HL Deb 09 December 1908 vol 198 cc399-410

Order of the Day for the Third Reading read.

Moved, "That the Bill be now road 3a."—(The Earl of Donoughmore.)

On Question, Bill read 3a.

Drafting Amendments agreed to.

Moved, "That the Bill do now pass."—(The Earl of Donoughmore.)


My Lords, I beg to move the omission of the word "now" in order to insert at the end of the Motion the words "this day three months." About the genesis of of this Bill we know very little. It was, I believe, promoted in the other House by some private Members. What examination it received in the House of Commons I do not know, but the noble Earl, in introducing it to your Lordships' House, said he believed it was an agreed Bill, or nearly so. But almost every provision in the Bill was taken exception to. It enacted, in the first place, that accommodation must be provided for the Press; in the second place, it provided that if members of the Press felt themselves dissatisfied with the accommodation they might apply to the Local Government Board, who were to settle the question; and, in the third place, there was a proposed enactment that, on the application of any newspaper, notice of every meeting was to be sent to the office of that newspaper by the county clerk or other official. Those were, I think, nearly all the enactments in the Bill. Those enactments have all been struck out, and all that remains is the provision that the Press is to have a right of being present at the meetings of local authorities. We do not know that there is any necessity for this measure. No practical grievance has been alleged. I have been told by more than one member of the Press that the Press do not require the Bill. Why in the world we should cumber the Statute-book with surplusage of this sort I am at a loss to understand. For those reasons, and for those reasons only, I am very sorry to be obliged to oppose the Bill. Even my regard for the noble Earl in charge of it will not make me willingly consent to the placing of what I consider surplusage on the Statute-book.

Amendment moved— To leave out the word 'now' in order to insert the words 'this day three months.'"—(The Earl of Camperdown.)


My Lords, this is a Bill to give right of entry to the Press as regards the meetings of local authorities. There seems to be a fear in your Lordships' House that the provision of accommodation for the Press to these meetings will load to large expenditure. I do not share that fear, and for this reason. The public generally do not care to read reports of the meetings of county councils, parish councils, and similar local authorities, and, that being the case, newspapers do not send reporters to those meetings. Consequently, there will not be that rush to attend the meetings of local authorities which some noble Lords appear to be afraid of. I do not think there would be much change in the attitude of the public with regard to this question. But, if I am wrong in thinking that the public do not desire to read these reports, is it not right that a ratepayer who wishes to know what is going on in his own parish council should be able to find out from the local paper? Will he not be a better citizen for the interest he takes in the administration of the rates by his local authority? At present, as I understand it, if a man wishes to know what has been taking place at the meeting of his parish council he has to ask his parish councillor, and although I desire to speak with the greatest respect of such an august personage as a parish councillor, yet I am inclined to think that he is, perhaps, more a disseminator of gossip than a purveyor of accurate news. This Bill passed through the other House supported by both parties, and it received no opposition from the county councils or local authorities generally. By this Bill the Radical and Conservative Press are placed on exactly the same footing. That, perhaps, is a thing to be desired in view of the decision early in the year in the case of the Tenby Corporation v. Mason. The judgment in that case laid it down that a local authority had power, not only to exclude all the members of the Press, but to exclude certain Pressmen and allow others to remain. Your Lordships will not think that a fair state of the law. It is surely better that the Press of both parties should be placed on the same footing. I am given to understand that the Press desire this little Bill, and it does not seem to me to be contentious in any way. It is quite true that some of us are rather cross at times with the local Press, but that is because they report what we do say and not what we thought we ought to have said. I do not think there is anything quite so gruesome as reading in the morning one's rhetorical efforts of the night before. I trust that, in view of the fact that this was an unopposed Bill in the House of Commons, and that all the important Amendments moved in your Lordship's House have been accepted, the Bill will now be allowed to pass.


My Lords, when we were in Committee on this Bill I proposed an Amendment which did not meet with acceptance on the part of your Lordships. From that action on my part I may be supposed to be in favour of the Bill, and, indeed, at that time I regarded it as a matter of comparative indifference whether it was passed or not. But I confess that the more I have reflected on this Bill the less case there appears to me to be for it, and the more reasons why your Lordships should not assist in passing the Bill into law. I do not, of course, object in the slightest degree to the Press attending the meetings of local authorities and giving the fullest publicity to what takes place there, but I think that Parliament would be wise in not interfering in this matter with the discretion of the local authorities. As far as I know, there has been no substantial ground for thinking that there has been unfairness on the part of any local authorities. These bodies are responsible to their electors, and if any number of them combined to do that which was objectionable the electors would have an opportunity at the next election of giving expression to their wishes and signifying their desire that the Press should be admitted. I believe there is no real ground for anxiety on the part of the Press with regard to admission to the meetings of these authorities, and there is, I think, substantial reason why Parliament should not interfere with the comparative independence of local authorities in framing by-laws for themselves as to the conduct of their own meetings. Consider to what length the supporters of this Bill really desired to go. In order to allow the Press security to attend they wanted to have notice given to the Press of all meetings of the local authorities, and to provide that a certain period must elapse before the meeting could take place. Surely that was strictly irrelevant to the purpose of this Bill, and was an interference with the freedom of the local authorities in the conduct of their business. I ask your Lordships to consider this question for a moment in respect of your own practice and the practice in another place. The admission of the Press to hear debates in Parliament may be said to be vital to the work of Parliament generally, although that admission has been only gradually established, and even within my own memory the Press have been excluded from the other House on the initiative of a single member. Would your Lordships for a moment dream of prescribing rules of procedure under which your meetings should be held, and agree to a statute regulating the admission of the Press to the Reporters' Gallery of this House? The matter is left to the discretion of this House and the other House of Parliament, and why the same discretion should not be given in the case of local authorities I am at a loss to conceive. We have passed the days of Dr. Johnson, one of the first reporters of the Parliamentary debates, who carried away as much as his memory would allow, and who admitted that he always gave the "Whig dogs" the worst of the argument. We have passed all that, and we now recognise that the attendance of the Press is essential, and every reasonable accommodation is provided for them. Your Lordships would never think of laying down rules on the subject, still less of agreeing to an Act which should override your own management of your own affairs; and I think it would be only respectful to local authorities to allow them the same liberty. Therefore, if the noble Earl who has moved the Amendment goes to a division, I shall follow him into the lobby.


My Lords, as I was responsible during the Committee proceedings on this Bill for moving three or four Amendments on behalf of the County Councils Association, I should like to say a few words before we go to a division. In the first place, let me remind the House that the Bill as it came up, although it had been spoken of as if it had met with very general support in the other House, certainly contained provisions which were very objectionable and extremely badly drafted. But my noble friend in charge of the Bill accepted every substantial Amendment that was moved both in the Committee stage and on Report, and as the Bill now stands, although it does lay down as a rule that reporters and the public should be admitted to the meetings of these authorities, yet it only in that respect puts into an Act of Parliament what is the universal practice, at all events on the part of the important local authorities. I am quite aware that, in these circumstances, the Bill might be said to be unnecessary. The County Councils Association have never taken exception to the principle of the Bill, and considering that it was not opposed on Second Reading and that all the Amendments suggested have been accepted, I think it would be a very unusual proceeding to throw out the Bill at this stage now that it has been divested of all objectionable clauses. I had some difficulty in following the argument of the noble Lord opposite, Lord Courtney. Although he defends what I should always wish to defend, the giving of full discretion to county councils and other bodies, yet one of his arguments was that it would be very inconvenient for notice to have to be sent of all meetings together with an agenda of the business to be taken. The noble Lord does not seem to have mastered the fact that that clause has been struck out of the Bill, and that there is now no suggestion of anything of the sort. I may go further. With regard to the principal authorities the procedure of giving notice is already dealt with under statute, and the clause that was in this Bill only referred to the minor authorities who might call meetings without giving any notice. In these circumstances I regret that my noble friend is going, at this late stage of the Bill, to try and reject it, especially in view of the fact that we have been courteously met by the noble Earl in charge of the Bill and that he has accepted all our Amendments.


My Lords, I trust that the doctrine which my noble friend Lord Belper has laid down will not be held good in this House. His doctrine, as I understand it, is this, that after we have road a Bill a second time we are not to reject it at the final stage if the Amendments we have moved in Committee have been accepted. The argument is very often used that we ought to see what we can do with a Bill in Committee, whether we can make it workable, and not reject it on Second Reading. But even though we may find that our Amendments are accepted we ought to reserve to ourselves the right to reject a Bill on Third Reading. The consequence of the opposite doctrine laid down by the noble Lord will be that we shall have to reject a lot of Bills on Second Reading for fear we should find in Committee that we could not alter—


I beg the noble Duke's pardon. I laid down no doctrine. What I said was that the Bill had not been opposed on Second Reading, and that all the important Amendments moved to it having been accepted it should not be rejected on Third Reading.


I apologise for using the word "doctrine"; I will substitute the word "appeal." I do not think the appeal of the noble Lord is a convincing one. I want to know what is the argument in favour of giving the Press a statutory provision which they have never yet assumed. As I understand, it is that the public may be accurately informed of what is going on in these local bodies. I cannot conceive any other object. Now, what is the value of the information which the public gets in respect of these meetings from the Press? I happen, since the former stages of this Bill, to have had personal experience of the way in which the matter acts. At the last meeting of the county council over which I had the honour to preside, a member of the council made an attack upon the chairman of one of the committees, and proceeded to read out from a newspaper a report of a speech which the committee chairman had made at a former meeting of the county council, for the purpose of showing that the chairman had been inconsistent. I at once called the attention of the council to the matter, and said I doubted very much whether it was in order to read a report of this kind, because there was no guarantee that it was a correct report, and we had not seen the newspaper to which the member was referring. Upon this the chairman of the committee who was attacked said he could end the matter at once because he had seen the report. It was, he said, absolutely incorrect and totally misrepresented what he said. That, my Lords, is a practical instance of the value of admitting the Press to the meetings of local authorities. I will say no more, except that I trust my noble friend will take a division, and, if he does, I shall certainly support his Amendment.


My Lords, the principle of this Bill was not opposed on Second Reading, and I think the House must universally recognise that the noble Earl in charge of it did everything he possibly could in Committee to meet the objections taken. In those circumstances, what is there left in the Bill to which the noble Earl objects? There is left a statutory right to the Press to attend the meetings of local authorities. Probably in the case of county councils that right will not be of such great importance, because the Press are now allowed to attend the meetings of those bodies. But your Lordships must, I think, have fresh in your memories the scandals which have recently arisen in connection with the expenditure of public money by the smaller bodies. It must be borne in mind that what gave rise to this Bill was the claim of the local authority of Tenby to select the particular reporter who should attend their meetings and to say to another particular reporter that he should not attend. If a local authority had the absolute power of dictating who should be the only channel of intercouse between them and the public, and if they had a body the majority of which was corrupt and in which corruption was a regular, constant, and understood part of the proceedings—and we have seen some of the smaller bodies in which these things have been—it is only a step further to secure the attendance of a corrupt reporter. It is to remove objections of that sort that it is desired to provide for the admission of the independent Press, and I think it would be rather unusual at this stage to reject a Bill the principle of which has not been seriously attacked.


My Lords, I feel that I need add very little to what has been said. In fact, it would be impossible to do so without incurring the danger of repetition. But I think I may congratulate myself on the distinguished convert I have made below the gangway. Lord Belper was good enough to say that I had done my best to meet him and other critics in Committee, and I can only say that I am gratified that I should have been able to do so so successfully. I am only sorry that I have not made another convert below the gangway. The noble Earl, Lord Camperdown, has objected to this Bill—shall I say?—from the first minute that he set eyes upon it; but, curiously enough, he did not happen to see it until it was too late for him to give notice of rejection on Second Reading. The noble Earl himself moved Amendments which were, I hope, designed to improve the Bill, and I can only regret, having done my best by accepting his Amendments to placate him, that the more his appetite has been fed the greater it has become. We now find him moving the rejection of the Bill at its final stage. The noble Earl claimed there was no necessity for this Bill. Your Lordships will excuse my not going into that point at any length after the reference to the Tenby case by the noble and learned Lord who has just sat down. That case was a very great surprise to many laymen, and it was with the object of reversing the decision there given, which I have no doubt was perfectly correct in law, that those for whom I am acting promoted this Bill. Next, the noble Earl referred to the opinion of the Press regarding this Bill, and I regret he did not go into that point in greater detail. He told us that several Pressmen had informed him that they did not like the Bill. I am advised that there is only one newspaper in the whole of this kingdom of any importance that has objected to the Bill. It is one of the prominent London evening papers, and a paper which probably knows less about the subject than any other, for the reason that this grievance is very much more a provincial grievance than a London grievance. But I might mention, as an answer to that, that I have the names here of about a dozen of the most prominent newspapers, all of whom have expressed their approval of the Bill. They are the Newspaper Owner, the Birmingham Post, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, the Western Daily Mercury, the Northern Echo, the Manchester Evening Chronicle, the Glasgow Herald, and so on. The Bill is supported by important newspapers spread over different parts of the country. It is promoted by the National Union of Journalists, a young body, but a body which represents about 1,500 working journalists. I admit that it is not supported by the Institute of Journalists, of which the noble Lord opposite is a distinguished member. The Institute of Journalists is, of course, the senior, and, I do not deny, the most important association of journalists that exists; but I believe the reason they would not support the Bill was that they had a Bill of their own dealing with the point in a slightly different manner. I am, however, authorised by the honorary secretary of the Institute of Journalists to say that the Institute have not inspired or in any way had anything to do with the opposition to the Bill this afternoon on its final stage. I think it would be a great pity if the Bill were rejected now owing to the opportunity that would be thus given to local authorities, if they desired to do so, to conduct their proceedings behind closed doors and without the light of public opinion being shed upon them. The cases of West Ham, Poplar, and one or two others have really scandalised public opinion throughout the country. I do not suggest for one moment that these cases are typical of English local government, but, if such cases exist, those will be the sort of authorities which will avail themselves of the power to sit in camera, and the task of finding out the existence of such cases will be made more difficult than if the Bill were allowed to pass. I submit that a case has been made out for the Bill, and I trust your Lordships will pass it.


My Lords, it hardly seems necessary for me to say anything after the exhaustive debate which has taken place to-day. I may, however, observe that, although His Majesty's Government were not originally responsible for the introduction of this Bill, they have supported it in all its stages in both Houses. The Bill was introduced at the instance of the National Union of Journalists in consequence of a certain legal decision. I submit that the principle of the Bill has been already accepted by your Lordships' House, and that as almost all the Amendments of serious substance have been so well met, it would be very unreasonable if the Bill were not now passed. On the Second Reading the Bill had the advantage of receiving the support of the noble Viscount opposite, Lord St. Aldwyn, who concurred in the object of the Bill in view of the decision in the case of the Tenby Corporation v. Mason. The noble Duke opposite has referred to certain inaccuracies in the reports of proceedings of local authorities. I am afraid it would be very difficult to provide that there should never be inaccuracies in the reports of local authorities, or, indeed, of more important bodies, or even of Parliament itself. The only way of dealing with that question would be, I suppose, by the appointment of a Press censor whose duty it would be to revise the reports, but I think the noble Duke would hardly propose that such an appointment be made. I trust that, the Bill having gone so far, your Lordships will allow it to pass.


My Lords, I always think the House owes a debt of gratitude to my noble friend Lord Camperdown for the vigilance with which he watches over these minor measures, which sometimes do not receive quite the amount of attention which they deserve; but upon this occasion I am almost inclined to suggest that he has pushed his watchfulness too far. I do not mean to say that I regard this Bill as an important measure. Indeed, I am not sure that if I were asked whether it was desirable to introduce such a measure at all I should answer in the affirmative; but the measure has been introduced. After all, what does it do? It merely affirms this, that the Press has the right to be admitted to meetings of certain of our local authorities, to which is added the very important reservation that those authorities have the right, on certain occasions and for sufficient reasons, to exclude the Press. That is not really a very serious or very dangerous proposal, and it is not an innovation, because it really is a proposal which brings the law into conformity with the actual practice at present followed. This Bill has been a good deal discussed; it has met with a very large amount of support, and I have received a communication from the National Union of Journalists very strongly urging your Lordships not to reject it at the last moment. We have to remember that in the House of Commons its principle was scarcely disputed, that it passed scathless through Standing Committee and through Report stage, and that on Third Reading not a voice was raised against it. When the Bill came up to us criticisms were made and Amendments proposed which were accepted in a very reasonable spirit by the noble Earl in charge of the Bill. We have also to-night had what seemed to my mind a very important piece of testimony from my noble friend the chairman of the County Councils Association. I think the opinion of great associations like the County Councils Association, the Municipal Corporations Association, and the Poor Law Unions Association, is entitled to respect, and not one of those great bodies, so far as I am aware, has raised any objection to this Bill. For these reasons I must say I think it would only be for some very special or urgent cause that your Lordships would be justified in rejecting the Bill at the very last stage. Therefore, much as I regret to differ from my noble friend below the gangway, I shall vote against him if he goes to a division.

On Question, Amendment negatived.

Bill passed, and returned to the Commons.