§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
I never heard of a Minister not saying something officially on the Second Reading of a Bill. I should like to hear the right hon. Gentleman explain the Bill. After all, there are several things to be said about the Bill, and I think the House is entitled to hear the Minister. I put it to you, Mr. Speaker, as the guardian of the rights and privileges of the House, particularly the rights and privileges of minorities, that we are entitled to hear the explanation of the Minister before we are asked to vote.
This Bill proposes to amend Section 13 of the Town Councils (Scotland) Act, 1900, which relates to disqualifications for the office of town councillor. It provides that Section 13—shall have effect as if at the end of paragraph (d) of Sub-section (5) there were added the words or any society registered under the Industrial and Provident Societies Acts, 1893 to 1913, or any amendment thereof'.The object of the amendment is to remove the disqualification from members of a co-operative society which has contracts with a town council in Scotland from being elected or acting as town councillors in view of the provisions of Section 13 of 1884 the Town Councils Act, 1900. The law in Scotland and England on this point was the same prior to 1906, when an English Bill—the Municipal Corporations Amendment Act, 1906—was passed without opposition. This enabled a person holding shares in a society registered under the Industrial and Provident Societies Acts, 1893 and 1895, to sit as a borough councillor without disqualification. This Bill provides for the members of co-operative societies in Scotland being placed on an equal footing with the members of cooperative societies in England. It also provides for the members of those societies being placed on the same footing, as shareholders in public companies, such as railway companies and limited liability companies under the Companies Acts, who are not disqualified from sitting on a town council in Scotland. The Bill proposes to put members of cooperative societies on the same footing as is enjoyed by other companies. The injustice of continuing the disqualification of members of co-operative societies in Scotland is so obvious that I do not think there is any reason for me making a long speech or for the House discussing this Bill at any length. The case for the Bill is so strong that I hope it will be treated as a non-contentious measure.
I am quite in agreement with the Secretary for Scotland and I do not want to treat this Bill as contentious. We did, however, require a few words of explanation. The eleven o'clock Rule was suspended to allow this Bill to be discussed. After all, the position of co-operative societies is one on which there has been considerable discussion and we find considerable complaint that the private trader is subject to disabilities to which his powerful competitors are not subjected—[HON. MEMBERS: "No"!]. I am not saying that the complaint is right or wrong, but that there are such complaints. I do not think any hon. Member will deny. I remember the position which arose over the Corporation Profits Tax, and I recollect getting into considerable trouble with shopkeepers and private traders because I voted for the exemption of co-operative societies from the Corporation Profits Tax. That, I think, is sufficient to show that I am not taking this up in any biased spirit against the co-operative society. I have, however, had complaints, and I am sure 1885 many Members on both sides of the House have had complaints, from the private traders, that a Bill such as this will place them under a disability as compared with their competitors, the co-operative societies. The Bill proposes the removal from the co-operative society of a disability to which the private trader will still be subject. The private trader or member of a private company will still be subject the disability that he will not be allowed to sit on the local authority, or, if he sits on the local authority, he will not be allowed to try and get business for his particular concern, whereas a co-operative society representative sitting on the local authority will be allowed to try and get business for his concern.
The right hon. Gentleman brought out what I think was a very powerful argument for his view of the case, namely, that this was merely to even up the law as between Scotland and England. If, as he says, this provision was made law in England as long ago as 1906, was passed without opposition, and has worked smoothly ever since, that is a. serious argument in practice for his Bill now being allowed to go through. But I do think that if a disability is to be removed from the co-operative society, while leaving still subject to the disability the person with whom the society is competing, namely, the private shopkeeper or the private company, the House ought to consider whether it is laying an injustice upon one set of citizens as compared with another. In many cases the co-operative society is exempt from burdens from which the private trader is not exempt. At present it is exempt from the Corporation Profits Tax—[HON. MEMBERS: "Everyone will be shortly!"]—Yes, I quite admit that, but it has been exempt for years, in spite of a recommendation by the present Financial Secretary to the Treasury that, if a Corporation Profits Tax were imposed, the co-operative societies should be subject to it. From that recommendation, made by a Labour Member, the co-operative societies were exempted by the votes of Unionist Members. I hope the co-operative societies will remember that, although they have shown very little sign of doing so so far.
There are other things, in the way of Income Tax and so on, which do not press upon the co-operative society to anything 1886 like the extent to which they press upon the private trader. Consequently, I am inclined to the appeal of the Secretary for Scotland not to enter at any length into the arguments of this case. [Interruption.] If hon. Gentlemen desire me to argue at length against this case, I can only say to them that I attach more weight to the appeal of the Secretary for Scotland for brevity than to their appeal for discursiveness, and, consequently, I do not intend to accede to their request. If the right hon. Gentleman assures me that this reform went through without opposition in 1906, and that there have since been no complaints with regard to the working of the Act in England, I should be disposed to offer no further opposition to the Bill at the present stage, though, as I have said, it will require opposition, or at any rate criticism, at further stages. Can the right hon. Gentleman or any of his colleagues give me any information on these points? Has there been any complaint as to the working of this Act in England, either as to unfairness to the private trader or in any other way, since 1906? Has there been any opposition to this or any demand for alteration?
It went through without opposition and, so far as I know, there has not been a single complaint.