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State Opening Of Parliament (Television)

Volume 728: debated on Thursday 12 May 1966

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Lawson.]

12 m.

Most hon. Members will be extremely pleased if, as a result of the Select Committee's discussions which we have just been debating, we are enabled to come to an end of our proceedings somewhat earlier than we have this evening. I must say how extremely grateful we are to the Leader of the House for being present at this late hour. I shall have to say some things this evening which may appear to be critical of the right hon. Gentleman, but I know that he has as great a respect for the procedures and traditions of this House as any other hon. or right hon. Member I can think of. I am sure that he will feel as unhappy as I do that it has been necessary for me to seek to raise this matter on the Adjournment.

I am among those who are in favour of broadcasting and televising the proceedings of the House of Commons. I think it is a reflection on our conduct of affairs that whereas, in many other advanced Western nations such as the United States and Sweden, the proceedings of the legislature are already televised, the people of this country are denied the insight into the workings of democracy that I think television would provide. It is, therefore, with very great regret that I feel it necessary to raise the arrangements made for televising and photographing the State opening of Parliament because I believe that those arrangements could not have been better calculated to destroy the case for broadcasting Parliament.

I say that for three reasons. First, many of us are extremely unhappy about the persistence of ancient, meaningless and time-wasting rituals under a Government who are supposed to be dedicated to the modernisation of Britain. We deplore the presentation of this aspect of the House of Commons to the world at large. Secondly, the presence of a great number of lights, cameras and technicians was an intolerable intrusion of this Chamber. Although I am well aware that none of this would have been necessary if the B.B.C. only had been allowed, indirectly it will have hardened the resistance of those who oppose television. In this connection, I quote the Daily Telegraph of 22nd April, 1966:
"Those who dislike the idea of Commons T.V. feel they have won ground. It is generally agreed that normal parliamentary work would have been impossible in yesterday's conditions."
Thirdly—I share this with my hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell)—I object to a commercial film company being given the monopoly rights to film the State opening without the payment of one penny to the taxpayer who has footed the bill. Sir Philip Warter, Chairman of the Associated British Picture Corporation, has written to The Times to say that the film is part of the company's normal weekly release and that no extra charge was made for the inclusion of the film of the State opening.

That may be so, but I am certain that his company would not expect to be given exclusive film rights of other major events such as the Cooper-Clay boxing match, or the Cup Final, without payment, so why should he expect to get into the House of Commons for nothing?

With these factors in mind, there are some very serious questions I want to put to the Leader of the House. This afternoon I have re-read the Report from the Select Committee on the Palace of Westminster, which reported in July last year, and the debate on that Report of 2nd November, 1965. I find that there was no provision in the Report for the exercise of the Services Committee's functions by some other person or body during a Dissolution, neither was the problem raised during the debate. It would be reasonable to assume that no departure from practice could have taken place without the authorisation of the Services Committee before the Dissolution and if any doubt should arise as to the interpretation of the Services Committee's Resolutions the Leader of the House is the person who should be made responsible for coming to a final decision.

The right hon. Gentleman is Chairman of the Committee. He is responsible to the House for answering Questions about its decisions, and he is still a Minister during the Dissolution, even though he may not be a Member of Parliament, as he emphasised in answering Questions the other day.

My first question is to ask the Leader of the House whether he will take full responsibility for the arrangements which were made and not "pass the buck" to the House authorities, as he did when answering Questions on 27th April. If, on the other hand, the right hon. Gentleman, in reply tonight, still insists that the House authorities are solely responsible for these matters during a Dissolution, and he can make out a case to the satisfaction of the House, the Services Committee should then be asked whether it considers this to be an acceptable situation in accordance with the wishes of the House when power was taken away from the Lord Great Chamberlain and transferred to that Committee.

We thought that the Lord Great Chamberlain had no residual power over any part of the Palace of Westminster, but it appears from what has happened that, while all the rest of us are away fighting the General Election, the Lord Great Chamberlain pops up and assumes at least a part of his former rôle. Immediately before the General Election, the hon. Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas) asked the Leader of the House to make a statement about the televising and broadcasting of the State opening, and the right hon. Gentleman replied:
"The arrangements are being concerted with the Lord Great Chamberlain."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th March, 1966; Vol. 725, c. 639.]
The hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) has alleged that it was the Lord Great Chamberlain who issued the tickets which allowed the photographers to come into the Press Gallery of the House. I should like an answer on that point, which the hon. Gentleman did not get when he raised it with the Leader of the House the other day.

The second major question I put to the Leader of the House, therefore, is whether the Lord Great Chamberlain's writ still runs during a Dissolution, either partly or in whole, and to that question I want a simple "Yes" or "No".

I return now to the Resolution of the Services Committee, the interpretation of which is in question. I shall have to read it in full to the House:
"That in the event of the State opening of the new Parliament on 21st April being televised, permission should be given to the B.B.C., if they so wish, to install an additional camera in the Gallery of the House of Commons."
Does the Leader of the House seriously maintain that that Resolution could be so stretched as to include a film company and Press photographers as well as the B.B.C., and that he should have allowed the persons concerned to occupy not only a large proportion of the Gallery, but also the whole of the Ministerial box, with all their paraphernalia and the Klieg lights which subjected hon. Members to so much discomfort during the State opening?

We know that the application from the film company came alter the dissolution of Parliament and that this application was granted. To whom could this application have been addressed, and by which Minister was the authorisation approved? We know that, in order to bring any piece of equipment into the Chamber, it is normal to obtain authorisation from the Minister of Public Building and Works. After permission had been given to the film company and the photographers in principle, was it then necessary for the persons concerned to obtain the passes of authorisation for the equipment which they brought into the House from the Minister of Public Building and Works, and did he sign the authorisations allowing them to do so?

The arrangements which were made on the occasion of the State opening were a monstrous breach of the privileges of this House. We not only want the fullest possible explanation of how these things were allowed to happen and answers to the questions which I have put to the right hon. Gentleman tonight, but we demand the most categorical assurance from the Leader of the House that he will take steps to see that the express wishes of the House can never again be so outrageously flouted as they were on this occasion.

12.10 a.m.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) for allowing me a moment or two in which to join with him in this protest about the filming of the State opening of Parliament in the House of Commons. I have great sympathy with the Leader of the House in this matter, for I appreciate that, like the rest of us, at the time when the decision was made the right hon. Gentleman was fighting a General Election campaign. Nevertheless, he is fortunately, or, as he may think, otherwise tonight, in the position in which he alone can answer the questions which have been put to him by my hon. Friend with complete fairness.

The issue which concerns me most of all is the fact that one single commercial film company, namely, Associated Pathé, should have had the right to film these proceedings and that no opportunity should have been given to any other commercial undertaking to tender for this right, or to have the same privilege and thereby to make at least the same profit.

It has been said already—and my hon. Friend has quoted the letter in The Times—that the chairman of the company concerned believes that there is no additional profit accruing to the company, because the film concerned was distributed along with the company's ordinary weekly release. Frankly, I cannot accept that assurance. There is no doubt whatever that this historic film will not only be shown throughout the whole world, but to very much wider audiences than would normally be the case in the release of a weekly news film. More than that, it will remain in the library of the company concerned which will have the exclusive rights to it and be able to hire it to other companies and to television undertakings in the United States and throughout the world at what must be a continuing and very considerable profit.

In these circumstances, it is right that we should have an explanation of why this one company should have been given this unique and very valuable opportunity and, more important, why it was not asked to pay a fee, together with a continuing royalty, which would have accrued to the Exchequer and thereby helped in some small way to relieve the general burden of taxation. It may be that the amount involved in the sense of relieving taxation would be minute, but, nevertheless, little fish are sweet and it would have shown a responsible attitude to the nation's finances if this commercial undertaking had been held responsible to make some contribution to them as the result of the fees it obtained from the making of the film.

We are making a distinction between televising the proceedings of the House of Commons and the taking of a newsreel film. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington, I believe that there is a very strong case for televising part of the proceedings of the House, not merely the proceedings in this Chamber, but the whole work of the House of Commons. But that is a quite separate issue from that of whether a commercial film company, without any of its competitors having a similar opportunity, should be allowed in this Chamber and allowed to make a film which will have a continuing and immeasurably valuable profit to the benefits of the company's shareholders instead of to the benefit of the taxpayer and the community at large.

12.15 a.m.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons
(Mr. Herbert Bowden)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) for raising this matter on the Adjournment tonight, because I hope that it will enable us to clear up one or two points which have been outstanding since the House was televised and photographed on the State opening of Parliament. I do not for a moment resent the questions which he has put to me and I will endeavour to answer all of them, as far as that is possible. It will be seen when I have finished that there are still one or two points outstanding which have yet to be settled and dealt with before we can get this in perfect order.

The House, which is interested in this subject, should be reminded of the decision taken last year, when Her Majesty the Queen gave the House the opportunity of controlling its own part of the Palace of Westminster. This was announced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on 23rd March last year. When she did that, it was decided by Her Majesty that this side of the Palace, the House of Commons side, should be controlled by Mr. Speaker and the House of Lords side by the Lord Great Chamberlain. That is why, in our Report to the House at the end of July, we said:
"… in consultation with the Lord Great Chamberlain …"
He is responsible to the Offices Committee of the House of Lords for the House of Lords side.

I have been asked about what happens during the dissolution of Parliament and who is responsible for the House of Commons side. The answer is—no one. We left there a hiatus when we took control from the Lord Great Chamberlain, and the whole House must take responsibility for this. It is not I, as Leader of the House, because there is no Leader of the House on the dissolution of Parliament; nor are there Members. It is equally true to say that none of us who were either candidates or potential candidates had any rights within the building whatever. That applies to me equally with everyone else. Probably the only Minister who has any right within the building during dissolution is the Minister of Public Building and Works, and he is only concerned with the fabric.

The obvious thing which should have been done, and was not done, was to make sure that, during the period of dissolution, the control of the Palace of Westminster on the House of Commons side should be vested in Mr. Speaker, as, in fact, it is when the House is sitting. But Mr. Speaker's function in the House of Commons is controlled during a period of dissolution by two Acts of Parliament—the House of Commons Speaker's Act, 1832, and the House of Commons Offices Act, 1846. Neither of these Acts contains any provision that gives Mr. Speaker control of the Palace during the period of dissolution. This is something which at some point we have to put right and it is the reason why this difficulty arose.

The House of Commons Services Committee, which was set up by the House to advise Mr. Speaker on the control of the Palace—not itself to control the Palace—had before it the decision of the Government and Opposition in consultation to agree to the televising of the State opening. The first approval for this is, of course, Her Majesty's, because this is her Palace, and the Government and Opposition, as on former occasions, agreed that the whole ceremony—both sides—should be televised at the State opening.

The Services Committee considered what should be done on this occasion, bearing in mind the fact that previously the television cameras had come to the door but had never come in; they recommended to Mr. Speaker—and this is their responsibility—that B.B.C. cameras and, if room was available, I.T.A. cameras, should come in here to televise the ceremony of Black Rod coming into the Chamber and right hon. and hon. Members following him into the House of Lords. It was no more than that.

This was reported to the House in a written reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas) on the day the House rose. The decision was taken two days before Dissolution. It would have been quite impossible to report it to the House in the normal way by printed report and to debate it. It was a new departure. It was felt that it was the right thing to do, seeing that already the television cameras were up to the door, and an experiment worth having. At that point, the responsibility of the Services Committee ended because it ceased to exist on Dissolution.

On 15th March, a committee of officials met in the offices of the Serjeant at Arms to consider the technical arrangements for bringing television cameras—presumably B.B.C. and I.T.A. if they so wished—into the Chamber for televising. At that stage, I understand that the Committee considered whether or not a Pattie film camera, which, again was outside and filming the other part of the ceremony, and cameras to take still shots for use in the Central Office of Information, should be permitted to come into the Chamber.

As I told the House, based on the decision of Mr. Speaker, on a recommendation to him from the Services Committee that television cameras should come in, he thought that it was a fair implication within that decision that the same filming should take place within the House as in other parts of the Palace. That is what happened, and that is why film cameras were in the House and still shots were taken in addition to the use of television cameras.

But this was 15th March. There was no one to whom this could be reported. I certainly had no responsibility. I remained a Minister, but without any responsibility for the House of Commons, certainly not as Leader of the House. Nor had Mr. Speaker any responsibility in that. This decision was taken because it was felt that it was implied in a decision to bring in television cameras. Maybe it was wrong, but that happened—

We are trying to put the matter right in future. Does not the right hon. Gentleman think that he, as Chairman of the Services Committee, is the only person who could properly interpret decisions to which they have come before Dissolution?

That is not the position. Of course upon Dissolution, whoever is Leader of the House must depart from the scene in that capacity. What we must do here is make Mr. Speaker responsible for the period during Dissolution, because he is carrying out his functions under these two Acts of Parliament. This can be done by a simple Resolution of the House.

I was asked one or two other questions about tickets issued by the Lord Great Chamberlain and about his responsibility. He has no responsibility on the House of Commons side of the Palace of Westminster. When the question of tickets was raised in the House, I immediately had inquiries made, and I am told that this is what happened. To give authority to a technician to come into the Chamber the night before the State opening to work on the cameras, a pass, an authority, was given to him, an old one upon which the name of the Lord Great Chamberlain appeared. This is the explanation given to me. It was not a pass issued by the Lord Great Chamberlain to enable a technician to work in the Chamber.

The experience we had on that occasion was valuable. I should like to make it clear—although my own views are fairly well known: I am not as enthusiastic about televising this Chamber as some hon. Gentlemen—to the hon. Gentleman and the House that if the Select Committee on televising the House reports in favour, and the House agrees, it will be my duty as Leader of the House to present this to the House. I hope that I shall do it impartially and objectively and abide by its decision. I hope that the matter will be decided on a free vote of the House.

When that time comes, the Select Committee on Broadcasting will have an opportunity of considering other aspects of the problem. It will have been noted that, in setting up the Committee, I added to its terms of reference:
"… to consider the effect of filming in the chamber and taking still shots."
I thought that one must do this, since, as soon as we let in television cameras for an edited version or complete coverage, we are likely to receive similar applications. It is better that we should have the advice of a Committee of this kind before such action is taken.

The hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell) raised the question of a fee. I am told that no fee has ever been paid, but this, also, is something which the Committee might consider to see whether it is reasonable. I am not sure that the House should accept a fee, no matter how small or how large, for a State occasion of this sort, but let the Committee consider it.

What I am certain about is that in their deliberations they will have to take into consideration every possible aspect of this problem. Although we had the unfortunate experience of greatly increased lighting on that occasion, it may not have been a bad experience to have, in some senses. In fairness, I should say that although we had lights which were about three times the normal intensity required by television, I am told that with remote control cameras the lighting would not be very much higher than it is normally in the Chamber. The Committee will have the whole of this sort of thing in front of it when considering the televising of Parliament.

I therefore hope that this debate has shown clearly how we had the film cameras in, and the still shots. But I am sure that the most important thing which will arise is the decision which the House must take—and I hope reasonably soon—to make sure that when none of us is here as a Member of Parliament, and the House is dissolved, Mr. Speaker shall have the responsibility, which I am sure he will be pleased to take, if on any future occasion of a State opening we decide to televise again.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Twelve o'clock.