HC Deb 13 May 1960 vol 623 cc775-82
Mrs. Thatcher

I beg to move, in page 3, line 4, to leave out from "Act" to the end of line 10.

This is another technical Amendment, the reason for which is not evident at first sight. When I came to look further into the question of qualified privilege as it applies to oral statements at meetings of local authorities, I found a case which covered the point for which I had made substantial provision in the original Bill.

It is not essential to put in an extra provision for qualified privilege in order that a body may claim it. It may claim it in respect of oral statements at meetings of the body, even though third parties are present, by virtue of the common law as decided in Pittard v. Oliver in 1891, reported in 1 Queen's Bench, at page 474.

In that case, which applied to a board of guardians, there were members of the public present at a meeting of the board of guardians. During the course of that meeting one of the members of the board made certain defamatory statements about the accounts as presented by the clerk to the board. The clerk sued the member of the board who had made those statements, and it was held that the privilege which would have attached to the statements if made in the presence of guardians only was not taken away by the presence at the meeting of reporters or persons other than guardians. That, therefore, is the present law without any provision in the Bill.

I am advised that, if we put in a special provision covering something which is already dealt with by the law, it might throw doubt on the construction of other Acts of Parliament. For that reason, I ask the House to accept the Amendment to delete the appropriate words.

Mr. M. Stewart

I am a little concerned about this Amendment. As I followed the argument, the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) says that the words which it is proposed to leave out are not necessary because they would do no more than put into a Statute what is already in the common law. She quoted a case where a board of guardians was concerned. Can we be certain that a decision given in a case affecting a board of guardians will be regarded as the law applying to all bodies mentioned in the Bill? That seems to be one doubtful point.

Secondly, even if the position at common law would cover all the bodies mentioned in the Bill, do we do any harm by making statutory what already exists at common law? The hon. Lady says that to do so might throw doubt on the interpretation of other Statutes, but I am not sure that I follow that. If the decision in the case which she quoted is to be regarded as part of the law of the land, surely it is not altered by the insertion of these words in the Bill.

As I see it at the moment, the addition of these words makes the position of people attending meetings of the bodies mentioned in the Bill entirely satisfactory and beyond any doubt, and it does no damage to anyone. I should have thought that it would be desirable to provide that safeguard. I wonder whether a Member of the Government can give us some advice on the matter.

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

I am, I think, in a position to give the assurance for which the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) asks. The decision in the case of the board of guardians was in terms general enough, I understand, to cover a far wider range than that. I am advised that, if we specifically mention this protection in the cases limited to this Bill, we should, perhaps inadvertently, throw doubt on what is a general right, and this may go beyond even the bodies covered by the Bill. I urge the House to leave the law as it now stands, without intervening in this way.

Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)

I am rather interested in this. Could the Parliamentary Secretary or the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) give us authority for what is, to me, a novel principle of interpretation?

One has a decision of the courts. That has been applied, because its terms are wide, to other bodies. One then, in a Measure such as this, gives statutory declaration to an existing practice. What is the principle of interpretation which says that, because at a certain point one gives statutory declaration to an existing practice, one somehow, for some reason, throws doubt upon that very practice where it applies elsewhere? This seems to be a quite novel proposition.

I feel that the law is difficult enough to find already, particularly where one is dealing with cases of rather small bodies which cannot, perhaps, always have easy access to advice and the law libraries. Paragraphs in Acts of Parliament which have to be worked with which are merely declaratory can tell people what the law is and provide the easiest way to find it. For that reason, I think there is something to commend them.

Mrs. Thatcher

By leave of the House, may I add a few further comments? One does, perhaps, learn by experience that it is better to mention the authority in the House without mentioning the facts of the case upon which the ratio depends. The ratio of the case I quoted was, of course, that where qualified privilege exists by virtue of a duty in the person who makes the statements to make those statements and a duty in the person who receives those statements to receive them, the privilege is not taken away by the presence of members of the public unless they are called in specially to hear the defamatory statements.

As regards the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget), there is not, of course, a specific authority for this provision. My difficulty is that I have already had sufficient trouble with what may happen if this Bill becomes an Act, and I do not want to be accused of having introduced something which affects the construction of other Acts of Parliament.

The hon. and learned Gentleman will know that, when one is construing a provision in the court, one matter which comes up frequently for consideration is this. When there is a general provision in the law already and one then finds an additional enactment declaring that general provision, in a boundary case a doubt may be raised and it may be said, "If Parliament had intended the law to apply in other cases, would it not in a boundary case have made a specific provision?".

The hon. and learned Gentleman is far more conversant with these matters than I am. I am advised that it would be better to leave the words out. I can do no more than say that. If the House wishes to put them in, that is a matter for the House, but I am a little against putting in surplus words where the law is clear without them.

Mr. F. P. Bishop (Harrow, Central)

There must, I suggest, be an element of common sense in this matter of interpretation. Is there not another danger, apart from any effect upon the interpretation of other Statutes? Subsection (2) as it now stands reads: a person publishing any defamatory matter at a meeting while it is required by this Act to be open to the public"— and so forth. The public may be at a meeting of the same kind at a time when the Bill does not require that they shall be permitted to be there; they may be there simply by the permission of the authority or body concerned. It seems to me, as a matter of common sense, that the words of the Bill as they stand would cast doubt upon the position when members of the public were present not specifically by virtue of the Bill. For that reason, if for no other, I suggest that it would be better to accept the Amendment.

Mr. M. Stewart

By leave of the House, Mr. Speaker, I should like to add a final word on this matter. We really are a little doubtful about it. We do not want to make difficulties at this stage of the Bill. Will the hon. Lady give an undertaking that she will pursue the matter further with the object, should it prove desirable, of arranging that another place should put the words back? We would be willing to accept the Amendment if the hon. Lady would give an undertaking that she will take further advice and, if matters stand as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) thinks they stand, will endeavour to get another place to put those words back.

11.30 a.m.

Mrs. Thatcher

I am quite happy to give that undertaking. It is news to me that I could have such an effect upon another place, but I will do my best.

Amendment agreed to.

Mrs. Thatcher

I beg to move, in page 3, line 30, to leave out from "of" to the end of line 31 and to add: June, nineteen hundred and sixty-one. In Committee, I gave an undertaking that I would reconsider the date for coming into force of the Bill in the event of it becoming an Act. It is urged upon me that, as we had changed certain principles of the Bill, it would be advisable to delay the operation, at any rate for some months. It was suggested that the appropriate time would be immediately after local authority elections, as a number of authorities may wish to make changes in their standing orders. They are not the only authorities concerned in the Bill, but they will be affected in greatest measure. I therefore think that the most fitting date for coming into force of the Act would be immediately after the local elections of next year.

Mr. Kirk

I wonder whether my hon. Friend could consider this matter a little further between now and when the Bill reaches another place, to see whether the influence which she has that place might be used on this matter. Obviously, the date in the Bill, 1st September, is wholly unrealistic. It would not be possible for all the necessary arrangements to be made.

On the other hand, I cannot help but feel that twelve months, which would be the effect of the Amendment, is rather long. Certain authorities will have to change their standing orders, but it is news to me that they can do that only after local elections. I sat, although for only a short time, on a local authority, and, if necessary, we could change our standing orders at any time. I cannot see why it is necessary to wait as long as is proposed, although I agree that some Amendment would have to be made because 1st September is unrealistic.

Although I do not intend to press the matter to a Division, I hope very much that my hon. Friend will consider possibly 1st January or 1st March as more suitable dates than 1st June.

Mr. Albert Evans (Islington, South-West)

I should like to add a word to what has been said by the hon. Member for Gravesend (Mr. Kirk). If the Bill comes into force after the next local elections, it will operate at various times in various parts of the country. There will be local elections early next year, in March and April, in certain parts, and local elections in other parts in the autumn. If the Amendment is passed, the Bill will operate in one part at one time and in another part at another time, as I understand.

Mrs. Thatcher

Perhaps difficulty has arisen because of the way in which I moved the Amendment. The Amendment is that the Bill should come into operation on 1st June, 1961. The reason for the Amendment is that that is a date by which most local elections would have occurred.

Sir Robert Grimston (Westbury)

I am sorry that I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Mr. Kirk), but I very much hope that 1st June will be accepted, particularly for the convenience of a number of small local authorities which have been used to having a general purposes committee of all the members of the council. It will be convenient if they have a little time to adjust themselves and if that time is extended over the next local council elections. It would make only a matter of a few months' difference, and for that reason I hope that the House will accept the date of 1st June.

Mr. Robert Jenkins (Dulwich)

Since the Committee stage, the larger local authorities have given this matter a great deal of consideration. It seems that they are quite unanimous that 1st June is about right. All the elections will be over by then. Even in places where there are no elections, such as in London, the committees for the following year will have been selected. I hope that the House will agree to the Amendment.

Mr. W. A. Wilkins (Bristol, South)

I, too, hope that the House will accept the Amendment. Not only the standing orders of local authorities are involved. Those of us who were members of the Standing Committee will know that we spent a lot of time discussing how some local authorities will make the arrangements which the provisions of the Bill require. Some local authorities will require a lot of time to make the necessary accommodation available. The Amendment proposes a reasonable date, and I hope that the House will accept it.

Sir K. Joseph

I very much hope that the House will accept the Amendment. In addition to the reasons given, I would remind the House that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government proposes to discuss with local authority associations a code of conduct, which they will want time to consider and which must take a little time to prepare. My right hon. Friend would not like to impose on local authorities a need to consider two alterations—one for bringing in the Bill and another at a later date when the code has been published. I hope that they will be able to do both at the same time.

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

I am sorry that it is proposed that the coming into operation of the Bill should be postponed for such a long time. I had hoped that it would be in operation very much earlier. I am sorry that it cannot be brought into operation within the next month or so, because we have had some bad examples recently of things being done by local authorities which this Bill will stop them doing.

For instance, St. Pancras Borough Council has decided to keep the public out of its meetings for the next three months. We have been told that the actions of Conservative-controlled councils and quite a lot of Labour-controlled authorities made it necessary to introduce a Bill of the kind presented to us on Second Reading. Now, a Conservative-controlled authority has decided that it will keep the public out of its meetings for the next three months. I am, therefore, sorry that the Bill, when it has received the Royal Assent, will not come into operation sooner in order to make that council reconsider its decision. I am disappointed, but, as we are in a position where it is physically impossible to do that, reluctantly I will have to accept the Amendment.

Amendment agreed to.