press man lives outside the bounds of the local authority; he is neither ratepayer nor resident. If it is to be defined in that way we shall exclude that Press man who has been allocated to the job.[column 160]
I believe the Press are expressly referred to later in the Bill, but I do not think that they would be excluded by the definition I have put forward. However, I am not advocating any particular definition, although I think that there should be one because, unless we have one, I can foresee difficulties. That is my minor question.
My second point is much more important. At our last sitting reference was made to the Common Law right pertaining to the courts by which the public are admitted. We say much in praise of this right and think it a splendid thing that justice should be done in public, but when it comes to its actual practical operation we are a good deal more casual about it. There are courts not far from here where apparently, everything is done to conceal from the public even the very entrance to the building, and where if members of the public do find their way in by some lucky chance, the accommodation is extremely uncomfortable. There are some Metropolitan magistrates' courts where there are only six seats for the public, and if those seats are already taken one has to stand in the court in a most uncomfortable way. In some courts in the provinces, and certainly in some of the inferior courts, there are no seats for the public at all. It is one thing to talk about public rights of access as constitutional doctrine, but is quite another thing in practice.
I thought that the reference to the courts was very important from another aspect. We are now to include the public in the Bill, and I am all for that. It reduces many of the objections I advanced during Second Reading. But though the public have a Common Law right of admission to the courts, the courts have also a Common Law remedy to deal with an emergency situation. Any judge or magistrate can clear the court of the public in certain circumstances—and certainly if there is a demonstration——
Mr. C. Pannell
So can a mayor.
So can a mayor, yes, but this Bill gives no such power to sub-committees or committees. I want to know what happens when, the public once having been admitted, an emergency arises. I am not thinking of the situation [column 161]conceived in advance when one knows that there is likely to be difficulty and by resolution the public are not admitted. It may be an emergency in the form of a demonstration or an interruption. One can quite imagine that happening when rent policies are under debate. One may not, probably will not, have the mayor present in committee—the mayor, with his special legal authority—but an ordinary chairman of committee. What is the position then, and what does the learned Solicitor-General advise? It seems to me that once having got the public in we must provide the local authority.
A chairman also has powers. Further, the normal council chamber is so constructed that the public can be cleared from the gallery or elsewhere. There are circumstances, however, in which the public might be in a committee room.
There is, of course, the physical aspect to be considered, but I was dealing only with the new legal right that we are giving to the public—and I am all in favour of it. However, I do not want to leave the authorities without remedy. In the interests of the local authority, does not the Solicitor-General think that it should be given some remedy in the Bill?
The courts have the right of exclusion in certain other specific cases where it is in the interests of justice that the public should not be present. That is the case that we have made for local authorities—where one is dealing with the private lives of individuals which should not be publicised. Apart from the moving of a formal resolution, the Bill gives no power to deal with an emergency situation in which it is undesirable for the public to remain—undesirable either in the interests of the individual or the ratepayers. I hope that we shall never overlook the vulnerable position of individuals who may be seeking remedies and help from the local authority. There are other reasons why it might not be in the general interest that the public should remain. If the Solicitor-General would give us his advice on this matter it might help the Committee to determine its future attitude to the Bill.
In dealing with the definition of “public” , would the [column 162]Solicitor-General also deal with identification of the public?
I do not want to stop the Committee coming to a conclusion on this Amendment. I should like, first, to thank the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Skeffington) for his very kind references, and other hon. Members who have been so courteous about my contribution.
The definition of “public” given by Lord Justice Scott was, in fact, a quotation from the ordinary dictionary definition of the word, and I think that the weight of it rests in the last limb. It means members of the community generally. It is a fairly well understood term, and I think that it would be a mistake to try to define it in the context of this Bill. It certainly goes beyond ratepayers and residents. It extends, indeed, to members of the community generally.
The courts can, as the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington quite rightly pointed out, exclude the public. In fact, the weight is the other way round. Members of the public can be excluded if their presence would probably result in a frustration of justice. That would apply, for instance, in a case where a secret process is being discussed, where the mere presence of the public would destroy the whole subject matter of the litigation. Otherwise, as the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, there is a general power to clear the public in cases of disorder—again, because it prevents the courts from performing their function.
That is a Common Law right and, similarly, the chairman of a public meeting has the same Common Law right. The chairman of a public meeting has the right, if there is organised or even unorganised disorder which prevents the meeting from carrying on, to require the withdrawal of the unruly element. That assumes that the power of the mayor in the council chamber is equally the power of any chairman of committee——
What about the chairman of a party conference at Blackpool?
I have only a limited time, so I do not think that I shall allow myself to chase all the hares that the hon. Member starts for my delectation. [column 163]
I do not think there is any need to deal with this matter in this Bill. I think that it is dealt with by the Common Law, and that right will remain. The public are admitted on the same terms as they are admitted to the House and to Committees of the House and, indeed, to any public meeting; the terms being good conduct which, in the case of a public body, also includes not interrupting the meeting. When members of the public are visitors at the deliberations of a public body, they are under that further duty. I hope that now I have given that explanation, the Committee will feel that it is in a position to come to a conclusion on this issue.
I noticed that the learned Solicitor-General—and I, too, am grateful for his presence and help this morning—said that there would be power for the meeting to exclude the unruly element. I am sure that he is correct in that, but it is not a normal practice when there is trouble in the public gallery of a council chamber for the chairman or anyone else to give instructions for the unruly element only to be excluded.
We had an instance recently of trouble in the public gallery in the Metropolitan Borough of St. Pancras. The incident is reported in the North London Press as follows:
“It was during a speech by the ‘tenants' target’—leader of the council, Cllr. P. A. Prior—that the uproar in the gallery broke out. The meeting was adjourned for ten minutes while police cleared the gallery.”
That is the normal practice. The mayor, or the council, does not say, “That one and that one, and him, and that man—out with them; and the rest can stay.” In any case, that would probably be impossible.
As I say, the Solicitor-General was careful to refer to the exclusion of the unruly element, but we are likely to be in a position, for practical purposes, in which a council, when there is trouble in the gallery, wants to clear out the whole of the gallery. A number of members of the public may prove that they were not unruly but sat there quietly listening to the debate, and may say that they were excluded illegally just because some other members of the public were unruly. I am glad to see [column 164]that the hon. and learned Gentleman shakes his head. I take that as an indication that if such behaviour occurred it would be in order for the council to exclude the whole gallery.
Technically, we are at present discussing only one Amendment, and I would not normally wish to vote against it alone, but as there are about ten others of similar character I shall almost definitely, when they are moved, seek to vote against them.
I am rather surprised by the attitude of the Press to this matter. As originally drafted, the Bill proposed to allow the Press to be present, and this Amendment seeks to change “press” to “public” . The North London Press has commented on this. Incidentally, that newspaper says that it is my fault that this “quibble” has arisen; and that I am trying to exclude the Press and admit the public.
What the North London Press says shows the attitude of the Press to this matter, and it is important that the Committee should beware of it. It states:
“One of the latest quibbles concerns the admission of the public to meetings of local authorities on the ground, apparently, that the Press should not have special privileges. Well bless our collective editorial soul! The Titans of the town hall should not imagine that the propagation of their weighty words sells newspapers. Their news value, except when they put up rents and rates, is not high.”
The editorial goes on:
“The Press seeks merely to represent the public, and in these days when public galleries at council chambers are either deserted or filled with demonstrators we cannot see that the right of admission of one non-partisan reporter should be made subject to the right of admission of a few members of the public or local government electors, to take Mr. Reynolds' further point.”
That is a most disturbing attitude. We are told by a newspaper with quite a large circulation in North London, and allegedly responsible, that whether we give the public the same rights as the Press is an absolute quibble. If that is the attitude of the Press, I am concerned about their ideas about the general provisions of the Bill—
It being One o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put pursuant to the Standing Order.
Committee adjourned till Wednesday, 6th April, 1960, at half-past Ten o'clock. [column 165-166]
The following Members attended the Committee:
Hulbert, Sir N. (Chairman)
Brooke, Mr. H.
Glyn, Dr. A.
Grimston, Sir R.
Hall, Mr. Glenvil
Jenkins, Mr. Robert
Pannell, Mr. C.
Rogers, Mr. G. H. R.
Smith, Mr. D.
Stewart, Mr. M.
Williams, Mr. Dudley
Yates, Mr. V.
The Solicitor-General also attended.