HC Deb 12 February 1926 vol 191 cc1487-502

Order of Second Reading read.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

I am certain, after the marvellous display of ability this afternoon in the matter of oratory in connection with the other Bill, that I shall receive a great amount of consideration from Members opposite in my attempt to democratise our public institutions. We have been told that one of the reasons why the last Bill should be carried through Parliament is the great amount of expense entailed upon Ministers when called upon to fight by-elections. That received a very strong amount of support from hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite.

One of the reasons why this Bill has been introduced is to try and extend the possibilities of real democratic government by making it possible for men and women of limited means but of great in telligence to have the opportunity of serving their fellows in public positions. It will be noticed that the introductory part of the Bill deals with the payment of expenses of members of local authorities, such as boards of guardians, town and borough councils, county councils, and other authorities directly responsible to the community. I venture to suggest that there is not a Member of this House who does not know in his own constituency and from his own experience plenty of cases of men and women of great capacity, but limited means, who are debarred from the possibility of public service because of their limited means.

Speaking of my own district, we have the largest Poor Law authority in Great Britain, with the largest number of people under its administration. It takes those members of it who want to do their work—and nearly all of them are anxious to do it—on an average four days a week to carry out their responsibilities. It means travelling a distance of 12 miles from one end of the area to the other, and working men and women, who are not devoid of brains but who are people of limited means, even though they may be small shopkeepers, not merely have to spend their time, but have to find out of their own pockets even the necessary expenses for travelling and food. They cannot go home to get their food; they are bound to go to a central place for the purpose of administration, and when they need something to eat they have to buy it out of their own pockets, and, in addition, have to pay their own travelling expenses.

That is the case in my district, and the cases could be multiplied. Men and women of proved ability and great capacity have been compelled to resign when their current term of office expired because they could not afford to stand the necessary financial stress. We in this House have been met in this respect, and I do not think the House of Commons is any worse because Parliament agreed to allow a certain amount of financial assistance to those who otherwise might not have been able to sit in this House. Thousands of working men and women to-day are sitting upon these authorities, and we are only asking that ordinary travelling expenses shall be allowed and maintenance for time actually lost from their employment; and we safeguard against the possibility of extravagance, so far as the local authorities are concerned, by giving the Ministry of Health complete authority over the ways and means whereby these payments can be allowed.

As I listened to the speeches this morning, I was very much delighted to hear everyone say that they wanted to make democracy more perfect. The only way in which democratic machinery can be perfected is by throwing the portals open wide to all those who are capable of rendering service. In one speech comparisons were made as to the position in Great Britain and the position in other countries. Why has the position in Great Britain developed along different lines from those that have been followed in other countries? It is simply because in recent times we have made it easier for even the poorest men and women to render service to the people. We have kept down all those extraneous influences which have been the bane of political developments in other countries, and I venture to suggest that there are men on these benches who could not be sitting here had it not been for the fact that the nation came to their financial assistance in that respect.

Why, then, should we place a harrier of gold around our local authorities? Very often the only men and women who can be selected as candidates are men and women with powerful organisations behind them—it may be trade unions, it may be chambers of commerce, or it may be some of the employers' organisations. Persons who have not means of their own are practically barred because they cannot afford the time and money that are necessary in the carrying out of their public responsibilities. Most of the Members of this House of Commons have accepted the principle of allowing at least something in the shape of monetary payment in recognition of the financial difficulties in which we all find ourselves. I was pleased to hear this morning that the party opposite are not a rich party, and I am sure, therefore, that they will sympathise with me in my poverty, and will help those who are worse off even than me—and that is saying a good deal for the people for whom I am speaking. I hope he will come to the assistance of these men because, after all, it is no use passing laws unless you have the proper machinery to administer them, and we want the best administrators as well as the best legislators.

The argument for the Bill we have just passed was that the Prime Minister ought not to be limited in his choice by mere accidental circumstances. He ought to have the opportunity of going all over his party and selecting all those who have spoken in favour of the Bill. So far as local authorities are concerned, there are no peerages following long years of services. Some of us have served practically the whole of our active life as members of public authorities, but to-day we are up against this position, that increasing difficulty is found in getting suitable people to come along because of the tremendous demands made upon them in their public responsibilities. Parliament is almost every day carrying Acts placing great responsibilities upon local authorities. The result is that more men and women have to devote practically the whole of their spare time, if they have any, to public administration. Some of them are feeling the strain very much. It is because of the financial strain placed upon them in the matter of travelling and other responsibilities that we are moving this Bill, so that we shall make democracy more perfect than it is and give every man and woman capable of rendering service an opportunity. We are not asking for salaries for local authorities, though after all they have as much right to it, if salary is going to be discussed at all, as any other public servant or representative. We are only asking for recognition of the fact that a man or woman serving the public in an administrative capacity ought not to be penalised by being out of pocket in addition to the time they give to public service.

The principle of the Bill is easy. Some authorities now pay when they go outside their own area. We have the right, if we scud a man from West Ham to Whitehall, to pay his travelling expenses and an allowance for the time spent in the public service. If he travels inside the borough three times the distance, he is not allowed anything, even if he is out of pocket through performing his public duties. All we are asking is that these things shall be admitted in principle. I hope the Ministry of Health will show more sympathy with us in this connection than it has done in some others. I know the Parliamentary Secretary to the Department is aware of all the difficulties. He has had experience in his own district. He knows what he is up against. It is not so bad in urban areas as in great county districts where a man travels 50 miles to attend his public duties. If they are not men with some strong organisation behind them, if they have no personal friends who can assist them, they have to refuse to carry on their public positions because of the financial strain. If it is good enough for Cabinet Ministers to be relieved by the Bill that has just been carried, if it is good enough to receive, as we do, something to enable us to uphold the position we occupy, we ought not to stand in the way of these other servants of the public, because administration is a necessary corollary to legislation, and these men and women are rendering splendid service.

From 1920 to the present time, if it had not been for the self-sacrificing work of the men and women of our local authorities our position to-day would not have been as good as it is. Therefore we do not want any further obstacle placed in their way. It is becoming a very serious matter in county areas and in connection with board of guardians administration. I commend the Bill to the House in the hope that it will get the sympathetic consideration of the Ministry.


I beg to second the Motion.

One hon. Member opposite, speaking on the other Bill, seemed to suggest that we were being "nobbled" in connection with the last Bill. The reason why some of us did not speak against the last Bill was because we were very anxious that there should be reasonable time to discuss this Bill. It cannot be said that we have reasonable time in connection with this Bill to consider it in all its bearings. As one who has had 25 years' experience on local bodies, I can say that a good deal of time has been sacrificed by myself and the men and women with whom I have been associated on public bodies in doing public work. I know from my own personal experience that had it not been for the position I hold in an organisation I should never have been able to do the work that I have done on local authorities. I think I can make the same claim in respect of many other people who have been doing the same hind of work.

The time has now come when in view of the extraordinary amount of work that is required to be done by people who serve on local authorities they should, at least, get some remuneration or allowance for the time they give to that public work. I served for several years on the London County Council. Anyone who has been a member of the London County Council knows that it is no uncommon thing, if you are paying attention to your work, that you may spend three or four hours a day on a Committee. There are not many people who go to the county council to sit on Committees without having some refreshment. I often used to resort to the tea room for refreshment, and I had to pay for such refreshment, besides giving my time to the work. This means that one has to sacrifice something at home very often when one is doing public work of this character. I do not think that working-class men and women or middle-class men aid women who do this work should be called upon to make this sacrifice.

The Bill does not fix any amount that should be paid; it simply sets down that a certain reasonable allowance should be nude, which should be subject to scrutiny. Seeing that this House fixes the salaries of its Members for doing public work, I think we have been very moderate in this Bill in not fixing some salary or allowance that should he paid per hour or day for the work that is done by members of public authorities. We have not done that. We have left it open. We say "reasonable allowance and expenses." After hearing the discussion this morning on the previous Bill, I think we may reasonably look for the support of those who have been pleading that Ministers should not have to contest elections more than are necessary, on account of expense.


I beg to move, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question, to add the words "upon this day six months."

The object of the Bill is to make folly and extravagance safe for democracy. As the last speaker said, the Bill fixes nothing. It leaves an absolute discretion as to how money is to be spent to members of any local authority. The mover of the Second Reading referred to the Bill only generally; he never went into the actual provisions of the Bill. I think he was very wise in so doing. If I may use the expression without offence, when you read the language of the Bill you find that it is one of the funniest Bills that has ever been introduced into this-House. First of all, it is an imperative Bill. It does not say that the person who incurs travelling or living expenses, while attending deputations or conferences, may receive payment for his services, But, gives him a legal right to payment. It is an imperative Bill. Every member of a local authority, says Clause 1, shall be entitled to receive these various payments.


Is the hon. and learned Member aware that at present the members of local authorities travelling outside their own area are entitled to exactly what we are asking for in this Bill?


The effect of the Bill is to give every member of a local authority an absolute legal right under the Clause mentioned. I ask hon. Members to read Clause 1 (a). It, says that a member of a local authority is to receive travelling expenses, and paragraph (b) gives him personal expenses incurred in attending any meeting, conference, council, or committee of any other body, provided he gets the authority of his local council or committee of that council. It is not limited in the least to conferences or councils which he attends in connection with his duties as a councilor. You could not have a wider phraseology used.

I appeal to any lawyer to confirm the view which I take. The Bill will cover absolutely any expedition which a member cares to take, as long as he has the authority of his council. He has only to say to his local council, "May I go to Moscow to attend a Soviet Conference!" He has only to get the authority of his council, and he goes at the ratepayer's expense. Or he may say, "May I attend a meeting of film stars in California?" If his council says "Yes," he is entitled as of right to sue the local authorities for his travelling and living expenses. If he wants to attend a conference on the marriage question in Salt Lake City, he may go, and-he gets his expenses; or if he wants to attend a conference on the land policy at Carnarvon, he may go, and is entitled to his expenses as of right.

There is absolutely no limitation and no safeguard. The Ministry of Health is referred to in the Bill, but only with regard to the allocation of the expenses to some particular borough fund. The Minister of Health cannot say, "You must not authorise this councillor to attend this deputation or to go on this expedition." All that a councillor has to do is to get leave from his council or committee to go anywhere in the world, to darkest Africa, or remotest Asia, and he can go at the expense of the ratepayers. There is no safeguard whatever in the Bill. The Ministry of Health has no right of veto. Suppose a councillor says to his committee, "May I go for a voyage for six months, to attend a conference at the other end of the world?" He gets leave. He is then entitled to sue the council for full living and travelling expenses, including the expense of refreshments to which the last speaker referred, and there can be no defence to his claim, for he has an absolute legal right.

That is simply ridiculous, and any hon. Member who reads the Clause will see what a fantastic Measure it is. The only justification put forward by the Mover is that in his view the Bill will "democratise local government." If that be the Socialist view of what democracy is, it shows on what good grounds this country mistrusts Socialism. Their idea of democratisation is to throw every folly, waste and extravagance on the rates, and the districts which gentlemen of the hon. Member's views represent at the present time are those which bear the burden to the greatest extent. The reason why life is so hard in those districts, and why there is so much unemployment and poverty, is that local government has got into the hands of people who hold this view as to the meaning of democracy.

Hon. Members will learn in time if they have not learned already that the higher the rates are in a district, the harder it is for struggling businesses to keep their heads above the tide of bad times and trade depression. One of the best ways to revive prosperity is to lower the rates, and reduce the great overhead burdens and charges which weigh on the community. The lower the rates the more prosperous is business; and the more prosperous business, the better is the chance of employment. That is the lesson which Socialists have to learn, and which they can only learn by hard experience. If we countenance a Bill of this sort, we are adding to the enormous burden which the ratepayers are bearing at present, an incubus which is unjustified in theory, which has no practical experience to recommend it, and which leads undoubtedly and clearly in the direction of unlimited extravagance and unlimited poverty. I cannot think that the House will countenance such a Measure, and in that assurance I move the rejection of the Bill.


I beg to second the Amendment.

What strikes me about this Bill is that in rising to oppose it I rise to the disadvantage of my own party, because the gentlemen of the Opposition belong to a party which is already in a strong position financially, and there is no public body which any member of that party attends in connection with which he does not get travelling expenses.


That is not true.


They have a very satisfactory machinery, because they are able to levy, not only upon their own members, but upon the members of our party, and they treat themselves very comfortably. They are in a beautiful position, as I know from experience of a certain town, where we had the greatest possible difficulty in finding candidates of our view for any local position for the reason, not as an hon. Member said of the unmitigated boredom involved, but because the position took up time and took them away from their work. As has been said, the choice is often restricted to men of limited means though of great intelligence. We found that to be the case even in Scotland, where there used to be a proverb which I think is now lost sight of, and which perhaps was never justified, to the effect that If ye hae' nae' siller, ye hae' nae' sense. The result of a Measure of this kind will not be that hon. Members on the other side and their supporters will be any better off than they are now, because they are already having their expenses paid, and paid partly out of the pockets of our supporters—a most satisfactory arrangement for them. I do not know anything more satisfactory than making your opponent pay.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

On a point of Order. Is the hon. and [earned Member entitled to discuss his own Bill which comes on at a later date in connection with this Measure?


I should have thought The question of the need for this present Bill was very relevant.


I am much obliged to the hon. and gallant Member for Central Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy) for his happy prophecy that my Bill is coming on soon. The reason why I have dealt with that aspect is because not only is the Clause one that extraordinary, but it is left absolutely unlimited. As the Mover of the rejection said, they might take the whole lot of them from China to Peru. They might travel round the world, to accentuate and increase their great intelligence and, for that matter, to extend their unlimited means.

Just imagine what might happen on one of these committees. One would say, "I want to go to such-and-such a place. Will you vote for me to go here, and I will vote for you to go there?" It would be ogle of the most extraordinary things. There used to be a picture in some of the o-d books of two handles with claws upon them, which were known as scratchbacks. I should not think they would require to be utilised by the local authorities, because under this Bill they would merely have to say, "You scratch my back, and I will scratch your back," and in that way they could each spend the ratepayers' money. Hon. Members opposite are already in clover. How long they will remain so I do not know, but if I had anything to do with it it would be a comparatively short time. I am satisfied that the unfortunate taxpayers who happen to be members of the great trade union institutions of all classes, Conservatives, Liberals, Communists, and Labour people, will have the same point of view as I have, and the only people who will really differ are the happy recipients of the money, who will, of course, oppose my view for all they are worth. Just listen to Clause 3, which says: No member of a local authority or any committee of a local authority shall be paid more than once in respect of the same expenses. Have you ever seen such a thing before—one of the Ten Commandments incorporated in a Bill? It is perhaps my corrupt mind, but I cannot help thinking of what must be going on in some places, when the promoters of this Measure think it necessary to put in such a Clause as that. I see that the Minister of Health is to be consulted in this matter. I am glad that they have taken him in, because he is the gentleman who has to deal, I think, with all questions of lunacy. For these reasons, I have great pleasure in seconding the rejection of the Bill.


We have a complaint against the hon. Member who moved the rejection of this Bill. He said that it was funny. Considering its parentage, surely he did not expect it would be dull? I could have wished that he had said a word or two in support of the general principle that this Bill aims to further. It is that we want our local government to be as efficient as it can be. If there is one thing about which we English people have a right to be proud it is the purity and disinterestedness of our system of local government. That system is renowned throughout the civilised world, and nobody desires to promote anything that would lead to impurity such as the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Argyll (Mr. Macquisten) has been picturing.

On the other hand we have to secure at all cost that our system of local government shall be efficient. Unhappily it has been easy, in view of the time that, local government requires, for those who have the time to spare rather than those who have the ability or the capacity, to be elected—or they may be elected—to one of these positions. I ask for the privilege of supporting this general principle, because I am not now a member of any local body. But having, like my hon. Friend behind me, sat for six years on the London County Council, I do know something of the strain of the work. I know something of the very great loyalty and devotion which is paid' to the work. I want to say out of my experience of local government on the London County Council that so huge a business requires the very best energy that a man can give to it, and not the fag-end of his intellectual or nervous strength.

It is positively sad to see men in London and elsewhere capable of giving their highest and best service, compelled to withhold that service from the community because of the financial and business strain that it involves. I have in mind not Members of my own party, but Members of the party to which my hon. and learned Friend opposite belongs. I should like before I close to say that in England there is no ground whatever for the suggestion that there is or that there will be impurity in our system of local government. That may happen in Scotland. I do not know. In our country at any rate it is one of the services of which we have a right to be, and are, extremely proud, because of its very great efficiency and purity. We do however want to make it possible, especially in the huge county divisions, for men to travel long distances from their homes to serve the community in this highly important work of administration, and cannot do so because of the business strain upon them, which is too severe at the present time.


I am sorry to trouble the House twice on the same afternoon, but there is some analogy between this Bill and the last Bill, for reasons pointed out by the hon. Member for Silvertown (Mr. J. Jones), who moved it. I do not, however, think that this analogy is quite so sound as he seemed to think. The primary object of the earlier Bill with which we dealt was to save money—true to save money for individuals principally, but also to save some of the money of the community—because contested elections are a charge on the community as well as being a charge upon the candidate. The object of the Bill we were discussing earlier was not only to save money, but so far as there is an analogy between the two it was a question of individual expense. In this Bill it is a case of public expenditure. It is right that the aspect of public expenditure should be considered. Whether this Bill would, in fact, impose any charge on the public revenue of the country, I am not quite sure, because I am not acquainted precisely with the financial relations existing as between the Exchequer and the municipal authorities in respect of general expenditure. But it would certainly impose a substantial charge on the rates, and I am a little surprised that in introducing this Bill the Memorandum contains no estimate of the probable charge.

It has been a constant cause of complaint during the short time I have been a Member of this House, and, I know, for many years before, from speeches I have read, that Bills affecting expenditure are introduced which contain no estimate of the probable cost. Sometimes these are Government Bills imposing new obligations on local authorities, and no Memorandum is published which indicates what they are likely to cost. Here we have a proposal in a Private Member's Bill, and, whether the proposal be good or bad, I do submit that the ratepayers, who are directly concerned, ought to have some indication of the cost. It might be that in some districts the cost would be trifling. I served as a member of a municipal authority for some years.

I recollect with pleasure that my election expenses were 1s. 9d., but that was because I was well known in the district, and my merits were so recognised that I was elected without opposition. [An HON. MEMBER: 'Blowing your own trumpet!"] I quite agree. I am referring to past events, and not making predictions about the future. I have a fairly clear recollection of what my expenses were as a member of the local authority, and I am quite satisfied that, during the period for which I served, my out-of-pocket expenses did not exceed an average of 1s. a week. It may be that I was lucky, but I am certain that in the vast number of instances there is no need for large personal expenses in serving on a municipal body. If I am asked what is the real barrier, it is the cost of election. In many municipalities the cost of election is much too high. I think in the case of the London County Council the cost of election is a real barrier to those who desire to serve.


Would I be in order in moving "That the Question be now put?"


The hon. Member is entitled to move it, but I am afraid I cannot accept the Motion.


The areas of the county council constituencies are precisely the same as the Parliamentary. There is a difference in the number of electors, but, speaking from memory, under the election law two members who are standing for the county council, and who spend the full amount which they are allowed, would incur, in an average county council constituency, a total expenditure of some £400, or £200 per candidate. That is a real barrier to service. This Bill does nothing to remove that, and it is essentially in the case of the county council that there is the grievance on which the hon. Member for Silvertown insists.

In the main it does not exist in urban districts or metropolitan boroughs. Most Members can easily walk from their own homes to the town hall. Most metropolitan boroughs meet, as I think quite rightly, in the evening. One or two, such as Westminster City Council, meet in the afternoon, because the afternoon happens to meet the convenience of the bulk of the members, but the position in the counties is somewhat difficult. I know a county with which I have had long connection, Staffordshire, which is a very long county and councillors have to travel, it may be, 20 or 30 miles to attend the meetings.

It being Four of the Clock, the Debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Monday next.

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 3.

Adjourned at One Minute after Four o'Clock until Monday next (15th February).