HC Deb 29 August 1887 vol 320 cc414-28

(Mr. Ritchie, Mr. Jackson, Mr. Long.)


Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Ritchie.)

MR. ANDERSON (Elgin and Nairn)

I am surprised to find that the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Ritchie) proposes the second reading without any explanation or statement in reference to this Bill, because hon. Members who have read it will have some difficulty in understanding the necessity or occasion for having the Bill at all. The Government seem to think it is necessary to have a Commission to settle the boundaries of areas in England; but may I point out that although several Local Government Bills have been introduced before, it has never occurred to a Government to have a Bill of this kind, nor has it been thought necessary to set up an expensive machinery of this kind, to appoint a Commission to go into every county in England for the purpose, so far as I understand, of assisting the Government in coming to a conclusion as to what their scheme of local government shall be. Now, the first provision is that a Commission shall be appointed to in- quire into the best mode of adjusting the boundaries of counties and their areas, and the best mode of dealing with portions of counties partly or wholly detached, and where the Sanitary Authority is divided. Now, if there is one thing that is well known it is the great inconvenience of local areas, that is well known and the county map will show that. The Local Government Board has only to apply to Local Authorities and Unions, to obtain a map showing the various boundaries and where and how they overlap. But it will be a useless waste of time and expense to appoint a Commission for the purpose, and bearing in mind that it has never been done before, and that the Bill is entirely novel, I should have expected from the Government some statement upon it. I am sure the House will agree that in all Commissions for boundaries, it is usual to settle your boundary after you have settled what you are going to set up within that boundary; but here it seems to me the Government are "putting the cart before the horse." You are setting up an expensive machinery for ascertaining boundaries, and for what? For a scheme of local government you have not brought forward, on which you have not informed the House. You are going to send Commissioners all over the kingdon to settle boundaries, but what for? I do not know, and I question if the Government know; and if they do know, it is not at all likely the House will accept the scheme. I cannot help thinking that this is an attempt at the end of the Session, the Government finding they cannot bring in a Bill, not being in agreement on the subject—an attempt to show they have done something, and I can imagine the Chancellor of the Exchequer in those speeches in the country which I see he is going to deliver, enlarging upon the importance of the step taken by the Government in passing this Bill. But the Chancellor of the Exchequer must know perfectly well, for his experience on this subject is very great, that we have never before agreed to such a measure as this; that it has never been suggested by anyone to have as a preliminary step, an expensive, long, and tedious inquiry on the subject. What is it that the Commission will have to do? They will go into every county of England and make inquiry—as to what I really do not know—[ "Hear, hear ! "]—and I do not think hon. Members who cheer know it either—I am sure they do not. This Bill seems to me a perfect sham. I have attempted to put myself in the position of a Commissioner going down into the counties to consider their boundaries; but I defy hon. Members to say what are the duties and functions of a Commissioner when he is appointed, unless he knows what the scheme of the Government is as to local government. When you have decided that which depends on population and various other things, whether you are to have representative Boards, or whatever they are to be, then, I can understand a Commission going down and fixing the boundaries of local areas. That is my first objection, and I am curious to hear, and the House is entitled to hear some explanation of this measure. Another objection is, that the scope of this Bill is confined to England. Now, if I understand the object of this measure, it is for the purpose of saving time; as I understand the Government, they say that unless this Bill is passed, we shall have local government for England thrown over for another year. Well, so far as the present Government is concerned, I think it will be thrown over for many years; but my chief objection, as representing a Scotch constituency, is that you are taking no step whatever in regard to local government for Scotland. Now, if there was one thing prominent in the address of every Member opposite to his constituents, it was a declaration in favour of a "large and extended measure of local government applied to all parts of the United Kingdom;" and I really want to know why it is that Scotland is left out of the Bill. I asked the First Lord of the Treasury to-night, but he did not seem to know whether there was to be a Local Government Bill for Scotland. I do not know whether he is aware of such a Bill being contemplated; but as the Representative of a Scotch constituency, I do insist that on the question of local government, Scotland is entitled to equal consideration with England. If this Bill is necessary to expedite the bringing forward of your English Bill, then, surely, it is equally necessary for Scotland? If the Government say they are going to legislate for England next year and not for Scotland, then I shall certainly oppose this Bill, for you certainly ought to legislate for England and Scotland together. The real fact is, I believe, that the Government have given no consideration at all to the question of local government for Scotland. It is part and parcel of the manner in which the Government have treated Scotch Business throughout the Session; they seem to disregard the existence of Scotland. I now ask the right hon. Gentleman who has charge of this Bill—I understand a Bill for the local government of England is actually drafted—has a Bill for Scotland been drafted? This is a question I may fairly ask. Well, it is clear the question is inconvenient, and when a question is inconvenient it is considered out of Order. The conclusion I draw from there being no reply to a perfectly fair question is the conclusion the people of Scotland will draw. I say this is not a fair way of treating this question, though hon. Members opposite agree with it. The want of a comprehensive scheme of local government is as much needed in Scotland as in England, and it is as much a burning question. There are as many difficulties in regard to boundaries. Surely it is not unreasonable that when you are seriously bringing forward a Bill—if serious it is, which I rather venture to doubt—that Scotland should be treated in a similar manner. Therefore I desire, my first objection to the Bill itself being that it is put forward without explanation; and, secondly, that it does not propose to deal with Scotland, to move that the Bill be read a second time this day three months.


seconded the Amendment.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day three months."—(Mr. Anderson.)

Question proposed, "That the word ' now ' stand part of the Question."


The first complaint of the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Anderson) is that I made no statement on moving the second reading, and I will explain why I made no statement. The hon. and learned Gentleman must be aware that this Bill has been the subject of ques- tion and answer on more than one occasion lately, and in my answers I have had occasion to explain generally and shortly why it is that the Government are bringing in the Bill. That being so, and there being no Amendment given Notice of, I thought it more convenient to the House to wait until hon. Members who desired to have any further information had put their questions, and then I intended to make a reply, an opportunity for which would not be presented, if I had made a statement first, and no Amendment was moved. The hon. and learned Member complains that no statement or explanation of the Bill is made, and expresses his own utter ignorance of the Bill. Well, I quite admit it is a reasonable thing to ask for an explanation in the House; but of all Members I think he is the least justified in taking up the position he has taken; because I took the trouble, in reply to his questions, to enter very fully into the scope and purpose of the Bill, and I thought I had explained the measure to his entire satisfaction. I understood he was perfectly satisfied.


The conversation I had with the right hon. Gentleman was purely private, and I understand it is a rule laid down that such conversations are not to be made public in the House.


I have not the slightest intention of making our private conversation public. I merely refer to it to show that he really has some ground for knowing what the Bill is. However, the hon. and learned Gentleman takes up the ground that he really does not understand that there is any object to be served by the Bill, and goes on to say that he did not believe there was any idea on the part of the Government of dealing with the question at all, that they merely intended to make some show of being busy. I can understand he is annoyed at the determination of the Government to carry out the pledges they have given to deal in a full and comprehensive manner with the question of local government. I do not know whether he was in the House the other day when the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Derby (Sir William Harcourt) made some observations on the Bill in reply to my right hon. Friend the First Lord of the Treasury (Mr. W. H. Smith), when he stated what Bills the Government intended to proceed with? On that occasion the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Derby said he was very glad the Government intended to proceed with the Boundaries Bill; because he looked upon it as a thing altogether unobjectionable and absolutely necessary before any question of local government could be entertained. The hon. and learned Member is not evidently in accord with a distinguished Leader of his Party. Anybody who has studied the subject of local government, which evidently the hon. and learned Member has not, must be perfectly well aware how impossible it is to settle any scheme without first dealing with the question of overlapping areas. In the Bill we had prepared and hoped to introduce this Session, we had clauses for the appointment of a Commission for dealing with this point; and when we found, from cir cumstances not necessary now to deal with, that we could not bring forward the Bill this Session, we thought it a pity that this portion of the Bill, which is in no sense of the term a Party question at all, should not be proceeded with, and so we submit it to the House in this separate form. Now, the hon. and learned Gentleman is, perhaps, aware that there are a large number of Unions in England and Wales, which overlap two or more counties, and he ought to know it is quite impossible to set up a representative county assembly without getting your rating areas within your County boundary. Therefore, it is essential that Unions and Sanitary areas should be brought within the county, whatever the system of county government shall be so long as it is representative. That is all the House is now asked to do. The County Authority set up will be a representative one, and it is necessary to get the machinery in order to set up that authority. Now, the hon. and learned Member asks what these Commissioners are to do. It will be their duty, no doubt, through sub-Commissions to inquire into the circumstances of every overlapping area throughout England and Wales, every overlapping Union and every overlapping urban Sanitary Authority, by inquiry and consultation on the spot with Local Authorities. Having obtained this data, they prepare their recommendations and submit them to the Local Government Board, who will lay them before Parliament. Parliament will not be committed to any part of the scheme proposed by the Boundary Commissioners, and can deal with the proposal in any way it pleases; but it is perfectly manifest to anyone who has studied the subject, that the question of overlapping areas must be dealt with, and surely it is an advantage to set to work at once to prepare the material for the scheme. This is a measure that has received the assent of nearly everyone, it is in no sense contentious; it is to enable necessary work to be done, and I hope the House will now pass the second reading.


And in reference to Scotland?


Oh, yes ! I beg pardon. The hon. Gentleman says it is a bad Bill, and complains that it is not applied to Scotland.


No; I said unnecessary.


It is unnecessary, says the hon. Gentleman; why not apply it to Scotland? Well, I may say we do propose to deal with local government in Scotland as well as England. Local government for England is first to be dealt with next Session, and we believe the investigation of the Commissioners between now and then will be of such a character as to guide us very considerably in the preparation of a Bill for Scotland. A Boundary Bill is drafted for Scotland; but we do not produce it, because we think it better to defer the inquiry to the beginning of next Session, when we shall have had the advantage of the experience of the working of this Bill before beginning similar work for Scotland.


There is one part of the right hon. Gentleman's observations to which I desire to take exception at once, and that is when he taunted my hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Anderson) with having had private information. We hear a great deal too much of these private conversations between Members of the Government and Members on this side, and I think my hon. and learned Friend was only discharging his duty to the House, even if he had that full private information which he said he had, in not compelling the Government to make it public to the whole country. There are one or two points that require further information than has been given. Sir, those who have seen this Bill must have seen that it is not a sham Bill; it is, at all events, a skeleton Bill. It is full of blanks, and we are entitled to call upon the Government to fill up those blanks as far as they can. Take the first effective clause, and we find it stated that the following persons are to be Commissioners; but we are given no idea of how many they are to be; all we do know is that there will be more than three, for three are to be a quorum. Now, I think we may fairly ask who the Boundary Commissioners are to be under this Bill Secondly, provision is made for a secretary; there is to be a paid secretary appointed by the Commissioners. But, no doubt, it is perfectly well known who this gentleman is. Thirdly, provision is made for payment of Commissioners and Assistant Commissioners, though the amount is not named. So the House is asked to commit itself to an unknown amount of expenditure, to an entirely unknown number of people. On all these points we are entitled to ask for information. My experience is not long enough for me to say if this is usual— [" Hear, hear !"]—but the experience of hon. Gentlemen who interrupt me is shorter than mine. I do not know whether the Government have precedent for this, or whether it is not usual to fill up these blanks at this stage of a Bill. If it is not usual, neither is it, I am sure, usual to move the second reading of a Bill of this character on the 30th of August. When we consider the lateness of the Session, the important character of the Bill, and the demands its makes on our attention, I think we are entitled, before allowing the Bill to proceed a step further, to ask the Government for full information on all the points to which I have called attention. One thing more, why is this demand made for the appointment of a Commission? My hon. and learned Friend knows perfectly well what has to be done; but he asked why appoint a Boundary Commission to do it? You have a Local Government Board with a large staff, and it is a paragon among Boards, an exception to the whole Civil Service, if its officers have half enough work to do. Why not let this Board do the work necessary under this Boundaries Bill? That, I believe, was the point of the speech of my hon. Friend. And unless the Government give us some further explanation, in lieu of the platitudes to which we have been treated by the right hon. Gentlemen the President of the Local Government Board, I shall certainly vote for the Amendment of my hon. and learned Friend.

MR. MARK STEWART (Kirkcudbright)

It is quite evident to the sense of this House and of this country why the opposition against this Government Bill is being aroused. We all know that on the Orders of the Day there are several Scotch measures, measures which are most interesting to the people of Scotland, and which the Scotch Members deem to be of very great importance to carry, except, I believe, the two Scotch Members who have taken part in this debate. [Cries of'' Withdraw ! "]


I rise to Order, Sir. I wish to ask, Mr. Speaker, on a point of Order, whether the hon. Member opposite (Mr. Mark Stewart) is in Order in imputing to the only two Scotch Members who have yet spoken on this Bill, that their motive for opposing it is not opposition to the Bill itself, but is a desire to prevent the House proceeding with the Scotch Orders which are to come on later on?


I cannot say that the remarks of the hon. Member were out of Order. He did not impute improper motives to the hon. Members.


I only wish to say that inasmuch as the Scotch Members have been waiting here the whole of the evening, listening to the dissertations of the Irish Members, it is only fair now that we should have our innings; and I cannot help thinking that though hon. Gentlemen on the opposite side may be quite sincere, and I believe that they are, for I do not wish to impute any improper motive to them, yet I will urge that if they will withdraw this Motion, and let us proceed with the Scotch Business, which is really interesting to us, and which will confer a real benefit upon our country, it will be far better for us all.

MR. HUNTER (Aberdeen, N.)

I cannot say that the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board is at all satisfactory. Either this Bill is unnecessary for England or a similar Bill is necessary for Scotland. There is not a single word in his speech that shows in the slightest degree any attempt on the part of the right hon. Gentleman to escape from the horns of that dilemma. It is evident that though the Government intend to prosecute this Bill for England, they are totally indifferent as to Scotland's wants in the matter; and it seems to me a very large Order to ask of us to give the Government powers to perform duties which, in my humble opinion, might be performed without expense to the country, by officials of the Local Government Board, who are already well paid. There is nothing in this inquiry which requires statutory powers. The Local Government Board ought to make all these inquiries themselves, and unless we get some more satisfactory explanation from the right hon. Gentleman, I trust that the Amendment will be pressed to a Division.

SIR DONALD CURRIE (Perthshire, W.)

At 25 minutes to 3 when, as Scotch Members, we are anxious to be taking the Technical Education Bill for Scotland, I think it is rather a pity that the Government should be asked to delay the consideration of this Bill. It is an injustice to the Government and also to the Scotch Members, and it shows an indifference to the wishes of the people of Scotland. In regard to the Local Government Bill, I object for my part to the hon. and learned Member (Mr. Anderson) stating that he is entitled to speak for the Scotch Members as he has assumed to do in this matter. We have had very little time to-day to carry on measures which we anxiously desire to press forward; and the Lord Advocate has most earnestly for hours this evening sought to smooth the way by arranging as to the Amendments which have to be put down for consideration. If Scotch Members think a Boundaries Bill is a necessity for Scotland as well as for England, surely it would be better to let the English measure pass through, and seek subsequently to have it made applicable to their country. I think the sooner we proceed with the Technical Education (Scotland) Bill the better it will be for us all.

THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY (Mr. W. H. SMITH) (Strand, Westminster)

I hope that the hon. and learned Member (Mr. Anderson), having drawn attention to his objections to the Bill, will now in deference to the view of the majority of the House allow it to proceed with the Bill. Full information will be given on all the subjects to which attention has been drawn by the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Dundee; and I may say that it is not usual to put names in a Bill until the Committee stage has been reached. Full information will then be given to the House, and I trust, therefore, that the hon. and learned Member will withdraw his Amendment.

MR. T. M. HEALY (Longford, N.)

Before the hon. and learned Member rises, I wish to say that, while concurring in the remarks of the President of the Local Government Board (Mr. Ritchie) as to the necessity of appointing a Commission, I do not think we are all agreed that it is necessary to pass the Bill; and I wish to ask the Government why the course taken in regard to the Redistribution of Seats Bill, which was a measure of far greater importance than this, has not been followed in the present case? In the matter of redistribution of seats, you appointed a Royal Commission, not a single Member of which, except two or three Irish lawyers, got a single sixpence; and you had gentlemen of the greatest eminence, like Sir Francis Sandford, who did the work without pay. You had, too, an admirable Secretary, a Welsh gentleman, who gave most excellent assistance; and I wish to know, this being the case, if you are not able to adopt a similar course in regard to the Boundaries Bill, which naturally will not excite more attention than the Redistribution of Seats Bill. Why is it necessary to pass this Bill at all? Her Majesty's Government could issue a Royal Commission, and appoint the gentlemen necessary without delay. I think this Bill is only necessary as a job. The Tories are in power, and they want to be enabled to appoint their friends to highly-paid posts. Now, Mr. Speaker, I wish to know from the Government—while we all admit fully the necessity of the Commission to delimit these areas—why it is necessary to have this Bill? If the Liberal Government could get distinguished gentlemen to do equally important work for nothing, why should the taxpayers of this nation now be saddled with high salaries to get similar work done? I think this proposal is positively monstrous. Why, they do not even tell us what salaries these gentlemen will get, nor how many Commissioners there are going to be appointed. We are told that not less than three will be a quorum; but you may have 33 appointed if you assent to the second reading of this Boundaries Bill, and the Commissioners may appoint a Secretary and staff; and I therefore submit that this is not a matter which the House ought to be called upon to deal with at this hour of the morning. If we are to admit that this Bill is necessary for England, surely it is also necessary for us in Ireland, and we have not yet heard one word upon the subject of dealing with Ireland in this Bill. It has been admitted that local government of some sort will be of interest for Ireland, at the end of the 20 years of resolute government which we are to have; but why is a Bill of this kind brought in, and no statement whatever made with regard to a similar measure for Scotland or for Ireland? I wish again to point out that these Commissioners could be appointed by Royal Commission, and if a question of salary should have to be raised this year, it could be brought up in the shape of a Supplementary Vote in the Estimates. Therefore, I submit, the Bill is a sham, and is only brought in to enable the Government to say—"We have passed the Boundaries Bill." If the Government can tell me what powers this Bill will confer on thorn which they would not have in appointing a Royal Commission, my opposition will be considerably modified; but, I think, as Irishmen, we are entitled to some statement on the question of Ireland; and I presume that the question of the delimitation of boundaries in Ireland will require examination and inquiry. We are told it is the intention of the Government to deal with that question; but I submit we are entitled to some explanation of these points; and therefore, while I have no general opposition to the measure except on the ground of economy, and that the Bill is a useless one so far as Ireland is concerned, if it has an interest for England, we ought also to have a similar Bill for Ireland, and before I withdraw my opposition, I must be convinced that powers are to be conferred by the Bill which the Government do not already possess.


Perhaps the House will permit me to answer this question, although I have no right to speak again in this debate. First, I am asked a question as to the expense, and why the Government do not appoint a Royal Commission, instead of requesting the House to assent to this Bill. The inference is, that in the one case the Commissioners appointed will be paid, and in the other case they will be unpaid. But we do not desire to proceed with it as a purely Government measure, as would be the case were we to appoint a Royal Commission. This is a matter in which the House is deeply interested, and it is desirable that the appointment of a Commission should not partake of the character of a Party or Government proposal. We desire that the House should be a party to the insertion in this Bill of the names of gentlemen who would command the confidence of Members of all sides of the House; and I will inform the hon. Gentleman that I have taken the step of communicating the names of the Commissioners we suggest to the Loaders of the Party opposite, with a view to obtaining their concurrence, not in any way to bind the House, but to obtain their concurrence and their sanction to the insertion of those names in the Bill. I have not yet even asked the Gentleman whom we propose shall be appointed whether or not they will serve, but I have heard that the gentlemen suggested will be generally agreeable to the Leaders of the Party opposite. This is our reason for proceeding by way of Bill rather than by appointing a Royal Commission. As to the question of payment, there is no intention that the Commissioners should be paid. It is perfectly true that power is taken for payment to be made—but that power is a general one—because it may be the ease that one or two of the Commissioners may require some little payment for extra trouble which may devolve upon thorn, and also it may be necessary for them to incur certain expenses. Gentlemen will have to be appointed as Sub-Commissioners, and they, of course, will have to be paid. The hon. Member asks why anyone should be paid, when with reference to the Redistribution Bill everything was done without payment to all. But let me point out that this is a much more diffi- cult problem to solve. In the case of the Redistribution Bill the question of how constituencies should be cut up for Parliamentary revision was one which could be settled to a large extent by maps in a room in Westminster.


I wish you had some of the Irish inquiries to deal with.


But in this case there are many complicated question to be decided, such as the cutting off a piece of a Union which is in one county, and adding a Union which is in another. There are questions involving not only great jealousy, but a great amount of local feeling. There are questions affecting debts, liabilities, and rating, and therefore it is absolutely essential that the inquiries should be made on the spot, and that the recommendation to be made should be based upon full inquiry with the aid of the Local Authorities of the districts that are affected. This can only be done by means of gentlemen sent down for the purpose. The Local Government Board Inspectors will, as far as possible, assist the Commissioners who are appointed; but it is quite impossible that they can do all that is necessary, for the ordinary staff of the Local Government Board are constantly and fully employed in their work. With reference to Ireland, I must say the same as I said in regard to Scotland. There is not the smallest intention on the part of the Government to evade these questions; but it is a somewhat novel matter, and we think, the experience to be gained between now and next year, if this Bill is carried, will largely help us with reference to Scotland and Ireland. I am sure that that is a point which will commend itself to the hon. and learned Member.

DR. TANNER (Cork Co., Mid)

Sir, I regret that when I rose just now to continue the discussion, I was not able to catch your eye, for I wanted to make an explanation in regard to this Bill. I have had a block against it for the last fortnight, and on Saturday night last it was my desire to take a block off another Government measure—the Charity Commission (Officers) Bill. Accordingly, I went to the Table and asked that the block should be taken off; but unfortunately a mistake was then and there made, and the block was taken off the Local Government measure, and the Charity Commission Bill remained blocked. It is a most unfortunate occurrence, and I should like to know, Sir, what I am to do under the circumstances?


I cannot give the hon. Member any advice on the subject.


Then, Sir, as that happens to be the case, I beg to move the adjournment of the debate on this Bill.

[The Motion, not being seconded, was not put.]


I am sure, after the statement made by the Government, I ought to accede to the appeal made to me; but, perhaps, I may be allowed to add—in order to show the necessity of the course I took, and as an answer to the hon. Member opposite (Mr. Mark Stewart)—that my objection to this Bill is a serious objection. I gave Notice of that objection months ago, and the ground on which I did so was that it did not include Scotland. I desire the House to understand that I have not taken the objection from any obstructive desire; but I sincerely object to the exclusion of Scotland from the operation of the Bill. I beg to ask leave to withdraw my Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for Monday next.