§ 134. Mr. N. Pannell
asked the Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs if he will name the local authorities to which he expressed disapproval of their action in withdrawing facilities from the Press; and what were the terms of his communications to them.
§ Mr. Bevins
With permission, I will circulate in the OFFICIAL REPORT the text of a letter which was sent on my right hon. Friend's instructions to the Nottingham City Council. He wrote to that council because, as the letter explains, he had received a number of complaints about its action. Copies of this letter were sent to the Town Clerks of Barrow-in-Furness, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds and Liverpool because those authorities had been reported in the newspapers as having in one way or another withdrawn facilities which they normally give to the Press, and my right hon. Friend thought that it would be useful to them to have the full text of what he had said to the Nottingham Council. Copies were 165W also sent to the associations of local authorities so that they might be aware of his views in connection with the discussions taking place about securing full facilities to the Press.
The following is the text of a letter dated 16th July to the Town Clerk, Nottingham—
I am directed by the Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs to tell you, for the information of the Council, that he has had a number of representations complaining about the action of the Council in excluding representatives of the Press from their meeting on 6th July.
The Minister understands that Press representatives were required to leave the meeting by a resolution passed by a majority of the Council, but that members of the public and a representative of the B.B.C. were allowed to remain.
The rights of Press representatives to be present at meetings of local authorities are secured by the Local Authorities (Admission of the Press to Meetings) Act, 1908. There is provision in the Act for the temporary exclusion of the Press when, in the opinion of the majority of members present at the meeting, the nature of the business to be discussed makes this advisable in the public interest, but the Press cannot lawfully be excluded for any other reason.
It has been represnted to the Minister that it was quite clear from the proceedings that the reasons which moved the majority of the Council to take steps to exclude Press representatives from the recent meeting were not connected with the confidential nature of the business to be transacted, but were solely concerned with the present printing dispute; and further evidence of this is afforded by the fact that members of the public and a representative of the B.B.C. were allowed to remain. On his present information, the Minister finds it impossible to reach any different conclusion.
The Minister's correspondents have asked him to agree that the action taken by the Council was illegal. In his replies he has pointed out that he has no jurisdiction to pronounce on the legality of the Council's action. He feels sure, however, that this is an aspect of the matter to which the Council will wish to give earnest consideration.
Whether or not the action taken by the Council as described to the Minister offends the letter of the Act of 1908, he has no doubt that it is wholly contrary to the spirit of the Act and to the principles which local authorities should observe in their relations with the Press. The Minister has felt bound to say, in reply to representations, that he is wholly out of sympathy with any Council which deprives the local electors of the opportunity to inform themselves from Press reports about Council business. He has also said that he is wholly out of sympathy with any local authority which takes sides in an industrial dispute.166W
The Council will doubtless be aware that the Minister has for some time past been in consultation with the local authority associations about how better relations can be ensured between local government in general and the Press. In most places good working arrangements already exist, but there are exceptions, and the Minister has made it plain in Parliament that he will not be content until all local authorities give full facilities to the Press. He has also said that he will not hesitate to propose amending legislation if this proves necessary. But because he believes that the great majority of local authorities recognise their responsibility to keep the public fully informed at all times, it has been his hope that all could be brought to observe a proper code in this matter without the need for new legislation.
The Minister is therefore gravely concerned to see that some local authorities have taken action during the present dispute in the printing industry which suggests that they attach little importance to keeping the electorate informed. He may be forced to conclude that the object which he has in view, and which he is sure is shared by the great majority of responsible local government opinion, can be secured only by imposing new statutory obligations and a new procedure for enforcement on all local authorities.
In view of the widespread interest which has been aroused in the action not only of your Council but of one or two others which have sought to exclude the Press, in the context of the present industrial dispute, from meetings which they normally attend, the Minister is releasing a copy of this letter to the Press for publication, if they so desire, not earlier than Friday evening.
I am, Sir,
Your obedient Servant,
E. A. SHARP.