HC Deb 23 February 1955 vol 537 cc1276-8
46. Mr. Warbey

asked the Prime Minister why Her Majesty's Government informed the British Broadcasting Corporation that a debate on defence would take place in the House during the week ending Friday 4th March before announcing this business to the House itself.

The Prime Minister

In accordance with the practice, which has existed by agreement between the B.B.C. and the major political parties for a number of years, the B.B.C. avoids broadcasting discussions on an issue when it is to be debated in Parliament within a fortnight. Her Majesty's Government is therefore prepared to give what information it can if inquiries are made by the B.B.C. about the likelihood of a debate on a particular subject.

When a representative of the B.B.C. inquired, he was accordingly told that a debate is to be expected next week, as might have reasonably been foreseen, since in past years the debate has usually followed about 12 days after publication of the Defence White Paper.

Mr. Warbey

While this precedent may assist in a particular case, like the defence debate, are there not other cases in which it is highly improper that an outside organisation should be acquainted with the business of this House before hon. Members? Is not this rule ultra vires, because it can only be operated during the 14-day period by infringing the rights of hon. Members? Would it not be more sensible to cut down the period to two or three days, which might be reasonable when important debates are to take place?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. On the whole it will be found to be in the long interests of the House of Commons to observe the practice which has been observed for a considerable time.

Mr. Grimond

Will not the Prime Minister reconsider this matter? Could it not be left to the good sense of the B.B.C. to exercise its discretion?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. I will never reconsider it. It would be shocking to have debates in this House forestalled time after time by expressions of opinion by persons who had not the status or responsibility of Members of Parliament.

Mr. Shinwell

Does not the right hon. Gentleman recognise that the debates in this House are frequently forestalled by discussions in the Press, and is there very much to lose by having similar discussions on the radio or on television? While, obviously, discretion must be exercised in discussions of this kind on the radio when, for example, industrial disputes are involved, surely when merely political issues are involved there can be no objection?

The Prime Minister

On the contrary, I have always attached great importance to Parliament and to the House of Commons. I am quite sure that the bringing on of exciting debates in these vast, new robot organisations of television and B.B.C. broadcasting, to take place before a debate in this House, might have very deleterious effects upon our general interests, and that hon. Members should be considering the interests of the House of Commons, to whom we all owe a lot.

Mr. Elliot

Does not this all arise from the monopoly position of the B.B.C, and is it not, therefore, a desirable thing that alternative channels should be opened up?

Mr. Shinwell

Does not what the right hon. Gentleman has said to the House mean just this—that the B.B.C. is not an independent authority but is subject to the will of the Government?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. This is not a question of the will of the Government, but an arrangement which was reached after a good deal of thought between the leaders of both parties and the principal people in both parties. It is easy to turn against these arrangements on any particular occasion, but, honestly, I think that the House would be well advised to stay where it is before it yields up a great deal of the significance and dignity of the debates.

Mr. Gordon Walker

Will the right hon. Gentleman take steps to apply this principle which he has enunciated to commercial television as well, when it starts?

The Prime Minister

I certainly think that it should be the same all round.