HC Deb 12 May 1948 vol 450 cc2156-9

(1) The minutes of proceedings of meetings of a river board shall be open to the inspection of any local government elector for any part of the river board area, on payment of a fee not exceeding one shilling, and any such local government elector may make a copy thereof or on extract therefrom.

(2) Notwithstanding anything in this Section any such part of the minutes of proceedings of a river board as contains information with respect to any manufacturing process or trade secret obtained in the exercise of powers under this Act shall not be open to the inspection of a local government elector.

(3) In this Section, the expression "local government elector" means a person registered as a local government elector in the register of lectors in accordance with the provisions of the Representation of the People Acts —[Sir T. Dugdale.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.58 p.m.

Major Sir Thomas Dugdale (Richmond)

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

Would it be for the convenience of the House if we discussed this new Clause together with the next one on the Order Paper—(Attendance of representatives of the press at meetings of river boards.) I think they both cover the same point.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

That will be convenient.

Sir T. Dugdale

The purpose of this new Clause is to fill a gap which we believe exists in the machinery set up in the Bill for the establishment of river boards. During the discussion of this Bill in the Committee, it was agreed on all sides that, if these boards are to function in a smooth and efficient manner, it is of the greatest possible importance that as many people as possible living in the area of a river board should know about the activities of that board. River boards, as we envisage their composition and the area which they cover, will be rather different from the present local authorities, because they will cover the whole of the water-sheds from where the river rises in the hills to where it flows out to sea at the mouth. There may be an entirely different set of circumstances, in the hills, where the river rises, from those in the plains.

5.0 p.m.

We believe that it is very important that the people who live in those areas should know as much about the activities of the boards as is convenient for the administration of the Act. We have given very careful consideration to this problem and we feel that, at any rate, the future river boards, when they are set up, should be in line with local authorities as they exist today. The present state of the law on this matter of meetings of local authorities is that local government electors, in any local authority area, are permitted to inspect the minutes of the meetings of that local authority, but not of its committees, on payment of a fee of is. This privilege is provided for under the Local Government Act, 1936.

The new Clause which I have moved on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends introduces this provision in the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Sir R. Glyn) also has on the Order Paper a new Clause which deals with the attendance of representatives of the Press at meetings of river boards. The present position, as we are advised, is that the Press are admitted to all meetings of a local authority—but not to meetings of its committees—unless they are excluded from a particular meeting by a resolution passed by the majority of the council members present at the meeting. This privilege is provided under the Local Authorities (Admission of Press to Meetings) Act, 1908. In this regard we are under the impression that the Clause put down in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon is not necessary, but we should like to have the assurance of the Minister that we are correct in this surmise; and in that case I do not think my hon. Friend will move the Clause which is down in his name.

When we were considering this point further we went very carefully into the recommendations of the Consultative Committee on Local Government and the interim report of that Committee, which was presided over by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health, and we considered the advisability of even going further than the provisions set out in this new Clause. Having reviewed the interim report we came to the conclusion that the right course for this House to adopt at this stage was to put the river board in precisely the same position as other local authorities throughout the country. The final sentence in this report reads: What is now required, in the view of the Consultative Committee, is that every authority should take steps to review all its channels of communication with the public of the area and consider how these can be improved and extended. We feel that should cover the whole field of local government authorities at the same time, and we feel the river boards will no doubt take this report into consideration when they are set up. This new Clause puts the river board in exactly the same position, both as regards the ratepayer and the admission of the Press, as that at present enjoyed by a local authority. We hope the Minister will see fit to accept this new Clause in the spirit in which it is moved.

Major Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

I hope the Minister will not only accept this new Clause but will emphasise the fact that the river board will be a local authority. I think there is some misunderstanding about that in the country districts, and I do not think it is always realised that the catchment boards are local authorities and rank as such. It seems to me that what goes for the rural district council and the urban district council should also go for the river boards, and should go, too, for the catchment boards at the present moment.

I would remind the Minister that in the third report of the Central Advisory Water Committee, paragraph 90, mention is made of safeguards, such as complaints being made by local authorities or by interested persons, and it is recommended that the Ministry should have power to hold an inquiry should these complaints be lodged. It was the intention of the Central Advisory Water Committee that there should be considerable safeguards and, obviously, if there are to be complaints, it is as well for those complaints to be fully informed and not the result merely of rash judgment, I believe that if the Minister could accept the new Clause it would be far more likely that complaints, if ever they are made, will be real complaints and not merely trumped-up charges for which there is no evidence.

The Minister of Agriculture (Mr. Thomas Williams)

I can assure the hon. and gallant Baronet the Member for Richmond (Sir T. Dugdale) that his assumption is correct and that the second new Clause to which he referred is not necessary, since that matter is already covered by the Bill as it stands. There is nothing in the Bill to exclude it from the 1908 Act; consequently, the 1908 Act automatically applies to this particular Measure. Turning to the first new Clause, it is one which I readily accept. It was never our intention that Local Government electors should not have permission to inspect the minutes of any river board if they felt so disposed to do. I welcome the new Clause on the Order Paper and gladly accept it.

Turning to the request of the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) that I should emphasise the point that river boards will become local authorities, I could not emphasise it too strongly and if at this moment I do not emphasise it as strongly as the hon. and gallant Member would desire, I shall be further emphasising it soon when a later Amendment is moved. These river boards will be very important bodies, affecting a wide variety of interests, and I hope all the constituents within the river boards' areas will recognise that the boards are a very important new local government in this country.

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.