HC Deb 17 July 1968 vol 768 cc1521-7
Mr. Millan

I beg to move Amendment No. 22, in page 21, line 33, after 'hearing', insert: ',or shall authorise the exclusion of bona fide representatives of a newspaper or news agency.'. This is in discharge of an undertaking given in Committee that I would move an Amendment on Report to say that bona fide representatives of the Press would be able to attend children's hearings.

I do not want to go over the arguments on either side as to whether the Press should be able to be present at these hearings. I made a statement about that in Committee, and my impression was that it had the general agreement of the Committee. It is in discharge of what I said there that I move this Amendment.

It does not in any way affect the prohibition on the publication of proceedings or the identification of children, which are fully provided for in Clause 58. But it gives the Press the opportunity of being present at children's hearings and, on the balance of public advantage, I am sure that this is the right decision.

The only other comment that I would make about it is that admitting the Press does not in any way militate against the general principle that the number of people to be present at hearings should be kept to a minimum. Certainly it is not our intention that children's hearings should be turned into some kind of public session with large numbers of people ranged in front of the child appearing before the hearing. That can all be dealt with in the arrangements which we shall make for the hearings, the way in which they are organised, the premises in which they meet, the seating arrangements, and the rest of it.

The balance of public advantage is in favour of the Press being in attendance at hearings, provided always that we keep the prohibition on publication which we have in a later Clause. I hope, therefore, that the Amendment will be acceptable to the House, because it does very little different from what the Children and Young Persons (Scotland) Act, 1937, does.

Mr. Dewar

This is a difficult question, and, although my hon. Friend says that he thinks that the Amendment interprets the feeling in Committee, that is a slight essay into the optimistic. The Committee rather stumbled on the fact, to its surprise, and had a clear and fair statement from my hon. Friend in which he said that he would invite the comments of the committee. But, owing to procedural niceties as interpreted by the Chairman, there was no opportunity to take the Committee's views.

Having spoken to one or two of my colleagues about it today, it is clear that there is some anxiety about the decision which has been taken. We recognise that it is one of the great principles, to which we pay lip service at least, that justice must be seen to be done, and it is right as a general rule that the Press should have access to judicial proceedings at every level unless there is good reason for its exclusion.

However, I wonder if children's hearings are suitable for Press entry. After all, if it is a matter of safeguarding the rights of the child appearing before a hearing, it seems to me that they are adequately safeguarded already by the child's right to have present his parents or anyone else whom he wishes to speak for him. In addition, there is provision in the Bill for a member of the Council on Tribunals or of the Scottish Committee of that Council to attend. If there is an abuse or miscarriage of justice or a case where the people intimately concerned feel that they are getting a raw deal, they can go to the Press and turn the spotlight of publicity on events.

It is important that we should keep the informal atmosphere at the hearings. I accept that there will not necessarily be hordes of Press representatives present, but the very fact that the Press has the right of entry and that the local Press may carry, even without names, details of what happened, or at least a general picture of what happened, at any given hearing could militate against the kind of informal inquiry in depth which the Bill attempts to achieve.

There is no stated charge at a children's hearing, no facts, in the commonly accepted sense of the word, to be reported, and I am not sure that from the point of view of the Press there is the normal case for a right of entry. I do not want to press my argument and I would not like to give the impression that I should like these hearings to be some sort of Star Chamber at a much lower level, some sort of judicial hearing at which the public eye was not allowed entry so that there was room for bureaucratic abuse, but I still think that on balance the admission of the Press is not a meaningful safeguard, and I am not sure that it is desirable.

8.0 p.m.

Mr. MacArthur

I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Dewar) and I have much sympathy with what he says. My own feeling is that on balance the Press should be admitted, with the normal restrictions of which the Under-Secretary has reminded us. I am not comfortable about the prospect of enlarging the number of people present at a children's hearing, for the very reason which the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South has advanced. At the same time, in view of the restrictions on publication, it is unlikely that hordes of Press men will invade a children's hearing, and I doubt whether more than one or two representatives of the Press would normally be present.

But if the Press is excluded, there will inevitably be a risk that the hearings will be thought to be meeting in secret. Embarking as we are on a challenging experiment, we ought not to give any impression that these hearings are to be held in secret. There will be wide interest about the way in which they are conducted, and public interest in them should be encouraged and protected by the right of the Press to be present.

There is a further reason. During our debates in Committee, the Opposition, and many hon. Members opposite shared some of our fears, expressed our anxiety that the rights of the child should be protected as much at a children's hearing as they are in the present juvenile courts. While we all welcome the informality of the children's hearings, there still lurks a doubt in our minds that that informality could lead, quite unconsciously, to some abuse of the child's judicial rights. The Press is a great champion of the individual and the rights and liberties of the individual.

Mr. James Dempsey (Coatbridge and Airdrie)

Will the hon. Gentleman give some evidence to substantiate his claim that the absence of the Press would lead to such unfortunate deductions by the general public?

Mr. MacArthur

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is right and I think that he probably is, but there will be great interest in these children's hearings and it is reasonable that the general public should have some knowledge of the way in which they are conducted, a knowledge which the Press would provide. I see nothing wrong with that; indeed, I see everything right with it.

It would be as well for the independent eye of the Press to be on children's hearings in order to ensure that the liberty of the child and the rights of the child are properly protected within the atmosphere of informality which is such an important aspect of this part of the Bill. Therefore, I hope that the House will accept the Amendment.

Mr. Millan

The hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. MacArthur) made a valid point when he spoke of the genuine public interest in these hearings. The public as a whole should have the opportunity of knowing how these hearings are conducted. It is extremely difficult to devise any means of allowing them to know if the Press is excluded. I accept that the Press would not normally be interested in children's hearings, but it will be very interested in the initial stages when the panels come into operation. However, I imagine that it will not often be interested afterwards, although it is important to establish the principle that it has the right to be present if it wants.

Mr. Dempsey

It would be unwise to take such a step. How many hon. Members who have spoken on this subject have ever sat in a juvenile court and tried young people? There is nothing secretive about these proceedings. I am one of those who for their sins are magistrates, and I take my share of court work during the Recesses. I have often had to try young people, but the parents, the probation officer and the representatives of the authorities are present. There is no question of a secret trial, as was suggested by the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire.

Mr. MacArthur

I do not want the hon. Gentleman to misunderstand. It is the impression of what happens that matters, and I fear that if the Press is excluded, the impression of what happens in an entirely new structure, which is what we are talking about, may be that something secret is going on. That would be avoided by the presence of the Press, but that is the smallest of my list of arguments.

Mr. Dempsey

I cannot think of anything more terrifying for a young first offender than to be in the presence of a large number of people. It is frightening. One has to appreciate the excitement and almost the terror of the young first offender with all these individuals looking on and listening to an account of some mistake or idiosyncrasy which he has committed as a juvenile in his local town or village. Having the general public present would not contribute to the success of these courts. The Press is not needed. Many of these young persons will have committed an offence for the first time. They do not want to be headlined in the Press and to have their names absorbed by the many curiously minded people in our communities. If the Press is present, it naturally has a job to do.

Mr. MacArthur

Reporting of that type would be expressly prohibited.

Mr. Dempsey

That is just the difficulty. It is difficult to draw a demarcation line between what journalists shall report and what they shall omit. That is why it is important for those in charge of such a court to issue a statement to make sure that the right type of report, a report which is objective and sensible and in the interests of the young offender, appears in the local Press. That is why I am apprehensive.

It may be thought that I am a little prejudiced because I have operated under this system for many years, but it has been tried and found to be successful, and that is why I am scared of the possibility of the Press being present at these juvenile panels and reporting ad lib and indiscreetly about the decisions. The journalist has a job to do. He is inclined to pander to sensationalism. This is the great danger. It is his bread and butter, he must justify his existence. Once we admit the Press we shall have difficulty in laying down conditions as to how its members shall operate—what they shall report and what they shall not, and how they shall conduct themselves.

My right hon. Friend should have second thoughts about admitting the Press, especially to panels of this nature. These panels are trying young children who have committed offences for the first time. If these children are given adverse publicity in the Press it will have a very bad effect on them. My right hon. Friend should have another look at this question.

Mr. Ross

I had hoped that it would not be necessary for me to intervene. My hon. Friend has it all wrong. He says that he is a magistrate and is talking from experience. At the moment, the Press are allowed into any court of which he is a magistrate.

Mr. Dempsey

I have never seen a member of the Press in my court in my life.

Mr. Ross

That may be so. The Press may not be interested. But they have the right to be there, just as they have in juvenile courts.

I was because we were departing from the juvenile court practice that we were concerned, for the reasons expressed by everyone who has spoken, whether or not we should say "No" to this one. If we said "No" there would be a danger that something was being concealed from the public. It is because we are confident that the Press will work within the limits laid down in Clause 58, and because we have the experience of Sections 45 and 52 of the Children and Young Persons (Scoltand) Act, 1957, which limits reporting, that we decided, on balance, that it was right to allow access to the Press.

I am sure that members of the Press will behave properly. They know that they can do great danger by bad reporting. We have no reason to fear anything like that happening. I hope that I have allayed the fears of my hon. Friend. We are giving no more rights than the Press has at present. Its members have exercised their duties properly and carefully, and I am sure that they will continue to do so.

Amendment agreed to.

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