HC S 3R [Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Bill]
|Document kind:||House of Commons Speech|
|Venue:||House of Commons|
|Source:||Hansard HC [623/811-37]|
|Editorial comments:||1306-1423. Third Reading is reproduced in its entirety. MT spoke briefly at the conclusion (c836).|
|Themes:||Local government, Media|
Mr. Robert Woof (Blaydon)
After having listened to an interesting Report stage, I welcome this opportunity to make a few comments on the Bill on Third Reading. In addressing the House on to the main principle of the Bill, with its avowed purpose of bringing the Press into closer relationship with local government and the public, I would only add that those of us who have had long and varied experience of local government realise that it is by making reasonable disclosures to the public that the principle of civic energies can best be asserted. In these days of large-scale organisation it is necessary to encourage and preserve the maximum interest between local authorities and the general public, just as it is imperative to cultivate that essential responsibility with some magnaminity of rewarding civic spirit.
On the salient point in Clause 1, which refers to the admission of the Press to council meetings, it seems that representatives will have to fall back on all the wisdom and experience at their command. Precisely how much difference this will make only experience will show. Looking at the Bill as it now stands, I recall the Minister telling us, in the Second Reading debate, that the council which, in its relations with the Press, sticks rigidly to its minimum obligation 812by law, is not providing as good a service as the one which operates properly, with a public-spirited ideal. I completely agree with that.
The Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary will be aware of the ridiculous lengths to which some councils go in interpreting these minimum obligations. There are many points in this connection with which I do not want to weary the House; neither do I wish to risk being ruled out of order. But it is with special interest that I note, in Clause 1 (3, b), the proposal to supply, on request, copies of reports and documents for the benefit of the Press and the public. I do not know whether this is intended to enlighten the public on much of the unseen work done by councils—which greatly merits public attention and gratitude—but it greatly attracts my attention.
I have a very strong liking for the Bill, and especially for the prominence which it is intended to be given. These reports and documents are based on facts that portray work demanding a large amount of mental labour from responsible officials and representatives. They also indicate the degree of importance in revealing and communicating the activities of the council both in its loyalty and in its character. But having in mind such a process for the public good—I must say that I am in full agreement with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), who moved the Second Reading of her Bill in such a worthy and admirable maiden speech—I believe that there is a strong case for safeguarding the rights of citizens and protecting civil liberties.
In supporting the proposals to mark an advance in public interest, perhaps I may be allowed to quote a classical example which I think is one incongruity that undoubtedly proves the need for such legislation. I am fully acquainted with a distinct element composed of people who are supposed to be operating as public representatives on the Whickham Urban District Council, in my constituency, and who, by their crushing despotism, even deny to their own faithful officers copies of reports and documents of the council.
This may seem an unusual relationship in dealing with the public affairs 813of a council. The idea of supplying the Press with reports and documents for the purpose of publication may be one way of remedying such an outstanding legitimate grievance.
Hon. Members should not be surprised if the officials concerned feel sore and sensitive about the position, and lose heart and interest when the circumstances under which they labour are brought about by such discreditable means. The legislation with which we are dealing should have a restraining influence on such intolerable actions.
But really—and I do not apologise for asking this—what satisfaction can be gained from such a motive, from this council imposing its dogmatic egoism on the working talents of its own officers? This kind of non-co-operation is most unreasonable and obviously wrong. I can only describe this kind of conduct as extremely bad and one which is exercised with such incredible obstinacy as to form a blight on local government.
I would hesitate to say whether some of these representatives have sufficient greatness of mind to admit the grave error of their shameful conduct towards and their treatment of their own officers.
Who controls this council?
I will tell my hon. Friend later.
Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir William Anstruther-Gray )
Order. I think that this would be an appropriate time for me to intervene to remind the hon. Member that this is the Third Reading of the Bill, and that he cannot go too far.
I respectfully honour your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and I am grateful to you for keeping me on the straight and narrow path. But as you know, and as we all know, it is sometimes difficult to strike a match on a bar of soap. But there is always a simple way of doing some things.
To my mind, the function and purpose of this proposed piece of legislation suggests, in general, ways and means by which the public can, without impeachment, take a much greater interest in local government affairs, and 814by administrative ability one would naturally hope that such critical questioning and suspicions would be swept aside.
I now want to turn to another important aspect of the Bill—the question of the admission of the public to council meetings. Again, I want to draw the attention of the House to a valid reason why I must follow up this issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds ) drew attention, on Report, to the action of the St. Pancras Borough Council in depriving the public of the opportunity to attend council meetings for the next three months. I must be believed when I say, and I will say it quite honestly, that the officers of the Whickham Urban District Council are not even allowed to be present at council meetings except in so far as they are kept in a waiting room ready to be called in case a councillor wishes to ask a question on a particular point. If the Minister or the Parliamentary Secretary should by chance happen to call in there one night he will probably find the officials lined up as if ready to go on a Sunday school trip.
This is the second occasion on which I have had to confine my remarks to such unjustified behaviour, and I hope that it will be the last. Can anyone think of anything more humiliating from an official point of view? Hon. Members may think that what I have said is fantastic, but I can assure the House that it is the unrestricted truth. The effect of this boss-rule technique has created a great deal of despair.
We have heard quite a lot about public interest, trust and duty. But what kind of trust is this that lends itself to creating a false relationship which refuses to hide itself? It has often been said that justice is a curious pair of scales. It may well be that this Bill heralds a coming change which will do away with such retrograde standards as I have enumerated.
This, I am sorry to say, is far from being the whole story. I acknowledge that the rules covering this debate prevent me going much deeper into the matter. Whether or not such cheerless non-co-operation is by design or appetite to apply iron control, I must say that it has a very bad effect in breeding so much disillusionment among those who 815are worthy of much better recognition for the services they render.
Therefore, I am glad to be able to say that the Bill should provide the opportunity to open the doors to more gentle trust. In the battle of public interest within the scope of the Bill, I am reluctant to say that case-hardened illustrations have been advanced with caustic remarks against Socialist-controlled authorities. I have sought to deal with another type of conduct that seeks to cloak its real identity under a show of respectability—and what a show of respectability it is!
The Minister of Housing and Local Government is one of the hardest-worked of the Ministers, but he promised on Second Reading to consult the local authority associations about formulating a code of conduct—
Order. A code of conduct is right outside the scope of the Bill, which deals with the admission of the public to meetings.
Once again, I respect your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I was trying to connect the Minister's promise to get the local authority associations to formulate a code of conduct with the type of conduct to which I have been referring.
The ability of the Press and local authorities to work together for the benefit of the public depends on their attitude, and on the utmost civility directed to the establishment of the greatest good. I have expressed my thoughts and observations on the present state, and what remains now hazy in the distance we shall continue to watch, step by step, trusting that the good features of the Bill will be instrumental in removing restrictions and frictions, and add somewhat to common sense and the high cause of local government.
Mr. Dudley Smith (Brentford and Chiswick)
Even though this Bill is now very emasculated, it still remains a small improvement on the 1908 Act. It was implied in the Standing Committee that because I was a journalist I was necessarily partisan, but as an active member of the second largest local authority in the country—Middlesex County Council—I am vitally concerned that this 816Measure should go a long way to encourage the general public to take a greater interest in local government. I believe that better publicity could and should be the main life-blood of a local authority.
As we all know, there is a very considerable lack of interest in local authority work at present, as was again brought out yesterday in the local government polling. According to this morning's newspapers, polling was as low as 13.6 per cent. in Mansfield, 17.2 per cent. in Truro and 18 per cent. in Kendal. I am quite sure that if the newspapers gave more publicity to local government affairs the polling percentage would be much higher—
Mr. H. Hynd (Accrington)
Does not the low poll explain the percentage of Tory successes?
No, indeed. I did not want to develop that point because I thought that it would be out of order, but as a matter of fact, in my constituency of Brentford and Chiswick it was well over 50 per cent.—
Order. The hon. Member was quite right in not pursuing the point.
Under the Bill as it now stands, the grounds for the temporary exclusion of Press and public are more tightly drawn than under the old Act. It will be more difficult for local authorities to get round its provisions, though I do not doubt that some may try to do so if it suits their book. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds ) referred to the Borough of St. Pancras, and said that he wished that the Bill could have become law earlier, and speculated on what would then have happened about the exclusion of the public by the St. Pancras Borough Council.
I think that that would have been covered by the words in Clause 1 (2):
"… or for other special reasons stated in the resolution …"
I believe that there were reports in the Press of eggs being thrown at the St. Pancras council meeting, and I imagine that such conduct would debar the public from meetings of any authority, or Parliament, or of other institutions—817
It is perfectly true that the council there, had this Bill then been law, could have said in the resolution that it wished to exclude the public, but had the Bill been on the Statute Book at that time the council could not have said, "We will punish you by exclusion, not only from this meeting but from the next two meetings as well". That would not have been permissible. And the hon. Member should remember that as the Bill is now worded, if the public were excluded the Press would have to go as well.
I appreciate that, but I imagine that such action is taken to instil into the public an idea of better conduct at these meetings. But I agree that this is covered by the Bill.
The provision of agendas and enough documents to make the business intelligible, not only to the members of the Press but to members of the public, is to be welcomed. Some councils have been very backward in this regard—[An Hon. Member: "Which ones?"] I could give chapter and verse. For brevity's sake, I do not wish to go into details, but I know that some local authorities have not gone as far as they could in providing all possible information.
I am sure that the local Press will welcome the Bill in its revised form, but I hope that one day this House will be sensible enough to go even further. Local authority functions have changed quite drastically in the last ten years. Post-war powers over education and health have given local authorities a much more varied scope, and it is very important that the public should know exactly what is going on in the various town halls.
A great opportunity has been lost in this Bill in dealing with committees with delegated powers—but I would probably be out of order were I to go into that. I will only say that I have distinct reservations about the Bill, although I still support it. I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) on the admirable way in which she has piloted the Measure so far, and for the way in which she has coped with the various difficulties that have arisen.
I agree entirely with the comment in The Times after the Bill had been dealt 818with in the Standing Committee. Under the heading "Half Measure," it said:
"As it now stands the Bill requires of local authorities less than they should be prepared voluntarily to concede in order to keep the public properly informed of their affairs. Constant vigilance and protest will be needed to keep the backsliders up to the mark. The voluntary code, which it is the Minister's wish to negotiate, may help matters. But it will not have the force of law."
I hope that there will be constant vigilance and protest when the Bill is enacted. Personally, I welcome the Measure.
I was beginning to think that I should probably be the first hon. Member to congratulate the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) on getting the Bill so far, and I believe that she is assured of its Third Reading. As one who contributed, I fear, considerably to her discomfort in Committee, I now offer her my warm congratulations. I believe that the Bill has been amended to some advantage, though, perhaps, not to the satisfaction of everyone in this House. Indeed, I must tell her that even now, although I hope to see this Measure put on the Statute Book, I am not wholly in agreement with all its provisions, and I was very disappointed that I was not able to make one or two Amendments in Committee.
I have only two observations to make, and the first concerns the opening words of subsection (3, b) of Clause 1:
"… there shall, on request and on payment of postage or other necessary charge for transmission, be supplied …"
I believe that, in that form, those words will prove mandatory.
I do not know whether it will still reside with the local authority to supply, as many of them have done in the past, these documents and necessary facilities to journalists to send their reports to the local newspapers while the proceedings are still continuing by the free use of telephone services and so on. Generally speaking, local newspapers are highly critical of the expenditure of ratepayers' money, especially if this happens in the area of a local authority which is Labour-controlled, and therefore one welcomes the fact that the local authorities can use this Bill in order to make justifiable charges to newspaper 819proprietors for the services and amenities which are made available to them to enable them to convey their news to their readers. Although in the end this may result in only a comparatively small saving, nevertheless it will be a contribution to the rate fund which has to be supplied by the ratepayers, and from that point of view it is certainly desirable.
The other point to which I wish to refer is, in the strict sense of the word, not in the Bill; but nevertheless I think I can claim that our deliberations during the Committee stage of this Bill were conditioned by the promise of the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Housing and Local Government that he would try to come to an agreement with local authorities and with the Press on a code of conduct. The only observation that I feel inclined to make is that we need a code of conduct to correct the misconduct of a lot of newspapers in this country, particularly in the reporting of local matters and the bias that they import into those reports.
I am one who believes that if people ask for privileges they ought to accept the responsibilities that go with those privileges in a completely unbiased manner, and the newspapers should tell the public exactly what is happening in their local authorities. If they did that without bias we would not have seen the results which have occurred in the local elections. [Laughter.] That may be a laughing matter and a matter of high glee to hon. Members opposite, but if they had seen the sort of thing that has been going on in the City of Bristol in the last two years they would not laugh. That is why I am so anxious that this promise by the Minister will be fulfilled.
I think the hon. Lady will agree that she has some reason to be grateful for the co-operation of hon. Members on this side of the House. I will not refer to such hon. Members as "the Opposition" because this is a Private Member's Bill, and we were probably divided on both sides on various aspects of the Bill in the Committee stage, but I think she will agree that we all tried to be reasonable. At no time was there any deliberate attempt to stop the Bill by hon. Members on this side of the House. Our objections were perfectly 820legitimate and reasonable. I am glad to see that having carried out a surgical operation on the Bill, it is now about to receive its Third Reading, and I congratulate the hon. Lady on her success for the first time of asking.
Mr. Martin Maddan (Hitchen)
I wish to say a few words in support of the Bill. I made one brief intervention during the Committee stage; otherwise, I would have remained silent until today.
I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) on having introduced the Bill and having carried it so far, because I believe that it will help to make successful the far-reaching reforms in local government which are being carried through by my right hon. Friend in relation to the finance, functions and areas of local government. The success of these reforms will depend upon the quality of the councillors who stand and are elected, and the quality of the councillors will depend upon the interest which is taken in local government matters. I believe, therefore, that the Bill, by creating and stimulating such interest, will make a real contribution towards the success of strengthening the quality and independence of local authorities.
Some councillors and members of other public bodies may fear—and anticipation is usually worse than the event—the effect of their deliberations being in public and with the Press present. To them, I would say that when it comes to the point it is nothing like so bad as they may imagine, despite what the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Wilkins ) just told us. I believe that if one has a robust conviction in what one has to say, one will say it regardless of whether the public hear it or not. We want on our local councils people of robust conviction, who are willing to speak out, perhaps because the public are there rather than despite that fact.
What have I said that has suggested anything other than that?
I was referring to the matter of the Bristol Council, to which the hon. Gentleman referred when he implied that people had spoken out and that the newspapers had not reported as 821they should what had been said, to the detriment of the people who had spoken. If a man has robust convictions, he may be misrepresented—that can always happen—but this is the sort of person that we want, and he will go ahead just the same. We do not want timorous people running the important affairs of local authorities.
For these reasons, I am very happy to support the Bill, in spite of its attenuated form. It is a Measure of greater importance than may appear at first sight.
I wish to add my congratulations to the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) for having piloted this Bill this far after having been fortunate in the Ballot. I also think that, on the whole, the Committee made quite a good job of the Bill. The Bill which we are now discussing is very different from the Bill to the Second Reading of which my hon. Friends and I put down a reasoned Amendment some months ago.
The hon. Member for Hitchin (Mr. Maddan ) expressed the hope that the Bill will assist in encouraging people of robust views to stand for election to local authorities. With those sentiments I completely agree, but, to be honest, I cannot see how the Bill will do that. The Bill, by providing that the Press shall have certain rights to go into council meetings, does not guarantee that the Press will make use of those rights in reporting the proceedings or in reporting them as accurately as such proceedings ought to be reported. That is one of the reasons why I hope the Minister will press ahead with the discussions which I know he is going to have with local authority associations and representatives of the Press to get a code of conduct governing these activities and to ensure that they are carried out in conformity with the spirit of the Bill.
The Minister made the House fully aware, as did many other hon. Members, including myself on Second Reading, that local authorities and the Press must go far beyond the legalistic interpretation of legislation if we are to get good relations between them and the ratepayers and the general public as a whole.
I was interested to listen to the Home Secretary on television the other night 822when he made some slashing attacks on little local dictators in local government. I agree with him. There are some local dictators in local government at the present time, and I hope this Bill will help to expose some of them. I hope it will expose the Tory councillors in Woodford who insist that if a man wants a job as a road sweeper he should not belong or have belonged to the Communist Party—
Order. There is nothing about that in the Bill.
Mr. M. Stewart
With very great respect, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, the Bill deals with publicity for the proceedings of local councils. My hon. Friend is drawing attention to the proceedings of one council and saying that the bringing to bear of the light of publicity on them will be a good thing. He is, surely, referring to one of the effects of the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman knows the rules about Third Reading as well as I do. As he says, the Bill has to do with the admission of the public to meetings, but I do not think that hon. Members are entitled to go too far in their use of illustrations at the Third Reading stage.
I fully understand your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I was going on to say that this particular council, while observing the strictly legal interpretation of the Bill, does not observe the spirit of it because its own standing orders prohibit discussion of certain of these matters in council meetings, allowing only question and answer through the chairman of the committee. If local authorities are to be allowed to avoid the Bill in that way, we shall not be able to deal with the iniquitous actions of councils such as that of Wanstead and Woodford in imposing completely unwarranted political tests which can do great harm to the freedom of the individual in this country. It will be very good if, through publicity in local newspapers, that kind of thing can be stopped. Local authorities like that in Wanstead and Woodford must work according to the spirit of the Bill, not just the legalistic interpretation of it.
There is the case of the local councillors, which has been mentioned twice already this morning, who only a week 823or two ago decided to keep the public out of their council meetings for the next three months, calling upon themselves the right to determine that they would punish local ratepayers for the throwing of an egg during one of the council meetings—punishing not just the person who threw the egg but all the local ratepayers by barring them from attending meetings for three months. Once the Bill comes into operation, it will be impossible for the reactionary elements in the St. Pancras Borough Council to play that game again.
In this connection, it is a disappointment to me that we have to wait for 12 months before we can stop that kind of thing. Judging by the way they are behaving at the moment, those councillors in St. Pancras are quite likely to extend the ban for six months after the end of the original ban is reached. I admit that they were under great provocation at the time, but those who accept public office must recognise that, though they may be provoked at one stage, it is not right to make a decision, at a time when tempers are frayed, binding the authority as a whole to exclude a very large number of people for months ahead from attending its meetings. They should have looked at the matter in a rather cooler atmosphere. If they had done that, they would not, perhaps, have made that decision.
At any rate, the Bill will prevent that sort of thing in the future and for that I am grateful to the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley. It will stop these little local dictators of Wanstead and Woodford and St. Pancras—Conservative authorities both—from behaving in that way. They will not be able to get away with such things quite so easily as they have been during the past few months.
I refer to these matters because, as the House will recall, most of the justification for the Bill when first introduced was based on attacks on Labour-controlled authorities and the actions which they had taken in the preceding six or 12 months. One of them was the Nottingham Corporation in the activities of its watch committee. The Bill even as it stood before we began the Report stage, and as it now stands, would not regulate the sort of thing which happens 824in Nottingham when people are not allowed in to hear discussions as to whether the chief constable—this would apply not only to Nottingham but to anywhere else—should be suspended. The attack of the supporters of the Bill originally was very much aimed at the Nottingham Corporation and other Labour-controlled councils which might not wish to allow certain proceedings concerning their officials to become public. The Bill will not, and never would even in its original form, achieve that purpose. It will, of course, make it impossible for the sort of thing which happened in Liverpool and one or two other places during the recent Press strike to occur again. I have no objection to that.
When the Bill was first introduced, almost every supporter of it, though not, I admit, the hon. Lady herself, insisted that in its first draft it represented an act of retribution against certain Labour councils which, in the opinion of those hon. Members, had done things they ought not to have done during the previous few months. It is somewhat ironic that, at the time of the Third Reading, the boot is on the other foot and Conservative-controlled councils are doing things which, in my view and the view of many hon. Members, they ought not to do.
The Bill is very different from the one which we discussed on Second Reading. It gives the Press and the public certain rights which they did not have hitherto, but, at the same time, it limits the Press in certain ways compared with the position under the old Local Authorities (Admission to Meetings) Act, 1908. For example, as I understand it, once the Bill becomes effective, the Press will not itself have a right to admission to meetings of public bodies simply as the Press. It will have the right of admission because the public will have that right, and the Press is to be regarded as part of the public. This departs from the previous rather special position which the Press has occupied hitherto.
From the point of view of the Press, I should not have thought that that was altogether desirable, but, from the point of view of the public, I am glad that there will be a right of admission to meetings of local authority. Here I must say that, with the sole exception of St. 825Pancras, I do not think that the question of keeping the public out and preventing them from attending full meetings of local councils has ever been seriously in doubt during the last fifty years. The St. Pancras Borough Council was the only one to start the trouble, and it is a good thing that we are able to step in quickly and prevent it doing so again.
This is a handy Bill, but it will not become fully effective and will not be of great use unless the elected members of local authorities, the full-time salaried officials of local authorities and the Press itself at all levels, from owners and editors down to reporting staffs, are prepared to work to the spirit of it and co-operate with one another in presenting to the people who actually have to pay for local services fair and unbiased reports of the debates in the council chamber. I hope that local newspapers will keep their comments on matters in the council chamber in some way separate from the reports of the actual events which occur there. In that way, the Press, in co-operation with the local authorities, could do much to correct the scandalous situation to which the hon. Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. D. Smith ) drew attention in his speech a little earlier when he told us of the very low percentage poll which occurred in many parts of the country at this week's elections. I have no doubt that the same thing will, unfortunately, occur in the few elections which take place today and the many which are to take place tomorrow.
Co-operation between local authorities and the local Press can do much to cure this trouble. Nevertheless, I stick to my own view that one of the principal reasons for the low percentage poll at this year's elections is that, on the whole, people are fairly satisfied with the type of service given by local authorities, and this, in my view, meets the criticism made during the passage of this Bill and at other times about the activities of local government in this country during the last fifteen years.
Mr. J. A. Leavey (Heywood and Royton)
When the Bill was first presented, I had serious doubts about it, but, during its passage through Standing Committee, very substantial changes 826were made and I am now very ready to give it a welcome. I join with hon. Members on both sides who have congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) on the very real service she has rendered.
Clearly, it is wholesome that the public should know what their elected representatives say and aim to do in local authority bodies. At this stage of our development, I imagine that no one will challenge that principle. Nevertheless, I wish to express one or two cautionary views, if I may put it in that way. In implementing or giving further recognition to the rights of the public—a phrase which we very readily use—we are in this context granting new powers to the Press; that is to say, in those cases, which I believe are in the minority, where it was not admitted.
The Bill does not require an official report of council proceedings. It makes provision to admit the Press in circumstances in which it was not formerly admitted and to admit the public. The admittance of the Press will, we hope, result in greater publicity and perhaps in greater public interest. But, in my judgment, it does not automatically follow that because of more publicity there will be better publicity. In the part of Lancashire with which I am familiar, we are very well served by our local Press, but we must remember that, whether it is the national Press or the local Press, it is the main concern of the reporter to get his report accepted by his editor and, in turn, it is the main concern of the editor to get his newspaper sold and read. Those considerations undoubtedly present temptations.
There is the danger that, in seeking to have the debates of local authorities reported and read, they may be somewhat over-edited and that there will be on occasion reports which are perhaps a little misleading. I do not wish to use words which may be taken to be criticism of the Press at a whole. I believe that the task of reporting a debate in a committee of a local authority is exceedingly difficult, but I feel that it cannot be assumed that in all cases the deliberations of councillors will be reported in a way which gives a complete picture.
It is implied in the Bill that, in some way or other, all the vices are vested in the politicians and all the virtues in 827the Press. I think that that is unfortunate. Clearly, if there were, as a consequence of the Bill, verbatim reports of the proceedings of local authority committees, nobody would read them. They would be very boring. Therefore, the more vivid, and perhaps what are known as greater news value, items which are discussed will be published, and, as the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds ) said, that perhaps will do harm rather than good to public interest in local government.
Further, for the most part, in the smaller local authorities the Press, as we speak of it, will be operating a monopoly. Generally, only one newspaper will make the report. I do not wish to imply that this monopoly will be abused, but the ordinary correctives which exist when several newspapers report proceedings and which exist over the country with regard to the proceedings in this House will not apply. It is true that members of the public will attend local authority meetings if they feel inclined, and that is a wholesome corrective, but I think that experience to date suggests that few people will attend as private individuals as a result of the Bill. I think that we would delude ourselves if we were to assume that this welcome improvement of the Bill will affect substantially the nature of the reporting.
On balance, I am satisfied that this is a good Bill, and I welcome it. I have the reservations which I have expressed about it, but I shall welcome the opportunity of supporting my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley, with my vote if need be, on the Bill, but I felt obliged to express the views which I have expressed because there are certain dangers implicit in the Bill. We should not accept without some reservations the idea that, because of more reporting and more publicity, the deliberations of elected representatives will be more accurately conveyed to the public.
My hon. Friend the Member for Finchley said this morning that she had hoped that by this stage she would have been over the worst of her troubles. I I am sure that I am in order in saying that I hope very much that in implementing the undertaking which she gave earlier concerning the exercise of her influence and, if I may say so, charm 828in another place, she will be entirely successful.
Mr. A. Fenner Brockway (Eton and Slough)
The hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) and I are very far apart politically, although I am very near to her constituency residentially, but I want to express my very sincere congratulations to her on having reached this stage with her Bill and the ability with which she has guided it through all its stages. The Bill will contribute tremendously to democracy in this country. It is enormously important that people in any locality should be aware of what is done, not only in full meetings of councils, but in committees where important decisions are reached. The hon. Lady has made a real contribution to democracy in this country.
I want particularly to express the gratitude of the journalistic profession. The hon. Member for Heywood and Royton (Mr. Leavey ) and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds ) have commented on the way in which the Press reports the proceedings of local councils. I say very earnestly that if there are failures in that respect they are due much more to the ownership of the newspapers than to the working journalists serving on them. Working journalists, as a whole, have a desire to serve the public and to serve democracy. I am sure that all of them will wish to take advantage of the Bill to give a picture to the constituents in their localities of what is happening in public affairs.
As the hon. Member for Heywood and Royton spoke, I was rather reminded of an incident in my own journalistic life almost fifty years ago. A local authority had very strongly criticised a local newspaper for the way in which it had reported its proceedings. The retort of the editor of that newspaper was to instruct his reporter on the next occasion to give a verbatim report of the proceedings at the local authority meeting. The newspaper was published with a verbatim report. It was only necessary to do that once. The representatives of that local authority did not dare to criticise again.
I believe that the Bill will be a real contribution to democracy in our country, and, in particular, I want to 829express the gratitude of members of the National Union of Journalists, of which I am a member, for the contribution which the hon. Lady has made toward democratic expression in our community.
As a fellow member of the National Union of Journalists, I join the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway ) in expressing my gratitude and admiration to my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) for piloting the Bill through the House. I am envious of my hon. Friend on two counts. First, she was successful in the Ballot in her first attempt. Secondly, I have gone in for probably every Ballot that has been open to me since I have been a Member of the House and all that I have ever got was two tickets for the Gallery for the State Opening of Parliament. That, however, was on the occasion when the event was televised and, therefore, I did not really gain anything.
The last attempt to deal with this subject was one by myself in a slightly more restricted sphere on the Local Government Bill of 1958. I hope that although we were not successful on that occasion—indeed, I withdrew the new Clauses I moved to that Bill—it has helped to prepare the way for the reform that we are now discussing.
In many ways, the Bill is a disappointment. I should have liked to see it much nearer to its original form, but politics, I suppose, is the art of the possible. The Bill certainly is an immense improvement on the existing law and for that reason it must be welcomed.
Like all journalists, I realise that a Bill of this kind, as both the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds ) and my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Royton (Mr. Leavey ) have said, imposes obligations on the Press as well as upon local councillors and upon the public. It is unfortunate that the feeling seems to have grown, not only among local authorities but in this House, that for some reason the Press and the politicians are enemies.
When I first started local authority reporting in Glasgow eleven years ago, as a very junior and bad reporter, I always found that by being hostile I did not 830get any information, but that if I was prepared to work with the members of the council, as they were with me, this helped both the Press and the local authorities. That is what should happen and I am sure that in 95 per cent. of cases it does happen. It is when the normal state of affairs breaks down that legislation of this kind is needed.
As the hon. Member for Islington, North said, unless the spirit of the Bill is observed, it will do little more than the existing legislation. It will, however, do one thing more, and that is the most important feature to have come out of the Bill. It is not so much the admission of the public, curiously enough, but the provisions relating to the distribution of documents, that may well turn out to be the most important part of the Bill.
That serves a double purpose, not only that everybody knows in advance what is going on, but, also, that the Press can work up a preparatory interest in the forthcoming meeting of the council. The Press is able to say that when the council next meets it will discuss a certain topic, and the furnishing of documents by the finance committee, the watch committee, or whatever it may be, will make for greater interest.
Already, we have had an example of how that has worked. I cited this example on the Local Government Bill and I have checked it subsequently to find that it still applies. One local authority which used to bring the Press along with it, take it into its confidence and distribute documents, discovered to its surprise that as a result of the preparatory work done by the Press the average attendance at council meetings increased from three to 80. The attendance grew so big that the council had to move out of the council chamber and hold its meetings in a public hall, which was the only place big enough.
That is the sort of result which, we hope, will come from the Bill. It will not come if either the Press or the local authority tries to stick to the exact legal definition. If, however, people are prepared to work with the additional facilities that will be provided, the Bill will be of immense value, not only to the Press and to the general public but to the whole system of local government. 831
I should like to think that the troubles of my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley were over, but, obviously, one or two points have to be further considered. Pending consideration of them, however, although I admit that I should have preferred the original Bill, the Bill is a good one and I hope that it will go through with little trouble. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on the way that she has got it through so far.
Mr. M. Stewart
I join with those who have congratulated the hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) on the progress that she has made so far with the Bill. I say "so far" because, as we have realised this morning, there is still further to go. I trust, however, that it will not be too troubled a voyage.
I am one of those who consider that the Bill is better now than when it first came before the House, better both in spirit and in its provisions. Originally, it seemed to me that there was too much of a vindictive spirit behind the Bill as it was first proposed. The suggestion was rather too frequently made that it was the usual practice of people engaged in local government to try to avoid publicity, and that all that was necessary to put that right was to give the Press certain privileges that were not to be given to the public.
It seemed to me that as a comparative judgment between local councillors, on the one hand, and journalists, on the other, that was an extremely unjust judgment, and I am glad that that view is no longer expressed. We put that right by saying that what is provided is provided as a public right rather than as a privilege of a certain section of the public, except, of course, for the provisions about documents and one or two other matters in which it is quite proper and reasonable to make special provision for the Press.
I am glad, too, that the provision concerning admissions in committee that were contained in the original draft of the Bill are no longer with us. They were included in the first place because of an incorrect belief that it was a usual practice to use the committee system to dodge publicity. When we examined the matter, we found that any attempt to extend the principle of the Bill to committees involved great difficulties 832and that we were trying to do by legislation what could be done only by common sense and good will on both sides. Both in spirit and in letter, we have a better Bill.
The Bill should not give offence or create difficulty for anybody engaged in local government work, except people like those at St. Pancras, to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds ) referred, and those of Wanstead and Woodford and those of the Whickham Council, to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Woof) referred. I understand that that council is dominated by a political group of people who describe themselves as ratepayers, a distinction which has not distinguished them from the mass of their fellow citizens.
Mr. Robert Jenkins
Do not spoil a good speech.
The hon. Member must cast his mind back to some of the things that were said in the earlier debates on the Bill. There are certain aspects to which we are entitled to draw attention. Although we get the St. Pancras, the Wansteads and Woodfords, and so on, it would be wrong to suggest that it is general or widespread for local councillors, of any party, to try to dodge proper publicity.
I thought that the speech of the hon. Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. D. Smith ) was somewhat unfortunate. He seemed to take the view that no sooner would the Bill become law than councils would begin to look for ways of getting round it. There may be a few who will do so, but we should not let it go out from the House that we consider that that will be the general rule.
If we are to get good results from the Bill, the Press, as well as the local councillors, have certain responsibilities. To begin with, they have a responsibility to ensure that those of their staff who do the reporting of local government work are acquainted with how local government is intended to work. If one were to line up all the persons who are sent to report the dealings of local councils and ask them to give a coherent account of the changes in local government finance made by the Government in the legislation of 1958, I wonder how many of them could do 833it. Without understanding a matter like that, however, it is often impossible to report correctly certain of the proceedings of local councils. That seems to me a thing to which editors and, indeed, proprietors of journals ought to give some attention.
I would accept that the question of whether reports are fair may very often be determined not by the working journalists at all, but by the proprietor of the newspaper. If, in his pursuit of a code of conduct, the Minister ever gets a chance to indicate to the proprietors of newspapers that they have some responsibility for good relations between the Press and the local authorities, so much the better.
One of the reasons why I welcome particularly the extension of the Bill to include the public as well as the Press is that it is a check on inaccurate or unfair reporting if the public themselves can be there to see what happens. That is why I dare make this remark, without getting out of order, I hope, and without causing most hon. Members present to disagree with me: that is why I sometimes think that it would be a good thing if the proceedings of this House were broadcast and televised, because I think that if the newspapers knew that the public could see directly what was happening, some of the newspaper accounts would be obliged to be rather more accurate. Be that as it may, I am glad that by the Bill the public are to have the right of entry to council meetings and that it is not merely the Press.
We must recognise, of course, that there are limits to what can be done by legislation. We can give the public the right to go to the meetings of local authorities, but I cannot myself believe that, for example, there will be hordes streaming into the next meeting of a local water authority within the meaning of the Water (Scotland) Act, 1946, or, indeed, of one or two other of the bodies mentioned in the Schedule. Still, at least they will have the right to do so. Legislation cannot, by itself, secure good relations. That has got to be done, in the end, by the genuine seeking of good relations on both sides, the Press, and the people engaged in local government—and the public as the most important third party of the lot. 834
Despite that, despite the limitations of legislation, I believe that the Bill does good. First, by bringing the very moderate provisions of the 1908 Act up to date. The Schedule includes bodies which were not in existence then and which obviously ought to be considered now. Secondly, by making impossible those abuses which may occasionally be practised by local councils and which can be defined with sufficient clarity for us to be able to deal with the matter by legislation. We have done that in the Bill. Thirdly, I think that the debates on the Bill will have helped to make clear to all those who engage in local government what is expected of them in the way of willingness to accept publicity, willingness to seek good relations with the Press.
Let us hope that all the parties concerned, the public, local councils and the Press, take the opportunities which the Bill offers them.
Mr. Michael Cliffe (Shoreditch and Finsbury)
I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), not only on the introduction of this Bill but on the manner in which it has been piloted to its Third Reading. I think we all want to extend our congratulations to her on having done a fine job.
I think that, perhaps, revelations which during discussion of the Bill have been made about what has been happening in different parts of the country were long overdue, and the Bill does not, perhaps, go far enough to do away with all those things which have been said to be taking place in different parts of the country. Nevertheless, the Bill is on the right road.
In my constituency, the local authority, of which I am a member, has always brought out excellent minutes. Minutes running to sixty or seventy pages go out every month to the national Press and to the local Press, and those minutes cover almost in detail the work of the council. In addition, the minutes are put in the public library for everyone to see, and any public bodies in the locality which request copies of the minutes have them submitted to them. This is done not as a result of the discussions which have taken place on this Bill. This has gone on for as long as I have been associated with the authority, and, indeed, since before then, and even 835when there were paper restrictions we put up notices outside the town hall itself.
There are, however, some things which are not of the same importance to all of us. Whilst it is perfectly true, as has been indicated in some statements made during discussions of the Bill, that there are some authorities which have been described as vile, and as having so much to hide that they have deliberately kept the Press out, yet it may be that there are some authorities which have felt matters to be private to such a degree that they very sincerely have looked upon them in that way, and in an entirely different way from that in which some of us have looked at them.
One thing is quite certain, and we have got to be perfectly clear about it—that the right which the Press will now have as a result of the Bill does not necessarily mean that the Press will report all matters concerning the councils' work. What the Press reports will be very largely determined by what the Press considers its readers want and what will maintain or improve circulations. So we ought not to expect too much from the Bill in that direction.
Everyone hopes that the Bill is going to succeed in inducing more of the public to go to council meetings and council committee meetings, as well as the Press, but one of the real difficulties is the lack of accommodation in many of the town halls for the admittance of either the Press or the public. I am glad that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government is on the Government Front Bench today, because I would tell him that I am perfectly convinced that there are a number of authorities, who, while they welcome this Bill, also appreciate the difficulties associated with the provision of the necessary accommodation. It may be that many of them will have to make applications for improvements to town halls in order to enable them to provide the accommodation. I hope that if and when they do the Minister will be generous in approving schemes and the finance which will be required for the necessary works.
In conclusion, I again express my congratulations to the hon. Member for Finchley. I feel that it is all for the good in a democratic society that more and 836more opportunities are extended the public to hear all that is going on.
I rise for one reason only, and that is to commend the Third Reading of the Bill to the House. I should like to thank all of those who have been associated with me in preparing and getting the Bill to this stage. I have been at the receiving end of the congratulations, but it should be made quite clear that this has been a combined effort. In particular, I should like to thank the sponsors of the Bill, who stood with me through thick and thin.
I should also like to thank all members of the Standing Committee, some of whom on my own side under extreme provocation endured the tortures of silence, unlike the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds ), who treated us to a mid-weekly edition of "Reynolds' News". Now that the Committee stage is over, hon. Members will have to contend only with the Sunday edition of the newspaper. I should like to thank [ Henry Brooke ] the Minister of Housing and Local Government and [Sir K. Joseph ] the Parliamentary Secretary for the kindness extended to me by them and their Department and the way in which they have helped me at every turn. I hope that the House will give the Bill a Third Reading very shortly.
Sir K. Joseph
I now rise to complete the credit titles and congratulate most warmly my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) on her achievement. This has proved a delicate and contentious Measure, perhaps not ideally suited for a first venture into legislation, but the House will remember from all the stages of the Bill the cogent, charming, lucid and composed manner of my hon. Friend. I am sure that we must all hope that this will not be her last venture into legislation, and we must hope it all the more because she has had such concentrated experience of legislation with this Bill.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government said on Second Reading that the Bill would not have been the method he would have chosen to deal with this problem and he foresaw that a number of improvements would have to be made in Committee. These improvements have been made and the Bill comes to us now very much 837amended. Nevertheless, the Bill provides a number of definite improvements on existing legislation.
First, the public now for the first time has a general right to attend council meetings. Secondly, the schedule of bodies to which the public has been admitted has been brought up-to-date. Thirdly, provision for extending the schedule has been included in the Bill. Fourthly, the conditions which allow a public body temporarily to exclude the public have been revised and redefined. Fifthly, one particular device for evading the law by going into committee has been prohibited. Sixthly, the Press is to be given advance notice of all meetings and, as has been said, in some cases documents for business to be transacted at meetings open to them, and the Press is to be given certain facilities for taking reports. Seventhly, by an Amendment passed today, radio and television organisations are brought into line with the treatment given to the Press.
These are all definite improvements in legislation for which my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley can rightly take credit. The subject has not been an easy one for legislation and the whole House realises that the Bill seeks to do no more than lay down the minimum. The tenor of speeches made today shows clearly that in the view of the House the minimum is not enough. I would remind the House that my right hon. Friend on Second Reading said that he intended to pursue with local authority associations a code of conduct to set standards in this matter. He will be discussing this with the local authority associations and, of course, he will consult the Press at the same time, because the code of conduct is, as it were, a complement to the Bill.
The majority of local authorities already enjoy good relations with the Press. There is no reason why the Bill should affect these good relations. It should serve, however, a useful purpose in giving a sharp reminder to the few back-sliding authorities that they have to keep the public informed of actions taken on the public's behalf. I hope very much that the Bill will be given a Third Reading.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.