HC Deb 14 March 1960 vol 619 cc1064-70

9.53 p.m.

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

I beg to move, That it be an Instruction to the Committee on the Bill that they have power to make provision in the Bill for requiring members of the public other than representatives of the Press to be admitted to meetings of bodies exercising public functions, and for matters arising out of their admission. The Instruction now proposed has been brought forward so that the House may consider it before the Standing Committee starts to examine the Public Bodies (Admission to the Press to Meetings) Bill later this week.

The Bill was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) on 5th February and given a Second Reading by a substantial majority. Its purpose, as hon. Members will recall, is to extend the present rights of the Press to be present at meetings of local authorities and other public bodies, and to give reporters certain facilities connected with reporting meetings and telephoning their reports.

The present law upon this subject is contained in the Local Authorities (Admission of the Press to Meetings) Act, 1908. That Act also started as a Private Member's Bill and was prompted by the discovery, as a result of a court decision, that newspaper reporters could not attend meetings of local authorities as of right. The 1908 Act, therefore, placed local authorities under certain obligations to admit representatives of the Press, and the Bill now before the House will extend the rights of the Press. But neither the earlier Act nor my hon. Friend's Bill deals with the public or gives the public any rights of admission to the meetings of local authorities or other bodies.

Oddly enough, only parish councils are required by Statute to meet in public, though local authorities and their committees have, of course, complete discretion to admit the public should they wish to do so. In practice, the public are usually given the same rights as the Press so far as local authority meetings are concerned, and that is the course suggested in the model standing orders issued by my right hon. Friend's Department for the guidance of local authorities.

But the anomaly is a glaring one. The Press are given certain statutory rights to attend meetings, though the public, on whose behalf the authority acts and for whose information the reporters are allowed to be present, have none. Many hon. Members urged during the Second Reading debate that the Bill should be amended so that the public as well as the Press were given rights of admission. My right hon. Friend is advised, however, that without an Instruction on the point this would probably not be within the Committee's competence and Amendments on these lines would be outside the scope of the Bill.

I do not think that any Member will quarrel with the principle that the public should be given the fullest possible information about the actions taken by public bodies in their name and the reasons on which those actions are based. Where it is practicable for reporters to be admitted to meetings of public bodies, or of their committees, it is impossible to deny that members of the public should have comparable rights. Certainly, that is the view of my right hon. Friend, who said, during the Second Reading debate: Had the Government been bringing forward a Bill on this topic, they would never have sought to legislate for the Press differently from the public. I have no idea whether this Bill can be so amended. But I have been invited to express the view of the Government which is most strongly that if facilities are given to the Press, comparable facilities should be given to the general public."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 5th February, 1960; Vol. 616, c. 1435.] For that reason I would recommend this Instruction to the House both on behalf of my right hon. Friend and of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. The Committee would then be entitled to consider Amendments on this point.

I know that some people will profess to see difficulties. The accommodation available is, in many cases, limited; it will be said that there will be nowhere for the public to sit unless the body or its committee finds a larger meeting place. The Bill mentions other facilities besides mere admittance—advance notice of meetings, supply of the agenda and use of telephones, etc. What rights will the public have here?

I will not discuss these points of detail. They seem to be just of the kind that should be discussed and examined in Committee. My main purpose is to emphasise the principle involved—that the rights of the public are as important as the rights of the Press—so that we may place it within the power of the Committee, when it meets on Wednesday, to consider Amendments on this point.

9.58 p.m.

Mr. G. W. Reynolds (Islington, North)

I must, first, apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, for not having been present at 3.30 when you replied to a point of order which I raised with you on Thursday. I was under the impression, wrongly, that you would be replying to it just before this debate started. Whatever happens to this Bill, I am quite sure that at the end I shall be more knowledgeable about procedure than I was. Despite the fact that you ruled against me, I thank you for troubling to look into this matter.

I am not surprised that an Instruction of this nature is necessary to allow the Committee to look at this point, because I expressed the view on Second Reading that it would not be possible, as the Bill stands, for the public to be brought into it. Several hon. Members accepted that, but the Minister of Housing and Local Government made it clear that had the Government been introducing the Bill they would have made provision for the public, and that statement surprised me slightly. The Parliamentary Secretary has just repeated it.

I remember that the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) thanked the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Housing and Local Government for the assistance he had given which, she said, was as much as any private Member could expect from a Minister in preparation of a Bill of this nature. It surprised me that the Minister, obviously having been concerned at least in some way in giving assistance in the preparation of the Bill, should have found it necessary on Second Reading to point out that if he as a Minister had been doing the job—

Mr. F. V. Corfield (Gloucestershire, South)

Perhaps the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) would let me also help him in his lesson in procedure. The title of a Private Member's Bill has to be published a considerable time before the text. That may be the explanation why my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government was not in a position to help over the title.

Mr. Reynolds

I am aware of that. I realise that the hon. Lady herself was put in a ridiculous position by not being able to bring forward, because of Government pressure, the Bill she wanted to bring forward, and that she had this Bill pushed into her hands by the office outside.

Mr. Peter Kirk (Gravesend)

If anyone pushed this Bill into her hand it was I, and I have nothing to do with that office at all.

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Proceedings on the Motion relating to the Public Bodies (Admission of the Press to Meetings) Bill exempted, at this day's Sitting, from the provisions of Standing Order No. 1 (Sittings of the House.—[Sir Keith Joseph.]

Question again proposed.

Mr. Reynolds

It appears, however, that after the Second Reading debate, in which there was a generally expressed view among hon. Members on both sides of the House that it would toe impossible or unwise to give facilities to the Press without, at the same time, giving them to the general public, we were rather mystified as to how we should go from there. A rather shadowy figure appeared from time to time, giving advice as to how to find a way round this apparent difficulty.

Some of my hon. Friends were concerned to give some advice. I was sorry to hear them do so, and I shall no doubt be able to express my feelings to them at other places and times, in appropriate ways. We are faced with the Minister having first given advice about a Bill coming before us—and I appreciate the point which the hon. Member made about the Long Title having to be notified before the Minister was approached on the matter—and then hon. Members on this side of the House giving advice to the Minister and the hon. Lady who sponsored the Bill as to the finding of a way out of the dilemma.

The Bill has been presented to the House, debated and given a Second Reading and now, at this late stage—only 36½ hours before the Committee is due to start its deliberations—we have an Instruction which will considerably widen the whole scope of the proceedings in Committee. Yet the Second Reading was as long ago as 5th February. Six weeks have gone by since then. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have known for the last two or three weeks that the first meeting of the Standing Committee to deal with the Bill would be held on Wednesday of this week. I submit that it is a little unfair upon those hon. Members who have to meet on Wednesday to start dealing with a Bill to which many Amendments have already been put down. The extension of the scope of the proceedings will make it difficult for hon. Members to discuss the Amendments at short notice.

Nevertheless, I do not intend to oppose the Instruction. We can consider the question in Committee. I merely say that it will make it difficult for the Committee to get through the Bill. The Parliamentary Secretary has said that certain people are bringing forward objections about the widening of the scope of the Bill, and I hope that he will not underestimate those objections. There will be a great many. It is ridiculous to think that we can delete the word "Press" and replace it with the word "public" and assume that the public covers the Press. It is not as simple as that.

The Parliamentary Secretary referred to the Local Government Act, 1933. Paragraph 1 (4) of Part IV of the Third Schedule provides for the admittance of the public to meetings of parish councils. That provision will have to be taken out. Indeed, the Instruction which we are now debating will make it necessary for the Committee to look rather wider than the simple question of the admission of the public. The Committee will have to consider such matters as the provision of documents and other facilities for members of the public. Again, the Local Government Act provides that ratepayers, or local government electors— rather than the public—shall have the right to obtain, see, make extracts of and copy from documents in the possession of the local authority.

If we bring the public in, it is essential to make sure that the Bill codifies all aspects of the law in which the public is concerned with local authorities, in connection with admission to its meetings and its rights to see and to obtain documents from local authorities. We should take the opportunities to make sure that members of the public as well as members of the Press need to look at only one Bill to ascertain their rights and that we shall not finish up with some information in the Local Government Act, 1933, and other bits of information in this Bill. While we are about it, we should do a good job in the sittings of the Standing Committee which will extend over the next few weeks.

I do not intend to oppose this Instruction, but I think it important that we shoud differentiate between members of the public and local government electors. I see no reason why the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley should have the right as a member of the public to attend the Islington Borough Council meetings or meetings of the London County Council. Were she a local government elector in Islington, or in the area of the London County Council, that would be different. By using the word "public" instead of "local government elector," or some similar phrase, I think that in this Instruction the net is being cast too wide. I am prepared to accept that it is a good idea to cast the net as wide as possible so that the Committee may look at every aspect, but I hope that it will bring the matter a little nearer to the local government elector rather than to the public as a whole.

I hope that the House will agree to this Instruction. I say again that here we are witnessing the use of a Parliamentary device to remedy a serious mistake in the drafting of the Bill. It has been used deliberately by the Minister, and if that situation develops, the House must expect that hon. Members will use the same Parliamentary device when it suits them to do so.

10.6 p.m.

Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham)

I was glad to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) say that he did not wish to oppose the Instruction. We may all agree that it is made necessary by the obvious shortcomings in the Bill. So far as I can see, it will complicate the work of the Standing Committee.

We are introducing a new principle into our law, that members of the public shall have the right to attend meetings of local authorities. I think that that is a good principle, but it is new and we shall have to consider how it will work out in practice. So far as I can see, were the powers in this Instruction used by the Committee, the public would be put in the same position regarding local authority meetings as they are now with regard to courts of justice. They would have the right to be present. But I think that it is generally understood that the courts of justice are not, therefore, obliged to provide unlimited accommodation for the public. It is understood that the right must be limited by what is practicable. The courts of justice properly have the power to exclude members of the public if they behave in a way likely to obstruct the transaction of business. If the public are to have the same right of admission to meetings of local authorities, presumably similar safeguards would have to exist.

I mention those two points to illustrate the kind of problem which the Committee will have to tackle if the scope of the Bill is to be enlarged in this way. For that reason, I hope that the Committee will have competent legal advice throughout its proceedings, because a good many points are liable to crop up on which a legal opinion will be necessary if the Committee is to do its work well. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary may be able to give us an assurance about that before we agree to this Instruction.

Question put and agreed to.


That it be an Instruction to the Committee on the Bill that they have power to make provision in the Bill for requiring members of the public other than representatives of the Press to be admitted to meetings of bodies exercising public functions, and for matters arising out of their admission.