§ 3.25 p.m.
§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ BARONESS ELLIOT OF HARWOOD
My Lords, I rise to move the Second Reading of this Bill, which comes to your Lordships' House from another place, having during the debates there attracted Members of all Parties to speak and vote without reference to their Party affiliations. For instance, I noticed in studying the debates in another place that the honourable Member For Finchley who brought forward the Bill had the support on several occasions of the honourable Member for Blackburn, Mrs. Castle, and the honourable Member for Eton and Slough, Mr. Fenner Brockway—an experience which is probably quite original. Here in your Lordships' House, where Party feelings do not rise so high and where mixtures in the Division Lobby are often found, I am hoping that perhaps I may have the good fortune, in piloting this Bill through the House, to succeed in getting noble Lords opposite to give me their support without recourse to the Division Lobby.
I do not know exactly why I have been chosen for the important task of piloting this Bill about admitting the Press and public to meetings—unless it is that in another place the honourable Member for Finchley, also a lady, did the job and did it exceedingly well; or that on this occasion we have a Bill which applies to Scotland as well as to England, and I am a Scot with fifteen years of experience of a Scottish county council, the Roxburghshire County Council. Whatever the reason, I am greatly honoured at having been given this task, and I will try to do it as succinctly and as swiftly as possible.
The objects of the Bill are simply to allow the Press and public to have access to all meetings of local authorities and other bodies mentioned in the Schedule which consist of and include all members of the body, and also all 1302 committees of those bodies which consist of and include all members of the body. It does not apply to committees whose membership is only part of, or selected from, the whole body. The object of doing this is to enable ratepayers and the public generally who contribute, either through rates or taxes or both, to the essential work of a local authority and to any other bodies mentioned in the Schedule, to be able to hear and read in the Press what is going on, how their money is being spent and how the business is being administered.
I hope very much that in the passing of this Bill one of the by-products will be to create a greater interest in the work of local government, work which I believe to be basic to our Parliamentary democracy and in which noble Lords can both take a part and vote. On the other hand, the public generally, I think your Lordships will agree, is lamentably apathetic about local government elections, as witness the very low polls which are all too frequent when we have municipal or county council elections. I think that that is a great pity and I believe that if the Press were not only allowed but encouraged to attend the meetings of local authorities the voters might then be able to read, interposed with the results of the 3.30 or the F.A. cup ties, some account of the activities of their local councillors and the administration of their local government. Incidentally, I should like to remind your Lordships that it was the father of the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, who, from the Labour Benches in another place, first secured a Bill in Parliament, in 1908, to allow the public access to local authority meetings. The Act of 1908 will now be repealed, and the Act which I am moving brings it up to date and takes its place.
Inevitably, however, having got the Press and the public into local authority and other meetings, there will be occasions when it will be necessary to exclude them. To draw up a list of such occasions has not been found possible, but in the Bill, in Clause 1, subsections (2) and (3), there are two provisions stating that when "publicity would be prejudicial to the public interest", a resolution can be passed to exclude the Press and the public for the whole or part of the 1303 meeting. The reasons for the exclusion must arise from the nature of the business and must be stated in general terms in the resolution. Such occasions, I suggest, might be when discussions invoking the private circumstances of a ratepayer might be involved—such things as housing allocations or land purchases; questions relating to staff matters, promotions, or appointments; confidential inquiries from a Government Department wanting information on a subject before a final decision is taken, or a debate held on a national issue of which this may be only part. Then there is very often the difficult question of the acceptance of tenders for a works contract. In fact, there are quite a number of subjects which come up at local government meetings and at the meetings of other bodies mentioned in the Schedule as to which the Press should be excluded; and there are ample safeguards in the Bill for a resolution to cover these occasions, when business should be taken in private.
The next point in the Bill refers to the giving of notice of a meeting and to the sending out of papers prior to the meeting. This, I think your Lordships will agree, is of great importance. It is one thing to get the Press admitted but quite another to get them there; and unless agendas and supporting papers are sent out to the Press beforehand and they know what is coming up at a meeting, they may not come. So subsection (4) (b) directs that, on request and on payment of postage, the Press must be sent the necessary papers. If there are confidential subjects to be taken at a meeting and the Press is to be excluded, then the papers referring to these subjects will not be sent to the Press. This will entail rather careful arrangement on the part of the clerk who is drawing up the papers, but I do not think it should prove to be too difficult.
The question arises that an exclusion of the Press or the public might be challenged and taken to court on legal grounds, or that an individual might be excluded on wrong grounds. He can then apply to the Attorney-General for a "relator action"—and this I quote from the speech of the honourable Lady who moved the Second Reading in another place. I know that noble Lords here, who are very learned in the law, 1304 will know what this means, but I am afraid I do not. However, the effect is to enable a person to challenge in a court of law a decision to exclude the Press in the ordinary way in which we can all call on the Judiciary in this country.
Clause 1, subsection (5), deals with the claim to qualified privilege on behalf of the body and its officers in case of publication of any defamatory matter contained in the agenda or papers, or any statement made during the course of discussion which might be proved to be defamatory. Qualified privilege can be claimed unless it be proved in a court of law that the publication or the statement was made with malice or improper motive. Subsection (6) refers to the possibility of a body meeting as a whole (and thereby being open to the Press and public) passing a resolution to say that it is now in committee, although exactly the same people are present, and then deciding that they will not admit the public or the Press. Under this new Bill, that will not be possible. The only way in which the Press or the public can be excluded from a body meeting as a whole is by resolution under subsections (2) and (3).
I am sure your Lordships will agree that, in 1960, no Bill dealing with the Press would be complete if it did not also refer to broadcasting and television; and in this Bill, in subsection (7), there is reference to the inclusion of broadcasting and television as part of the way in which the general public can be told what is happening on any given occasion. Lest your Lordships should be afraid that this might entail some rather alarming experience for those sitting in committees or at meetings, it is suggested that television and broadcasting should be treated in exactly the same way as the Press—namely, that they can collect information as to meetings and disseminate it afterwards, but not be present to take live pictures or make live broadcasts. That, then, deals with the first clause of the Bill.
The second clause applies to the bodies specified in the Schedule, and here I am very glad to see that there is a distinction between those bodies operating in England and those operating in Scotland. Our local government is slightly different in some aspects from the local government in England; but the principle of the Bill will be just 1305 the same when it is applied to the different circumstances in my country. The lists of bodies in the Schedule which appears at the end of the Bill cannot be altered by elimination; but, in subsection (3) of Clause 2, procedure is laid down by which additional bodies may be added should it be necessary and should Acts of Parliament create those bodies. The appropriate Minister can by Order do this, and can also annul such additions if it should be necessary.
The Bill does not apply to Northern Ireland and will not come into effect until June 1, 1961. This will give local authorities time to make arrangements to implement the Bill and the Minister of Housing and Local Government time to draw up a code of conduct to supplement the Bill. The Bill lays down a statutory minimum in the carrying out of these public relations between the local authorities and the Press. Some local authorities and other such bodies already go further than the Bill specifies, but this will not be affected. To deal with those occasions when public business is carried out by committees and sub-committees composed of part of any body or local authority and not the whole, and the Press and public are therefore not admitted, it is the Minister's intention to try to draw up a code of conduct which will enable some other arrangements to be made whereby information as to such meetings can be given to the public. This may take a little time. It will entail consultation with the Press and with the local authorities; and therefore it appears that June, 1961, is the earliest date at which the Bill can come into effect.
Finally, there is a Schedule which lists the bodies to which the Bill applies—and this is a very comprehensive one. Bodies such as the London County Council, county boroughs, county councils, urban district councils, rural district councils, parish councils and all bodies connected with health, housing, education, water and other public services, and also combined boards and joint authorities, are included. In fact, the Bill caters for all existing bodies and for some that do not exist now but may in the future.
This Bill is an important step forward in our democratic system. It lays down minimum standards for relations between local authorities and other 1306 bodies and the public and Press. Some of these standards already operate, and the Bill does not preclude further co-operation between the Press, the public and the authorities, if it is so desired. I do not expect that the authorities who are not anxious to have the Press and public at their meetings will like the provisions of this Bill, but in my humble submission that is only an added reason for seeing that they are brought into line with the more far-seeing authorities whose work is now known by the public because they allow people and the Press at their meetings. Fashion and circumstances change from one generation to another, and 1908 was quite a long time ago. It is in the spirit of the present that we must take the past and shape it for the future. That is what this Bill is trying to do. I hope very much that your Lordships will support me. I now beg to move that the Bill be read a second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Baroness Elliot of Harwood.)
§ 3.42 p.m.
THE JOINT PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY, MINISTRY OF AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FOOD (EARL WALDEGRAVE)
My Lords, perhaps it may be convenient to your Lordships if I give some indication of the Government's attitude to this Bill. Before doing so, however, I should like to congratulate the noble Baroness on the way she has just moved the Second Reading of this Bill. She has propounded its provisions so lucidly and cogently that there is certainly little for me to add by way of explanation. But I want more particularly to congratulate her, and this I am sure I shall be doing on behalf of all your Lordships, on making history. This is the first time that the Second Reading of a Bill has been moved by a Peeress. Moreover, this Private Member's Bill was sponsored by a lady Member in another place, and, what is even more remarkable, was moved by that honourable (and married) lady in a maiden speech! The noble and honourable Ladies have indeed between them made history. Just for good measure, the most remarkable things happened to this Bill in Committee in another place. Among other things, they very materially changed its Long Title—which is, I am told, a feat not often or easily performed.
1307 There are many Members of your Lordships' House who, like myself, have long experience on bodies to which the Bill applies. They will, I am sure, agree with me that this cannot be an easy subject on which to legislate. It is a field in which some may think that the best results might be more easily obtained by a voluntary partnership between public bodies and the Press, rather than by legislation. Be that as it may, the object which everyone must surely support is that the Press and the public should be given all proper information about the wide range of important public business transacted by such public bodies as are mentioned in the Bill.
In most parts of the country, as your Lordships well know, local authorities already have entirely satisfactory arrangements with the Press and the public, at which no criticism has ever been directed. It is the practice of only a very limited number of local authorities which, in the past—and I do not refer here simply to the events of the recent past—has given rise to complaint. The Bill will certainly improve the position, though I doubt if it will achieve everything that is desirable. That is not to say that, I am damning this measure with faint praise, for we believe that the Bill is certainly a useful measure, and the Government commend it to your Lordships as such.
What the Bill does, as the noble Baroness has clearly explained, is to bring the existing law up to date, and make moderate extensions to it. The Local Authorities (Admission of the Press to Meetings) Act, 1908, gives rights of admission to the Press to meetings of local authorities and certain other bodies, but it gives no rights to the public. At present it is only to meetings of parish councils, among all local authorities, that the public have a right of admission. The Government welcome a measure which, for the first time, would give the public a general right of admission to meetings of local authorities, and of the other bodies covered by the Bill.
Of course, as we all know, local authorities generally do admit the public to their meetings; but they are not there of right, and this may occasionally give rise to difficulties. I am told that recently a member of the public presented himself at the meeting of a certain rural 1308 district council and asked to listen to the proceedings. It was the first time that this extraordinary event had happened with that council for many years, and the council found it necessary to have some considerable debate on the matter before deciding to let the man in—and find a chair for him to sit on. All such doubts will be resolved by the Bill.
It is also an advance on the earlier legislation in that it will clarify the conditions under which the Press and public can be temporarily excluded from meetings to which they are given a right of admission. Some devices which have been used in the past to frustrate existing rights will no longer be possible. The noble Baroness mentioned some of these in her speech. A useful provision in this connection is the entitlement now given to the Press to receive advance information of the business to be transacted at meetings to which they are given a right of admission (Clause 4 (b)). The Press must at least be supplied with an agenda. It will be possible for them, therefore, to follow the business even if, as sometimes happens, the chairman merely refers to numbered items on the agenda and does not from the chair give any indication of what the numbers refer to.
But these provisions of the Bill, as the noble Baroness said, can be regarded as no more than the prescription of the minimum requirements which can be imposed by Statute. Bare compliance with these minimum requirements will not really be enough. Many local authorities already do much more than the minimum laid down in this Bill, and I think that some supplement to the Bill will be necessary. As the noble Baroness reminded your Lordships, before this Bill was introduced in another place, my right honourable friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government was already engaged in discussions with the associations of local authorities and the Press about the preparation of a voluntary code of conduct which all local authorities might be brought to observe in a spirit of voluntary partnership with the Press. Those discussions have naturally been suspended during the progress of this Bill, but my right honourable friend intends to take them up again and to prepare, in consultation with the appropriate associations and with the Press, a voluntary code which will be complementary to the Bill.
1309 The noble Baroness stated that the Bill, as it stands, will not come into operation until June 1, 1961. My right honourable friend will certainly use his best endeavours to see that the code of conduct will also be ready by that date. In this way the public bodies covered by the Bill will be able to make whatever changes in their arrangements may be necessary to enable them to comply with this Bill, as well as the code of conduct at one and the same time. I think I have said enough to indicate why the Government commend this Bill as a useful measure, and I hope that your Lordships will give it a Second Reading.
§ 3.50 p.m.
§ LORD MORRISON OF LAMBETH
My Lords, I hope that an apology from me may be accepted in the first place. I may have to leave after I have finished this speech, as I was due at a meeting twenty minutes ago and I do not want it to finish before I get there. The subject of this Bill is a matter upon which I have some experience as a result of my work in local government. I agree with the Joint Parliamentary Secretary that the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, did well in expounding what is a difficult Bill to expound. I think that, in the circumstances, and having regard to the nature of he structure and the wording of this Bill, she performed that task with considerable ability, upon which I should like to congratulate her.
I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Waldegrave, that this is a different Bill from what it was when it was introduced in another place. And thank goodness for that! I must say that I am not enthusiastic in support of this Bill, though I doubt whether we shall vote against it. I do not see why local authorities cannot be trusted to manage their own business without all this Parliamentary performance, detailed direction and detailed control: and now we are threatened by the Minister with a code of conduct which may go into much extended and considerable detail. I should have thought we could leave it to the local authorities. After all, as the noble Earl has said, the number of local authorities which have acted improperly is very limited, and it would appear that many of them are in rural areas—and one can imagine what sort of local authorities they probably are! 1310 As a whole, however, the local authorities "play the game"; indeed, the London County Council now (and this was the case when I was the leader of the Council) take enormous trouble to be of service to the newspapers. The Press office is there not to run the newspapers, but to give them information when they ask for it, and to do this with courtesy and efficiency. When I was leader of the Council I used to have a conference on the day the Council agenda (which was supplied to the Press) was published. I took it behind the scenes and gave them information of the background of the committee reports, and answered any questions they asked; because I fervently believe it is the duty of all public authorities, not only to give the Press all reasonable facilities but to give them all reasonable help as well. That was done there, and I believe that it is done in the general run of the local authorities in the country.
Having said that, I must go on to say that this ought to be a two-way traffic. If the local authorities are kind to the Press, as they ought to be, then I think the Press ought to report the work of the local authorities. But if we take London (I cannot answer for the provinces, where the work varies: sometimes it is satisfactory, and sometimes not), how often do we get the work of the London County Council and its proceedings intelligently reported in the so-called London Press? Hardly ever. Yet these boys are making an awful noise about the rights of the Press. What about the rights of the local authorities? What about the right of the public to be informed by the Press as to what the local authorities are doing? The truth is that there is no London Press; it is a national Press which happens to have its head offices in London. There is no London Press, and the degree to which local government in London is reported in the national Press, except when somebody wants to run a Party political campaign against one or more of them, is very little.
This was not always the case. The old Daily News was very good in reporting the work of the local authorities, and particularly the London County Council. So was the Star very good. The Times used to be better than I think it is now, although The Times remains a great newspaper. But the reports are very 1311 limited; and sometimes they do not exist at all. If Parliament is going to take all this trouble to get the Press into local authorities, then the Press ought to give us something in return by way of reports of the debates and discussions in the local authorities themselves. If I have been critical of the newspapers in this regard, it is only as a friend of the newspapers, because all my life I have tried to be helpful to the newspapers and to assist them in their work—though heaven knows! in the course of my life I have been knocked about by the newspapers, I suppose, as much as anybody.
I think that some local authorities—a few exceptions—have gone wrong. It is true that in a limited number of cases the power to resolve the council into committee has sometimes been abused, and that has meant the exclusion of the Press and the public. And, by the way, talking about the public, of which the Joint Parliamentary Secretary made great play, the public was not provided for in this Bill, when it was introduced. This provision is the result of Labour Party pressure in another place. The author of the Bill had not even thought of that point. The local authorities have in some cases resolved themselves into committee, and on some occasions I think they were wrong and that it was done improperly. Some of them have a general purposes committee which consists of all the members of the council—so as to make it easier to keep the Press out, I presume—although some of them take the view that it is more democratic to have a general purposes committee consisting of all the members of the council. But I think that is wrong. A committee should be a committee and not the whole council.
But, as a whole, I believe that the local authorities have done very well; and there has been a great advance. The education committees meet in public, and so do the councils; and they should never go into committee, in my judgment, except in clear cases where the public interest is obviously concerned. This Bill, as I understand it, does not give the Press a right to be at meetings of committees of the council. I think that is good, because if they were admitted to committees it would alter the whole spirit of committee discussion. A committee should be a committee. The 1312 talk in committee should be between the members, consulting each other, and speaking briefly. But if we know our politicians, including ourselves, we must recognise that, once the Press were there, they would be letting go: they would speak at much greater length, with greater eloquence and probably with a considerable degree of abuse from time to time, which, of course, is part of the sport of public life. I am glad that that has gone. Moreover, it would be difficult for the officers of the local authority to report confidentially and frankly to a committee of the council if the Press were there and the officers were liable to be hauled up.
We must not run this doctrine of the right of the Press to be everywhere too much. There might be a Private Members' Bill brought in to enable the Press to attend meetings of the Cabinet of the Government. What should we all do to that? We should say, "No." Or there might be a Bill to enable them to attend Cabinet committees, or even the Select Committees of Parliament in either House. Therefore, we really ought to have a sense of proportion about this business, and we should not try to do to local authorities what we should not do to ourselves.
§ EARL WINTERTON
I should like to ask the noble Lord a question. Is he suggesting that it would be right to exclude the public from hearing the proceedings of this House or another place?
§ LORD MORRISON OF LAMBETH
No; any more than I would suggest that they should be excluded from attending the meetings of the councils of local authorities. I was in my last argument dealing with committees.
Let us take one committee where it would obviously be difficult to have the Press there all the time—the Civil Defence committee, which deals with all sorts of possibilities of the consequences of enemy action. It would certainly give information to any potential enemy as to the priorities they should exercise in the bombing of our country. I remember, in discussions on the civil defence committees of local authorities, the most confidential things—things that ought not to be reported. Of course, it was provided that the Press should be excluded from time to time from a committee, if the committee so desired. But 1313 it is not convenient to have the Press in one minute, out another, back again and out another. I assure the House that the newspapers would have got tired of that procedure very quickly.
I say these things only by way of appreciation of the improvements in the nature of the Bill which have been brought about during its consideration by another place. There are two provisions in the Bill which I do not like, and I hope that, together with other matters, they may be considered in Committee, when it is possible that Amendments will have to be put forward. One is that this Bill now admits the Press and public to meetings of watch committees of borough councils and of standing joint committees dealing with the police in the counties; and, I presume, the corresponding authorities in Scotland. There are a good many things done in watch committees and standing joint committees which are of a confidential character. It may affect the reputations of private citizens. There are disciplinary matters affecting policemen who may be found "not guilty," so to speak; and it would be a bit rough to haul these men over the coals in public and for the matter to be reported, when possibly in due course they may be found to have committed no offence. I should have thought that police authorities should be exempted from the scope of the Bill.
There is another remarkable provision which is really totalitarian in character. Remember that every local authority and every public authority has a right to fight about these issues and to express views, and try to get either the rejection of the proposals or their amendment. But here it is proposed in Clause 2 (3) of the Bill:Any body established by or under any Act may be added to the Schedule to this Act, and any body so added may be removed from the Schedule, by order of the appropriate Minister made by statutory instrument, which shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament …That means that this Bill can be extended to other public authorities. No public authority knows whether it may be affected. I think that is a bit "tall" and should be the subject of specific legislation. Instead of these Regulations of the Minister being settled by Parliament by Affirmative 1314 Resolution—as they ought to be, because they are of very great importance—the only remedy open to a Member of another place, or to a Member of this House, is to move to annul the Regulations—that is to say, a Negative Prayer. That is a difficult thing.
Moreover, if we can avoid it, I should not like your Lordships to interfere with Regulations which require Parliamentary approval. I think it is primarily a matter for the House of Commons, though there is no doubt that this House has its rights in these matters. But to provide in this Bill that the Minister may extend these provisions to any other authority, or may remove some of the public authorities who are at present included in the Bill, simply by an order subject to the Negative Resolution procedure, does not seem to me to be right.
My Lords, that is all I have to say. I have indicated that it may be found necessary—about which I shall be sorry—for Amendments to be tabled. But I hope your Lordships, if you pass this Bill, will pass it with restraint and in a spirit of moderation, because I think that the rights of local government, freedom of local self-administration in our country, which is a long tradition, should be respected and should not be unduly interfered with by Parliament, even at the request of such a great, powerful interest as the periodicals and the newspapers of our country.
§ 4.5 p.m.
§ LORD AMWELL
My Lords, I must confess that, although I did not intend to intervene in this debate, I find the speech we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Morrison of Lambeth, a little disturbing. I quite appreciate the difficulties he put forward and the side of the issue with regard to local authorities themselves. But the kind of argument he put up will hardly bear examination. One of the noble Lord's strong points was (how far he would apply it I am not sure from what he said) that if you had too much of the Press and the public overlooking the work of local authorities, you would find members, aldermen and councillors getting up and talking for the sake of publicity.
§ LORD MORRISON OF LAMBETH
My Lords, may I put my noble friend right? That was as regards meetings of committees—not the councils.
§ LORD AMWELL
I said the work of local authorities. I am going to mention the work of committees in a moment. The noble Lord said that with some members of the council, in committee, if you like, or even on the council—it would apply just as much—with a progressive interest on the part of the Press and the public in local affairs, you would find that element of search for publicity. No doubt you would. But what is the noble Lord afraid of? Do we not get it in this House? Do we not get it in another place? I suppose that it is the price we have to pay for democracy in the relation between public authorities of all kinds and the public. What I am concerned about is that unless you have a wide field of local public expression in newspapers and in other ways (in the case of the London County Council, county interest), you may have many of the local authorities becoming much more like secret agencies.
I rise because I am in immediate memory, due to the fact that I attended a meeting of a borough council in the London area yesterday—not under the London County Council, but just on the fringe. There was a fairly large agenda. That agenda went through in less than ten minutes, because everything had been done and settled by committees, manned in the main by one particular Party, because the Opposition were very few. It was done without anything like a public debate in open council. I was a member of one of the Metropolitan boroughs for some years, and I know that when the committee report comes up before the open council any member can get up and raise a point in which he has managed to interest himself. Sometimes it is done with great distaste on the part of the majority.
That is not quite my point. It takes a very good journalist, and a very interested journalist, to break down that kind of barrier, and a newspaper that is sufficiently interested in local affairs to get behind the scenes in order to get the background of these public affairs and to dig out the real facts that come before councillors in committee and separate groups of councillors in com- 1316 mittee. They have their reports and they are published. But when they come before the council it is not the kind of thing which leads, or is likely to lead, to that fresh, open and real debate which is required if we are to have a real, democratic method of local government and a report of local government affairs in the Press.
I raise those questions because they appeal to me. I am not criticising a great deal what the noble Lord has said. The Bill is probably open to a considerable amount of criticism, and must be amended. But I think these things should be borne in mind. In many councils—not all—you have nothing to do at open council meetings unless, as I say, you are so interested in one particular point that you take the trouble to dig out the facts by going behind the scenes to find out what the committees have done in private discussion. I do not think that that is quite healthy, and I do not share the noble Lord's feeling that you must leave it to the local authorities because the intervention of the Press and public is likely to damage the work that they do.
§ 4.10 p.m.
My Lords, I have no desire, or indeed capacity, to comment on the dispute between the noble Lord who has just sat down and the noble Lord, Lord Morrison of Lambeth, but in discussing this Bill, although I wholeheartedly congratulate my noble friend Lady Elliot of Harwood on her method of presentation of the Bill, I am afraid I can give it only somewhat half-hearted support, not entirely for the reasons that have hitherto been brought out. I think the latter parts of the Bill, which set out what is meant by publicity, are very useful; I think that that is a good addition to the law. But with regard to Clause 1, subsection (2) of the Bill, which deals with this rather vital matter of the reasons for which the Press and the public can be excluded, I have some reservations, because, in spite of the words of this subsection, I cannot see that the position under the Bill is likely to be very different in reality from what it is at present. That is, of course, unless it is a deliberate intention of the Bill, which has not so far been mentioned, to give to the chairman of the council, who is responsible for the observance of standing orders, a much 1317 wider discretion than he possesses at present.
Perhaps I might explain what I mean. At present all that is required to exclude the Press and the public is a motion to go into committee—quite a simple motion. But that motion, nevertheless, may be debated and eventually, if necessary, voted on. Under this Bill the resolution would no longer be simple. Reasons would have to be given. In 99 cases out of 100 I cannot see that that will present any difficulty at all. Most of the reasons for excluding the Press and public, as I think my noble friend herself said, have to do with such matters as contracts or tenders or misdemeanours, and things of that sort, which everybody would agree should be conducted without undue publicity. But in the 100th case, which I think might be by far the most important, there might be an acute division of opinion within the Council itself on this question of publicity.
The division might quite well be on Party lines. I do not want to give a Party slant to this. May I, as a Conservative, suggest that there might be an occasion on which the Conservative majority on a council wanted to hush something up, and it might be that the Labour minority wanted very badly to ventilate the same matter to the fullest degree. What would happen? I suppose the Conservative representatives would put down a resolution having relation to the wording of this Clause 1, subsection (2). Then it would be quite possible, and indeed probable, that the Labour Opposition would submit, on a point of order, that the resolution was ultra vires on the grounds that the circumstances of the particular case did not justify its being considered either as confidential or as special. Who is to interpret on that point of order? Is it the chairman or is it the council? If the council are to decide, I cannot really see that we are any further forward than at present, because the council can already turn down a motion that they should go into committee. But if the chairman has to decide, all I can say is that if I were in the chair I should regard the wording of this subsection as so wide that it would be simply an expression of my own personal opinion.
I do not consider that this is a purely pedantic point. This Bill is, I think, 1318 really aimed at exceptional circumstances, but at circumstances of a type that are likely to attract the maximum publicity, both local and national. Having been chairman of a county council myself, I do not think Parliament ought to place my colleagues in what might be a very difficult position. It may be that these points will all be looked after in the code of conduct or the standing orders that will have to be devised if the Bill is passed, but I can only say that I do not think it is going to be a very easy matter, and I shall look forward with interest to see what the outcome will be.
§ LORD CLITHEROE
My Lords, may I, like other noble Lords, add my congratulations to the noble Baroness for the admirable way in which she introduced this Bill, and also on having been the first Lady to do so? I want to make only one point. Though I am in favour of the Bill in general, I question very seriously indeed whether it is desirable to include standing joint committees and watch committees in this Schedule. I think that that would be a grave mistake, and I believe that the more noble Lords on all sides think about that the more they will agree that that had better come out.
§ 4.17 p.m.
My Lords, from these Liberal Benches I would, if I may, give the blessing of those who sit with me to this Bill, and particularly, of course, congratulate the noble Baroness on her excellent presentation and on making history—indeed, on being a great justification for the vast majority of this House who supported the inclusion of women Life Peers. I agree with the last speaker that there are some things that should be looked into again, and although the noble Lord, Lord Morrison of Lambeth, said he hoped it would go through without Amendment—
§ SEVERAL NOBLE LORDS: No.
If I understood that wrongly, I withdraw that statement. I thought he gave the impression that he hoped it would go through without great alteration, but. I think that after what has been said to-day it needs to be looked into to some extent, especially the clause to which he drew attention, Clause 2, subsection (3), where in the 1319 last line there is the rather surprising statement that… an order made under this subsection by any Minister of the Crown shall be effective, whether or not he is the appropriate Minister.That is one of the things which I think needs further consideration. But with the general Second Reading atmosphere, I would give the Bill the approval of those who sit on these Benches and leave the details for a further occasion.
§ 4.19 p.m.
§ BARONESS ELLIOT OF HARWOOD
My Lords, I rise to thank those noble Lords who have taken part in this Second Reading debate, and also to answer one or two questions which have been raised by noble Lords on both sides of the House. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Morrison of Lambeth, could not stay, because I should like to say one or two things about his speech. He was not very enthusiastic. On the other hand, it has to be remembered that there is already an Act, and therefore this Bill, in a sense, is not a new thing. This Bill is really, we hope, going to be a better Act than the one that exists to-day, and more up to date in various ways. I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Morrison of Lambeth, said with reference to the facilities which will be available to the Press and which, in many cases are not available to-day, because although the L.C.C., as he rightly told us, is a shining light in this matter, there are other rather dimmer authorities whose lights do not shine so brightly. We hope very much that this will encourage them to follow the example set by the noble Lord, Lord Morrison of Lambeth, and the L.C.C. when he was chairman of that great body.
He mentioned that alterations had been made during the Committee stage in another place, and stressed that some alterations had been particularly put forward by members of his Party. My point at the beginning of my speech was that this Bill, as it appears before your Lordships, is one which has had the support and the discussion of all sides of political life, and has not been supported only by those in another place who sit upon the Government Benches.
The question was raised, I think by the noble Lord, Lord Morrison of Lambeth, 1320 about Civil Defence committees. Under Clauses 2 and 3 those committees could, if they so wished, claim the exclusion of the Press. One or two noble Lords have mentioned the question of the watch committee and the police committee. I particularly did not make any reference to those two committees because, like other noble Lords. I feel that in all probability it may be desirable to discuss this matter in Committee and to make some further recommendations thereon. I think it is a matter for further discussion. When I read the Parliamentary record in another place I saw that this subject had been discussed but that the Minister had not given a lead either way. The balance on either side was a fine one, and it is a subject that we might indeed discuss here in Committee.
There was one other point that the noble Lord made, about altering the Schedule of bodies to which the Bill applies. Under the Bill as framed it is not possible to alter those bodies. Those in the Schedule are in the Schedule. The idea of allowing further bodies to be added is simply because, in the course of legislation, sometimes Acts of Parliament are passed which create new bodies—one can think, for instance, of the National Health Service and various others—and it would be advisable in the interests of the public generally to be able to include such bodies if so required. I do not think it is put forward in any dictatorial spirit, as the noble Lord suggested, but simply in order that we should have an opportunity of bringing the Schedule up to date if that course is needed.
I was most interested in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Amwell, who seemed to me to be a splendid advocate for the principles of this Bill. I am grateful to him for what he said. I regard the point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Gage, as an important one. I listened with great care to what he was saying, and again I think it is a matter which might be raised in more detailed discussion in Committee. I should be glad to discuss the matter further so that the point, which is a most relevant one, can be met.
I think that those were the main points that were raised in the discussion. I should like to say that I am most grateful to your Lordships for being so kind 1321 to me, and for putting up with my rather amateurish methods in putting forward a Second Reading of this kind. I think it is a Bill which is certainly an improvement on the existing Bill and will be of benefit to us in our work, either in local government or in various other bodies. Therefore, I hope your Lordships will now give it a Second Reading.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.