HC Deb 01 February 1960 vol 616 cc749-62

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bryan.]

9.16 p.m.

Mr. Speaker

Sir Cyril Black.

Sir Cyril Black (Wimbledon) rose

Mr. Peter Kirk (Gravesend)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sorry to forestall my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black), but I understand that he proposes to raise the question of the exclusion of the Press from local authority meetings. You will be aware, Mr. Speaker, that the first order of business for next Friday is a Bill treating precisely with this matter. I do not want to prevent my hon. Friend from raising the subject, but I wonder whether you could give the House some guidance as to the extent of the debate on this point this evening.

Mr. Speaker

I am obliged to the hon. Member for Gravesend (Mr. Kirk). He has anticipated what I was about to say to the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black), namely, that, as he knows quite well, he cannot, on this Motion, invite legislation. I shall be compelled to ask him to explain to me, if he is saying to me, as I anticipate, that there exist powers which are not properly exercised, what are the powers which exist which he says have not been duly exercised.

Sir C. Black rose

Mr. F. Blackburn (Stalybridge and Hyde)

Further to that point of order. Is it possible, Mr. Speaker, for the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black) to raise this question at all, since it will be dealt with in the Bill which is to be before the House on Friday of this week? I think that it would be most unfair to the hon. Lady who is promoting the Bill if the debate which is to take place on Friday were anticipated tonight. I do not want to prevent the hon. Member for Wimbledon from speaking, but I think that his speech ought to be made on Friday and not tonight. I cannot see how he can possibly deal with this subject without encroaching upon Friday's debate.

Mr. Speaker

I reveal no secret in saying that I entertain the same difficulties as are in the mind of the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Blackburn), but since the hon. Member for Wimbledon, who desires to raise the matter on the Adjournment, is saying that he is not asking for legislation, he would be in order in this respect, as it seems to me. Whereas the Bill on Friday will be asking for legislation and new powers, the hon. Member would be in order now if he were saying that what he wishes to raise is the maladministration or failure adequately to administer what are the existing powers. It was in that respect that I was asking for his assistance to make sure that he kept in order.

Sir C. Black

I am sure that hon. Members are greatly indebted to you, Mr. Speaker, for having made clear to us what are the limits of the debate this evening. I can assure you that I have no intention of dealing with any matters which could impinge on the discussion of the Bill on Friday next. I merely want to deal with the position as it is under the law as it stands at this moment.

Perhaps I ought to make it clear that I had hoped that it might have been possible for me to raise this matter before the Christmas Recess. Indeed, I was endeavouring to obtain an opportunity of doing so, but that opportunity did not come. If I could have raised the matter then, I should, of course, have been somewhat nearer in point of time to the events to which I want to refer this evening. However, I am greatly obliged to you, Mr. Speaker, for having pointed out the limits of this debate, and I will strictly confine my remarks within them.

The present rights of the Press were established more than fifty years ago, in the Local Authorities (Admission of the Press to Meetings) Act, 1908. I think that it might be useful if I referred to the relevant Section in that Act upon which what I want to say this evening is based. Section I reads: Representatives of the press shall be admitted to the meetings of every local authority: Provided that a local authority may temporarily exclude such representatives…when…in view of the special nature of the business then being dealt with…such exclusion is advisable in the public interest. That has been the legal position of the rights of the Press to attend meetings of local authorities and to report on their proceedings for rather more than fifty years.

It is important that we should realise that this Section raises the issue of the kind of matters which might justify the exclusion of the Press in the public interest. The test to be applied in such cases is the nature of the business dealt with by the local authority at the point at which it is desired to exclude the Press. That is to say, in deciding whether it is in the public interest at a particular moment to exclude the Press, the only criterion is reference to the nature of the business being dealt with at that time.

Those of us who have had experience of service on local authorities do not find ourselves in any serious doubt about what kind of business it is which makes the exclusion of the Press desirable in the public interest. Perhaps I might mention three kinds of business which would come under that heading. For instance, if a local authority were about to consider in a preliminary way the possible purchase of land or property, it might well be that premature disclosure would result in speculators stepping in and buying the land or property to the detriment of the local authority. In such a case, no one would doubt that it would be in the public interest for the Press to be excluded while a matter of that kind was being considered.

From time to time a local authority has to consider the conduct of an officer or employee of the authority. If such matters of discipline or conduct had to be discussed in public, with the Press present, very great hardship to the person whose conduct was under consideration might be involved.

Yet again, a local authority might be engaged in same legal proceedings, and if the whole subject matter of those legal proceedings, at an early stage, were to be debated in public, it might be very much to the detriment of the interests of the local authority at that stage for the other parties to the legal proceedings to be informed of the nature of the case of the authority.

Those are three classes of cases, and there are other matters of the same kind, which will be recognised by all hon. Members as being the kind of case in which the public interest can properly be served by the exclusion of the Press while those matters are being debated.

Mr. Speaker

I regret the need to interrupt the hon. Member. Evidently, I did not make my meaning clear to him. My trouble is to find some power which the Minister has under the existing law, involving Ministerial responsibility, which would enable him, without legislation, to correct an abuse of the system which the hon. Member is saying is now established by law.

Sir C. Black

I think that I can do that in this way. The Minister has answered Questions within recent months on the very matters to which I wanted and was about to refer. The Minister has sent circular letters to certain local authorities expressing to them his displeasure with certain of their actions in excluding the Press, as he suggested, wrongfully, from meetings of those authorities. We can therefore assume that the Minister has power—indeed, he has exercised it—to communicate with local authorities in cases where they act in abuse of the Act of 1908.

I was going to ask the Minister to use that power of communication more widely than he has so far done, and to send a general communication to local authorities setting out the considerations which they ought to have in mind when deciding to exclude the Press from their meetings. I was about to ask the Minister to take action on a rather wider basis that he has already taken in certain specific cases.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall have to invoke the assistance of the Minister. I wonder whether he would be good enough to tell me whether he conceives that he has power to require local authorities to admit the Press when they, ex hypothesi, contrary to the existing law, exclude them.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Sir Keith Joseph)

My right hon. Friend has said that this is a matter for the courts to define, but he has said that whether or not local authorities have offended the letter of the Act of 1908, where he has considered that they have offended against the spirit of the law, he has, in certain circumstances, taken it upon himself to write or cause letters to be written to them. If I were given the chance of replying to my hon. Friend's speech I would refer to the occasions when he had so written.

Mr. Speaker

I am much obliged to the Minister.

Sir C. Black

Last year, many important local authorities, wrongly, I submit, excluded the Press from their meetings and stopped the ordinary Press relations which were in existence between themselves and the Press, not for any reasons of public interest, not because of the nature of the business which was being dealt with at the meetings, but as a result of an industrial dispute in the printing industry.

By way of example, Liverpool City Council resolved itself into committee to exclude the Press. Birmingham City Council instructed the chairman of committees and officials not to give news to the city's emergency evening newspapers.

Mr. Blackburn

On a point of order. I am sorry to interrupt again, but I believe that this is a matter which will be put right by the Bill which is to be introduced into the House on Friday.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member will appreciate the difficulty. That may well be so, but since the hon. Member is saying that he is not requiring any legislation, or requesting it, and the Bill involves new powers, I consider the hon. Member to be in order. The hon. Member is riding along a razor edge no doubt, but he is in order.

Sir C. Black

I will continue very carefully to keep on that razor edge. As I think you will agree, Mr. Speaker, I have been very careful not to transcend the rules of order to which you have most carefully drawn our attention.

I was about to give further examples. Leeds Corporation withheld municipal news from reporters. Nottingham City Council excluded the Press from its meetings, and other incidents of a similar kind took place in respect of other local authorities. In my view, the actions of these local authorities were probably contrary to the letter of the law, but there can be no doubt that they were directly contrary to the spirit of the law as based on the Act of 1908.

Because of these events the Press Council passed the following resolution: The General Council of the Press condemns the action of those local authorities which, during the present dispute in the printing industry, have excluded journalists from their proceedings. The Council regards such action as a gross violation of the right of the subject to be kept informed of the proceedings of his elected representatives. I suggest that that is a statement with which hon. Members on both sides of the House will find themselves in agreement. This is a matter of vital importance to every citizen and to all those connected with the free Press of this country. The president of the Guild of British Newspapers Editors, in a recent address in London, was reported as saying: The threats to shackle free reporting come from many quarters and in different guises, but wherever and whenever they come our stand as editors must be unequivocal and uncompromising. Only in recent months we have witnessed the most ugly and despotic interventions to stifle the freedom of the Press by the very people elected to safeguard civic rights and liberties. That a trade dispute could be used as a reason for making it impossible for the Press to discharge its proper functions only went to prove how easy it was for the free institutions of this country to be undermined. Those local authorities who…use their prerogative in the council chambers to prevent journalists doing their duty, and to deny free citizens their right to know, must be branded as the enemies of the people and the blacklegs of democracy. As we have already seen, the Minister's powers in this matter are very limited, but he has certain duties and responsibilities. It may be that he cannot control events, but he can certainly influence events, and he has already done so in reference to some of the episodes to which I have drawn the attention of the House by writing to the local authorities concerned and expressing to them his displeasure at what they have done. My purpose in raising the matter tonight is to draw attention to something which we probably all regard as of the highest importance.

I want to ask my hon. Friend whether his right hon. Friend can go somewhat beyond the letter that he has already sent to certain offending local authorities by sending out a circular to all local authorities making clear to them the normal right of the Press to attend meetings of the authorities and also the very limited circumstances in which the Press can properly and legally be excluded. I am certain that my right hon. Friend shares the general concern about this important matter, which affects the very essence of our democracy and free institutions. Will the Parliamentary Secretary see what further action can be taken to give the widest possible publicity to this matter, which has caused very great concern?

9.35 p.m.

Mr. F. Blackburn (Stalybridge and Hyde)

I do not think anyone will doubt the importance of this subject raised by the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black), but I still maintain that probably it will be the main line of argument of the hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) when she introduces her Bill on Friday this week. That is why I thought the hon. Member for Wimbledon was anticipating a subject which will be debated again. It is possible that you, Mr. Speaker, will have to listen to the same speech twice.

I do not know the views of the hon. Member for Finchley, nor her arguments in favour of the Bill, but I anticipate that what the hon. Member for Wimbledon has been saying will be very much in her mind when she is dealing with arguments about the admission of the Press to local authority meetings. In the circumstances, it would have been preferable if this debate had not taken place tonight and the hon. Member for Wimbledon had not stolen the thunder of the hon. Member for Finchley.

Mr. Charles A. Howell (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black) made it perfectly clear that the Minister can only express displeasure and has no legal right or power to overrule a decision of a local authority in this matter. Therefore, I suggest to you that this debate is completely out of order.

Mr. Speaker

The position, as I understand it, is that the Minister is here accepting responsibility for sending out circulars to local authorities saying, in effect, how they should behave in the circumstances. The plea of the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black) is. I understand, that those circulars are too modest in tone and should be fortified and invigorated. I cannot hold that to be out of order, although I am aware of the difficulty.

9.37 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Sir Keith Joseph)

With great diffidence, I start by saying that what I said a little earlier should be corrected if, in fact, I mentioned a circular. What my right hon. Friend did was to send a letter to a particular authority, which was published and, therefore, was made known to the whole country. While I am not saying that a circular would not be practicable, no circular has, in fact, been sent.

The subject raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black) this evening is an important one, as we all agree. It is one on which attention was so strongly focused last year that it is perhaps better that we should consider it now in a calmer atmosphere than would have then prevailed. The main point is: what considerations should a local authority have in mind when deciding whether or not to exclude the Press from its meetings? Here I shall try most carefully to avoid saying anything which could be considered in any way as a comment on the Bill to be introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) on Friday. I should like to emphasise that nothing I say is to be taken as foreshadowing the views of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government on that Bill.

I shall speak this evening solely about the position as it stands today, when, as the House knows, the statutory scene is monopolised by the Local Authorities (Admission of the Press to Meetings) Act, 1908. Under that Act local authorities are required to admit the Press to council meetings, though not, in general, to committee meetings, unless they have passed a special resolution to exclude them. The wording of the 1908 Act says that representatives of the Press may be temporarily excluded from council meetings when the majority of the members present have passed a resolution saying that in view of the special nature of the business then being dealt with, or about to be dealt with, such exclusion is advisable in the public interest. The terms of the Act deserve to be specially studied, because they clearly say that the Press should be excluded from council meetings only when the special nature of the business justifies it.

Mr. Blackburn

That would not prevent the council going into committee, would it?

Sir K. Joseph

Certainly not. The hon. Member is quite correct. That is under the 1908 Act, and it is only about the position under that Act that I am talking this evening.

The Act does not say: when it would be convenient to the members, or whenever the council is at loggerheads with the proprietors of the local newspaper. It ties the exclusion of the Press specifically to the business under discussion. This is a fundamental point and one that is generally well recognised, but it does no harm to recall from time to time the basic principles which are sometimes lost sight of in the heat of immediate disputes.

There is little doubt that these thoughts were not always uppermost in the minds of certain councils whose actions made news during the printing dispute last year. As my hon. Friend has mentioned, there were instances in which councils excluded reporters from their meetings either by the device of going into committee, or by passing a resolution which required the Press to withdraw. The debates on those resolutions made it clear that members were thinking not of the items they were to discuss while the Press was absent, but of their views on the conduct and cause of the printing dispute.

The rights or wrongs of this dispute are outside our debate this evening, but the attitude of those few local authorities greatly concern my right hon. Friend. His view was clearly set out on 6th July last, in reply to a Question by the hon. Member for Kirkdale (Mr. N. Pannell), when he said: I strongly deprecate the action of any local authority which excludes the Press and the public from its meetings for any reason save that the nature of the business requires it to be considered in private."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th July, 1959; Vol.608, c.100.] The Minister's view was elaborated in a letter which at his direction was sent by the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry to the Town Clerk of Nottingham on 16th July last. I do not want to single out Nottingham for special approbrium but this letter received a good deal of publicity at the time in the Press and was reproduced in full in the OFFICIAL REPORT with an Answer given on 23rd July by my predecessor, now the Postmaster-General. As this letter touches directly on the point we are discussing I should like to quote from it.

It has been represented to the Minister that it was quite clear from the proceedings that the reasons which moved the majority of the Council to take steps to exclude Press representatives from the recent meeting were not connected with the confidential nature of the business to be transacted, but were solely concerned with the present printing dispute; and further evidence of this is afforded by the fact that members of the public and a representative of the B.B.C. were allowed to remain. On his present information, the Minister finds it impossible to reach any different conclusion.… Whether or not the action taken by the Council as described to the Minister offends the letter of the Act of 1908, he has no doubt that it is wholly contrary to the spirit of the Act and to the principles which local authorities should observe in their relations with the Press. The Minister has felt bound to say, in reply to representations, that he is wholly out of sympathy with any council which deprives the local electors of the opportunity to inform themselves from Press reports about council business. He has also said that he is wholly out of sympathy with any local authority which take sides in an industrial dispute."—[OFFICIAL. REPORT, 23rd July, 1959; Vol.609. c.165.] The quotation which I have just read emphasises another point which needs to be made in this connection. Although the statutory right of admission is given to the Press, the main obligation which the council owes is to the public. The Press is the channel through which information about council business reaches the electors and ratepayers. Local authorities are public bodies chosen by local people and spending public money. They represent the whole locality and not one section of it. It should be one of the principal concerns of each authority to ensure that the public has the fullest possible information about what is being done in their name.

No one denies that there are some matters—for example, some of the illustrations given by my hon. Friend—which ought properly to be considered in private—matters connected with the personal circumstances of individuals, for instance, or with proposed land transactions or impending prosecutions. But the justification for privacy must depend on the nature of the business under consideration.

This view is, of course, already held and acted upon by all responsible authorities—that is, by nearly all local authorities—and I think that we should make sure that we do not get the picture out of proportion. A few local authorities—and a few only—acted last year at the time of the printing dispute in a way which most people regarded as irresponsible. In addition, there are some local authorities who, at all times, exclude the Press more frequently than they need. They are only a small minority. By far the greater proportion are keenly aware of their responsibilities and have worked out satisfactory relationships with their local Press, giving them, in many cases, facilities which go well beyond the legal minimum required by the Act of 1908.

Let me quote two examples which have recently been mentioned in the newspapers. Darwen, in Lancashire, started four months ago to admit the Press to all its committee meetings. It started on an experimental basis, but when the council met earlier this month it decided by a substantial majority to continue the practice. Very few local authorities admit the Press to all their committees, but Darwen's experience seems to show that it can be done and that there are authorities who are prepared to give these facilities to the Press.

At Cheltenham, the council is willing to go even further. Cheltenham, according to the reports, is to allow its council meetings to be televised in a few days' time.

My right hon. Friend's views of the behaviour of the very few local authorities who took this action at the time of the printing dispute are well known, and there is no reason to restate them again, either in a letter or in a circular, especially when so very few local authorities offended and when my hon. Friend's speech will, I am sure, remind those who need reminding of the general attitude towards this sort of behaviour. I hope that the concern so widely felt and echoed this evening will have its effect.

As I have said, local authorities are public bodies chosen by local people and spending public money. The vast majority of them conform admirably to both the spirit and the letter of their obligations, and we must hope that the small remaining minority will, in future, see their duty as being first and foremost to the public as a whole and not to any one section of it.

9.46 p.m.

Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley)

I was pleased to hear the Minister say that there are very few exceptions in this matter. The hon. Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black) mentioned one or two of them. I think that it would be right for the Minister on this occasion to make an announcement about the few local authorities which have felt in the past that they had reason to exclude some of the local Press, and particularly the provincial Press, from some of the meetings which have taken place in their area.

Under the 1908 Act, as the hon. Member for Wimbledon said, they can rightly exclude the Press from any of the committees which are dealing with the purchase of land or property or are dealing with the conduct of an officer or employee of the corporation. Thirdly, the Press may be excluded if the local authority itself is involved in legal proceedings. There may have been other occasions when they have had reason to go into committee when the council has been in session, by excluding the Press, either by moving a specific resolution or by going into committee earlier.

There are only a few local authorities doing it, and the Minister ought, therefore, to try to find out the reason why they are doing it. It may be that in some of these areas the local and provincial Press—the national daily newspapers are not particularly interested in these proceedings—are anti-local authority, and an atmosphere may have developed within that area in which the local authority is particularly perturbed about the way in which the local and the provincial newspapers are reporting the proceedings in the council chamber or in some of the committees to which they are invited.

Although I am very pleased that the Minister said that there are very few of these local authorities, it is worth noting that there are some and that they are probably doing it very often. It may be that because of some of the local newspapers, and perhaps because of the make-up of the local authority and the party which is in power, possibly with a big majority, an atmosphere has developed which has caused feeling against the Press. I should be very glad if, before the debate concludes, the Minister would also give a warning to the local Press that they should be just as responsible as he is asking these local authorities to be.

9.48 p.m.

Mr. Peter Kirk (Gravesend)

I had not intended to intervene, but I am brought to my feet by the speech of the hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason), not necessarily to defend my own industry, the Press, but simply to suggest to him that the fact that some local newspaper may be against the local authority—that certainly happens, and we all know of cases in which it happens—does not justify the local authority in excluding the Press. We all know of news- papers which from time to time appear to be against this House, but I do not think anyone would ever suggest that the facilities which we provide for them to report our proceedings should be withdrawn. For most of the time we are only too anxious for them to report our proceedings, and we wish they would do it more often.

The same thing applies to local authorities. Of course, newspapers have their responsibilities. Of course, from time to time they do not realise it. Nevertheless, I should hate it to be thought that it was the opinion of the House that the fact that a local newspaper is falling down on its duty gives the local authority a right to exclude the local newspaper. I do not think it does. There are various ways of getting round that situation. It would be an unfortunate suggestion if the hon. Member for Barnsley meant that that was a justification for such an act by a local authority.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Ten o'clock.