HC Deb 13 December 1928 vol 223 cc2441-50

I beg to move, in page 3, line 17, to leave out the word "and" and to insert instead thereof the words after consultation with the councils of urban and rural districts within the county and the council of every. This is to allow rural and urban rural district councils to be consulted in connection with the schemes dealt with in the previous Clause. The Clause as it stands simply gives county and county borough councils the power to prepare such schemes. The urban and rural district councils have a grievance against the Minister in so far that they are not even asked to do anything in connection with the preparation of schemes. I am sure the Minister will admit that the rural and urban district councils are a very important part of the machine of local government, but I do not think he has recognised them as he should in the preparation of these schemes. We think both rural and urban councils should be asked to assist in this very important matter. They are important, not only from the point of view of the part they play in connection with local government but also the population and rate-able value of some of the urban councils should command some respect and regard from the Minister. The Rhondda Urban District Council has a population of 167,000 and a rate-able value of £448,000. Some urban councils just outside London have a population almost as large as Rhondda but the rate-able value in the case of Willesden, for instance, is over £1,000,000. These local authorities are not consulted in any way with regard to the provision of these very important schemes.

The same thing might be said with regard to some rural district councils. Chesterfield has a population of 76,000 and Chester-le-Street, 57,000. We have this anomaly, that where we have these branches of local government with these large populations and rate-able values they are not consulted, whereas some county councils with a very much smaller population are asked to prepare the necessary schemes. Rhondda is not consulted, whereas Westmorland, with a population of 65,000, is asked to prepare a scheme; and the same with regard to Hereford and Oxford. In Wales we have some county councils with a population less than 50,000, yet they are asked to prepare schemes, whereas urban and rural councils are not even consulted. If the Minister desires this portion of the Bill to work smoothly the least he can do is to consult with these very important bodies, or allow the county councils to consult them.


On a point of Order. The Amendment is practically similar in nature to one in my name, in line 17, after the word "and," to insert the words "the council of every." Am I right in thinking that, this having been called, a general discussion can take place upon it?


This being the first of the two Amendments on the Order Paper, I called it, but it covers precisely the same ground, and there can be only one discussion.


It is not material to me or to the urban district councils whether the word "consultation" or the word "conference" is used, but I should like to do what I can to press upon the Committee what I think is the very great desirability of this alteration being made. The county councils are now taking over the Poor Law functions of authorities which have a life-long experience of them and of their requirements, and they have to prepare schemes carrying out those functions, of which they have no official experience. It seems inevitable that there must be omissions, perhaps inadvertent, and various other matters which escape their notice and which, sooner or later, must be put right, and, if they gave the district, councils the opportunity of considering the schemes and making representations with regard to them, many of these matters, which might be of great importance, would be set right before the scheme goes to the Minister. To avoid any conference with district councils is putting a county council in much the same position as a man on whom the function devolves of taking over the management of a large business, with great ramifications, of which he has no experience, and framing a scheme for its future running without consultation with the man who has built the business up and has had a life-long experience of it.

In Clause 39, under very analogous circumstances, there is a duty cast on representatives of the county councils to confer with representatives of the councils of the several districts, and ir the Rating and Valuation Act, 1925, which was the predecessor of this Bill, it was provided that where the formation of areas for assessment was under consideration, the county council must consult the authorities of the rating area. If this consultation takes place, it means that something may be remedied in the scheme which otherwise would have to be remedied later on, in which case the position would be that the county council would send the scheme to the Minister, the Minister would publish it, copies would be sent to the district councils, they would make representations to the Minister about some omission in the scheme, the Minister would pass it on to the county council, the county council would pass it back to the Minister, and the Minister would have to pass it to the administrative council again. So it involves far more time than would be the case if the scheme were submitted to the district councils in the first instance.

If the Amendment is accepted it will do a great deal to promote something which is of great importance in local administration, and that is the spirit of co-operation and good will between these larger authorities and the district authorities. Although in many cases that spirit of good will does exist to an extent which is desirable, there are undoubtedly some in which it does not. Purely on that ground an Amendment of this description is worth putting in, simply because it will do something to promote a feeling and a relationship between many district councils and county councils which not only does not now exist, but which it is vital should exist. There is no desire on the part of the district councils to do anything to cause additional work or additional trouble to the county councils in the preparation of their schemes. They realise perfectly well that they have a tremendous task in front of them which it is desirable to get through as soon as possible.

As far as my own district council is concerned, I am free to state that they have no desire to have an actual conference, but what they suggest is that when the county councils have prepared their scheme, they shall notify the district councils concerned and say: "This is the scheme that we propose. If you have any comments to make upon it, let us have it back again by the end of the week, and in the absence of any comments upon it by the end of the week, we will send it to the Minister." I think that that would satisfy the district councils, and I suggest to the Minister that it is a very reasonable course to take, and very desirable and reasonable, for the reasons I have given, that these words of the Amendment should be added to the Clause.


The hon. Member for Aberdare (Mr. G. Hall), I think, rather based his case for the Amendment on the ground that it would be discourteous to these important, if minor, authorities not to give them an opportunity of being consulted before a scheme was laid. I am sure I need not say here that the last thing that any prudent Minister of Health should do would be to be discourteous to any local authorities in the country, but my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Essex (Mr. Looker) has in his very well argued, if I may say so, and reasonable case, put forward other grounds, namely, that, in effect the adoption of this Amendment would render the working of the provisions of the Bill very much more easy than if consultation is omitted from the preliminary stages. I am bound to say that I sympathise very much with the general line of argument which my hon. Friend has used, and indeed, if it were not for one consideration, I should not merely have been prepared to accept an Amendment of this kind, but I think I would have inserted a provision of this sort in the Bill, because it is quite obvious that in the preparation of these schemes, which do affect these minor authorities, it would be advisable, if possible, that their views should be at the disposal of those who make the schemes at the earliest possible moment.

That, I think, is the course which the county councils will take in a great many instances. I think that if they can get their schemes prepared in time they will send a copy to the various county districts with a view to obtaining any comments they may wish to make upon them before they submit them to the Minister. I am sure that they will be well advised to do so. My difficulty in accepting the Amendment is that it would introduce new processes into the various measures which have to be taken in order to bring the scheme into operation after April, 1930.

9.0 p.m.

We are already considerably tied up with time. It will be seen that in the Clause which we are now discussing, the council of every county and county borough have six months, and only six months, after the passing of the Act before they have to submit their schemes to the Minister. Six months, perhaps, may seem a long time, but 1 do not think it will be found in practice that six months is a moment longer than many of these bodies require. It must be remembered, as has been pointed out, indeed, by hon. Members opposite, that they will be new to this work. They will have to familiarise themselves with the problem. I know as a fact that in some cases the officers of these bodies have a great deal to learn about the duties which they will have to perform under this Measure, and I anticipate that quite a lot of preliminary work of informing themselves will have to be gone through by these bodies before they can really begin to prepare their schemes. If one remembers the enormous number of county districts which are to be found in some of the counties—in Lancashire, for instance, there are 121, and in the West Riding of Yorkshire no less than 148 separate county districts—it will be seen that if you make it obligatory upon the county councils to consult before they submit their schemes to the Minister, the inevitable result of that will be that many of the county districts will be writing to the Minister afterwards, and saying: "We never had any opportunity of adequate consultation as was intended by the Act." I do not want that to occur. I do not want to have illusory hopes held up to the county districts, hopes which, perhaps, in some cases might not completely be fulfilled, and it would be a mistake to put in an obligatory provision of this kind.

At the same time, I have been trying to think if there was any other way in which I could meet the obvious point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Essex to bring in these bodies at a rather earlier stage than is provided under the Bill as it now stands, and it would, perhaps, save time if it were made obligatory upon the county councils to send a copy of their scheme to each county district in their area when they submit it to the Minister. It is provided in Clause 7 that the scheme is to be published in one or more newspapers. I think we might provide, and I am prepared to move, an Amendment when we come to Clause 7 which will impose upon the county councils the duty of communicating a copy of their scheme to each of the county districts within their area, and I hope that that will, at any rate, go some way to meet the difficulty that is anticipated in this Amendment. I would say in conclusion, that I think that any county council which can get a scheme completed in time, that is to say, with a little margin before the six months are out, would be very wise if it were to send a copy to the various county districts within its area, and invite comments before it actually submits its scheme to the Minister.


The right hon. Gentleman's last sentence is the most hopeful in the whole of his speech. He is in rather an awkward position. He admits the force of the arguments for the Amendment, and says himself that it would help the administration of the Bill if local authorities were first consulted, and the only reason why he is not prepared to accept it is that it is necessary to rush this Bill through so quickly—


The quicker we rush it through the more time they will have.


Might I reply to that argument? The right hon. Gentleman and his Government by bringing forward this Measure in the last Session of Parliament, instead of in the first, are giving people very little time to acquire the necessary knowledge of their duties under it, and the only argument the right hon. Gentleman has against the Amendment is that he has fixed a date which will not afford sufficient time for consultation. What the right hon. Gentleman proposes to do is to issue an instruction to county councils to send a copy of their scheme to district councils, not necessarily for comment and not necessarily that their comments should be acted upon.


The idea of sending a copy of the scheme is that under the remaining Clauses of the Bill district councils have the right to make repre- sentations to my right hon. Friend, and the effect of sending a copy earlier would put them in full possession of the case. They would then be able to make any representations they thought necessary to my right hon. Friend.


But is it not possible at a later stage of the Bill to think out some words which will lay down a specified period of time before which the main details should be communicated to local authorities in order to give them a chance of commenting upon them and a chance of their comments being acted upon before the scheme is finally approved? If that were done there would be some chance of agreeing with the Amendment.


I have put my name to this Amendment, but I did so before I had seen the Amendment of the Minister of Health which he proposes to move on Clause 7, to the effect that a county council shall send a copy of the scheme to the council of each district in the county. That Amendment seems to me to cover the case of local authorities receiving a copy of a scheme. I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman could see his way to issue an instruction to county boroughs and county councils that they should enter into consultation with the minor authorities in their areas before actually presenting their scheme? If he could do that, it would meet our case very largely.


We are very anxious to meet the wishes of the various councils, and this is one of the matters on which we desire to meet the wishes of hon. Members. The difficulty is where there are so many councils in an area—over 100. It would obviously be almost impossible, even if there was a further extension of time, for the council to discuss with every one of these minor authorities before they send the scheme to the Minister. Under the Amendment to Clause 7, we propose, if they go right up to the extreme period of six months before they are able to communicate their scheme, that the duty of communicating the scheme to the various councils in the area shall be imposed upon the county council, and we shall see that the minor authorities have adequate time to make representations to my right hon. Friend before he makes an Order. In the Circular to local authorities explaining the scheme we will also urge upon them the importance of making their proposals as quickly as possible to the Minister of Health, and, if they do so, before the period of six months has elapsed, we shall advise them to communicate the scheme immediately to the councils in the district. By that means we shall assure, as far as is reasonably possible, that councils and district councils will be consulted adequately and at the earliest possible opportunity. We are anxious to receive representations, and in so far as the joint wishes of the county councils on the one hand and the district councils on the other are concerned, the hon. Member who moved the Amendment will feel confident that the proper and reasonable desires of the various councils will be reasonably met by the suggestion.

Amendment negatived.