HC Deb 30 March 1896 vol 39 cc464-72

rose to call attention to the operation of Section 10 of the Local Government Act of 1888, with the object of having it put into immediate operation as far as the Principality of Wales was concerned. He had intended to deal with Section 81 as well, but he understood from the Chair that it would not be competent to call attention to that section.


Section 10 deals with certain duties or powers of the Local Government Board; Section 81 merely deals with the voluntary action of the County Councils and Quarter Sessions, and those bodies did not come on the Estimates.


said that Section 10 proposed that after the passing of this Act Provisional Orders should be made for certain purposes—the transferring to County Councils of the powers, duties and liabilities of the Privy Council exercised by the Secretary of State, the Board of Trade, the Local Government Board, the Education Department or any other Department arising within the county of an administrative character. Sub-section 2 made certain provisions with regard to the Provisional Order of a purely executive character. Sub-section 3 provided that the powers, duties or liabilities referred to in Provisional Orders arising within two or more counties might be transferred to the County Councils and exercised and discharged by a Joint Committee. The Joint County Councils of Wales and Monmouth were formed in 1891 for the purpose of carrying into operation the objects of this clause. At that time an appeal was made to the President of the Board of Trade with the view of putting this section into operation, but there was a difficulty of some kind. The right hon. Gentleman raised some objection on the ground of funds, but he had no objection to the principle; indeed he spoke strongly in support of the section. At the time a Bill was introduced, and it was proposed first that certain powers of the Government Department should be transferred immediately to the County Councils. There was appended to the Bill a schedule of the powers which the right hon. Gentleman contemplated should he transferred immediately on the Act coming into operation. It was intended that the section should operate with reference to piers and harbours, tramways, provisional orders for gas and electric lighting and other matters. The present President of the Local Government Board, when the Measure was before Parliament, objected to a proposal to transfer these powers to the County Councils before experience had been gained of those bodies. Now, however, such experience had been gained, and there was no doubt that the County Councils of England and Wales had done admirably. The President of the Local Government Board, he felt sure, would no longer object to the transference of these powers to the County Councils. There was, in fact, no reason whatever for refusing to put the section into operation. The 3rd Section of the Clause contemplated the exercise, of the powers referred to by County Councils and by Joint Committees of County Councils, and he should prefer that these powers or most of them at all events—should be entrusted to Joint Committees rather than to County Councils themselves. He took the first Government Department which was alluded to in the section, the Local Government Board. What were the powers of the Local Government Board? The sanctioning of loans to local authorities, the sanctioning of orders with regard to parish boundaries, the sale of property by local authorities, the supervision of poor law guardians, and the sanctioning of orders with regard to allotments. If an application was for the sanction of the Board for the expenditure of money, the Board sent down an inspector of more or less experience; but these inspectors did not know the language spoken by two-thirds of the people whose wants they came to investigate, and the result was that they were excluded from stating their view of the case. The Inquiry in many cases partook of the nature of a farce. The inspector knew nothing of the wants of the locality, and did not understand the language of the bulk of the population, and it was impossible for an inspector of that character to report properly. There was no doubt that the Local Government Board was considerably under- manned. No one could suggest anything against the officials of that Department. There could not be a more hard-working or courteous body, but at the same time it was perfectly obvious that it was utterly impossible for them to master all the details of the local cases that came before them. He knew a case which happened recently, and which might have ended disastrously for the town concerned. The authorities of the town, which was a sea-side place, wanted to borrow money for the purpose of waterworks. The whole prosperity and, indeed, the very existence of the place depended upon the carrying out of the waterworks, but it was not without the greatest difficulty that the Local Government Board were induced to appoint an inspector to inquire into the local circumstances, the truth being that the Department was undermanned and had far more important matters to attend to. But the question was one of vital importance to the town concerned. He thanked the Secretary to the Local Government Board for his action in the matter, acknowledging that it was through his assistance that the Inquiry was at length granted. His first point was that the Local Government Board had not got the local knowledge, and his second that they had not really the time to enter into the minute details which must necessarily weigh with any honest and conscientious official before he granted sanction to the expenditure of the money of the ratepayers. It might be urged that local authorities were only too eager to spend money, and that it was necessary to exercise considerable vigilance with regard to them. But that vigilance was not exercised now, because the Local Government Board could not know anything about the district and had not the time to go into the questions. Then as regarded parish boundaries, such as the question of whether a certain field in one parish should be taken into another, and what proportion of the burden of taxation of the parish to which it was originally attached, should be relieved in respect of the transfer, were surely matters which could be decided without having to be brought up to London and discussed in a Department which had already enormous interests to take charge of. Surely an insignificant matter of that kind could be transferred to the local authority. Another point to which he wished to refer was the fact that the Local Government Board had to be consulted with regard to any sale of property, however small, by the County Council. If the Council had a small plot of ground, or an old building, they did not require, and wished to get rid of, they could not sell it without first obtaining the consent of the Local Government Board. Was not that absurd? If an individual was capable of carrying out such a matter of business for himself, surely a local authority, who knew all the local circumstances, could be intrusted to do so. [Mr. MACLURE: "What about jobbery?"] An hon. Member had referred to jobbery, and his reply to the remark was, that in Manchester, the jobbery which existed there at one time was discovered, not by the Local Government Board, but by the local authority. If the people of Manchester had had to depend on the Local Government Board in the matter, they would have had to wait a long time for the discovery. The very way to put an end to jobbery, or to prevent it, was to place those matters in the hands of the local body, who were well acquainted with all the facts in connection with the transaction. To Boards of Guardians, the Local Government Board issued voluminous reports with regard to the administration of the poor law. They were excellent publications, and some he had read recently contained very valuable recommendations as to the amelioration of the condition of the poor in workhouses, and as to nursing and hospitals, but his contention was the recommendations simply ended with the printer's bill. There was no attempt to put them into operation beyond what the inspectors did. Those gentlemen attended the meetings of the Guardians, but spoke in a language which was not understood by three-fourths of the Members of the Boards, and, consequently, their remarks had no weight. If good work was to be done there must be pressure, not from an overworked Government Department, but from the locality. They must transfer the power either to the County Council or to Joint Committees of the County Councils, whose duty it would be to see the power exercised. No doubt the Local Government Board had done everything they possibly could do to relieve acute distress arising from the want of employment, but what could they do? They confined themselves to issuing circulars to the local authorities, and they only got stereotyped replies. It was not by issuing circulars they got people to respect the law. If there was anything to be done it must be the result of local initiative. No doubt the right hon. Gentleman would recollect the recommendations made in regard to the unemployed. Very well. In certain cases modifications were made in districts where they were not required, and in other cases modifications of a totally different character were made. The whole pointed to the conclusion that what they required to put the powers into effective use was local knowledge. They must have local knowledge. The Local Government Board could not possibly administer the poor law over a wide area. It was purely a question of administration. He should not refer to the Allotments Act and to larger holdings. There was a great difficulty in inducing local authorities to put these Acts into operation. In fact, they had a wholesome dislike to increasing the rates. It was a duty with regard to the criminal law, if that was infringed, to enforce it. They held that it was the duty of the Government to see that the Acts of Parliament, which were of a constructive character, and which conduced to good government, were carried out as well as those of a repressive character. Take the Educational Department. A very large portion of the administration was given to the County Councils, and, as a matter of fact, that had been done with regard to higher and primary education in Wales. All these powers had been conferred upon Joint Committees of the County Councils. He thought they had worked with admirable success. He believed that in a few years it would become the best system, simply because it had been administered by the local authorities, and because there was local initiative. There was unparalleled success in building up the Educational system, all attributable to the fact that they had begun with local initiative, local super intendence and local knowledge. His suggestion was that the procedure which had been followed with such success in the matter of secondary education should also be followed in regard to primary education. At present they had got set of rules which had been framed for the whole kingdom, but which were totally unadapted to the Celtic race, many of whom were mono-lingual. It was only within the last few years that the Minister for Education had been induced to recognise the Welsh language at all. and a good deal of the credit of that was due to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the. Dartford division of Kent, and the Welsh people would always feel grateful to him for recognising the separate educational requirements of Wales. Then there were powers now vested in the President of the Board of Trade which, in the original draft of the Local Government Act of 1888 it was proposed to transfer straight off to the County Councils. He referred to the powers relative to piers, harbours, gas or electric lighting, and tramways. They had now got experience of County Councils, and, he thought it was incumbent on the President of the Board of Trade, who was one of the originators of the act, to see that the transfer should now he made. It was absurd that they should have to come to the House of Commons, and go through the whole gamut of the officials in order to get a tramway or a gas company for a little village in. Wales. At any rate, he would suggest to the right hon. Gentleman, if he would not transfer these powers immediately to the County Councils, that he should form a Welsh Department in the Local Government Board to deal with them. They only-asked that the sytem which had worked so well in regard to Scotland and Ireland should be followed in regard to Wales. If the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board was notable to give him any undertaking at present that his suggestions should be carried out, he hoped that he would put them into operation when he had the opportunity of doing so.


said that he would follow the example that had been set by the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down, and would delay the House as little as he could in replying to the hon. Member. We had new had some years' experience of the working of County Councils, which, in his view, had been satisfactory, and had not justified the fears that were expressed at the time when the Act which created them was passed into law. It was unnecessary for him to delay the House long in reference to the powers which the hon. Member desired should be transferred to the County Councils in Wales as speedily as possible. The hon. Member had referred to the difficulty that was experienced by the Inspectors, of the Local Government Board in performing their duties in Wales, owing to their ignorance of the Welsh language. He fully admitted that there was some ground for the hon. Gentleman's complaint, and he could assure the hon. Member that he would keep an open mind with regard to it. No doubt practical difficulties did arise from the fact, and he would see whether something could not be done to meet them. The hon. Gentleman had given a great many reasons why certain of the powers now exercised by the Local Government Board should be transferred to the Welsh County Councils, and one of his strongest reasons for the change he proposed was that the Local Government Board itself was undermanned. It must, however, be remembered that a great number of additional duties had been imposed, by statute and otherwise, upon the Board during recent years—he was afraid, with the result that it was true that sometimes their transactions were not carried out with the rapidity that could be desired, and that occasionally considerable delay had occurred. When the hon. Member asked him to consent to the transfer of these powers in the Principality of Wales, he must ask him to remember that the transfer had not been carried out anywhere up to the present time, and he could hardly expect him to give a definite pledge on the subject that night. It was the first occasion on which the question had been raised. He was not aware of any demand that had reached the Local Government Board from any of the Town Councils in Wales for the transfer of these powers. He agreed that this was no reason why he should turn a deaf ear to the appeal of the hon. Member. On the contrary, while he could not agree with his proposals that the Local Government Board should abandon its control over the administration of poor law in Wales, he admitted that some alterations might possibly be made. The hon. Member pointed out the desirability of improving the system under which nurses were appointed. It was frequently the duty of the Local Government Board to press on the Boards of Guardians the necessity of carrying out this duty. Reserving the full right to be absolved from any distinct pledge on the subject, he assured the hon. Member that he should approach the question in the spirit the hon. Member would desire, acknowledging that there was much in what he had said which deserved, and should receive, consideration.


said that Members from Wales on both sides would feel exceedingly grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the tone of his reply, for the practical concession he had made, and for consenting to consider the suggestions they had offered. But the right hon. Gentleman was in error in saying that this was the first time the question had been raised. It was true that this was the first time the question had been raised since the Debate of 1888. He held in his hand a number of official resolutions which had been passed by the County Councils of South Wales and Monmouthshire since the passing of the Act of 1888, which indicated the interest that had been taken in it. Owing to the Debates in the House of Commons, great interest was excited in Wales upon the subject, and nearly every County Council in Wales unanimously passed a resolution to the effect that it was desirable that the Local Government Board should act on the powers it had under Section 10 of the Local Government Act. They considered that an association of Welsh County Members should be formed to receive the powers the Local Government Board was to confer. The Local Government Board did make a serious attempt to delegate its powers and those of other Departments to the County Councils, but that attempt was defeated by the action of the smaller boroughs and of the municipal Coporations Association. The Welsh County Councils were disappointed, and they held two great conferences of anon-party character. At the second twelve of the sixteen County Councils were represented, and no party question entered into the deliberations. He had twice introduced a Bill to obtain these powers; but the right hon. Gentleman, as a matter of administration, would be able to do a great deal without further legislation. The County Councils had a practical share in the work of education in its various branches. They were directly represented in the University of Wales; they appointed representatives to the University College; they nominated a majority of the County governing bodies, and these governing bodies had for some time past met in a general conference, whose deliberations showed that Welshmen of all classes could combine for great administrative objects. The work of the Government departments in London was becoming enormous. He hoped that when the proper time came the right hon. Gentleman, acting in the spirit of the speech which he had just made, to their great gratification, would make up his mind that something effective should at last be done to carry out the policy of the Government which passed the Local Government Act of 1888.