HC Deb 02 November 1948 vol 457 cc810-20

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Wyatt (Birmingham, Aston)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Regulations, dated 12th July, 1948, entitled the Town and Country Planning (Control of Advertisements) Regulations, 1948 (S.I., 1948, No. 1613), a copy of which was presented on 13th July, 1948. in a former Session of Parliament, be annulled. This Motion relates to the Regulations which have been laid by the Minister of Town and Country Planning, No. 1613, under the new Town and Country Planning Act. I have only a limited complaint against these regulations because I think they are quite admirable as a whole and answer their purpose well. My complaint is directed against the passages which refer, in their complicated way, to the posting of political posters. In a curious manner, some person at the Ministry of Town and Country Planning has struck a severe blow at democracy. I cannot believe that it was done on purpose; it must have been done accidentally. The reason why I have moved this Motion tonight is to give those concerned an opportunity to remedy this grave attack on our democratic traditions.

In the past, it has been the custom in this country for fly-posters to operate either at election times or between elections, and to put up their posters for the organisations which have hired their services, and for the fly-poster to be liable to be fined or convicted should he be caught, but not for the organisation itself to be in any way liable. Under these regulations new law has in fact been made. It is no longer merely the fly-poster who is liable but the organisation which owns the poster. That is to say, that if a local constituency party of any political faith instructs a fly-poster to put up their posters, from now on it is not necessary for the owner of the property to catch the fly-poster. He merely has to go straight to the person who owns the poster, and that person becomes liable to a fine of - £50 and £2 a day for every day on which the poster remains after conviction.

That is a very serious matter, but in a general way these regulations seek to mitigate the position which they themselves create. They say that although generally speaking the local authority will be the authority that decides whether or not posters of certain descriptions may be put up, there will be two exceptions to the rule that the consent of the local authority has to be obtained to display posters. The first exception concerns advertisements relating to any event or other matter of a temporary nature in connection with an activity promoted for non-commercial purposes by or on behalf of any local organisation of a religious, educational, cultural, social or recreational character, … That is under Part IV, Class III (c). The consent of the local authority has not to be obtained before one puts up that sort of poster. It is not clear whether a poster relating to a political meeting comes within that category. When I make a speech in my constituency I regard it as being of a highly educational character. When an Opposition Member makes a speech in my constituency, I do not take the same view. I should like to know what is the view which the Minister of Town and Country Planning takes of speeches either by myself or my opponents.

The other sort of poster for which it is not necessary to obtain the consent of the local authority to put up, is posters displayed at election times. These may be posted provided that they are taken down within 14 days after the election is over. That is to say, both these classes of poster may be put up without the consent of the local authority, but the consent of the owner of the property has to be obtained before even these excepted posters can be put up. It does not say in the regulations that the consent of the tenant is sufficient. It says it shall be that of the owner of the property or any other person entitled to grant such permission. I read that phrase as meaning that the other person entitled to give permission is the agent who acts for the owner and not the tenant. If I am wrong, that matter should be cleared up. The regulation should be withdrawn and it should be clearly stated whether A is the owner or the tenant or both.

In Birmingham we have had recently a nasty experience when a local municipal by-Election was fought. We won the Election—that was a pleasant experience. But the nasty experience was due to the fact that we were unable to obtain the permission of local property owners, particularly factory owners, to put our posters on their walls, whereas the opposition Conservatives were well able to secure the consent of their friends and supporters to stick these posters up. In most industrial places, Birmingham, Manchester or Liverpool one finds that the vast majority of property is not owned by the tenant, but is owned in blocks, and the owner is usually found to be a supporter of the Opposition. That applies particularly to factories.

If these factors are taken altogether it would seem that the purpose of these regulations should have really been described as regulations to prevent the future display of Labour Party posters but to allow the future display of the Conservative Party posters. That is a very grave blow to democracy, because naturally it gives an unfair advantage to one side. There is another defect in these regulations in my view, in that the posters have to be taken down within fourteen days of the Election to which they refer even in cases where one is allowed to put them up. This is virtually impossible. Local constituency parties cannot be organised to such a high pitch of perfection as to be able to get the posters down within 14 days.

What I wish to ask the Minister to do is to promise, first, that he will put fly-posting back on the old existing basis, thus allowing the traditional sport of Englishmen to continue at Election time. I am sure that the new Ministry of Town and Country Planning has no intention to do away with traditions which are valuable in our life and which give great pleasure to all concerned. I am sure that the three hon. Members of the Opposition that we have here tonight would support me in that plea, because it is something which applies to both sides of the House.

The second thing I want the Minister to do is to say in these regulations that it is not the owner necessarily who has to give consent for specified classes of advertisements to be posted, but that the tenant may also give his permission and that that permission will be sufficient. The next thing I would ask the Minister to do is to say that after an election campaign has been completed if the owner of the property or the tenant does not care for these notices to be stuck on his premises—he is always of course at liberty to tear them down at any time—but if he does not care for them to remain there for the 14 days, he should either take them down himself or, alternatively, the political party concerned should be given, not seven days' grace, which is the time allowed by the enforcement notice, but two months' grace, which will give them reasonable time to go round the Division and get the posters down.

The fourth thing I want to ask him is to specify that at a time of General Election or a by-election, if he has felt that he cannot put fly-posting back on the old amiable semi-illegal basis, that he should provide at a General Election or by-election or municipal election of any sort that no consent shall be necessary before election posters are posted on any walls of property of any description, provided that they are not posted at the rate or at the density of more than one to every 20 square feet. The last thing I want to ask the Minister to do tonight is to make it quite clear whether my speeches in my constituency are educational in character, social in character, religious or merely cultural in character.

10.10 p.m.

Mr. Shackleton (Preston)

I beg to second the Motion.

I am sure that the House is full of admiration for the courage of the hon. Member for Aston (Mr. Wyatt) in tackling this highly technical and legal subject. I think that we would agree that his speech may or may not be educational, but it was certainly recreational. There is one serious objection to these particular regulations, and that is that the Town and Country Planning Act has already in pursuance of the Government's full employment policy guaranteed full employment for lawyers for many years to come, and these will now tend to produce a state which economists call "over-employment."

The regulations are extremely difficult for any one to follow, and I think that hon. Members on all sides of the House, knowing the difficulties that face election agents, would realise and press for an alternative in order to relieve the anxiety which election agents continuously have that they may be breaking the law and find themselves and their candidates in serious trouble. I am not in full agreement with everything which the hon. Member for Aston said, but I think that it is important that we should discuss these regulations, and I hope that the Minister will agree to have another look at them and, if possible, make amendments or issue new regulations which will remove the points of doubt that have been raised tonight.

One particular point which the hon. Member for Aston made was the fact that the Labour Party, which does not number among its supporters so many of the propertied classes as the Opposition Party, will find itself at a disadvantage when it comes to putting up posters. I think that the Labour Party and the Labour Government have shown in the Representation of the People Act a most willing acceptance of a considerable electoral disadvantage. I do not think that anyone can accuse the Labour Government of having done anything except in the highest interests of democracy, and I object strongly to the fact that we should now unfairly handicap ourselves by these new regulations.

With regard to the particular point which the hon. Member for Aston made as to whether permission should be given by the owner or tenant under Regulation 5 (4), it seems to me that it means the owner or his agent, and I think that should be altered to the tenant. Under Regulation 14, which permits the putting up of election advertisements without the express consent of the local planning authority, it is quite clear that all parties who put up election posters will take advantage of the benefit of that regulation.

My hon. Friend mentioned that it was required that these advertisements should be removed within 14 days. That is an obligation on all political parties, and it seems an intolerable thing that political parties, exhausted, worn-out, wretched or triumphant should have the business of going round trying to pull down posters which they may even have forgotten having put up. It will be an even more serious obligation on the local planning authority to take steps to have them removed. The period of warning before the offender can be hailed before the court and fined is not in this case, as I understand it under Regulation 23, seven days but 28 days; but none the less the idea that it would be necessary to go through all the business of serving enforcement notices and compelling political parties to remove posters is, I think, quite fantastic, and I hope the Minister will draw the attention of the people who have advised him in the drafting of this particular regulation of the difficulty. It just is not practicable.

I think it is clear that these regulations have got to be reconsidered; and it is also clear that it is an obligation on all political parties to see that they are reconsidered. In seconding this Motion, therefore, I hope that the House will support my hon. Friend, and that the Minister will agree to make concessions.

10.15 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Town and Country Planning (Mr. King)

I am sure the House will be grateful to my hon. Friend, if only because he has given the House ten minutes first-rate entertainment. I am also grateful, because he has given me the opportunity of clearing up what are, I think, some genuine misunderstandings about what we have done. First of all, let me put the regulations in proper perspective. I hope the House will not concentrate wholly on negatives. The 1947 Act is positive: its aim is to preserve and develop the English countryside, and to reinforce the planning authorities with new powers adequate to that very important task. I think I may ask for, and I am sure I shall receive, the sympathy of all parties, and particularly my own, in our anxiety to reduce the effects of unrestricted commercial competition, at least in so far as it issues uncontrolled and dirty peeling placards.

The two speeches so far would lead one to suppose that these regulations were concerned wholly with politics. The main objective of these regulations is advertisements as a whole, and generally speaking we have in mind commerce rather than politics. Sections 31 and 32 of the Act are relevant, and I thought there was in the mind of my hon. Friend some confusion between the Act and the regulations. It is the Act itself which suggests that the consent of local authorities must be obtained to advertisement display; it is the Act itself which defines "advertisement" in the widest possible terms; it is the Act itself which provides the penalty; and it is the Act itself which lays responsibility on the owner or the occupier and on the organisation. Those things Parliament has already approved, and, if I may say so, for those things my hon. Friend himself voted.

Mr. Wyatt

I was not here.

Mr. King

Well, my hon. Friend did vote. At least, his name is recorded in the Division List.

I turn now to the regulations themselves. First, control is exercisable by the planning authority in two regards only: If an advertisement contravenes either amenity or public safety. Regulation 4 (4) is of cardinal importance. It says: consent … shall not contain any limitation or restriction relating to any particular subject matter or class of subject matter. Now, those words may seem dull but they are vital. Probably, primarily in people's minds is commerce; but advertisements also relate to religion, ethics, and to social and political activities of every kind. I first want to make the point that those subjects are inseparable. I am sure it would be repugnant to the House if there were any form of censorship; and if we were to separate the different types of thing which might be advertised and have one regulation for one type and another regulation for another we should immediately be involved in a form of censorship. We are concerned with the advertisement as an advertisement: whether it advertises Sloane's back ache pills, or advises people to join the Communist Party, or tells people the distance to Llandudno is quite immaterial to us. It is just an advertisement, and we are more concerned with the standard conditions that it should be safe and clean.

I will not deal with the major part of the regulations. They have not been raised. Our first aim is to control existing advertisements so as to create as little disturbance as possible, and secondly, to deal with new advertisements. But in order to make the attainment of the objective of the regulations less burdensome we have set out a number of types of advertisement which are exempt from the necessity of obtaining consent.

The regulations deem consent to have been obtained. It is upon this that my hon. Friend has concentrated. First, and here I come to the subject matter of the two complaints, advertisements relating specifically to pending Parliamentary and local government elections, and advertisements relating to statutory notices or traffic signs, require no permission or consent to be obtained from the local authority. It is true that they have to be removed after 14 days, but I will return to that in a moment. Secondly, we set out in Regulation 12 a number of specific classes, which I will omit to quote except for the one referred to by my hon. Friend, which I had better give in full. These are the types of advertisement for which no planning consent has to be obtained: Advertisements relating to any event or other matter of a temporary nature in connection with an activity promoted for noncommercial purposes by or on behalf of any local organisation of a religious, educational. cultural, social or recreational character. For all these consents are deemed to exist. My hon. Friend is not very happy with these arrangements and seeks to annul them. His particular point is fly-posting. Let me make the point that fly-posting has always been illegal. First, it is actionable as a form of trespass, and, secondly, it is a criminal offence under various local enactments. He put forward what is really a cheerful and light-hearted argument. He says that his conscience is very supple and his fly-posters so fleet of foot that so far he has not been found out. He now says that it is more likely that in future he will be found out as the result of these regulations. That is not an argument which can be seriously put before a legislative assembly. If he seeks amendment to the law of trespass he has an opportunity to do so by a private Members' Bill, but he cannot expect us to amend the law in an advertisement regulation.

I will try to take his points seriatim, and I have some sympathy with them. I understand his argument to be that permission of owners of lands must be obtained. In his division, he says the owners are mainly Tory and that therefore this is a disadvantage to the Labour Party. My hon. Friend is misinformed. He is under an illusion. If he reads the relevant sentence carefully, he will find it reads: Owner of land or of a person entitled to grant such permission. I obviously took legal advice on this matter, and the advice I am given is that, apart from rare cases where there is some covenant in the lease, the tenant would be entitled under that regulation to grant such permission without applying to his landlord; nor could the landlord object to the action of his tenant, because the tenant is a person with a right to the exclusive use of the premises.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham)

If that be so, why have the words "owner of land?" Why not say, "the person entitled to grant permission"?

Mr. King

There would be considerable difficulty in some cases in finding who was the person entitled to grant permission. So far I have been concentrating upon houses. There are also many vacant plots, bombed sites and the like, where it is not obvious at once who is the owner or tenant.

Mr. Hale

But in many cases the person who is entitled to grant permission has to be ascertained. The words "the person entitled to grant permission" would cover the whole point.

Mr. King

If one says "the owner or person entitled to grant permission" then it is possible to attach responsibility to somebody.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aston said it was unreasonable to require that posters should be removed within 14 days. Again, we have taken the best advice obtainable, and we have also consulted the national agent of the Labour Party—who, I suggest, knows as much about elections as my hon. Friend—and representatives of the other parties as well. So far as our own party is concerned I have it in writing that they do not feel any dissatisfaction on the subject at all. It is purely a practical point. We want the posters down, and it is a practical point as to how many days it is reasonably necessary to give to bill posters to do that job. If we said 17 days somebody else might say 21 or 28 days. We have also consulted the Association of Billposters, and think that the job can be done within 14 days.

On the third point, my hon. Friend is on stronger ground. I return to the subject of what is politics. Is it recreation or is it religion? That, I admit, is highly controversial, but I personally would have taken the view that a political meeting was covered by the words I have read to the House. I admit, however, that it is open to doubt and difficulty, and my right hon. Friend is prepared to make a concession which, I hope, my hon. Friend will accept in the spirit in which it is offered. We shall lay before the House another regulation in which we undertake to insert the word "political."

As for the three points my hon. Friend has raised the first, I submit, has no legal substance. On the second, we have consulted the agents of the political parties, who are satisfied; and, on the third, we have conceded what my hon. Friend has asked for. We have done our best to meet him, and I hope he will meet us by withdrawing the Motion. My right hon. Friend gives an additional undertaking to consult with him, or any representative of the parties concerned. We are anxious to reach agreement, and settle the matter so that no grievance remains. We would like to have unanimity in the House, and I hope we shall obtain it.

Mr. Wyatt

I am very glad that my hon. Friend has been so kind as to concede some of the points I put to him, but I am not quite certain that the agents of all the national political parties are satisfied, as I had a visit from an official at Transport House this afternoon, who told me of the points he intended to raise later with the Minister. I do not think he could have been entirely satisfied with the regulations although I agree he has in the main met those points. I still think that the Labour Party are at a disadvantage, because even though the tenant of a house may give permission there are large areas of factory property, and the like, which are entirely in the hands of people supporting the Opposition. Such people would never grant permission for Labour Party posters to be placed on their property. I think it a pity that the law of trespass was amended by these regulations. My hon. Friend claimed that I wished to amend the law, but he has done it and I still want him to put it back as it was previously. However, in view of the concession he has made I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.