HC Deb 25 March 1949 vol 463 cc797-802

Order for Second Reading read.

3.45 p.m.

Mr. Grimston (Westbury)

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

It is quite obvious that at this hour of the day any Member can prevent this Bill having its Second Reading by talking it out, and that I have not the time to introduce it with the care and at the length, that would have been possible if circumstances had been different. I should like, however, to advance a few reasons why the House may think fit to give this Bill a Second Reading "on the nod" and a chance for it to be discussed at another stage. This matter has a certain history. All the Bill seeks to do is to bring up to date the Local Authorities (Admission of the Press to Meetings) Act, 1908. During the last 40 years Members will appreciate that times have changed, and that the Act which was efficacious in those days has long since ceased to be so in these days. There is no difference in principle between this Bill and the 1908 Statute. The Bill I now introduce is supported by Members of all parties and is a short and simple one.

In 1930, the present Home Secretary introduced a similar Bill to try to bring matters, up to date. That Bill was also supported by Members of all parties. It received a Second Reading. There was a Division, and it is interesting to note that those voting in the "Ayes" Lobby comprised all parties. I give it to the House for what it is worth, that the opposition to the Bill came from the Conservative Party, which may possibly appeal to the present Government to allow this Bill to go through.

I have time only to run briefly through the Bill. Clause 1 is taken out of the 1908 Act. It will be seen that the Press have the right to be present at meetings, but that there is a saving in the Clause, that if at any time a majority of Members present resolve that the matter coming up for discussion is one which in the public interest it is better should be discussed in private, the Press can be excluded by resolution. The only cases where obviously it is in the public interest that matters should be discussed in private are personal cases, cases where contracts may be involved and cases where there may be litigation. With that saving, the Press otherwise has the right to be present at meetings of all the bodies specified in the Schedule.

Clause 2 is merely technical. All it does is to repeal a Section in the Education Act, 1902, and to put the same provision in Paragraphs 1 and 2 of the Schedule. I now come to the 'Schedule to which Clause 1 is to apply. Perhaps I should say a word on the first paragraph. The Clause shall apply to: Any committee of a local authority consisting of all the members of that authority. That is put in because under the present Act committees need not admit the Press as of right. Local authorities can form a general purposes committee consisting of all the members of the authority and in that way circumvent the provision of the 1908 Act. Those of us who have produced this Bill felt that this circumvention should be dealt with.

It is proposed to apply the terms of this Bill to food control committees appointed by local authorities where it is already provided for under regulations. There was a good deal of agitation that food control committees should come under the 1908 procedure, and a regula- tion was made. So, in this respect, the Bill merely brings the law into line with what at present is, the position under regulations. Paragraphs 5, 6 and 7 bring in the new hospital arrangements, and paragraphs 8 to 11 bring in the new committees set up to protect the public in connection with nationalisation monopoly. I believe that Members in all parts of the House will agree that where the public interest is concerned in these matters the Press should have the right to be present and report the proceedings, except when the majority decide that it is not in the public interest that the Press should be pre sent.

The same applies to paragraph 12 of the Schedule, and paragraph 13 refers to a body, committee or sub-committee or joint committee or joint sub-committee of a local authority which can take decisions which do not have to be ratified by the council afterwards. In these cases, too, we think the Press should have the right to be present. The Schedule is not, of course, sacrosanct and if the House thinks fit to allow the Bill to go forward we should, of course, be prepared to consider any representations. I am entirely in the hands of the House at this late hour, and I do not propose to say much more except that, having regard to the past history and what happened in 1930, there must be general agreement that the law wants bringing up to date.

In conclusion, I would pray in aid the opening remarks of the Home Secretary in introducing a similar Bill in 1930.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Ede)

It was much more limited.

Mr. Grimston

Yes, but the right hon. Gentleman will agree that 18 years have passed since then. There have been various nationalisation and education Acts since then.

Mr. Ede

Progress has been made.

Mr. Grimston

I believe that if the right hon. Gentleman were introducing his Bill today it would be something approaching the form of mine. This is what the right hon. Gentleman said, and I would like to quota it because I think it is extremely apt and succinct: This Bill seems to me to represent the sum of all the Parliamentary virtues, so far as legislation is concerned; it imposes no tax on the taxpayer, no rate on the ratepayer; it will lead to the employment of no new officials; its principal aim is to increase the sum of useful knowledge available for all mankind"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th December, 1930. Vol. 245, c. 2567.] It is in the spirit of those words that I ask the House to give this Bill a Second Reading.

3.54 p.m.

Mr. Berry (Woolwich, West)

I think we all agree with the sentiments which have just been expressed by the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Grimston). In theory, we are all in agreement that the Press should have the utmost possible freedom and liberty, but we must remember that at times liberty is inclined to descend to licence. I notice in the Schedule of the Bill that river boards are mentioned. I have been a member for some years of what is not technically called a river board—the Thames Conservancy Board—to whose meetings the Press have had access. I have never been too much in favour of the device to which the hon. Gentleman referred, whereby all the members of an authority are constituted as one of the committees of that authority. It presents a rather Gilbertian situation if a body solemnly considers a matter and then solemnly reports to itself. If a body like that has matters before it which it would be very inadvisable to have reported, the Press should be excluded.

The hon. Gentleman in introducing this Bill rightly stressed that it is mentioned that, by special resolution, the Press can be excluded. Both during and before the war, at the meetings of a certain body of which I had the honour to be a member, I moved that the Press be excluded because of such reasons, and on practically every occasion there were Press comments about that exclusion, even though it was very much in the public interest that they should be excluded. More than one organ of the Press commented very unfavourably about the exclusion. If important business were being discussed, which it was not in the public interest to report, and there was a repetition of the resolutions excluding the Press, the Press would get very wild about it inasmuch as under this Bill they would have the right of access, and when right of access is given, nobody likes it to be taken from them.

I am advised that there are one or two bodies for whom it would be very awkward indeed. For instance, there is one body of which I know which has 40 or 50 committees, or sub-committees, and many of those have fairly extensive powers delegated to them, in the exercise of which they are not called upon to seek the council's approval. Often matters are discussed at these committee meetings which are of a confidential nature not only in the interests of the authority itself, but also of individuals who make applications to the authority. It is perfectly proper for these matters of a confidential nature to be placed before these committees, but it would be utterly improper for them to be reported in the Press. I know of committees where, because of the confidential nature of the business, it would be necessary, with the exception of quite a minor portion of the business, for the Press to be excluded.

I should like to mention one type of committee. In connection with certain town planning committees applications are put forward, and it would be very improper for the nature of those applications or the supporting or rebutting evidence in connection with those applications to be reported. Let me give another case, which is in connection with an establishment committee, where quite a number of the private details of officers of the authorities are put before the members. These details include the history of the incomes of these officers, the salaries they have been paid, the officers' history in other directions and other details, all of which are necessary to the members of the committee in order to assess the claims of the officers for promotion. It would be utterly improper for those intimate and private details to be made public in other directions.

While we are in accord with the hon. Gentleman for Westbury that the Press should be given the fullest possible liberty and information, there are other considerations, too. I should like to say at this stage that during the war, when I had the honour to be Chairman of the Metropolitan Water Board, the door of my room was always open to the Press. I gave them all the information that I could, and when I told them that certain information was off the record, that was enough for them. Never once was my confidence betrayed. That is very much to the credit of the British Press. While I have acted in that way, nevertheless—

It being Four o'clock, the Debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday, 24th June.