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Clause 5. — (the Board's Reports.)

Part of Orders of the Day — Prices and Incomes Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 9th August 1966.

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Photo of Sir Elwyn Jones Sir Elwyn Jones , West Ham South 12:00 am, 9th August 1966

The Government recognise the importance of protecting persons or individuals from undesirable disclosure of their private affairs. It is for that reason that Clause 5(5) has been drafted with great care, both to protect persons and their private affairs on the one hand and to give the Board discretion to decide what it is necessary to publish on the other.

The House will see that subsection (5) provides: In framing any report the Board shall have regard to the need for excluding, so far as that is practicable, a matter which relates to the private affairs of any person". There is therefore a mandatory duty imposed upon the Board to have regard to the need for excluding anything relating to a person's private affairs so far as that is practicable; that is to say, so far as it does not make it impossible for the Board to produce an effective report.

In my submission, it is right to give the Board that discretion if it is to discharge its function of acting in the public interest as against the interests of persons who would otherwise, if the Amendment that is proposed were adopted, have an effective veto on what might be quite crucial passages in the Board's reports.

It is of some interest and relevance that a provision not in identical terms but similar in effect is to be found in Section 9 of the Monopolies and Restrictive Practices (Inquiry and Control) Act, 1948, relating to reports of the Monopolies Commission. The Commission has been in existence since 1948 and I have received no evidence of any abuse of its powers concerning publications. The members of the Prices and Incomes Board are responsible men. It is an eminently responsible body, and it is unlikely, to put it at its lowest, that it would exercise this power with any less discretion and care for avoidable disclosure than has been the case with the Monopolies Commission.

Another factor which is of some importance, although it goes more to administrative necessity than to the merits of the matter, is that it is very important that the Board should be able to report quickly. If standstills under Part II are not to expire before reports are published by the Board it is vital that those reports should be got out expeditiously. We can imagine considerable delays being caused if the Board had to negotiate with any person over passages affecting the private affairs of that person, and the interposing of legal advisors or solicitors, and the whole machinery of delay which would frustrate the operation of standstills under Part II.

I understand that we are also discussing Amendments No. 7 and 8, to which I believe the hon. Member did not refer. I say that without criticising him in any way; it may be that another hon. Member opposite will deal with them. But it may be convenient for me to refer to them.

I need not comment on Amendment No. 7, which is covered by the observations that I have already made, but Amendment No. 8 proposes that if a person whose affairs are under report objects no report shall contain of any matter relating to that person without the certificate of a judge of the High Court that the public interest requires the publication of such matter against the wishes of that person". I know of no procedure whereby a High Court judge could be called in aid for the production of such a certificate, but there is a still more substantial objection to the proposal. In effect, it transfers discretion from the Board to a High Court judge as to what should go into a report. In my submission the decision as to this is eminently administrative rather than judicial, and would seem to be eminently within the sphere of responsibility and consideration of the Board, which has responsibility for producing reports and acting within the letter and the spirit of a provision which requires it to have regard to the need for excluding matter which relates to the private affairs of any person, so far as is practicable, consistent with making sense of a report, which is the clear meaning of the subsection.

Therefore, quite apart from this being misconceived machinery and inappropriate to the reports, there would be significant delay if there had to be, by some procedure of which, as I said, I have no knowledge, proceedings in the High Court and a reference to a High Court judge before a particular part of a report could be published. It would endanger the whole machinery of the standstill and accordingly I must advise the House to reject all three Amendments.