HL Deb 09 July 1908 vol 192 cc20-31


Order of the day for the Second Beading read.


My, Lords, the object of this Bill, briefly, is to ensure that representatives of the Press shall be allowed to attend meetings of local authorities unless such attendance is contrary to the public interest in a particular instance. The Bill comes up from another place, where one or two small objections that were made to its provisions were met by those who drafted it; and I am informed that the only alterations suggested by the County Councils Association and the Municipal Corporations Association were agreed to and embodied in the Bill. The Bill, therefore, left another place, I think I may say, practically an agreed measure.

Reporters have attended meetings of local authorities hitherto practically without exception; but in the case of the Tenby Corporation and Mason a decision was given, which I have no doubt was perfectly correct in law, but which Came as a great surprise to everybody having experience in this matter. That decision lays it down that the Press attend all meetings of local authorities practically on sufferance. The decision, I understand, really goes a great deal further than that, because it lays down not only that the Press attend meetings of local authorities on sufferance, but that individual members of the Press also attend such meetings on sufferance. That is to say that if a representative of a particular paper or the particular representative of a paper is in any way objectionable to the majority of the local authority, it is within their power absolutely to exclude him. Obviously the particular reporter or newspaper which the majority would object to most would be the reporter or newspaper representing the views of the minority; and therefore, if this recent decision were carried to its logical conclusion, it would be in the power of every local authority to get rid of its most active critic, and, in fact, absolutely to silence all criticism reaching the eyes and ears of the public.

I submit to your Lordships that it is not at all desirable that such a state of things should be allowed to continue, and that it is in the public interest that publicity should be secured in all cases without question. There are legislative precedents for a proposal such as this, though the most important precedent that I am able to quote goes a great deal further than we desire to go in the present Bill. In Ireland, by Clause 15 of the Local Government (Ireland) Act, 1902, it is absolutely impossible to exclude representatives of the Press without the assent of the Local Government Board. No resolution of any council or board to exclude from its meetings the representatives of the Press is valid without the sanction of the Local Government Board. We do not suggest anything so drastic in this Bill. There is another indirect legislative precedent which, I think, should be quoted. I am informed that the Law of Libel (Amendment) Act, 1888, provides that a fair and accurate report published in any newspaper of the proceedings of a local authority shall be privileged unless actual malice is proved. I think, therefore, it was undoubtedly in the mind of the Legislature that the meetings of local authorities should be open to the public.

But I do not desire to recommend this Bill to your Lordships' acceptance solely on the ground of narrow legislative precedents. I claim rather that it is obviously wise that publicity should obtain at all meetings of local authorities. Their duties are being increased every day, and public interest in their doings is at the same time also extending. They control vast expenditure, almost as large as, if not greater than, that which Parliament itself controls. For one hundred years Parliament has insisted on the publicity of its proceedings, and I think he would be a very bold Leader of your Lordships' House or of the other House who would suggest that one of the Houses of Parliament should sit in camera. It is practically established now, by custom, that the proceedings of Parliament are public, and I see no reason whoa similar provision should not be extended to local parliaments. That is really the case for the Bill.

The Bill, as I say, does nothing more than establish what everybody believed to be the law until very recently, and, what I believe is absolutely desirable in the public interest. I stated just now that the Bill does not go as far as the Irish precedent which I quoted, and a perusal of the first clause of the Bill will show that this is so.

Clause 1 states that— Representatives of the Press shall be admitted to the meetings of every local authority. But it gives power to a local authority to exclude temporarily such representatives from the meeting when, in the opinion of a majority of the members, it is desirable to do so in view of the special nature of the business. Your Lordships will have noticed that in Ireland we are unable to exclude the Press without going to the Local Government Board. Under the provisions of this Bill, which applies to England, Scotland, and Wales, it will be possible to exclude representatives of the Press whenever, in the opinion of a majority of the members of the local authority, it is desirable to do so in view of the particular business to be discussed. The Bill, as originally drawn, provided that it should be necessary to have a majority of two-thirds of the members present at the meeting in order to put this power in force; but the representatives of the County Councils Association and the Municipal Corporations Association desired that this should be reduced to a bare majority, and the promoters of the Bill met that suggestion. I am informed that this was the only suggestion for an amendment of the Bill that was made by those authorities during its passage through the House of Commons.

The second subsection of Clause 1 enacts that any local authority may make regulations as to the accommodation to be provided for representatives of the Press, and the manner in which the same is to be allotted. The reason for that, I think, is to meet particularly the case of the London County Council. It is felt that the London County Council may not have accommodation for all the representatives of the Press who may desire to attend, and therefore power is given to make regulations in order to deal with the accommodation in the hands of the council. Words are inserted at the end of the subsection to the effect that the representatives of a particular newspaper are not to be excluded because of its opinions, or on the ground of any reports or comments published by such newspaper or through the agency of such representatives, this provision being necessary in view of what happened in the Tenby case. It is obviously a fair safeguard that there should be an appeal on the part of any newspaper that feels aggrieved as the result of any procedure under these regulations, and that power of appeal is given in subsection (3) of Clause 1. Subsection (4) is consequential.

Clause 2 deals with definitions. I would characterise them generally by saying that their principle is that all authorities which have spending powers are brought within the provisions of the Bill. There is one exception—Education Committees. I think your Lordships will agree that since the Act of 1902 the Education Committee is in a very special meetings. Committee meetings are in no way interfered with. They will continue, as now, closed to the public, but there is nothing to prevent them sitting in public if they desire to do so. The fifth clause contains the application of the Bill to Scotland, and Clause 6 exempts it from extending to Ireland, where, as I have informed your Lordships, more stringent provisions are already in force. I believe the Bill to be necessary in the public interest, and I trust your Lordships will be willing to read it a Second Time.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."—(The Earl of Donoughmore.)


My Lords, I merely rise to intimate that His Majesty's Government support this Bill. I do not think it is necessary that I should say anything further, as the noble Earl has gone fully through the various Clauses and explained them to your Lordships as far as explanation was necessary. I quite agree with all that has been said by the noble Earl, and I have to state, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, that they are of opinion that publicity should be given to all local affairs. Increased public interest is now taken in the work of the local authorities, and it is only fair that full reports of the meetings of those authorities should be available to the ratepayers and those who are concerned with the administration of local business. This Bill was originally introduced, as Lord Donoughmore has explained, in consequence of a decision of the Courts in the case of the Tenby Corporation and Mason, and, at the instance of the Local Government Board, who have looked very carefully into the Bill, it has been amended in Committee in another place in several particulars. The Local Government Board desire to support the Bill as amended.


My Lords, I am not acquainted with the history of this Bill in another place, and I merely take it as it is presented to your Lordships. It is a Bill to provide for the admission of representatives of the Press to the meetings of all local authorities, and it gives the Press practically an absolute right to be present at every meeting of a local authority which has spending powers, to adopt the short description given by the noble Earl in moving the Bill. We are all in favour of publicity; but has there been any want of publicity hitherto? We are all in favour of publicity being given, for instance, to the proceedings of this House, but I am not aware of any law giving the Press the right to come here.

The third subsection of Clause 1 provides that if any representative of the Press feels aggrieved by the accommodation provided for him he may appeal to the Local Government Board. Take the case of the official reporter in your Lordships' House. If he represented the Press and were to object to his accommodation, is he to have a right to appeal to the Local Government Board to find for him a seat which will suit his convenience better than that which is provided for him by this House? Surely, in a matter of this sort we may trust the local authorities. I am sure your Lordships will be of opinion that legislation is not only undesirable, but absolutely harmful, unless it is necessary. Now, where is the necessity for this Bill? The noble Lord has indicated none. It seems that in some particular case the representative of a particular paper was excluded. He went to law, and found that he had no absolute right to be present. We do not know all the circumstances under which this gentleman may have been excluded. But why are we to assume that in this particular case the local authority was wrong and the representative of the Press in the right? Why should we make a law saving that in all circumstances this gentleman or any representative of the Press is to have a right to be present?

The Bill, in the first subsection of Clause 1, provides that— Representatives of the Press shall be admitted to the meetings of every local authority. In the first place, who are the Press? The fourth subsection of Clause 1 states that— On receiving a written request from the Editor or the local representative of any newspaper, the clerk or other responsible officer shall send due notice of the meetings of the local authority to the office of such newspaper or to such local representative. Therefore, I suppose that by the Press the Bill means any representative of any newspaper whatsoever. There is nothing to define who the Press are. I do not see that any special necessity has been proved why a representative of the Press should have a law made in his favour any more than other members of the public. According to subsection (1) representatives of the Press are to be admitted to the meetings of every local authority, but, on the other hand, the local authority is empowered to— temporarily exclude such representatives. What does "temporarily" mean? Whenever they choose, I suppose. If that be so, the proviso contradicts the beginning of the clause.

When you come to subsection (2) you find that any local authority may make regulations as to the accommodation to be provided for representatives of the Press. I apprehend that that means that they are to make regulations for accommodating the Press.

Then it is provided, as I have said, that— If any representative of the Press feels aggrieved by any such regulations made as aforesaid, he may appeal to the Local Government Board, and the Board may order such local authority as aforesaid to vary or alter such regulations … Has not the Local Government Board enough to do as it is without going into these small matters? The provision which I have read, that on receiving a written request from the editor or local representative of any newspaper the clerk or other responsible officer shall send due notice of meetings of the local authority, means that if anybody starts a newspaper—it does not matter what circulation it has, or whether it has any circulation—he has merely to write to the clerk of the authority, and this official is required by the Bill to send due notice to all the meetings of the local authority.

I venture to submit that the Bill has not been thoroughly considered. I suppose it is a private Member's Bill, though I was very sorry to hear my noble friend opposite say that the Government approved of it. My attention was not directed to the Bill until it was too late to give notice of an Amendment on the Second Reading; but, if your Lordships support me, I shall move the adjournment of the debate with the intention, when it is resumed, of moving that the Bill be read a second time this day three months.


My Lords, as the noble Earl in his opening remarks referred to the County Councils Association. I think it would be as well that I should explain exactly what their position is with regard to this Bill. As far as my own view and that of the Association are concerned, the Bill is wholly unnecessary. Every county council, I believe, admits the Press under proper regulations, and has the power which this Bill properly gives of excluding the Press when there is any matter to be discussed which it is not desirable should be published in the newspapers. That being the case the County Councils Association took the view that, as long as the provisions of the Bill were brought into conformity with the present practice of the county councils, they would not oppose it. As my noble friend Lord Donoughmore said, the first clause of the Bill was altered in conformity with amendments moved on behalf of the County Councils Association. We thought that a county council should have power to exclude the Press by an ordinary vote, and that it was absurd to bring in a two-thirds majority on a matter of this kind.

There is one provision in the Bill of which we do not approve—that contained in subsection (3) of Clause 1, which says that if any representative of the Press feels aggrieved by the regulations which are made by a county council for the accommodation of the Press he may appeal to the Local Government Board. That, I think, is wholly unnecessary, and certainly the words that succeed that provision are wholly unsuitable. The local authority are not to be consulted and asked their views; but the Local Government Board may— Order such local authority as aforesaid to vary or alter such regulations in such a manner as they may think fit, and no regulations in so far as they are so varied or altered shall be subsequently varied or rescinded by the local authority without the consent of the Board. Is it not a little too much in the direction of centralisation for the Local Government Board to step in and tell a county conucil or a small authority at the other end of England what arrangements they should make for the accommodation of the Press? The Board cannot know the accommodation available in the place of meeting, and if it is going to busy itself with these small details, it will soon overburden itself. If the Bill receives a Second Reading I shall move, either that the subsection be left out altogether, or that it be considerably amended.

It seems also rather strong that the clerk of the county council should be ordered by statute to send notices of all meetings to any newspaper anywhere in the kingdom who chooses to apply for them. It would be impossible for that subsection to be carried out if an attempt were made to enforce it unreasonably. As far as I know this is the first time that there has been a differentiation between the Press and the public. Hitherto if the public were excluded the Press went out with them, and it is a new departure to legislate specially for the Press and to exclude all reference to the public. I do not wish to oppose the Bill, but I Certainly shall oppose it if subsection (3) is retained.


My Lords, this Bill may ultimately have the beneficial effects which my noble friend hopes, but, as far as I am concerned, I fail to see that it will make any practical change. The object of the Bill is presumably to force on a recalcitrant local authority the presence of any gentleman representing the Press who wishes to attend the meetings; but in subsection (1) it is provided that any local authority may temporarily exclude any such representative if it considers it advisable in the public interest. Surely it follows that any local authority which objected to the presence of reporters would inevitably contend that it was contrary to the public interest that they should be present. Therefore how do you improve the position by passing the Bill in its present form?


MY Lords, I only rise to emphasise the point which was so well put by Lord Camperdown and Lord Belper with regard to subsection (4) of Clause 1. I think the noble Earl in charge of the Bill will see that it is impossible that the House should deliberately put on the clerks to the local authorities the enormous duty of supplying newspapers with notices of meetings. Not merely are the meetings of the authority referred to, but also those of the committees to be sent to the newspapers, and I think we ought to hesitate before placing such a duty upon these officials in this light manner. Personally I cannot see what the object of the Bill is. I have been a member of a local board in London, and there has never been any question of the Press being admitted. I see no rational reason for the Bill, but I see many reasons why we should change subsection (4) and other subsections.


My Lords, I think it will be quite clear to my noble friend in charge of the Bill that a good many points will have to be considered if the House should decide to go into Committee on the Bill. As far as my own opinion is concerned, I think the Bill is right in principle, because there has been a legal decision that the Press are not entitled to admission, and I think there is every reason for due publicity of the proceedings of local bodies such as are named in the Bill.

But, on the other hand, while the Bill takes very good care to provide for that, it does nothing whatever to provide for what I am afraid is very possible—misconduct on the part of the Press. Your Lordships have heard, and some may have had experience, of cases in which representatives of the Press have asked for an interview, and on being denied an interview have promptly proceeded to invent one for the benefit of their newspaper. I can recall several cases during the time I was responsible for Irish administration in which meetings which had never taken place at all were reported at full length. I am afraid that in these days of what is called newspaper enterprise we must consider that some newspapers, at all events, may be capable of abusing the privilege granted to them.

What is the position in such a case that this Bill would establish? Under subsection (2) of Clause 1— No. … regulations shall enable.… local authorities to exclude the representatives of any newspaper on the ground of its opinions, or on the ground of any reports or comments published by such newspaper or through the agency of such representatives. I should be very sorry to exclude any representative on the ground of the opinions of his paper or of its comments on the proceedings of the local authority; but if a newspaper deliberately reports the proceedings falsely or publishes documents that should be confidential, there ought to be some punishment in the form of the exclusion of such representative in the future. I hope that His Majesty's Government, who support the principle of the Bill, will be prepared to deal with that point in Committee if the Bill proceeds.


My Lords, I hope the House will agree to read the Bill a second time. I quite admit that there may be points that will require careful consideration in Committee. As regards what Lord Newton said as to the object of the Bill being nullified by the provision in subsection 1 of Clause 1 in regard to temporary exclusion, I think if the noble Lord will look at that again he will see that it has to be rather a solemn and formal performance in respect of a particular subject, and it would be impossible to suppose that under that all representatives of the Press could be permanently and every day excluded from the meetings of the local authority. I think the real necessity for the measure consists in the fact of the recent legal decision. It is a very serious matter that it should be laid down by the Courts of Law that all the proceedings of all local bodies can, if so desired, be carried on in camera; and on that ground we certainly support the principle of the Bill. As to the provision relating to the issue of notices, that might very properly, in my opinion, be submitted to some consideration. It seems to me to be rather loosely drawn, and I have no doubt that the noble Earl opposite will consider that point. So far as the county councils are concerned, I very much doubt whether ally measure of this kind is necessary at all, but there are far more numerous local authorities where I can understand that some difficulty might arise.


My Lords, I hope we shall not be misled by the continuous repetition of the necessity for publicity. What do we mean by publicity? Lord St. Aldwyn has told us that the admission of the Press very often leads to misrepresentation. Is misrepresentation publicity? If you want to secure publicity by law, then you must have official reporters who are responsible to some authority. It is no use admitting the Press; everybody knows perfectly well the result of that where local authorities are concerned. Discussions by local authorities are not generally of wide interest, and the result is that they are very sparsely reported unless somebody forgets himself and says something that he ought not to say. That never happens in county councils, but sometimes in municipal borough councils one of the hon. members calls another hon. member a liar and there is a row. That is reported at the greatest length, and that is the value of publicity. I think that it is a most monstrous thing that we should be asked in this country for the first time—we are told that it is so in Ireland, but Ireland is not, I hope, a precedent for us in this country in all things—to give the Press legal recognition and authority to be present at all meetings. I entirely agree with what was said by Lord Belper. If you wish to do this at all, do it by insisting that the public should be admitted. This is the first time, as far as I know, that it has been proposed to give the Press a legal standing in this country. The Bill goes very much further than some noble Lords seem to think; it establishes a very dangerous principle and is a measure that is not required. I do not know whether my noble friend Lord Camperdown intends to press his Amendment, but I hope that, at any rate, it be open to us, if we please, to take the opinion of the House on going into Committee, if we do not take it at an earlier stage.


In the circumstances I think it would be more convenient if I did not press my Motion; but, of course, it will be quite competent for me, or for any other Peer, to take such course as may seem desirable with regard to this Bill at a later stage.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Tuesday the 21st instant.