HC Deb 29 May 1894 vol 24 cc1624-34
MR. FORWOOD (Lancashire, Ormskirk)

said, he desired to call attention to the action of the President of the Local Government Board in connection with the extension of the City of Liverpool and the redistribution of the wards When the Parish Councils Act was under discussion in that House and in another place an attempt was made to give to the Local Government Board the final decision as to proposals for the compulsory acquisition of land. It was urged that the President of that Board was in his administrative, as apart from his political, capacity a strictly impartial officer, exercising his functions in a judicial spirit. The late President emphasised this attitude in a remarkable speech when he said that should the holder of the office at any time transgress this rule his conduct could, in that House on the Estimates, or by moving the Adjournment of the House, be forthwith called in question. His action was in accord with that suggestion. The facts he had to state to the House which were the basis of his complaint were local, but they had a general application. It was well known that municipal communities desiring to extend their boundaries, and at the same time alter their ward arrangements, had as an initial step to memorialise the Local Board, and that body appointed a Commissioner to inquire locally into the merits of the scheme, with a view to advising the Board of the propriety or otherwise of promoting in that House a Provisional Order to give effect to the proposal. No subject required more careful or more impartial handling than did that of determining the boundaries of electoral areas, if confidence was to be given to the people and justice was done. The City Council of Liverpool did in November last memorialise the President of the Local Government Board, asking that the boundaries of the city might be enlarged, and that if this was approved, the same Provisional Order should, in the words of the Memorial, provide a scheme for re-arranging the boundaries of the existing wards of the city. Both proposals were favourably entertained by the late President of the Local Government Board, and under his instructions a Commissioner held a Court of Inquiry in March to hear evidence in the first instance as to the extension of the boundaries. There was some opposition at the outset on the part of Local Authorities to have their districts absorbed, but mutual agreements were ultimately made to carry out the scheme on terms arranged, which were submitted to and approved by the Commissioner. One of the conditions so determined was the number of municipal representatives to be granted to the districts to be added, and when this was arranged the parties had before them only the desire of the Council to re-arrange the boundaries of the existing wards. On this the proportion of Councillors the new and old districts should respectively obtain to each other was fixed. The Local Government Board expressed their approval of the proposed extension of the city, and undertook to apply for the necessary Parliamentary authority. The Board then instituted a public Court of Inquiry to consider the second portion of the Council's application—namely, what alterations were required in the ward boundaries of the existing city. No change had been made in these for 60 years; meantime the city had more than doubled in population, and naturally great changes in the comparative population of the wards had arisen. For many years everyone in Liverpool had admitted the anomalies and unsatisfactory condition of their ward system, but as politics ruled all elections to the Town Councils, and the smaller wards were in the hands mainly of one Party, so the political Parties failed to obtain the majority of Councillors necessary for providing a scheme of distribution. There were 16 wards in Liverpool returning 48 Councillors, with an aggregate electorate of 77,000, and apportionment of the electors to Councillors was so unequal that on one extreme 700 electors had three representatives, whilst at the top of the scale 26,000 electors only had the same number of members. That it was a burning Party question the House would understand when he said that four wards containing 54,000 electors had only 12 members, who were all Unionists, whilst 23,000 electors in the smaller wards had 36 representatives, of whom only nine were Unionists. This preponderance of one Party representing the small wards controlled the Council, and they had very naturally been loth, in spite of their advocacy of the "One Man One Vote" principle, to change a state of matters so much to their advantage. However, last year both Parties agreed to the necessity of an extension of the boundaries of the city, and thus had an opportunity, as they supposed, of securing the impartial and independent aid of a Government Commissioner to carry out both objects and with justice to all parties. On the eve of the ward inquiry the City Council by a party resolution, carried by 33 members representing 20,000 electors (the theoretical supporters of the One Man One Vote Party) against 27 Councillors who represented 60,000 electors, put forward a plan not for re-arranging the existing wards but for increasing the number of wards. Naturally the new districts objected to this, as it destroyed the relative proportion of Councillors between the old and added portions of the city, and was a breach of agreement made with them. Evidence was hear I by the Commissioner. His attention was also called to the unfair allotment of Councillors which the scheme gave even amongst the electors of the present city. For example, it gave to the supporters of the hon. Member for the Scotland Division a Councillor to every 650 electors, whilst in the Everton Division a Councillor was called upon to represent 1,400 electors.

In regard to rating, the same ludicrous political partiality was exhibited. When rating told against the dominant Party it was ignored, but when it was favourable it was adopted. All points were brought before the Commissioner, who himself said, in the course of the inquiry— If the Corporation had intended to alter the number of wards I think it should have been stated in the recommendation. The advocate for the City Council who supported the plan which he had been criticising wound up the proceedings by saying, I must leave the question in your hands as to how these words ought to be re-arranged; what principle is to be adopted in carrying out that arrangement. He also added that He felt sure the Commissioner would give such effect to the representations which had been made to him as he, in his opinion, would think right and in the best interests of the City of Liverpool. To his mind, nothing could have been more straightforward than this promised acceptance of the decision of the Commissioner. The Commissioner of the Local Government Board, General Carey, a most competent and experienced expert in these inquiries, had stated that he prepared before he entered upon the inquiry, in accordance with instructions from the Board, a ward scheme on the basis of 16 wards for the existing city, with boundaries entirely irrespective of those proposed by the City Council. After the inquiry so satisfied, no doubt, was he of the fairness of this scheme that he made no attempt to prepare another, but simply completed his plan and submitted it to the Board. Immediately, however, on the conclusion of the inquiry by the Commissioner some members of the political Party now in the majority in the City Council of Liverpool, fearing, no doubt, that their gerrymandering scheme was in jeopardy, and then there would be an end to their power in the city, despatched one of their number to London to do what is known in America as "lobbying." How far the extraordinary decision which the Local Government Board had given, and to which he would shortly refer, was influenced by the representations made through this Party emissary he was not in a position to say. He had now brought his case up to the point when it came into the hands of the President of the Local Government Board for decision. That right hon. Gentleman had entirely ignored the Report of his Commissioner and the instructions which he gave him, and in a letter dated the 22nd of May had communicated to the City Council of Liverpool that he felt precluded from proceeding with the Provisional Order for extending the boundaries until some agreement had been come to on the subject of the wards between the City Council and the authorities in the proposed extension as to the representation of the existing city. This conclusion of the right hon. Gentleman was in effect to decline to discharge the very duties for which his Department existed. He relegated to a body composed mainly of his political supporters a duty which it was incumbent upon him—not as a political officer, but as a judicial administrator—to perform. To leave the matter to the determination of the City Council is to say to the minority on that body, who represent so large a majority of the electors, "I leave you in the hands of your political opponents. I will not exercise the power the law imposes upon me and prepare such a scheme as I think just, which you can accept or not as you think proper." In his letter he refers to a "misunderstanding," but the very object of a Commissioner's inquiry—with the Local Board as an Appeal Court—was to hear and determine the merits of the case. The City Council had in express words through their advocate asked the Local Government Board to prepare its own scheme if it thought proper. The Commissioner had prepared a scheme which the President had set aside. The right hon. Gentleman might say he had only postponed the question. Who was to put him in motion? Certainly not the majority in the City Council, who now knew the fate in store for them under the scheme. And so the matter would drop and a small minority of ratepayers continue to govern the large majority. Important works of a sanitary character were held in abeyance pending a decision as to what authority would have to carry them out. By the delay confusion would also be created in regard to the elections under the Parish Councils Bill. Had the President settled the municipal ward question no doubt the same boundaries would have been adopted for the wards of the Parish Councils. As it was, there would be confusion, trouble, and cost through there being different areas for the Parish Council and the City Council elections. In conclusion, he asked the President of the Local Government Board to reconsider the whole circumstances of the case, and instead of placing a matter, upon which the daily life, health, comfort, and welfare of hundreds of thousands of people depended, upon the shoulders of a body which regarded the matter only from a political standpoint, to himself adjudicate upon the question in his judicial capacity as the Parliamentary officer entrusted with the duty of determining the matter.


I am very sorry that the right hon. Gentleman has not had a better opportunity of making his statement, and that I myself have not had a better opportunity of replying, not merely to the statement which the right hon. Gentleman had just made, but to the far more serious, important, and altogether unprecedented speech which the right hon. Gentleman made against me at Liverpool. I am perfectly astounded that the right hon. Gentleman should have addressed the House and made no reference to that speech. He has not repeated what he said at Liverpool a few days ago, and this perfectly amazes and astounds me. The House will be surprised to know that before I came to a conclusion on the case, when I had not even read the Papers connected with it, the right hon. Gentleman went down to Liverpool and made an attack on me of the strongest possible character, which I venture to say no ex-Minister ever made against another, accusing me of having been guilty of the most flagrant political job, of having dishonoured the Office which I hold, and of having been guilty of political chicanery.


Before the right hon. Gentleman attributes these words to me, may I ask him to read the speech?


I should like to read every word of it. The report of the hon. Member's speech said— It had always been understood that the President of the Local Government Board occupied, as regards the administration of his Department, a judicial office. ['Hear, hear!'] When the Parish Councils Bill was under discussion in the House of Lords, exception was taken to any compulsory power to take land on an Order of the Local Government Board without the approval of Parliament. Lord Salisbury said, We are told, as the noble Lord told me, that Presidents of the Local Government Board are invariably men of honour, and you can always trust to the absolute justice of their decision. I reply that that is not the principle on which we have been accustomed to deal with the interests of the people. We are bound to look at the fact that human nature is not perfect, and though nine out of ten Presidents of the Local Government Board may be all you could wish, you may come across a tenth which may do great injustice.' That "tenth" was clearly intended for him (Mr. Shaw-Lefevre).


I was quoting.


No doubt the hon. Member was quoting, but quoting with a view of applying the quotation to him. The Report went on— The suggestion that politics could play any part at the Local Government Board was most indignantly repudiated by the Radicals. [Laughter.] This was a basis for one of the cries in which they endeavoured to arouse the feeling of the country for the abolition of that House. ['Hear, hear!'and renewed laughter.] He (Mr. Forwood) well remembered the remarks of Mr. Henry Fowler, the then President of the Local Government Board, who described what would be the constitutional consequences were anyone holding his office to be guilty of any action in his Department savouring of a political job. He (Mr. Forwood) little thought when he listened to those high sounding sentiments that within three months they would be apparently forgotten, and his successor be open to an indictment on a charge of flagrant political jobbery. No one would be more pleased than he if Mr. Shaw-Lefevre could give such explanations as would place any other construction upon the facts which he (Mr. Forwood) would now state. He (Mr. Shaw-Lefevre) was sorry to say he did not believe the hon. Member. The Report went on— As they knew, the City Council applied for a Provisional Order for two purposes—one for an extension of the city boundaries, and the other for a re-arrangement of the existing wards within the city. The Commissioner from the Local Government Board first held an inquiry into the question of extension which also involved the municipal representation of the new districts proposed to be added. The result of that investigation was that the Local Government Board approved the scheme, and in March promised to put forward the Order. ['Hear, hear.'] Afterwards, on the 10th of April last, the same Commissioner came down to inquire into the Council's request to re-arrange the existing wards. As they knew the Council—by a parting majority—put forward a scheme varying the relative proportions of Councillors between the present Liverpool and the added districts from that agreed with the Local Boards, and arranging the boundaries of the wards in a manner best suited to the political interests of one party. ['Hear, hear.'] Evidence was heard for and against the proposal, and the Commissioner—acting in a judicial capacity—made his Report to Mr. Shaw-Lefevre. No rational man could entertain a doubt. as to the lines of that communication being adverse to the Home Rule scheme of the Radicals. Hitherto it had been the custom of Presidents of the Local Government Board to accept the Reports and recommendations of the Board's independent Commissioner, based as they were on evidence and inquiries made on the spot. ['Hear, hear.'] The Radicals in Liverpool, feeling that their case failed before the Commissioner, commenced a political intrigue. They despatched one of their number, Mr. Beloe, the author of their plans, to "lobby"—to use an American term—so as to bring political influence to bear upon the President of the Local Government Board to get him to put aside his Commissioner's proposals. They would no doubt admit that Liverpool root and branch was lost to the Liberal Party unless the Commissioner's scheme was altered. The aid of an M.P., once a registration agent in Liverpool, was sought, and he (Mr. Forwood) believed, from the evidence before him, that they had succeeded. ['Shame.'] The Commissioner had evidently been instructed to prepare a new scheme on lines furnished to him, as he had within the last few days been making further inquiries in Liverpool. Instead of these fresh investigations being held, as in the former case, where everything was open and above board, they were conducted privately. Meantime as a result of this political chicanery on the part of the Liverpool Radicals, Mr. Lefevre had practically refused to Liverpool for this year, at any rate, not only an extension of the boundaries, but a re-arrangement of the existing wards. It was, he (Mr. Forwood) said, the bounden duty of Mr. Lefevre to give the fullest details of the transactions he had pictured, if he was to remain in the category of Presidents, as described by Lord Kimberley, and not prove the exception indicated by Lord Salisbury. What the right hon. Gentleman charged him with, before the constituents of Liverpool, in the town where the inquiry was pending, was that he had listened to the "lobbying" of a man sent from Liverpool, and that he had sent a commissioner to make secret inquiries behind the backs of the people concerned, and after a full local inquiry had been held. If that charge were true it would amount to one of political jobbery. But the charges were totally without truth. He wished to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he stood by those charges?


I say to-night, as I stated at Liverpool, that I should be very glad if the right hon. Gentleman could give such explanations as would prevent any idea [cries of "Withdraw!"] of those charges being brought against him. I accept the assurance [cries of "Oh!" "Withdraw!"and "Apologise!"] that the facts then presented had nothing to do with him. [Cries of "Apologise!"]


said, that was no defence, because the charges were untrue from beginning to end. If the right hon. Gentleman believed in them why did he not repeat them in the House, and if he did not why did he not withdraw them? That would have been the proper course for an honest man to take. Every word of the statement was untrue, and the right hon. Gentleman had no right to make it without inquiry. There was one statement to which he took no exception—that the position of the President of the Local Government Board was a judicial position. He had during his short tenure of office endeavoured to act on that policy, and he had absolutely declined to allow anyone to approach him in these matters, or to communicate with him by letter or deputation or in person while these inquiries were proceeding. Many persons who did not appreciate his judicial position as President of the Local Government Board had endeavoured to approach him. Hon. Members on both sides of the House had attempted to do so; but he had refused consistently to enter into discussion with them; and had stated that he could only act on the evidence given at the local inquiry. He would read one letter which he had written in reply to an applicant. It was this— I regret being unable to discuss with you the question now before the Local Government Board with respect to the extension of the City of Liverpool. I have felt that my position in the matter is that of having to decide judicially upon the evidence taken at an inquiry held by an officer of the Board. All parties have had the opportunity of appearing before this inquiry and of being subjected to cross-examination by their opponents. I feel, therefore, that I cannot entertain the representations in private of any of the parties to the dispute, for there would be no opportunity for their opponents to test such statements by cross-examination or to make counter-statements. For this reason, I declined to accord an interview on the subject to the Lord Mayor of Liverpool. I am sure you will understand my position and will recognise that it is from no want of courtesy that I must adopt the same course with regard to yourself as to any others on either side who may desire to approach me on this important subject. That has been his action in every single case. He had waited for the right hon. Gentleman to bring this question on in the House, and he was surprised that he should make no allusion to his speech in Liverpool. He accepted the right hon. Gentleman's apology [cries of "He has made none"], or rather his recantation. It was not true that the Local Government Board had declined to carry out the recommendation. [Mr. FORWOOD: Postponed.] No, they had not even postponed doing so. They had carried out the only specific recommendation which their Commissioner made, which was not to proceed further with the scheme for the extension of the City boundaries, and they had informed the Corporation of Liverpool accordingly. He greatly hoped, however, that a settlement might yet be made, and he did not despair of a settlement being arrived at between the parties. He thought the speeches and letters which the right hon. Gentleman had been making and writing in Liverpool would not on the whole tend to an amicable settlement, but anything that the Local Government Board and himself could do would be done with a view to such a settlement. He regretted the action which the right hon. Gentleman had taken, and he hoped the House would not think he had spoken too strongly.


said, that by way of personal explanation he wished to state that he had listened with the utmost satisfaction to the remarks of the right hon. Gentleman, and to his assurance with regard to the action he had taken, and he begged to say that if the right hon. Gentleman considered that any remarks of his reflected upon him in the conduct of his office he would withdraw them.

MR. NEVILLE (Liverpool, Exchange)

said, he thought the right hon. Gentleman could have been under no misapprehension as to the baseless nature of his charges, because the morning after the speech referred to he was publicly challenged to state the grounds on which he made his charge. He took a week to consider his reply, but he gave no grounds for what he had alleged, and simply gave an evasive answer.

Question put, and agreed to.