§ 23. Mr. Barnett
asked the Minister of Housing and Local Government arising out of a recent case where a member of Whitworth Urban District Council in Lancashire was found by the courts not to have even qualified privilege in respect of a speech by him in Council, if he will review the whole question of the privilege of councillors, with a view to amending the law; and if he will make a statement.
§ Mr. Skeffington
The general rules relating to qualified privilege apply to members of local authorities when speaking at council meetings and this defence is available to them if the facts of the case support it. This has long been the recognised position and my right hon. Friend is not persuaded that a review of the situation is needed.
§ Mr. Barnett
Is my hon. Friend aware of the grave danger that this case presents to thousands of local councillors—able and conscientious councillors like this—who are facing costs of something like £5,000? Is he aware that they cannot appeal against the verdict, because they cannot afford further costs? Will he look into the matter again and reconsider his Answer?
§ Mr. Skeffington
This matter has been very carefully looked at. It is a fact that in the normal course of the law a councillor can speak so long as he is speaking on matters which are in the course of his duties and so long as he does so in good faith. Then these defences are open to 191 him. It would be wrong for me to comment on an individual case, but if my hon. Friend has any further point I would be glad to look at it. Generally speaking, we are not dissuaded that the law is wrong or unfair as at present stated.
§ Mr. Arthur Davidson
Would my hon. Friend not agree that the whole law of defamation needs looking at? Is he aware that it is very unsatisfactory, and that there is a strong feeling in the legal profession, and certainly among newspaper editors, that it is not operating fairly or satisfactorily? Will he have a look at the whole law on this subject?