§ Mr. Speaker
It seems to me that it might be for the convenience of the House if the Amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. W. Hamilton), in page 4, line 35, to leave out:or to advise an the discharge ofwere discussed with that in the name of the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. R. Jenkins), in page 4, line 8. I will call the second Amendment if it is required for decision of the House.
§ Mr. Robert Jenkins
I beg to move, in page 4, line 8, to leave out:or advise on the discharge of".I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) will be able to accept the Amendment. Joint advisory committees appointed by two or more local authorities cannot reach any executive decision without submitting their reports and recommendations to each of the constituent bodies. The operative decision about whether a certain line of action should be followed can be made only by the constituent bodies themselves and any discussion which this involves will take place in the constituent bodies.
There seems to be no reason why either the public or the Press should be admitted to meetings of bodies of this kind. As the Bill is drafted, it would catch joint committees which are appointed by two or more local authorities to discuss, perhaps, the preliminary stages to be taken in connection with the provision of a service and in which one of them should take the initiative. These are not the sort of things which should be made public. They are often of the nature of preliminary negotiations.
The next point is that where consultation is taking place, and advice is to be given to the constituent bodies, when preliminary talks are taking place it is obviously not necessary or even desirable for the Press or public to be present at those embryonic stages. In any event, the results of their advice will go back to (he two or more constituent bodies, which then come within the ambit of the Bill.
I have been asked strongly to press this matter. Under the Bill, serious inconvenience could be caused in the running of a body of this kind, which is merely of an advisory character, which has no functions whatever and whose decisions will come to the light of day in the normal course. I am advised that difficulties would be created in local government when these committees were set up. With this explanation of the reasons for my Amendment, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), in the interests of local government throughout the country and of 784 assisting the working of the Bill, will find herself able to accept the Amendment.
§ Mr. W. Hamilton
I wish to put a similar case on behalf of Scotland, where similar arguments apply. I understand that the Scottish Office has no feelings about the matter and is prepared to accept the Amendment. I am sure that the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) would not want to do anything to offend Scotland, otherwise she might have some of the treatment that Ministers have had in recent weeks. I very much hope that she will accept my Amendment in line 35, on behalf of the Scottish local authorities.
§ Mrs. Thatcher
I certainly would not want to do anything to offend Scotland. It was with trepidation that I included Scotland within the purview of the Bill at all, particularly when I read that on an earlier Bill an English Member had objected to the inclusion of Scotland on the ground that it would increase the loquacity of the Scots in their local authority committees. The more things change, the more they are the same.
I have an open mind on the Amendment. I inquired about the kind of functions which these committees performed and was told that frequently the purpose of such committees is to co-ordinate the actions of several authorities. There may be matters—for example, relating to National Parks— which concern a piece of land which is within the area of different local authorities comprised by the park. In an instance of that sort, any discussion of the future of such a National Park would seem to be of great interest to the public and to the Press. It may be that such matters as seashore coastal defences come within the purview of two different local authorities but have to be treated as a natural geographical unit.
As the Bill was drafted, it was meant to cover committees which exercised delegated functions. Now the principle has been altered to those committees which consist of the whole of the members with a view to getting maximum discussion in public. If maximum discussion in public is the principle, subject to certain safeguards, it might be a gesture on the part of 785 those who wish to get as much public information as possible over to the public to consider leaving in the words which it is now sought to delete. It would not do harm to leave them in, because the committees concerned have abundant safeguards in that they could exclude Press and public when confidential matters were being discussed. I am entirely in the hands of the House on this matter, but we should make it clear that we want maximum discussion in public.
§ Mr. M. Stewart
The House would be well advised to accept the Amendment, which has been moved by the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins) and supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. W. Hamilton). The matters to which the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) has just referred are matters which will come up for public discussion in the bodies which have appointed the joint committees. By the Amendment, we should not be doing anything to cause decisions that should be discussed and taken in public to be taken in private with the public or Press improperly excluded. As the hon. Member for Dulwich said, we should be protecting negotiations in their embryonic stage. In the interests of good administration, that is a right thing to do.
There are some steps in the making of policy that cannot be so well done in full view of unlimited publicity as they can be done by private discussion. Acceptance of the Amendment would bring no risk of any hiding of vital matters or decisions from either the Press or the public. We should, therefore, pay proper attention to the needs of local authorities, both in England and in Scotland, and accept the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West and of the hon. Member for Dulwich and make the Amendment.
§ Amendment agreed to.
§ Mr. Speaker
I should like help from the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins). It is possible for his Amendment in page 4, line 12, to leave out from "Council" to "and" in line 13, to be discussed with the following one in line 13, if that is sufficient for him. If, however, the hon. Member wants to go as far as taking a decision of the House, that course cannot be adopted. 786 Does the hon. Member agree with my suggestion?
§ Mr. Robert Jenkins indicated assent.
§ Mr. Speaker
The hon. Member indicates his assent to my suggestion. Therefore, I call the following Amendment, in line 13, and indicate that the subject matter of the Amendment of the hon. Member for Dulwich in line 12 may be discussed with it.
§ Mrs. Thatcher
I beg to move, in page 4, line 13, after "councils", to insert:in boroughs which are separate police areas,".This is a somewhat technical Amendment as I have drafted it. The Schedule includes within the operation of the Bill several authorities which are statutory police authorites. These are, as stated in paragraph 1 (a) of the Schedule, standing joint committees, combined police authorities constituted under the Police Act, 1946, and watch committees of borough councils.
The watch committees of borough councils have had a history dependent upon the police force which they were formed to control. The standing joint committee is a statutory authority for the county police force. The watch committees were originally the statutory authorities for borough police forces. By virtue of the Police Act, 1946, a number of boroughs lost their statutory police forces and their function were carried out by the county forces. The county boroughs still retain their police forces, and certain very large boroughs are still treated as county boroughs for police purposes only, although they are not treated as county boroughs for other purposes.
Those authorities are defined in a Section of the Police Act, which says that if the population of a borough exceeds half the population of the administrative county authority it is, in fact, treated as a county borough for police purposes, and its watch committee is a statutory authority for police purposes.
We are, therefore, in a position where we have two kinds of watch committees, those which, like a standing joint committee, are the statutory authority for police purposes, and those of the ordinary boroughs, not county boroughs and 787 not county boroughs for police purposes, which still have a watch committee although they have lost their police forces. Those boroughs which have watch committees but no police forces exercise residuary functions such as house-to-house collections in the areas which they serve, but they are no longer the statutory police authority.
This Amendment is designed so that those watch committees which are statutory police authorities should, in accordance with the rest of this paragraph of the Schedule, be within the meaning of the Bill and subject to its provisions.
§ Mr. Robert Jenkins
I am sure the House will be more than grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) for moving the Amendment, but, quite frankly, the local authorities throughout the country, especially the larger ones, the boroughs in particular, do not feel satisfied that the Amendment goes far enough. I should like shortly to give the House some facts on the whole question of watch committees, the different types of those committees.
The House will remember that watch committees of borough councils are appointed under the provisions of the Municipal Corporations Act, 1882, which provides that a council shall from time to time appoint a sufficient number, not exceeding one-third of the body, who, with the mayor, shall be the watch committee. By the Police Act, 1946, a watch committee, the police authority in relation to county boroughs, where the county forms part of a combined police authority, is at present appointed by the county boroughs and is a statutory police authority. Those committees are the police authorities for their respective boroughs.
Watch committees may also be, and in a number of cases still are, appointed by county boroughs which are not statutory police areas, and it is this type which are not police authorities. Watch committees which are police authorities are given certain functions by Statute, and may, in addition, exercise functions on behalf of the council under powers delegated by the council; but watch committees which are not police authorities exercise only those functions which are given to them by the council.
788 There seems, in my opinion, no justification for treating the latter type of committee in any different way from any other standing committee appointed by local authorities. It is gratifying to me, I say again, that my hon. Friend has gone some way to meeting the objections of the main local authorities.
However, I suggest that in administrative counties it is the chief constable and not the standing joint committee who is the disciplinary authority. In boroughs having statutory police forces the position is reversed and the watch committee is the disciplinary body. This means that much more business which is done of a personal nature is dealt with by watch committees than by standing joint committees, because, I repeat, the chief constable himself is responsible for that administration.
This type of business is generally accepted as being unsuitable for public discussion. The work of the watch committee in those circumstances would be, as it is in the case of the chief constable, personnel, their appointment, promotion, dismissal, and matters of discipline; the state of crime in the area; or any measures needed to deal with the current situation; or premises, equipment, general administrative matters concerning the police.
As to the first of these, personnel matters, they could be dealt with in private under the Bill, where they concern the police or ordinary administrative staffs of local authorities. As to the state of crime in an area, it is manifestly of the highest importance that this should be discussed in private. It would be impossible to discuss this subject in the presence of members of the public who might include criminals who would be glad to know the information being discussed in the committee.
As to the ordinary matters of premises and equipment and administration, these usually involve expenditure, and the watch committee is in precisely the same position as any other committee of the local authority and would have to get the consent of the council itself to that expenditure. Therefore, the opportunity for discussion of those matters in open council with the Press and public present would be available.
789 If my Amendment is not accepted, the watch committee will undoubtedly find it necessary in the public interest to exclude the Press and the public from its meetings when it is dealing with the first and second classes of business I have referred to, that is, personnel, discipline, dismissal, promotion, and the state of crime. Any major items which come within the third class of business would normally be submitted for the approval of the council. I suggest, therefore, that there seems to be no reason for including watch committees among the bodies to whom the Bill will apply.
There is one general point I would make. I think that it would be a serious thing for the country and local government in particular if a Bill were passed by the House which would have the effect of making a local authority take appropriate action to exclude the members of the public, which they may do under the Bill. It would be a bad thing that local authorities should find themselves continually having closed sessions merely because there was no provision in the Bill to enable them to have them by right of Statute.
It is quite clear, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley will be alerted to the point, that discipline and other things of that kind, such as promotion, cannot be discussed with the Press and public present. It is quite clear that crime cannot, in those circumstances, be discussed. It is quite clear, as to the third class of business, that all those items will go eventually to the council for open discussion. Therefore, I should have thought that it would be wise in the interests of making the Bill work to provide that watch committees are excluded from its scope.
§ 12 noon.
§ Mr. Ede (South Shields)
The hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins) seems to have made a most convincing case for the Amendment which he has agreed not to move. I am the more disappointed at his agreement, because I thought that today I should be able for once to support the hon. Member.
§ Mr. Robert Jenkins
On a point of order. Did I in fact, Mr. Speaker, say that I was not moving my Amendment? With great respect, I thought that you 790 were asking me to agree to have my Amendment and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) taken jointly and that after joint discussion I was to move my Amendment.
§ Mr. Speaker
I am very sorry if the hon. Member misunderstood. Being aware of the difficulties which would arise if I went on to the Amendment of the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), I indicated in terms to the hon. Gentleman that if he wanted the decision of the House on his Amendment I should not be able to take the course I was suggesting and for that purpose I invited the hon. Gentleman's help. He did not say anything, but he indicated assent by nodding and I referred to that verbally to get the nodding on the record as it were.
§ Mr. Robert Jenkins
On a point of order. I was not aware of the point that you were putting, Mr. Speaker. I thought that you said that you wanted my assistance in the sense of my agreement that the two Amendments should be taken together. When you called my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) I rather thought that you were calling her first and me second to move my Amendment, although the two Amendments were not on the Notice Paper in that order. Is there any way that we can go back on the Notice Paper so that the decision of the House can be taken on my Amendment?
§ Mr. Speaker
If the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) will forgive me, I should like to tidy up this point and, therefore, continue to interrupt him. I do not see any way of doing what the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins) asked me to do, unless —and I am not in any sense putting any pressure on anybody—after discussion, it turned out that the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) was prepared to withdraw her Amendment. In that way we could get back, but I see no other.
§ Mr. Victor Yates (Birmingham, Ladywood)
Further to that point of order. All this is very regrettable, because I gathered the same impression as did the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins). I understood that the two Amendments were being taken together 791 and that we should be able to vote on both of them. What could have been the alternative to that? Does it mean that if the hon. Member for Dulwich made a mistake, owing to a misunderstanding which must have been shared by other hon. Members, it cannot be rectified?
§ Mr. Speaker
I am extremely sorry to cause any misunderstanding in the mind of anybody at all, but I hope greatly that when hon. Members look at the OFFICIAL REPORT they will see that the words which I used made the position quite plain. I am afraid that I cannot help that there has been a misunderstanding. It is very difficult to listen carefully to every word uttered here, but I think that I used words which made it quite plain. There is no way back, as far as I can see, except the one that I indicated.
§ Mr. Jenkins
Owing to an error of mine, as I see now, for which I apologise, my Amendment cannot be taken unless my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley withdraws her Amendment. May I ask whether, in the event of that not happening but of my hon. Friend's Amendment being defeated, my Amendment could then be taken?
§ Mr. M. Stewart
Further to that point of order. It may have been a defect of understanding on our part, but I believe that most hon. Members had the same impression as the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins) had—that it would be still within our power to give an expression of opinion on his Amendment. Is it really the case that the only way we can do that is by the withdrawal of the earlier Amendment? If that is so, I hope that the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) will see her way to do it. This is a matter on which a number of hon. Members feel strongly and it might affect their attitude to the Bill as a whole.
§ Mr. Kirk
My recollection of what you said, Mr. Speaker, was as you later described it and not as it was recalled by my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins). If my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) withdraws her Amendment, is 792 it possible for her to move it afterwards? Some of us would prefer her Amendment.
§ Mr. Speaker
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. That is a possible course. In again expressing regret at having somehow procured a misunderstanding, I would add that if hon. Members read the Notice Paper they will see that what they had in mind was impossible. The two Amendments relate to successive lines.
§ Mrs. Thatcher
The only thing that I have been clear about, Mr. Speaker, was what you said first. I am in a fog about what has happened since. Is it possible, if I withdraw my Amendment now, for me to move it again after my hon. Friend's Amendment?
§ Mr. Speaker
The matter would be governed, of course, by the decision of the House on the Amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Dulwich but, subject to that matter, if the hon. Lady withdraws her Amendment now she will be able to move it thereafter.
§ Mrs. Thatcher
Do I understand that in the event of my withdrawing my Amendment, discussion on it can take place simultaneously with Chat on the Amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich, although the actual formal moving takes place afterwards? Is that correct?
§ Mrs. Thatcher
In that event, with the consent of the House and in the hope that I may have leave to move it later, depending on the vote on my hon. Friend's Amendment, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Mr. Robert Jenkins
I beg to move, in page 4, line 12, to leave out from "Council" to "and" in line 13.
§ Mr. Speaker
I have intimated that with this Amendment may be discussed the Amendment in the name of the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley, in page 4, line 13, after "councils," to insert:in boroughs which are separate police areas.
§ Mr. Ede
You asked me to forgive you, Mr. Speaker. As I always pray that my transgressions may be forgiven as I forgive other people, although I did not recognise any need for your plea to me, if it will give you any peace of mind, I will. I was in no doubt about what your Ruling had been, as I made clear in the very first words that I uttered when I rose previously.
I was the Minister who presented the Police Act, 1946, to the House. Although that is now some time ago, my recollection is that the Amendment in the name of the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) in page 4, line 13, would apply only to two boroughs—Peterborough and Cambridge. Let us be quite clear on that. The only two boroughs which satisfied the condition that their population exceeded one-half of the administrative county were Peterborough, which had more than half the population of the Soke of Peterborough, and Cambridge which had more than half the population of Cambridgeshire.
I understand that recommendations have now been made by which Cambridge will become a county borough. Therefore, that might reduce this matter merely to the position of Peterborough in the new county of Bedfordshire, of which it certainly would not have more than half the population. Therefore, as far as one can see, the Amendment eventually—in the course of two or three years—would achieve exactly nothing.
I support the speech made by the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins. I think that to give the Press unlimited rights in respect of watch committees would make the administration of the police in county boroughs even more difficult than it is now. I cannot think that the Press ought to have the right to hear the deliberations of a watch committee on the internal discipline of a police force. Although, personally, I dislike standing joint committees as such, I prefer the arrangements for police discipline in counties to those in boroughs, for I think that in a disciplined force the discipline should be in the hands of the chief officer.
Having served on a standing joint committee for a great many years, I know the advantages that accrue from 794 the chief constable being the source of discipline in counties. If he makes a mistake, or—what is, I think, more often the case—if a member of his force thinks he has made a mistake, there is an appeal on his decision to the Secretary of State, when an inquiry, generally by a barrister and an inspector of constabulary, deals with the matter.
I would hope that at some time in the future discipline in county borough forces may be brought on to the same lines, but while matters concerning the discipline and promotion of a police force are within the competence of the watch committee it would be highly undesirable that the Press should have the right of access to meetings where those matters are discussed. Where the issue is whether P.C. 37 or P.C. 479 shall be appointed to the vacancy for a sergeant and presumably—I have never attended a watch committee meeting—arguments for and against on that delicate issue are being advanced, it is extremely undesirable that a public discussion should take place.
There are occasions when matters not quite as positive between two members of the force are discussed where it must be highly detrimental to the future work of the force in a county borough. Suggestions may have been made by a member of the watch committee and put to the chief constable, such as that he has no confidence in the competence of a certain constable, sergeant, inspector or superintendent. If that sort of thing is to be ventilated in public it must, clearly, make the work of the police force in the area very much more difficult than it is at the moment.
For these reasons, I hope that the hon. Member for Dulwich, having secured the initiative once again, will persist in his Amendment, for I can think of nothing more detrimental to forces in county boroughs, particularly in these difficult times when all sorts of people imagine they have grievances against the forces, than it being competent for the Press to attend meetings where the conduct and discipline of forces are being considered. That does not mean that when any misconduct occurs in the force it should be hushed up, but it should not in its early stages be given the kind of publicity which the Bill at present might give it.
§ 12.15 p.m.
§ The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Renton)
I hope that it may be of some help to the House if I attempt to give advice on these two Amendments. I am all the more impelled to do so because I find, I think for the first time in two and a half years, that I have to correct the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) on a point of interpretation in relation to the Home Office.
The Amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), which applies to all watch committees which are not police authorities, is applicable not merely to Peterborough and Cambridge. I happen to know the position in Peterborough and Cambridge because my constituency lies right between the two cities. The right hon. Gentleman is certainly correct about those two places.
But there are, I understand, borough councils which, although they are not police authorities, have watch committees. That is the case where, for example, there is a combined police authority, a borough and a county having got together, or having been put together, to form one police authority which is called a combined police authority. But in those cases the boroughs have retained their watch committees. They are not police authorities, and the Amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley would apply to them. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will not mind my making that correction.
§ Mr. Renton
Yes, that is so. They are not obliged to appoint such committees, but it pleases them to do so, and it is sometimes a useful thing to do.
The two Amendments raise most interesting points of police authority organisation. As the Bill stands at the moment, all police authorities, whatever character they have, would be covered by the terms of the Bill so that the Press would be admitted, subject to the right of exclusion, to such meetings. The Amendment in the name of my hon. 796 Friend the Member for Finchley would, of course, upset that broad application of the Bill to all police authorities by excluding watch committees.
§ Mr. Renton
I am sorry. I mean the Amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins). I certainly do not wish, Mr. Speaker, to add to the confusion that we have already had this morning.
The Amendment by my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich would disturb that broad principle that all police authorities are covered by the Bill by seeking to exclude watch committees. My hon. Friend put his Amendment forward, rather strangely I thought, not so much on the ground that watch committees could be said to be committees of local authorities but on the ground that they have particular powers dealing with appointments, promotion and so on which other police authorities do not have.
For the sake of the record and so that the House may be fully seized of the actual position, I think I should deal with both of those possible arguments. It is true that watch committees are appointed by local authorities and that they are called "committees," and in a nominal sense—but a nominal sense only—they are committees of local authorities. But they are police authorities in their own right. The legislation introduced by the right hon. Member for South Shields made that quite clear.
Let us be quite clear in our own minds that if we are to deal with them in this Bill, we ought to deal with them, not on the footing that they are committees of local authorities, but should deal with them on the footing that they are police authorities. Therefore, my advice to the House on the Amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich is this. Quite candidly, from the Home Office point of view, we have no very strong feelings either way as to whether all police authorities should be subject to the Bill or no police authorities should be subject to it, but we do say that all police authorities should be treated by the Bill in the same way.
797 If the House were to accept the Amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich, we would feel obliged to advise my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley to use her best endeavours to secure that, in a later stage of the Bill in another place, and for the sake of the necessary consistency, and rather than avoid a conflict between the two Houses of Parliament, she should have an Amendment moved to strike other police authorities out of the Bill; namely, standing joint committees and combined police authorities. That is my advice to the House, and, in the light of that advice, the House may take whatever decision it thinks fit.
I should add one or two matters which are relevant. The first is that in Scotland police authorities are quite different. In Scotland, police authorities are quite truly committees of local authorities. They have in the fullest sense all the dual functions that our watch committees do not have. The Bill, of course, applies to local authorities in Scotland in just the same way as it applies in England and Wales, and, therefore, the House may wish to bear in mind when it is legislating that there is this strange difference between, on the one hand, England and Wales, where the police authorities are completely autonomous, and, on the other hand, in Scotland, where they are committees of the local authorities; and, of course, we have excluded the committees of local authorities from the Bill.
Another thing which I think is most relevant, and which answers or at any rate deals with the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich, is this. It deals with the real argument which he advanced in favour of his Amendment, to which I referred briefly earlier. It is true that watch committees have certain powers, with which the House is familiar and which have been mentioned this morning, which other police authorities do not have, but we must realistically face the fact that it is not only watch committees in the exercise of these powers, but all police authorities in the exercise of a great many of their powers, that will find it necessary to use the right of exclusion rather frequently, and certainly very much more frequently than one would expect local authorities to do. I 798 am very glad to see the right hon. Member for South Shields nodding, because it is right that I should try to carry right hon. and hon. Members with me on this matter.
It is not merely a question of personnel, appointments, promotion and discipline matters which may have to be taken, as they are at present, in private by watch committees, but for all police authorities there are matters concerned with the disposition of the police force for the fighting of crime, and there is no point in playing into the hands of the criminals by allowing the Press to attend. The House may wish to bear that factor in mind when deciding whether or not we should move towards a position in which all police authorities are included in the Bill or all police authorities are excluded from it.
Then, of course, police authorities, like other public bodies mentioned in the Second Schedule, will sometimes have to consider the purchase of land and buildings, and, in order that speculators may not get foreknowledge of what might happen, they may well be in the position of having to exclude the Press. I think there may be very good nominal reasons and reserve powers given to the public at large by our providing that police authorities shall admit the Press and the public, and it is only right to point out at this fairly early stage that it will be essentially a reserve power and that in practice on very many occasions the power of exclusion will have to be exercised.
§ Mr. Wilkins
I want to express surprise that we did not have this explanation given to us during the Committee stage of the Bill. What I want to ask the Minister is this. As I try to understand his argument, it is that whatever we do, the Home Office has no very strong feelings about it in this matter, but that, whatever we do, the Home Office wants us to be consistent.
The hon. and learned Gentleman has also said that this Bill will also apply to Scotland and went on to explain in some detail that police authorities in Scotland are not only police authorities but also local authority committees, which would be excluded from the provisions of the Bill.
If, therefore, he is suggesting to the House that it ought to be consistent in 799 this matter, do I presume that his argument is that we ought to accept the Amendment of the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins), because, otherwise, there would be inconsistency in the application of the Bill as between Scotland and England and Wales?
§ Mr. Renton
No, it is essentially a matter in which the Government, for the reasons which I have given, should not do more than point out the results of accepting or not accepting my hon. Friend's Amendment. It is a matter which we have all along felt can properly be left to the decision of the House, and it is right that I should point out to the House the results either way of its decision. As to the distinction between England and Scotland that arises, all I can say is that it will not be the first or the only remaining distinction. We often have to legislate in a different way for the two countries. My father was a Scotsman, and I have always respected—
§ Mr. Renton
I do not know what that accounts for, but these mixed marriages sometimes produce strange results. I do not think that should deflect us from the position in England, which is the only one for which I can answer. Having pointed out the distinction, we do most seriously think that we should have consistency. You may, Mr. Speaker, think it right that I should say that it does not very much matter one way or another which way the House does decide, so long as there is consistency, because, as I have attempted to explain, if the Press and public are admitted, the power of exclusion will have to be so wide that, in fact, there will be very little difference in practice, whichever decision the House takes.
Nevertheless, there are those occasions when it might be useful from the public's point of view that there should be this fundamental right for the public to be admitted, subject to the power of exclusion.
§ 12.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Reynolds
May I say a word before the hon. and learned Gentleman sits down? He has told us that it does not matter which way the House decides, and he leaves it very much to the House. Then he spent 800 a lot of time giving us the objections to the present position and, in effect, speaking in favour of the Amendment of the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins). Having said that it does not matter and could be left to the House, does he not think that he should give some arguments for leaving the Schedule as it is? He has given us a rather onesided point of view. I have an open mind on the subject, but I think that he should spend a little time giving us the arguments in favour of allowing the Press and public into meetings of watch committees, because as yet I am not able to make up my mind.
§ Mr. Renton
I hope that I shall not be thought to be making a second speech, because I had in fact sat down, but the hon. Member prefaced his intervention by saying, "Before the hon. and learned Gentleman sits down." There is a distinction between the position which arises on the Amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins). For obvious, technical reasons, my advice to the House would have been to accept the Amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley if it had not been withdrawn. No doubt the Government spokesman in another place, if the opportunity arises, will give the advice which I would have been prepared to tender to the House this morning.
§ Mr. Speaker
I am afraid that in clearing up the understanding the hon. and learned Gentleman missed my saying that the Amendment at present withdrawn may in fact be discussed with the current Amendment.
§ Mr. Renton
I am grateful, Mr. Speaker. I understand that it may be discussed, but it seemed to me that the discussion was likely to be academic because, the Amendment having been withdrawn, it could not be made.
§ Mr. Speaker
Yes. There is absolutely no need whatsoever for the 801 slightest misunderstanding. We are at present discussing the Amendment in page 4, line 12. I have said that at the same time we may discuss the Amendment in page 4, line 13. If the Amendment to line 12 succeeds, the next Amendment will fall. If the Amendment to line 12 falls, then the hon. Lady is at liberty to move the Amendment to line 13.
§ Mr. Renton
That is a further factor to which I draw attention. For the Amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley to be made, the Amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich should not succeed.
The intervention of the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) was valid. There are arguments—I do not say very strong arguments—in favour of admitting the Press to meetings of all police authorities. My hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich mentioned some of them. What he did not say was that from time to time in past years—and some hon. Members may think in recent years—there has been occasions when watch committees and other police authorities—I do not want to single out watch committees—have made decisions which have sometimes ultimately surprised the public and when the public would have understood those decisions very much better if the Press had been present in order that the explanation underlying those decisions might have been made. That is an argument in favour of keeping police authorities in the Bill.
§ Mr. Renton
I would not say that they were all matters of police discipline, but in so far as they were, the right hon. Gentleman has made a valid point.
§ Mr. Victor Yates (Birmingham, Ladywood)
The hon. and learned Gentleman has added to the confusion. He has said that it does not matter which way the House decides and will not make any difference so long as the House decides one way or the other. How can we decide with that kind of advice? He went on to say that we are consistent 802 in England and that there is a difference between the positions in England and Scotland and that so long as we are consistent in England, it does not matter what happens in Scotland.
§ Mr. Yates
On Second Reading and in Committee I said that the Press should be admitted, when an authority decided, to meetings of the watch committee, the education committee, and so on. However, the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins) has called attention to one matter which I overlooked. The Schedule would permit the Press to attend meetings of sub-committees of watch committees. For some years, the Birmingham Corporation has admitted the Press to meetings of the watch committee, but matters of discipline, promotion, and other things fundamental to the way in which the police force works and the difficulties which the police force encounters have been discussed in a sub-committee, the judicial sub-committee, to which the Press has not been admitted.
§ Mr. Yates
There is no reference to sub-committees, but it mentions watch committees of borough councils and says that the Press is to be admitted to subcommittees consisting of every member of the committee. What I am saying is that the Birmingham judicial sub-Committee consists of all the members of the watch committee. It is important that that sub-committee should be able in private to discuss the very full information which is given by the chief constable. Although the hon. and learned Gentleman made a distinction between the positions in England and Scotland, in practice there is no such distinction with Birmingham, because the watch committee is elected by the council and its sub-committee, consisting of all the members of the watch committee, discusses matters such as discipline, appointments, promotion and so on. If a sub-committee is formed to consider all these matters of privacy, and if it consists of every member of the watch committee, its meetings might have to be in public; and it would be a very serious matter in Birmingham if 803 the Press and the public were admitted to hear the discussions.
§ Mr. Renton
A borough council appoints a watch committee. It does so because it has power of appointment, not merely because it is exercising a power of delegation. Appointment and delegation are quite different things.
§ Mr. Yates
That may be so, but in Birmingham the watch committee re-reports to the council and it may be questioned in council upon its report on all matters affecting the police service. From my own knowledge, I can say that thirty years ago the question of the police attending meetings and taking secret reports was discussed in the City Council.
I do not object to the Press being admitted to full meetings of the watch committee which can give general information of interest to the public. Difficulties arise, however, if the Press are to be admitted to the judicial committee. Recently we had a dreadful murder in Birmingham. The chief constable was naturally anxious to give the fullest information, and he gave a great deal of information about the murder to the judicial committee. It is a good thing that all members of the watch committee should be members of such a committee, because all members of such an authority ought to have the fullest information which the chief constable can give. But the House will see at once that to admit the public to a discussion of that kind would bring immense difficulties. To use the words of the town clerk of Birmingham, "It would not lead to the maintenance of law and order."
The hon. Member for Dulwich has done a service in bringing this matter forward, because it is important to distinguish between the watch committee and a sub-committee which consists of all members of the watch committee. The sub-committee may discuss some matters in private and general matters may be brought through the full committee to the council.
I appreciate the dilemma of the hon. and learned Member when he says that it is unfair to have one set of rules for one police authority and another set of rules for another police authority. Could not the hon. Lady consider the sug- 804 gestion which she made earlier that a change could be made in the Bill in another place? As the Bill stands, members of the Press and the public would be able to listen to everything, unless the councillors went through the rigmarole of considering each item before the meeting and deciding which should be discussed in private and which in public. I should prefer all police authorities to be out of the Bill altogether rather than to be in it on conditions which I think will be very unsatisfactory to the public and to the maintenance of law and order.
§ 12.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Kirk
This is a very difficult point. At the beginning, I was in favour of having watch committees in the Bill, on the ground of consistency. It seems to me, however, that there are only two courses open to the House, neither of which is covered by the Amendment. The first is to strike out paragraph (c) of the Schedule and remove all police authorities from the Bill. The second is to retain paragraph (c) and to devise a procedure whereby the very important points referred to by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. V. Yates) can be covered. Neither of those courses can be pursued by the House at the moment.
I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins) is not here—possibly he will return shortly—for I wish to suggest that if these Amendments were not pressed it might be possible between now and whatever stage is appropriate in another place for discussions to take place with the local authority associations and the police authorities, who, I am certain, have an important point to make about this issue. We could then see whether a form could be devised which would keep the police authorities in the Bill, but leave out the matters of discipline and of private life which we all want to leave out. I am sure that that would be the best solution. Without it we cannot reach a consistent or logical decision. I suggest that we should let the matter fall at the moment and see whether a solution cannot be found in another place.
§ Mr. M. Stewart
I agree that there are two possibilities before the House, but my preference is to try to get rid of 805 paragraph (c) altogether. The Joint Under-Secretary of State heroically attempted to set a balanced argument before us and to try not to lead the House too positively in one direction or another. For that, he was criticised by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds), who said that the hon. and learned Member had failed to make up his mind for him. I had hoped to attempt to do that myself, but, unfortunately, my hon. Friend is not in the Chamber.
Paragraph (c) mentions a number of police authorities. The Amendment moved by the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins) excludes one kind of police authority. The hon. Member gave important reasons why he thought that that kind of authority should be treated differently from others, and I do not think that the Joint Under-Secretary of State fully did justice to those reasons. I do not propose to argue that further now, however. It seemed to be strongly the hon. and learned Member's view that all police authorities must be treated alike, and I detected from his tone of voice and manner the suggestion that if the Amendment is carried the Government will do their best to see that consistency is then obtained by getting rid of the paragraph altogether. That was the tenor of the hon. and learned Member's speech. He argued that on grounds of consistency.
The hon. and learned Member went on, however, to point out to us that Scottish police authorities are untouched by the Bill anyway, and it has been argued forcibly by several of my hon. Friends that if we are searching for consistency we should take that as the starting point. The Scottish police authorities are out now. There is a considerable balance of argument whether any of the police authorities ought to be in. It is argued that consistency in this matter is a good thing in itself. It seems to me that on those three facts the best solution is to treat the English authorities like the Scottish authorities and to take them out of the Bill altogether.
That conclusion is reinforced by the arguments adduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) and others on both sides of the House who have spoken about the general 806 lack of wisdom of much police business being discussed before the public and the Press. I do not think that anyone has any doubts about that. It has been argued that if police authorities remain in the Bill their power of exclusion will be used very frequently. We are in a situation in which already there seems to be a considerable balance of arguments on both sides, where the argument of consistency, if carried through properly, is an argument in favour of taking the English authorities out of the Bill, and where the fact is that if they are kept in the Bill they will probably use the power of exclusion in nine cases out of ten or ninety-nine out of a hundred. Surely the sensible thing is to take them out altogether.
I do not think that it is a good thing either for the law in general, or for local authorities, for us to create situations in which the public will have the nominal right to access subject to powers of exclusion, and the power of exclusion will nearly always be used. It is reasonable to give the public a right of entry, on the understanding that there is a power of exclusion, in all those cases where the power of exclusion will only be used occasionally. To go out of our way to create a situation where we say that these bodies must let the public in when we know that in most cases, because of the nature of the business, they will have to be kept out, is not desirable. If we add up all the arguments, we are driven to that conclusion.
It seemed to me that in that part of his speech where the Joint Under-Secretary of State was talking about the unwisdom of publicity for certain police matters he was speaking much more from the heart than during the latter part of his speceh, when he replied to the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North and tried to produce arguments on the other side.
§ Mr. Stewart
I urge the hon. and learned Gentleman to follow his heart on this occasion. The right answer is to delete paragraph 1 (c). We cannot do that now, but if we want to do that the first step that will have that result in due time is to accept the Amendment, 807 moved by the hon. Member for Dulwich So far as it is proper, on a Private Member's Bill, for anyone speaking from either Front Bench to recommend any course to his hon. Friends, that is the course I would recommend to my hon. Friends on this occasion.
§ Mr. W. Hamilton
I hope that the Joint Under-Secretary will take note of what my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) said, because, if I judged aright, the nodding of his head indicated that he was very much in sympathy with the argument put forward by my hon. Friend.
I rise to speak because I do not see a representative of the Scottish Office on the Front Bench. I had a word with the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland prior to our meeting this morning. He explained that he would not be present because he felt that the two Amendments concerning Scotland were not controversial, and that the Scottish Office had no strong feelings on the matter. It is clear that he was not aware of the arguments that are now being adduced on both sides, whether the Press and the public should be admitted to meetings of police authorities. It would have been helpful if the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland had recognised the importance of that point and had stayed behind to give the view of the Scottish Office.
We believe that the superiority of Scotland compared with England in matters of law is well known and admitted on both sides. But it would be of great advantage to the House if the Scottish Office had a representative present to give the views of the Scottish Office on the advisability of allowing the Press into meetings of police authorities. It is unprecedented that a representative of the Home Office should speak on behalf of the Scottish Office, and I would be doing less than my duty if I did not voice a protest about this on this occasion. If the hon. and learned Gentleman, in seeking to speak for the Scottish Office, urges consistency he ought also to urge the adoption throughout the United Kingdom of the Scottish example.
§ Mr. Renton
My hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland 808 and I often help each other out with work in the House, and we are very glad to do so. I should make it clear that on this occasion I was not attempting to speak specifically for the Scottish Office. When speaking for the Home Department, I was merely pointing out that there was this difference between the two countries in the Bill.
§ Sir R. Grimston
We are in a peculiar position over this. But for the generosity of my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) we should not have been able to discuss whether watch committee should come out or not. It is only because my hon. Friend acted in the way that she did that we can discuss the matter at all. There are certainly balanced arguments on both sides on this matter. I take the view that the police authorities should be embraced in the Bill, although I realise that there are powerful arguments against that, and that there will be exceptions to the occasions when they should be embraced in the Bill.
The only advice that my hon. and learned Friend gave the House was that whatever we do we must be consistent. I suggest that we have reached the point where it is very difficult to take it further here, and that there should be further consultations with the Home Department, local authority associations, and the police. It seems to me, therefore, that honour and chivalry would be requited all round if my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins) withdrew his Amendment, my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley having withdrawn hers, and the matter were dealt with in another place.
It will have to come back to this House by way of Lords Amendments so we shall not entirely lose control, but after what has happened I humbly and respectfully suggest to the House that that would be the best and the most honourable way out of the present position.
§ Mrs. Thatcher
I thought that most of my troubles would be over today, but I now understand why it is Friday, 13th May. My hon. and learned Friend said that his heart would have to be examined. Some of us were beginning to think that it was not only our hearts that would need examining.
809 As I understand it, consistency is the main thing. I should like to say a word in defence of my Amendment, because I was under the impression that that was the only one which was strictly consistent, which I will now try to prove. My researches showed that in Scotland the police authority was the town council and the county council. Those ace within the scope of the Bill. Therefore, they are in. In the Metropolitan district of London the Home Secretary is the authority. I did not need to get him in, because he is here in any case. In the City of London the Common Council is the police authority. That is in the Bill.
In counties the standing joint committee is the police authority. That is within the Bill. In county boroughs the watch committee is the police authority. Those committees remain in the Bill. In boroughs which are treated as county boroughs for police purposes, the police authority is the watch committee. By my Amendment they would remain in the Bill and all the rest would be struck out. In some areas one gets amalgamation and consolidation arrangements where the authority is the combined police authority. Those are within the Bill already.
I therefore totally reject the argument that my Amendment would introduce inconsistency into the Bill. If my Amendment were accepted the Bill would be entirely consistent.
§ Mr. Renton indicated assent.
§ Mrs. Thatcher
My hon. and learned Friend nods in assent. Therefore, I must be clear upon this matter. If consistency is the main object, it would be secured by the successful passage of my Amendment. In deference, however, to opinions that have been expressed, it seems to me that what we want is not consistency but a matter of principle which, astonishing though it may be, has not yet been decided by reference to these particular authorities.
Therefore, if my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins) will withdraw his Amendment, I undertake not to move mine. I will further undertake to use such influence as I can possibly exert over the other House to have this matter considered as one 810 of principle, with a view to securing a result which is consistent and which also adequately reflects the principle upon which we have yet to decide.
§ Mr. Robert Jenkins
In view of the gracious way in which my hon. Friend has spoken, I cannot resist the temptation to accede to her request. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 1.0 p.m.
§ Mrs. Thatcher
I beg to move, in page 4, line 17, at the end to insert:and consisting of or including representatives of local authorities within the meaning of the Local Government Act, 1933".This Amendment corrects an anomaly. I understand that there can be joint water committees consisting of the boards of ordinary water companies. I know of one such joint committee consisting of the boards of two ordinary water companies. It was not intended that the Bill should cover such bodies. It is a unique case; the boards, as separate entities would not come within the scope of the Bill. It is anomalous that the terms of the Bill should cover boards joined together to form a joint committee or joint board when its constituent members are not covered by the Bill.
I have, however, thought fit to keep within the scope of the Bill those bodies which consist partly of water companies and partly of local authority representatives. Those should remain within the scope of the Bill, if only for the reason that they are, in large measure, treated as local authorities and subject to certain local authority provisions. For instance, all the members are entitled to travelling and subsistence allowances under the provisions of the Local Government Act, 1948.
I therefore propose that a hybrid body should be covered by the Bill when its members include local authority representatives. But those joint bodies and committees which are formed entirely of water boards which, as separate entities, would not come within the scope of the Bill, will be excluded from it.
§ Amendment agreed to.811
Further Amendment made: In page 4, line 35, leave out
or to advise on the discharge of".—[Mr. W. Hamilton.]
§ Mrs. Thatcher
I beg to move, in page 5, to leave out lines 4 to 6.
This Amendment is designed to bring the position of probation committees in Scotland into line with the position of similar committees in England, which have already been deleted from the Bill.
§ Mr. W. Hamilton
I should like to take this opportunity of thanking the hon. Lady for giving Scotland what England already has. We have been watching the position very carefully and are glad to see that the hon. Lady has succumbed to our pursuasions.
§ Amendment agreed to.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
§ 1.6 p.m.
§ Mr. Robert Woof (Blaydon)
After having listened to an interesting Report stage, I welcome this opportunity to make a few comments on the Bill on Third Reading. In addressing the House on to the main principle of the Bill, with its avowed purpose of bringing the Press into closer relationship with local government and the public, I would only add that those of us who have had long and varied experience of local government realise that it is by making reasonable disclosures to the public that the principle of civic energies can best be asserted. In these days of large-scale organisation it is necessary to encourage and preserve the maximum interest between local authorities and the general public, just as it is imperative to cultivate that essential responsibility with some magnaminity of rewarding civic spirit.
On the salient point in Clause 1, Which refers to the admission of the Press to council meetings, it seems that representatives will have to fall back on all the wisdom and experience at their command. Precisely how much difference this will make only experience will show. Looking at the Bill as it now stands, I recall the Minister telling us, in the Second Reading debate, that the council which, in its relations with the Press, stacks rigidly to its minimum obligation 812 by law, is not providing as good a service as the one which operates properly, with a public-spirited ideal. I completely agree with that.
The Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary will be aware of the ridiculous lengths to which some councils go in interpreting these minimum obligations. There are many points in this connection with which I do not want to weary the House; neither do I wish to risk being ruled out of order. But it is with special interest that I note, in Clause 1 (3, b), the proposal to supply, on request, copies of reports and documents for the benefit of the Press and the public. I do not know whether this is intended to enlighten the public on much of the unseen work done by councils—which greatly merits public attention and gratitude—but it greatly attracts my attention.
I have a very strong liking for the Bill, and especially for the prominence which it is intended to be given. These reports and documents are based on facts that portray work demanding a large amount of mental labour from responsible officials and representatives. They also indicate the degree of importance in revealing and communicating the activities of the council both in its loyalty and in its character. But having in mind such a process for the public good—I must say that I am in full agreement with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), who moved the Second Reading of her Bill in such a worthy and admirable maiden speech —I believe that there is a strong case for safeguarding the rights of citizens and protecting civil liberties.
In supporting the proposals to mark an advance in public interest, perhaps I may be allowed to quote a classical example which I think is one incongruity that undoubtedly proves the need for such legislation. I am fully acquainted with a distinct element composed of people who are supposed to be operating as public representatives on the Whickham Urban District Council, in my constituency, and who, by their crushing despotism, even deny to their own faithful officers copies of reports and documents of the council.
This may seem an unusual relationship in dealing with the public affairs 813 of a council. The idea of supplying the Press with reports and documents for the purpose of publication may be one way of remedying such an outstanding legitimate grievance.
Hon. Members should not be surprised if the officials concerned feel sore and sensitive about the position, and lose heart and interest when the circumstances under which they labour are brought about by such discreditable means The legislation with which we are dealing should have a restraining influence on such intolerable actions.
But really—and I do not apologise for asking this—what satisfaction can be gained from such a motive, from this council imposing its dogmatic egoism on the working talents of its own officers? This kind of non-co-operation is most unreasonable and obviously wrong. I can only describe this kind of conduct as extremely bad and one which is exercised with such incredible obstinacy as to form a blight on local government.
I would hesitate to say whether some of these representatives have sufficient greatness of mind to admit the grave error of their shameful conduct towards and their treatment of their own officers.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir William Anstruther-Gray)
Order. I think that this would be an appropriate time for me to intervene to remind the hon. Member that this is the Third Reading of the Bill, and that he cannot go too far.
§ Mr. Woof
I respectfully honour your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and I am grateful to you for keeping me on the straight and narrow path. But as you know, and as we all know, it is sometimes difficult to strike a match on a bar of soap. But there is always a simple way of doing some things.
To my mind, the function and purpose of this proposed piece of legislation suggests, in general, ways and means by which the public can, without impeachment, take a much greater interest in local government affairs, and 814 by administrative ability one would naturally hope that such critical questioning and suspicions would be swept aside.
I now want to turn to another important aspect of the Bill—the question of the admission of the public to council meetings. Again, I want to draw the attention of the House to a valid reason why I must follow up this issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) drew attention, on Report, to the action of the St. Pancras Borough Council in depriving the public of the opportunity to attend council meetings for the next three months. I must be believed when I say, and I will say it quite honestly, that the officers of the Whickham Urban District Council are not even allowed to be present at council meetings except in so far as they are kept in a waiting room ready to be called in case a councillor wishes to ask a question on a particular point. If the Minister or the Parliamentary Secretary should by chance happen to call in there one night he will probably find the officials lined up as if ready to go on a Sunday school trip.
This is the second occasion on which I have had to confine my remarks to such unjustified behaviour, and I hope that it will be the last. Can anyone think of anything more humiliating from an official point of view? Hon. Members may think that what I have said is fantastic, but I can assure the House that it is the unrestricted truth. The effect of this boss-rule technique has created a great deal of despair.
We have heard quite a lot about public interest, trust and duty. But what kind of trust is this that lends itself to creating a false relationship which refuses to hide itself? It has often been said that justice is a curious pair of scales. It may well be that this Bill heralds a coming change which will do away with such retrograde standards as I have enumerated.
This, I am sorry to say, is far from being the whole story. I acknowledge that the rules covering this debate prevent me going much deeper into the matter. Whether or not such cheerless non-co-operation is by design or appetite to apply iron control, I must say that it has a very bad effect in breeding so much disillusionment among those who 815 are worthy of much better recognition for the services they render.
Therefore, I am glad to be able to say that the Bill should provide the opportunity to open the doors to more gentle trust. In the battle of public interest within the scope of the Bill, I am reluctant to say that case-hardened illustrations have been advanced with caustic remarks against Socialist-controlled authorities. I have sought to deal with another type of conduct that seeks to cloak its real identity under a show of respectability—and what a show of respectability it is!
The Minister of Housing and Local Government is one of the hardest-worked of the Ministers, but he promised on Second Reading to consult the local authority associations about formulating a code of conduct—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
Order. A code of conduct is right outside the scope of the Bill, which deals with the admission of the public to meetings.
§ Mr. Woof
Once again, I respect your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I was trying to connect the Minister's promise to get the local authority associations to formulate a code of conduct with the type of conduct to which I have been referring.
The ability of the Press and local authorities to work together for the benefit of the public depends on their attitude, and on the utmost civility directed to the establishment of the greatest good. I have expressed my thoughts and observations on the present state, and what remains now hazy in the distance we shall continue to watch, step by step, trusting that the good features of the Bill will be instrumental in removing restrictions and frictions, and add somewhat to common sense and the high cause of local government.
§ 1.22 p.m.
§ Mr. Dudley Smith (Brentford and Chiswick)
Even though this Bill is now very emasculated, it still remains a small improvement on the 1908 Act. It was implied in the Standing Committee that because I was a journalist I was necessarily partisan, but as an active member of the second largest local authority in the country—Middlesex County Council —I am vitally concerned that this 816 Measure should go a long way to encourage the general public to take a greater interest in local government. I believe that better publicity could and should be the main life-blood of a local authority.
As we all know, there is a very considerable lack of interest in local authority work at present, as was again brought out yesterday in the local government polling. According to this morning's newspapers, polling was as low as 13.6 per cent. in Mansfield, 17.2 per cent. in Truro and 18 per cent. in Kendal. I am quite sure that if the newspapers gave more publicity to local government affairs the polling percentage would be much higher—
§ Mr. Smith
Under the Bill as it now stands, the grounds for the temporary exclusion of Press and public are more tightly drawn than under the old Act. It will be more difficult for local authorities to get round its provisions, though I do not doubt that some may try to do so if it suits their book. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) referred to the Borough of St. Pancras, and said that he wished that the Bill could have become law earlier, and speculated on what would then have happened about the exclusion of the public by the St. Pancras Borough Council.
I think that that would have been covered by the words in Clause 1 (2):… or for other special reasons stated in the resolution …I believe that there were reports in the Press of eggs being thrown at the St. Pancras council meeting, and I imagine that such conduct would debar the public from meetings of any authority, or Parliament, or of other institutions—
§ Mr. Reynolds
It is perfectly true that the council there, had this Bill then been law, could have said in the resolution that it wished to exclude the public, but had the Bill been on the Statute Book at that time the council could not have said, "We will punish you by exclusion, not only from this meeting but from the next two meetings as well". That would not have been permissible. And the hon. Member should remember that as the Bill is now worded, if the public were excluded the Press would have to go as well.
§ Mr. Smith
I appreciate that, but I imagine that such action is taken to instil into the public an idea of better conduct at these meetings. But I agree that this is covered by the Bill.
The provision of agendas and enough documents to make the business intelligible, not only to the members of the Press but to members of the public, is to be welcomed. Some councils have been very backward in this regard—[An HON. MEMBER: "Which ones?"] I could give chapter and verse. For brevity's sake, I do not wish to go into details, but I know that some local authorities have not gone as far as they could in providing all possible information.
I am sure that the local Press will welcome the Bill in its revised form, but I hope that one day this House will be sensible enough to go even further. Local authority functions have changed quite drastically in the last ten years. Post-war powers over education and health have given local authorities a much more varied scope, and it is very important that the public should know exactly what is going on in the various town halls.
A great opportunity has been lost in this Bill in dealing with committees with delegated powers—but I would probably be out of order were I to go into that. I will only say that I have distinct reservations about the Bill, although I still support it. I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) on the admirable way in which she has piloted the Measure so far, and for the way in which she has coped with the various difficulties that have arisen.
I agree entirely with the comment in The Times after the Bill had been dealt 818 with in the Standing Committee. Under the heading "Half Measure," it said:As it now stands the Bill requires of local authorities- less than they should be prepared voluntarily to concede in order to keep the public properly informed of their affairs. Constant vigilance and protest will be needed to keep the backsliders up to the mark. The voluntary code, which it is the Minister's wish to negotiate, may help matters. But it will not have the force of law.I hope that there will be constant vigilance and protest when the Bill is enacted. Personally, I welcome the Measure.
§ 1.28 p.m.
§ Mr. Wilkins
I was beginning to think that I should probably be the first hon. Member to congratulate the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) on getting the Bill so far, and I believe that she is assured of its Third Reading. As one who contributed, I fear, considerably to her discomfort in Committee, I now offer her my warm congratulations. I believe that the Bill has been amended to some advantage, though, perhaps, not to the satisfaction of everyone in this House. Indeed. I must tell her that even now, although I hope to see this Measure put on the Statute Book, I am not wholly in agreement with all its provisions, and I was very disappointed that I was not able to make one or two Amendments in Committee.
I have only two observations to make, and the first concerns the opening words of subsection (3, b) of Clause 1:… there shall, on request and on payment of postage or other necessary charge for transmission, be supplied …",I believe that, in that form, those words will prove mandatory.
I do not know whether it will still reside with the local authority to supply, as many of them have done in the past, these documents and necessary facilities to journalists to send their reports to the local newspapers while the proceedings are still continuing by the free use of telephone services and so on. Generally speaking, local newspapers are highly critical of the expenditure of ratepayers' money, especially if this happens in the area of a local authority which is Labour-controlled, and therefore one welcomes the fact that the local authorities can use this Bill in order to make justifiable charges to newspaper 819 proprietors for the services and amenities which are made available to them to enable them to convey their news to their readers. Although in the end this may result in only a comparatively small saving, nevertheless it will be a contribution to the rate fund which has to be supplied by the ratepayers, and from that point of view it is certainly desirable.
The other point to which I wish to refer is, in the strict sense of the word, not in the Bill; but nevertheless I think I can claim that our deliberations during the Committee stage of this Bill were conditioned by the promise of the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Housing and Local Government that he would try to come to an agreement with local authorities and with the Press on a code of conduct. The only observation that I feel inclined to make is that we need a code of conduct to correct the misconduct of a lot of newspapers in this country, particularly in the reporting of local matters and the bias that they import into those reports.
I am one who believes that if people ask for privileges they ought to accept the responsibilities that go with those privileges in a completely unbiased manner, and the newspapers should tell the public exactly what is happening in their local authorities. If they did that without bias we would not have seen the results which have occurred in the local elections. [Laughter.] That may be a laughing matter and a matter of high glee to hon. Members opposite, but if they had seen the sort of thing that has been going on in the City of Bristol in the last two years they would not laugh. That is why I am so anxious that this promise by the Minister will be fulfilled.
I think the hon. Lady will agree that she has some reason to be grateful for the co-operation of hon. Members on this side of the House. I will not refer to such hon. Members as "the Opposition" because this is a Private Member's Bill, and we were probably divided on both sides on various aspects of the Bill in the Committee stage, but I think she will agree that we all tried to be reasonable. At no time was there any deliberate attempt to stop the Bill by hon. Members on this side of the House. Our objections were perfectly 820 legitimate and reasonable. I am glad to see that having carried out a surgical operation on the Bill, it is now about to receive its Third Reading, and I congratulate the hon. Lady on her success for the first time of asking.
§ 1.34 p.m.
§ Mr. Martin Maddan (Hitchen)
I wish to say a few words in support of the Bill. I made one brief intervention during the Committee stage; otherwise, I would have remained silent until today.
I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) on having introduced the Bill and having carried it so far, because I believe that it will help to make successful the far-reaching reforms in local government which are being carried through by my right hon. Friend in relation to the finance, functions and areas of local government. The success of these reforms will depend upon the quality of the councillors who stand and are elected, and the quality of the councillors will depend upon the interest which is taken in local government matters. I believe, therefore, that the Bill, by creating and stimulating such interest, will make a real contribution towards the success of strengthening the quality and independence of local authorities.
Some councillors and members of other public bodies may fear—and anticipation is usually worse than the event—the effect of their deliberations being in public and with the Press present. To them, I would say that when it comes to the point it is nothing like so bad as they may imagine, despite what the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Wilkins) just told us. I believe that if one has a robust conviction in what one has to say, one will say it regardless of whether the public hear it or not. We want on our local councils people of robust conviction, who are willing to speak out, perhaps because the public are there rather than despite that fact.
§ Mr. Maddan
I was referring to the matter of the Bristol Council, to which the hon. Gentleman referred when he implied that people had spoken out and that the newspapers had not reported as 821 they should what had been said, to the detriment of the people who had spoken. If a man has robust convictions, he may be misrepresented—that can always happen—but this is the sort of person that we want, and he will go ahead just the same. We do not want timorous people running the important affairs of local authorities.
For these reasons, I am very happy to support the Bill, in spite of its attenuated form. It is a Measure of greater importance than may appear at first sight.
§ 1.37 p.m.
§ Mr. Reynolds
I wish to add my congratulations to the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) for having piloted this Bill this far after having been fortunate in the Ballot. I also think that, on the whole, the Committee made quite a good job of the Bill. The Bill which we are now discussing is very different from the Bill to the Second Reading of which my hon. Friends and I put down a reasoned Amendment some months ago.
The hon. Member for Hitchin (Mr. Maddan) expressed the hope that the Bill will assist in encouraging people of robust views to stand for election to local authorities. With those sentiments I completely agree, but, to be honest, I cannot see how the Bill will do that. The Bill, by providing that the Press shall have certain rights to go into council meetings, does not guarantee that the Press will make use of those rights in reporting the proceedings or in reporting them as accurately as such proceedings ought to be reported. That is one of the reasons why I hope the Minister will press ahead with the discussions which I know he is going to have with local authority associations and representatives of the Press to get a code of conduct governing these activities and to ensure that they are carried out in conformity with the spirit of the Bill.
The Minister made the House fully aware, as did many other hon. Members, including myself on Second Reading, that local authorities and the Press must go far beyond the legalistic interpretation of legislation if we are to get good relations between them and the ratepayers and the general public as a whole.
I was interested to listen to the Home Secretary on television the other night 822 when he made some slashing attacks on little local dictators in local government. I agree with him. There are some local dictators in local government at the present time, and I hope this Bill will help to expose some of them. I hope it will expose the Tory councillors in Woodford who insist that if a man wants a job as a road sweeper he should not belong or have belonged to the Communist Party—
§ Mr. M. Stewart
With very great respect, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, the Bill deals with publicity for the proceedings of local councils. My hon. Friend is drawing attention to the proceedings of one council and saying that the bringing to bear of the light of publicity on them will be a good thing. He is, surely, referring to one of the effects of the Bill.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
The hon. Gentleman knows the rules about Third Reading as well as I do. As he says, the Bill has to do with the admission of the public to meetings, but I do not think that hon. Members are entitled to go too far in their use of illustrations at the Third Reading stage.
§ Mr. Reynolds
I fully understand your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I was going on to say that this particular council, while observing the strictly legal interpretation of the Bill, does not observe the spirit of it because its own standing orders prohibit discussion of certain of these matters in council meetings, allowing only question and answer through the chairman of the committee. If local authorities are to be allowed to avoid the Bill in that way, we shall not be able to deal with the iniquitous actions of councils such as that of Wanstead and Woodford in imposing completely unwarranted political tests which can do great harm to the freedom of the individual in this country. It will be very good if, through publicity in local newspapers, that kind of thing can be stopped. Local authorities like that in Wanstead and Woodford must work according to the spirit of the Bill, not just the legalistic interpretation of it.
There is the case of the local councillors, which has been mentioned twice already this morning, who only a week 823 or two ago decided to keep the public out of their council meetings for the next three months, calling upon themselves the right to determine that they would punish local ratepayers for the throwing of an egg during one of the council meetings—punishing not just the person who threw the egg but all the local ratepayers by barring them from attending meetings for three months. Once the Bill comes into operation, it will be impossible for the reactionary elements in the St. Pancras Borough Council to play that game again.
In this connection, it is a disappointment to me that we have to wait for 12 months before we can stop that kind of thing. Judging by the way they are behaving at the moment, those councillors in St. Pancras are quite likely to extend the ban for six months after the end of the original ban is reached. I admit that they were under great provocation at the time, but those who accept public office must recognise that, though they may be provoked at one stage, it is not right to make a decision, at a time when tempers are frayed, binding the authority as a whole to exclude a very large number of people for months ahead from attending its meetings. They should have looked at the matter in a rather cooler atmosphere. If they had done that, they would not, perhaps, have made that decision
At any rate, the Bill will prevent that sort of thing in the future and for that I am grateful to the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley. It will stop these little local dictators of Wanstead and Woodford and St. Pancras—Conservative authorities both—from behaving in that way. They will not be able to get away with such things quite so easily as they have been during the past few months.
I refer to these matters because, as the House will recall, most of the justification for the Bill when first introduced was based on attacks on Labour-controlled authorities and the actions Which they had taken in the preceding six or 12 months. One of them was the Nottingham Corporation in the activities of its watch committee. The Bill even as it stood before we began the Report stage, and as it now stands, would not regulate the sort of thing which happens 824 in Nottingham when people are not allowed in to hear discussions as to whether the chief constable—this would apply not only to Nottingham but to anywhere else—should be suspended. The attack of the supporters of the Bill originally was very much aimed at the Nottingham Corporation and other Labour-controlled councils which might not wish to allow certain proceedings concerning their officials to become pub-Mc. The Bill will not, and never would even in its original form, achieve that purpose. It will, of course, make it impossible for the sort of thing which happened in Liverpool and one or two other places during the recent Press strike to occur again. I have no objection to that.
When the Bill was first introduced, almost every supporter of it, though not, I admit, the hon. Lady herself, insisted that in its first draft it represented an act of retribution against certain Labour councils which, in the opinion of those hon. Members, had done things they ought not to have done during the previous few months. It is somewhat ironic that, at the time of the Third Reading, the boot is on the other foot and Conservative-controlled councils are doing things which, in my view and the view of many hon. Members, they ought not to do.
The Bill is very different from the one which we discussed on Second Reading. It gives the Press and the public certain rights which they did not have hitherto, but, at the same time, it limits the Press in certain ways compared with the position under the old Local Authorities (Admission to Meetings) Act, 1908. For example, as I understand it, once the Bill becomes effective, the Press will not itself have a right to admission to meetings of public bodies simply as the Press. It will have the right of admission because the public will have that right, and the Press is to be regarded as part of the public. This departs from the previous rather special position which the Press has occupied hitherto.
From the point of view of the Press, I should not have thought that that was altogether desirable, but, from the point of view of the public, I am glad that there will be a right of admission to meetings of local authority. Here I must say that, with the sole exception of St. 825 Pancras, I do not think that the question of keeping the public out and preventing them from attending full meetings of local councils has ever been seriously in doubt during the last fifty years. The St. Pancras Borough Council was the only one to start the trouble, and it is a good thing that we are able to step in quickly and prevent it doing so again.
This is a handy Bill, but it will not become fully effective and will not be of great use unless the elected members of local authorities, the full-time salaried officials of local authorities and the Press itself at all levels, from owners and editors down to reporting staffs, are prepared to work to the spirit of it and co-operate with one another in presenting to the people who actually have to pay for local services fair and unbiased reports of the debates in the council chamber. I hope that local newspapers will keep their comments on matters in the council chamber in some way separate from the reports of the actual events which occur there. In that way, the Press, in co-operation with the local authorities, could do much to correct the scandalous situation to which the hon. Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. D. Smith) drew attention in his speech a little earlier when he told us of the very low percentage poll which occurred in many parts of the country at this week's elections. I have no doubt that the same thing will, unfortunately, occur in the few elections which take place today and the many which are to take place tomorrow.
Co-operation between local authorities and the local Press can do much to cure this trouble. Nevertheless, I stick to my own view that one of the principal reasons for the low percentage poll at this year's elections is that, on the whole, people are fairly satisfied with the type of service given by local authorities, and this, in my view, meets the criticism made during the passage of this Bill and at other times about the activities of local government in this country during the last fifteen years.
§ 1.47 p.m.
§ Mr. J. A. Leavey (Heywood and Royton)
When the Bill was first presented, I had serious doubts about it, but, during its passage through Standing Committee, very substantial changes 826 were made and I am now very ready to give it a welcome. I join with hon. Members on both sides who have congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) on the very real service she has rendered.
Clearly, it is wholesome that the public should know what their elected representatives say and aim to do in local authority bodies. At this stage of our development, I imagine that no one will challenge that principle. Nevertheless, I wish to express one or two cautionary views, if I may put it in that way. In implementing or giving further recognition to the rights of the public—a phrase which we very readily use—we are in this context granting new powers to the Press; that is to say, in those cases, which I believe are in the minority, where it was not admitted.
The Bill does not require an official report of council proceedings. It makes provision to admit the Press in circumstances in which it was not formerly admitted and to admit the public. The admittance of the Press will, we hope, result in greater publicity and perhaps in greater public interest. But, in my judgment, it does not automatically follow that because of more publicity there will be better publicity. In the part of Lancashire with which I am familiar, we are very well served by our local Press, but we must remember that, whether it is the national Press or the local Press, it is the main concern of the reporter to get his report accepted by his editor and, in turn, it is the main concern of the editor to get his newspaper sold and read. Those considerations undoubtedly present temptations.
There is the danger that, in seeking to have the debates of local authorities reported and read, they may be somewhat over-edited and that there will be on occasion reports which are perhaps a little misleading. I do not wish to use words which may be taken to be criticism of the Press at a whole. I believe that the task of reporting a debate in a committee of a local authority is exceedingly difficult, but I feel that it cannot be assumed that in all cases the deliberations of councillors will be reported in a way which gives a complete picture.
It is implied in the Bill that, in some way or other, all the vices are vested in the politicians and all the virtues in 827 the Press. I think that that is unfortunate. Clearly, if there were, as a consequence of the Bill, verbatim reports of the proceedings of local authority committees, nobody would read them. They would be very boring. Therefore, the more vivid, and perhaps what are known as greater news value, items which are discussed will be published, and, as the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) said, that perhaps will do harm rather than good to public interest in local government.
Further, for the most part, in the smaller local authorities the Press, as we speak of it, will be operating a monopoly. Generally, only one newspaper will make the report. I do not wish to imply that this monopoly will be abused, but the ordinary correctives which exist when several newspapers report proceedings and which exist over the country with regard to the proceedings in this House will not apply. It is true that members of the public will attend local authority meetings if they feel inclined, and that is a wholesome corrective, but I think that experience to date suggests that few people will attend as private individuals as a result of the Bill. I think that we would delude ourselves if we were to assume that this welcome improvement of the Bill will affect substantially the nature of the reporting.
On balance, I am satisfied that this is a good Bill, and I welcome it. I have the reservations which I have expressed about it, but I shall welcome the opportunity of supporting my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley, with my vote if need be, on the Bill, but I felt obliged to express the views which I have expressed because there are certain dangers implicit in the Bill. We should not accept without some reservations the idea that, because of more reporting and more publicity, the deliberations of elected representatives will be more accurately conveyed to the public.
My hon. Friend the Member for Finchley said this morning that she had hoped that by this stage she would have been over the worst of her troubles. I I am sure that I am in order in saying that I hope very much that in implementing the undertaking which she gave earlier concerning the exercise of her influence and, if I may say so, charm 828 in another place, she will be entirely successful.
§ 1.55 p.m.
§ Mr. A. Fenner Brockway (Eton and Slough)
The hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) and I are very far apart politically, although I am very near to her constituency residentially, but I want to express my very sincere congratulations to her on having reached this stage with her Bill and the ability with which she has guided it through all its stages. The Bill will contribute tremendously to democracy in this country. It is enormously important that people in any locality should be aware of what is done, not only in full meetings of councils, but in committees where important decisions are reached. The hon. Lady has made a real contribution to democracy in this country.
I want particularly to express the gratitude of the journalistic profession. The hon. Member for Heywood and Royton (Mr. Leavey) and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) have commented on the way in which the Press reports the proceedings of local councils. I say very earnestly that if there are failures in that respect they are due much more to the ownership of the newspapers than to the working journalists serving on them. Working journalists, as a whole, have a desire to serve the public and to serve democracy. I am sure that all of them will wish to take advantage of the Bill to give a picture to the constituents in their localities of what is happening in public affairs.
As the hon. Member for Heywood and Royton spoke, I was rather reminded of an incident in my own journalistic life almost fifty years ago. A local authority had very strongly criticised a local newspaper for the way in which it had reported its proceedings. The retort; of the editor of that newspaper was to instruct has reporter on the next occasion to give a verbatim report of fine proceedings at the local authority meeting. The newspaper was published with a verbatim report. It was only necessary to do that once. The representatives of that local authority did not dare to criticise again.
I believe that the Bill will be a real contribution to democracy in our country, and, in particular, I want to 829 express the gratitude of members of the National Union of Journalists, of which I am a member, for the contribution which the hon. Lady has made toward democratic expression in our community.
§ 2.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Kirk
As a fellow member of the National Union of Journalists, I join the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) in expressing my gratitude and admiration to my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) for piloting the Bill through the House. I am envious of my hon. Friend on two counts. First, she was successful in the Ballot in her first attempt. Secondly, I have gone in for probably every Ballot that has been open to me since I have been a Member of the House and all that I have ever got was two tickets for the Gallery for the State Opening of Parliament That, however, was on the occasion when the event was televised and, therefore, I did not really gain anything.
The last attempt to deal with this subject was one by myself in a slightly more restricted sphere on the Local Government Bill of 1958. I hope that although we were not successful on that occasion—indeed, I withdrew the new Clauses I moved to that Bill—it has helped to prepare the way for the reform that we are now discussing.
In many ways, the Bill is a disappointment. I should have liked to see it much nearer to its original form, but politics, I suppose, is the art of the possible. The Bill certainly is an immense improvement on the existing law and for that reason it must be welcomed.
Like all journalists, I realise that a Bill of this kind, as both the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) and my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Royton (Mr. Leavey) have said, imposes obligations on the Press as well as upon local councillors and upon the public. It is unfortunate that the feeling seems to have grown, not only among local authorities but in this House, that for some reason the Press and the politicians are enemies.
When I first started local authority reporting in Glasgow eleven years ago, as a very junior and bad reporter, I always found that by being hostile I did not 830 get any information, but that if I was prepared to work with the members of the council, as they were with me, this helped both the Press and the local authorities. That is what should happen and I am sure that in 95 per cent. of cases it does happen. It is when the normal state of affairs breaks down that legislation of this kind is needed.
As the hon. Member for Islington, North said, unless the spirit of the Bill is observed, it will do little more than the existing legislation. It will, however, do one thing more, and that is the most important feature to have come out of the Bill. It is not so much the admission of the public, curiously enough, but the provisions relating to the distribution of documents, that may well turn out to be the most important part of the Bill.
That serves a double purpose, not only that everybody knows in advance what is going on, but, also, that the Press can work up a preparatory interest in the forthcoming meeting of the council. The Press is able to say that when the council next meets it will discuss a certain topic, and the furnishing of documents by the finance committee, the watch committee, or whatever it may be, will make for greater interest.
Already, we have had an example; of how that has worked. I cited this example on the Local Government Bill and I have checked it subsequently to find that it still applies. One local authority which used to bring the Press along with it, take it into its confidence and distribute documents, discovered to its surprise that as a result of the preparatory work done by the Press the average attendance at council meetings increased from three to 80. The attendance grew so big that the council had to move out of the council chamber and hold its meetings in a public hall, which was the only place big enough.
That is the sort of result which, we hope, will come from the Bill. It will not come if either the Press or the local authority tries to stick to the exact legal definition. If, however, people are prepared to work with the additional facilities that will be provided, the Bill will be of immense value, not only to the Press and to the general public but to the whole system of local government.
831 I should like to think that the troubles of my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley were over, but, obviously, one or two points have to be further considered. Pending consideration of them, however, although I admit that I should have preferred the original Bill, the Bill is a good one and I hope that it will go through with little trouble. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on the way that she has got it through so far.
§ 2.5 p.m.
§ Mr. M. Stewart
I join with those who have congratulated the hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) on the progress that she has made so far with the Bill. I say "so far" because, as we have realised this morning, there is still further to go. I trust, however, that it will not be too troubled a voyage.
I am one of those who consider that the Bill is better now than when it first came before the House, better both in spirit and in its provisions. Originally, it seemed to me that there was too much of a vindictive spirit behind the Bill as it was first proposed. The suggestion was rather too frequently made that it was the usual practice of people engaged in local government to try to avoid publicity, and that all that was necessary to put that right was to give the Press certain privileges that were not to be given to the public.
It seemed to me that as a comparative judgment between local councillors, on the one hand, and journalists, on the other, that was an extremely unjust judgment, and I am glad that that view is no longer expressed. We put that right by saying that what is provided is provided as a public right rather than as a privilege of a certain section of the public, except, of course, for the provisions about documents and one or two other matters in which it is quite proper and reasonable to make special provision for the Press.
I am glad, too, that the provision concerning admissions in committee that were contained in the original draft of the Bill are no longer with us. They were included in the first place because of an incorrect belief that it was a usual practice to use the committee system to dodge publicity. When we examined the matter, we found that any attempt to extend the principle of the Bill to committees involved great difficulties 832 and that we were trying to do by legislation what could be done only by common sense and good will on both sides. Both in spirit and in letter, we have a better Bill.
The Bill should not give offence or create difficulty for anybody engaged in local government work, except people like those at St. Pancras, to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) referred, and those of Wanstead and Woodford and those of the Whickham Council, to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Woof) referred. I understand that that council is dominated by a political group of people who describe themselves as ratepayers, a distinction which has not distinguished them from the mass of their fellow citizens.
§ Mr. Stewart
The hon. Member must cast his mind back to some of the things that were said in the earlier debates on the Bill. There are certain aspects to which we are entitled to draw attention. Although we get the St. Pancrases, the Wansteads and Wood-fords, and so on, it would be wrong to suggest that it is general or widespread for local councillors, of any party, to try to dodge proper publicity.
I thought that the speech of the hon. Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. D. Smith) was somewhat unfortunate. He seemed to take the view that no sooner would the Bill become law than councils would begin to look for ways of getting round it. There may be a few who will do so, but we should not let it go out from the House that we consider that that will be the general rule.
If we are to get good results from the Bill, the Press, as well as the local councillors, have certain responsibilities. To begin with, they have a responsibility to ensure that those of their staff who do the reporting of local government work are acquainted with how local government is intended to work. If one were to line up all the persons who are sent to report the dealings of local councils and ask them to give a coherent account of the changes in local government finance made by the Government in the legislation of 1958, I wonder how many of them could do 833 it. Without understanding a matter like that, however, it is often impossible to report correctly certain of the proceedings of local councils. That seems to me a thing to which editors and, indeed, proprietors of journals ought to give some attention.
I would accept that the question of whether reports are fair may very often be determined not by the working journalists at all, but by the proprietor of the newspaper. If, in his pursuit of a code of conduct, the Minister ever gets a chance to indicate to the proprietors of newspapers that they have some responsibility for good relations between the Press and the local authorities, so much the better.
One of the reasons why I welcome particularly the extension of the Bill to include the public as well as the Press is that it is a check on inaccurate or unfair reporting if the public themselves can be there to see what happens. That is why I dare make this remark, without getting out of order, I hope, and without causing most hon. Members present to disagree with me: that is why I sometimes think that it would be a good thing if the proceedings of this House were broadcast and televised, because I think that if the newspapers knew that the public could see directly what was happening, some of the newspaper accounts would be obliged to be rather more accurate. Be that as it may, I am glad that by the Bill the public axe to have the right of entry to council meetings and that it is not merely the Press.
We must recognise, of course, that there are limits to what can be done by legislation. We can give the public the right to go to the meetings of local authorities, but I cannot myself believe that, for example, there will be hordes streaming into the next meeting of a local water authority within the meaning of the Water (Scotland) Act, 1946, or, indeed, of one or two other of the bodies mentioned in the Schedule. Still, at least they will have the right to do so. Legislation cannot, by itself, secure good relations. That has got to be done, in the end, by the genuine seeking of good relations on both sides, the Press, and the people engaged in local government —and the public as the most important third party of the lot.
834 Despite that, despite the limitations of legislation, I believe that the Bill does good. First, by bringing the very moderate provisions of the 1908 Act up to date. The Schedule includes bodies which were not in existence then and which obviously ought to be considered now. Secondly, by making impossible those abuses which may occasionally be practised by local councils and which can be denned with sufficient clarity for us to be able to deal with the matter by legislation. We have done that in the Bill. Thirdly, I think that the debates on the Bill will have helped to make clear to all those who engage in local government what is expected of them in the way of willingness to accept publicity, willingness to seek good relations with the Press.
Let us hope that all the parties concerned, the public, local councils and the Press, take the opportunities which the Bill offers them.
§ 2.14 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael Cliffe (Shoreditch and Finsbury)
I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), not only on the introduction of this Bill but on the manner in which it has been piloted to its Third Reading. I think we all want to extend our congratulations to her on having done a fine job.
I think that, perhaps, revelations which during discussion of the Bill have been made about what has been happening in different parts of the country were long overdue, and the Bill does not, perhaps, go far enough to do away with all those things which have been said to be taking place in different parts of the country. Nevertheless, the Bill is on the right road.
In my constituency, the local authority, of which I am a member, has always brought out excellent minutes. Minutes running to sixty or seventy pages go out every month to the national Press and to the local Press, and those minutes cover almost in detail the work of the council. In addition, the minutes are put in the public library for everyone to see, and any public bodies in the locality which request copies of the minutes have them submitted to them. This is done not as a result of the discussions which have taken place on this Bill. This has gone on for as long as I have been associated with the authority, and, indeed, since before then, and even 835 when there were paper restrictions we put up notices outside die town hall itself.
There are, however, some things which are not of the same importance to all of us. Whilst it is perfectly true, as has been indicated in some statements made during discussions of the Bill, that there are some authorities which have been described as vile, and as having so much to hide that they have deliberately kept the Press out, yet it may be that there are some authorities which have felt matters to be private to such a degree that they very sincerely have looked upon them in that way, and in an entirely different way from that in which some of us have looked at them.
One thing is quite certain, and we have got to toe perfectly clear about it— that the right which the Press will now have as a result of the Bill does not necessarily mean that the Press will report all matters concerning the councils' work. What the Press reports will be very largely determined by what the Press considers its readers want and what will maintain or improve circulations. So we ought not to expect too much from the Bill in that direction.
Everyone hopes that the Bill is going to succeed in inducing more of the public to go to council meetings and council committee meetings, as well as the Press, but one of the real difficulties is the lack of accommodation in many of the town halls for the admittance of either the Press or the public. I am glad that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government is on the Government Front Bench today, because I would tell him that I am perfectly convinced that there are a number of authorities, who, while they welcome this Bill, also appreciate the difficulties associated with the provision of the necessary accommodation. It may be that many of them will have to make applications for improvements to town halls in order to enable them to provide the accommodation. I hope that if and when they do the Minister will be generous in approving schemes and the finance which will be required for the necessary works.
In conclusion, I again express my congratulations to the hon. Member for Finchley. I feel that it is all for the good in a democratic society that more and 836 more opportunities are extended to the public to hear all that is going on.
§ 2.20 p.m.
§ Mrs. Thatcher
I rise for one reason only, and that is to commend the Third Reading of the Bill to the House. I should like to thank all of those who have been associated with me in preparing and getting the Bill to this stage. I have been at the receiving end of the congratulations, but it should be made quite clear that this has been a combined effort. In particular, I should like to thank the sponsors of the Bill, who stood with me through thick and thin.
I should also like to thank all members of the Standing Committee, some of whom on my own side under extreme provocation endured the tortures of silence, unlike the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds), who treated us to a mid-weekly edition of "Reynolds' News". Now that the Committee stage is over, hon. Members will have to contend only with the Sunday edition of the newspaper. I should like to thank the Minister of Housing and Local Government and the Parliamentary Secretary for the kindness extended to me by them and their Department and the way in which they have helped me at every turn. I hope that the House will give the Bill a Third Reading very shortly.
§ 2.21 p.m.
§ Sir K. Joseph
I now rise to complete the credit titles and congratulate most warmly my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) on her achievement. This has proved a delicate and contentious Measure, perhaps not ideally suited for a first venture into legislation, but the House will remember from all the stages of the Bill the cogent, charming, lucid and composed manner of my hon. Friend. I am sure that we must all hope that this will not be her last venture into legislation, and we must hope it all the more because she has had such concentrated experience of legislation with this Bill.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government said on Second Reading that the Bill would not have been the method he would have chosen to deal with this problem and he foresaw that a number of improvements would have to be made in Committee. These improvements have been made and the Bill comes to us now very much 837 amended. Nevertheless, the Bill provides a number of definite improvements on existing legislation.
First, the public now for the first time has a general right to attend council meetings. Secondly, the schedule of bodies to which the public has been admitted has been brought up-to-date. Thirdly, provision for extending the schedule has been included in the Bill. Fourthly, the conditions which allow a public body temporarily to exclude the public have been revised and redefined. Fifthly, one particular device for evading the law by going into committee has been prohibited. Sixthly, the Press is to be given advance notice of all meetings and, as has been said, in some cases documents for business to be transacted at meetings open to them, and the Press is to be given certain facilities for taking reports. Seventhly, by an Amendment passed today, radio and television organisations are brought into line with the treatment given to the Press.
These are all definite improvements in legislation for which my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley can rightly take credit. The subject has not been an easy one for legislation and the whole House realises that the Bill seeks to do no more than lay down the minimum. The tenor of speeches made today shows clearly that in the view of the House the minimum is not enough. I would remind the House that my right hon. Friend on Second Reading said that he intended to pursue with local authority associations a code of conduct to set standards in this matter. He will be discussing this with the local authority associations and, of course, he will consult the Press at the same time, because the code of conduct is, as it were, a complement to the Bill.
The majority of local authorities already enjoy good relations with the Press. There is no reason why the Bill should affect these good relations. It should serve, however, a useful purpose in giving a sharp reminder to the few back-sliding authorities that they have to keep the public informed of actions taken on the public's behalf. I hope very much that the Bill will be given a Third Reading.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.