HC Deb 02 April 1897 vol 48 cc450-3

On the return of Mr. SPEAKER, after the usual interval,

MR. LLOYD-GEORGE (Carnarvon Boroughs)

rose to call attention to the congestion of work at the Local Government Board Department. He said that he raised this question last year, when the President of the Local Government Board gave a pledge. In complaining that it was difficult to get questions, small in themselves, but of great local interest, speedily attended to, he wished to exonerate the officials of the Local Government Board, for there was no more competent body of public servants in the country. His complaint was rather on their behalf, for they were much overworked. An enormous task had been imposed on them by legislation; and scarcely a year went by without some Bill being passed which made the task heavier. It was very important, therefore, that where the duties performed by the Board could be better discharged by local bodies with local knowledge, they should be transferred. Under the Act of 1888 the Board had power to delegate some of its duties to the County Councils; and he had already pointed out how much better questions of boundaries, for instance, could be dealt with by such bodies. There were also questions of the sale of drugs, and of audits and loans, where the powers of the Act of 1888 might be usefully put in operation. He should like to know how far the Inquiry of the Departmental Committee on this question had proceeded. He desired also some information with regard to the question of the grouping of counties. He knew the difficulties which Local Government Board inspectors had in getting guardians, especially in rural districts, to realise their duties in regard to such questions as district nursing, outdoor relief, allotments, and the supply of pure water, and he would suggest that some of the powers already conferred on the Local Government Board of delegating their functions, not to County Councils, hue to groups of County Councils, should be brought into operation.


said the pressure on the Local Government arose in two ways. In the first place, the Acts of 1888 and 1894 placed something like 16,000 local authorities under the Board for the first time. The delay that had arisen in public business in that Department had been due, first, to an inadequate engineering staff; secondly, to an inadequate staff in the architects' department; and, thirdly, to a deficiency of auditors, especially with regard to County Council audits. As was well known, before rates could be mortgaged an inquiry must be held, and in nine cases out of ten that inquiry required expert knowledge, and, therefore, if the staff was short the work must be delayed. The same thing was true in regard to the architects' department, and undoubtedly great delay had taken place because of the pressure there. There had also been loud complaints because it had been found impossible with the audit staff to close some of the accounts within the financial year. All that was bad enough, but it was capped by the inadequacy of the clerical staff to deal with the reports from the various departments named. Things came to a head last year. There were strong complaints from public bodies, town councils, county councils, and poor law boards, and a Departmental Committee was appointed to inquire into the whole working and organisation of the Department, and also into the question of possible devolution of work. He was happy to say that the Committee had agreed to a provisional report which, so far as he was concerned as representing the Department on that Committee, was entirely satisfactory, and which he believed would do a great deal to lessen the delay that had unfortunately occurred in the past. What they did was to supply immediate and effective relief to the departments most pressed. With regard to the devolution of work, it was clear, according to Section 10 of the Act of 1888, that Parliament intended that something of this nature should be done in the future. Accordingly, in 1889, the Local Government Board, the Home Office, and the Board of Trade introduced a Provisional Order Bill, which, having passed Second Reading, was sent to a strong Committee of which Sir J. Stansfeld was Chairman. The Committee proposed to devolve a great number of duties now discharged by State Departments on the County Councils, but the non-county boroughs intervened, and the Committee was forced to drop the Bill. It failed solely because of the opposition of the non-county boroughs, who objected very strongly to being placed under the new jurisdiction. He did not think there was any feeling on the part of County Councils, but non-county boroughs preferred to be under the Local Government Board rather than under the County Councils. He thought, however, that, without coercing the non-county boroughs in any way whatever, a system of devolution might still be carried out. It would be premature to go into the matter, in view of the forthcoming Report, but, at any rate, his view was that the opposition of the non-county boroughs ought not to stay action in regard to the question. He agreed with the hon. Member that the Local Government Board might leave to the Boards of Guardians the appointment of certain officers, but if the control of Poor Law work were in the hands of different counties, there would be different systems, and he doubted whether the House of Commons would consent to that. The County Councils now held inquiries as to the rearrangement of parish boundaries and the boundaries of rural and urban districts, and there was an appeal from their decision to the Local Government Board. The only inquiry the Local Government Board held was when a County Council proposed the alteration of a county boundary. As he had said a departmental Committee had been appointed to inquire into the organisation and work of the Local Government Board. It would meet after Easter to consider its report. Sir John Hibbert, the Chairman of the Lancashire County Council, was the Chairman of the Committee, and they could scarcely have anyone better. ["Hear, hear!"] Evidence had been taken as to devolving certain of the work of the Board on local authorities. The question was receiving, not only careful, but sympathetic, consideration by the Committee, and more than that he would not be expected at present to say. ["Hear, hear!"]