§ 8.0 p.m.
§ Mr. ANEURIN BEVAN
I beg to move,That, in the opinion of this House, inquiry should be instituted into the desirability of so amending the Standing Orders relating to Private Business as to facilitate and shorten the proceedings on legislation promoted by local authorities and to lessen the heavy costs now incurred.In the circumstances, the House will permit me to ask for its indulgence on two grounds. The first is that I am introducing a subject which can hardly be described as popular, and, in the second place, I am introducing it in an atmosphere which I am afraid is not too favourable to the subject. Indeed, after an all-night sitting, I fear that hon. and right hon. Members will find it difficult to give me the attention that I think this important subject deserves. It would perhaps have been better if the Mover of this Motion were someone with more experience of this House and of work on a local legislation committee, and who could consequently give to the consideration of this subject the weight and the substance which the importance of it demands. I will do my best to direct the attention of the House to one or two matters to which I hope they will give their consideration. I am asking that an inquiry should be made into the Standing Orders, not in regard to the promotion of private legislation, but only into the simplification and amendment of the Standing Orders where they apply to local authorities. I do not desire to ask for an inquiry into the simplification of the procedure for any other Bills except those promoted by local authorities, and the reason for the distinction must be obvious.
2126 A local authority comes to Parliament for powers under the pressure of public need. The citizens of their district arrive at a conclusion that for the purposes of public administration, additional powers are required, and they decide to apply to Parliament for them. Private persons apply for powers generally for the purpose of making profit, and I do not desire to facilitate gentlemen or organisations or corporations who wish to obtain Parliamentary powers for the purposes of making profit. I do not suggest for a moment that these undertakings are socially undesirable, but they must weigh up the cost before they attempt to apply for powers, and they must have made up their minds that the expense of obtaining Parliamentary powers would be justified by the profits of the undertaking which it is desired to promote. Local authorities, however, are in a much different position. They decide to ask for Parliamentary powers, not for the purpose of exploiting any section of the community or any service whatever, but under pressure of urgent public need. It will be generally admitted that it is highly desirable that local authorities should not find it too difficult to obtain from Parliament those powers which are necessary in order that they may discharge their obligations to their people.
Local authorities have been confronted by considerable difficulties in the course of the last half century. In the beginning of the 19th century, most of the legislation obtained from the House of Commons was by private persons for the purposes of profit exploitation, but recently most of the work which has been done by local legislation committees has been to consider applications by local authorities for extended powers. A view may be expressed in the House, and held quite reasonably, that it is not a good thing to enable local authorities to get powers more easily. It is easy to see the reasons which would lead to a conclusion of that kind, but I do not share it. Some hon. Members may think that municipal authorities are making too much progress in that direction, and they hold that we ought to put all the obstructions that we can in the way of their receiving additional powers. We on these benches take a different view, and we think that local authorities ought to find it easier, and not more difficult, 2127 to obtain Parliamentary powers for the purposes which they have in mind. I am going to assume that there is common ground that, if a local authority finds it necessary to apply to Parliament for additional powers, the mode of procedure adopted by Parliament in conferring those powers should be as simple, speedy and inexpensive as possible.
Parliament is in the first instance largely responsible for many of the difficulties under which local authorities suffer. Very often they have to discharge many duties on the initiative of Parliament. The Lord Privy Seal, in answer to a question, stated that, as a consequence of the schemes which he has sanctioned to local authorities under pressure from Parliament, 30 Bills would have to be submitted to the House before those schemes could be carried out. It appears to me, to put it in the most humble terms, to be stupid in the extreme that Parliament should impose obligations upon local authorities, and should ask the local authorities to accelerate their schemes, and that local authorities should find it necessary to come to Parliament to ask for powers to do what Parliament has asked them to do. By making them come to Parliament through a labyrinth and mass of Standing Orders, and by the most difficult and devious means which it is possible to contrive, Parliament makes it expensive to the local authorities to get these powers; and there is evolved a machinery so cumbrous and slow that many authorities are frightened of approaching Parliament at all. If Parliament desires local authorities to undertake the obligations that it has imposed on them, it should at least find some means of enabling local authorities to obtain their powers as easily as possible.
There is another aspect of the matter at which I should like the House to look for a moment. The local authorities are the first to be exposed to changes in social conditions. It has been laid down as a principle for our constitution that it is not rigid and fixed, but rather that it is elastic and responsive to changes, and although the changes and responses are slow, they are nevertheless made under pressure of circumstances. What we claim as a merit and a virtue in the national constitution, we deny to local 2128 authorities, yet the local authorities are first exposed to any changes in the constitution. Our industrial population is migratory; it is moving over this country as quickly, and in as large numbers as it did in the days of the Industrial Revolution. Large areas of our country are becoming denuded, and areas which were industrially prosperous are now finding it difficult to maintain their populations, which are moving to other parts of the country.
It is well known that there is an industrial movement towards the south of England, so that areas which were rural are becoming industrial, and industrial areas are becoming semi-rural. Local authorities, however, find their boundaries rigidly fixed, and they are unable to adapt themselves to the changed circumstances without coming to Parliament for powers. Local authorities accumulate vast problems and obligations before they are able to come for those powers, and often these are so long delayed that the authorities are unable to obtain full advantage from them. It should be a cardinal principle of our administration that when there are changes in the conditions of the areas of local authorities, or when the boundaries of their areas are found to be too circumscribed, or when within their boundaries there are developing certain social services which can properly be carried on by alliances with other authorities, these local authorities should be able to obtain their powers from Parliament inexpensively and quickly in order to adapt themselves to these conditions.
I submit that there is in general terms an even more important ground why local authorities should be encouraged to apply for powers. Local administration is a political laboratory. Experiments in legislation are being carried out by local authorities every day. Important departures in public administration are made, and new ideas are put into operation, and very often it has been discovered that the small powers which local authorities have obtained from Parliament have become the basis of national legislation. Local authorities have pointed the way in many instances to what is desirable legislation for the country as a whole, and if we are to have new springs of inspiration for legislation, if we are to have the data, the information and the statistics which are neces- 2129 sary to enable us to legislate properly in this House, the local authorities should be encouraged to ask for powers.
Far from stultifying the local authorities, far from making it more difficult for them to obtain powers, it is fundamental for this country, if we are to legislate properly, that local authorities should be encouraged to experiment in legislation, so that the benefits of that experimentation may be used to the advantage of the country as a whole. Members who have served on local legislation committees have told me that it has been found on a number of occasions that local authorities have applied for powers which, in the course of a few months, have become so obviously desirable in the eyes of the Department concerned, that representations have been made to Parliament for those powers to be generally conferred.
Our difficulties might, to a large extent, be simplified if Parliament could find time to follow up private legislation more quickly by general adoptive Acts. The last Public Health Act was in 1925, and many of the small powers which local authorities have obtained were embodied in that legislation for local authorities as a whole in an adoptive form. Very often local authorities have to come for powers because the following-up legislation of a general kind is too long in coming, and it might be that, if it be possible for us to expedite those general Acts, we might minimise to a large extent the expense incurred by local authorities in obtaining legislation.
I do not desire to dwell too long upon the general aspects of this matter, because I know there is upon the Order Paper a Measure which prohibits me from discussing local legislation in particular or the merits of conferring larger powers on local authorities. We on these benches who have had some experience of local administration believe that local authorities are, to a very large extent, the most important part of our constitution, and larger and wider powers are being imposed on them every day. Local authorities ought not, therefore, to be treated by the House of Commons as persons to be robbed and exploited, as enemies to be trapped in the maze of Standing Orders, but rather as partners in legislation and administration, and helped by Parliament as far as possible. As the Standing Orders are now, they 2130 read like a conspiracy against the local authorities, as though some malignant man had been sitting down to think of all the items on which a guinea could be placed, to mulct the local authorities more and more at every stage of the proceedings in obtaining powers. There has been no inquiry into this question, I understand, since 1902, and in that year certain recommendations were made which have not been adopted. That is a very long time in these days of rapid social and legislative changes and, if only on this ground of time, a case could be made out for an inquiry. I suppose one could accept it almost as axiomatic that if orders have lived so long there must be something wrong with them, and I might, without undue frivolity, submit that on this ground there is reason for inquiry.
Local authorities have themselves made representations to Parliament and to the Departments asking for some remedy to be found for their present difficulty. Last year 50 local authorities passed resolutions calling upon the Government to simplify the methods of procedure when local authorities desire to extend their boundaries, acquire undertakings for municipal purposes or obtain Acts and orders of an unopposed nature for any purposes whatever, and to reduce the cost thereof. The Chambers of Commerce, at the instigation of the Birkenhead Chamber, in 1927, carried a resolution protesting against the charges involved in promoting legislation. The private Bill when it reaches this House goes through the same procedure as public business. It is not short-circuited and does not find its way any more quickly than public business, but is subject to all the examination, microscopic in detail, to which public business itself is subjected. Parliament treats it as though it had not been examined in any other place, although all who have served on local authorities know that before the authority makes up its mind to ask for powers there is a long, wearisome, heated examination of every proposal, committees are appointed and men of experience who have served on local governing bodies for many years sit on the proposals. Very often the local authority decides to postpone applications for powers until it can get as many applications as possible into one Bill and make an omnibus application. Yet the House 2131 of Commons treats the subject as though it were brought forward by some tyro or had come straight from a Minister or a Department, instead of carrying with it the accumulated wisdom of a large number of local administrators.
I have been in this House a very short space of time, but a member of a local authority for a much longer time, and I must say, with all humility, that I have not seen any more experience or greater wisdom displayed here than I have seen on parish councils. I do not see any reason for supposing that Members of the House of Commons have such wisdom that they can sit in austere judgment on the members of a local authority. The last few days have shown, indeed, that Parliament is able to give so little examination and consideration to many important matters that it ought to discover some way of relieving itself of the obligation of considering these questions. We are faced with a grave constitutional position. Students of Parliamentary proceedings have said that one of the gravest criticisms to be made against the procedure in this House is that Members are expected to be Solons with infinite wisdom, expert authorities on variegated subjects, and also, even if they were as wise as they ought to be to give the attention which should be given to all the subjects brought before the House, they would have to live longer lives than any of us can hope to live. If we are to exempt the House from that criticism and apply our time to more important matters of legislation we ought to improve these Standing Orders and relieve our Members from sitting on proposals which have had the experience of local authorities. [An HON. MEMBER: "And Parliament!"] Yes, and Parliament. The sooner we do that the sooner we shall have time for more important matters.
Private business comes before a very important Committee of the House, so important that Standing Orders lay it down under very grave penalty that they have to be specially exempted. For no other Committees have such stringent Regulations been laid down as apply to Local Legislation Committees. Only for sickness or by special permission from the 2132 Speaker are they exempted from attendance. It has been recognised that local authorities find it so expensive to come to these Committees, and delays are so costly, that Members of Parliament are to be sent along even under duress to reduce the inconvenience to local authorities as much as possible. In the Committees, I am told by Members who have served on them, it is possible for an unopposed Bill to be from four to five days, and for an opposed Bill to be for seven or eight days. A Bill has been known to be before the Committee of this House and in the other place for 18 days, and during that time costs have been accumulating. Each day the Bill is before the Committee, £5 has to be paid. I should be the last person to suggest a conspiracy, but there is a possibility that those in whose hands these authorities are placed, Parliamentary agents and Members of the Parliamentary Bar, are not sufficiently interested in speeding up the business. I would not like to suggest to any members of the profession in this House that they have a vested interest in slowing it down, but I may suggest, without hurting the feelings of anyone, that there is no incentive to speed it up. They are almost as long-winded in presenting their cases as I am in moving this Resolution.
It has been estimated that an unopposed Bill in this House, simply a formal application for powers, can cost between £600 and £700. There is no opposition; it simply has to come and find its way through the maze of the Standing Orders to the Committee, leave the Committee and go to the House of Lords, and then receive the Royal Assent. Opposed Bills will cost on an average, I am told, £2,000. I have in mind the case of a local authority in my own district that had to enter into combination with another local authority in order to run omnibuses. It applied for a Provisional Order and opposed a small Bill in this House that impinged on its privileges. For that it had to find £12,740. I submit that the ratepayers ought not to be mulcted in damages of this kind in obtaining powers from this House. No matter how wealthy, important, or influential the vested interest that may have arisen, the time has arrived when the local authorities ought to be able to obtain powers without 2133 this ambush. One could give many illustrations of the cost of obtaining these powers by local authorities, but I find local authorities very reticent indeed on that matter. It is sometimes very difficult to obtain information from them, and I suspect that the difficulty exists because even they are ashamed of the money which has been extracted from them in obtaining the powers for which they have applied. I submit that there is no need for me to pile up evidence as to the cost; that is very well known.
There is the question of delay. Parliamentary agents are now engaged in preparing Bills to be submitted to this House before the 17th December next. No Bill can be submitted after that date. They must all be submitted before then, and very long advertisements must be inserted in local journals informing the ratepayers, who already know about it, that application is going to be made to Parliament for powers. In many instances a ballot has to be taken, and in other instances a meeting of ratepayers has to be held, to obtain permission to apply to Parliament for powers. In addition to that, the agent acting on behalf of the local authority has to advertise in local journals, and has to insert in those journals most detailed information as to the powers which are to be sought. Then after the 17th December until the following 12th February, an opportunity is given to people with interests to oppose those measures, and between the time when the Parliamentary agent is called in until the 12th February of the following year the local authority is in the hands of the Parliamentary agent, and often heavy fees have to be paid and counsel have to be employed in order to examine in time the objections which are brought in before the 12th February; and counsel invariably employ two junior counsel because the congestion of Parliamentary business is such that the same counsel may be employed in the promotion of or opposition to several Bills, and his fees must be paid although he may make no appearance at all in the matters in which he is engaged.
A recital of these conditions is, I suggest, enough to move the indignation of any persons interested in public adminis- 2134 tration. I notice that as part of the training of private Members of this House many of us have served an apprenticeship in local authorities before we came here, and we know the difficulties which are experienced. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will agree that there are very few matters to which one could call attention which are more important than this.
After oppositions have been filed and after the opposing papers have been presented, the Committee, after the 12th February, begins to sit. Then after the Bill has left this House it has to go through the same procedure in the other place, and there the same fees, or more, are charged. The local authority may be able to receive the Royal Assent in the late summer; but it often happens that the House is unable to find time to complete the business of local authorities during the early Session, and in that case the consideration of these Bills is postponed to the autumn. In the meantime, counsel have to be retained, and the whole of the business is hung up, and because of circumstances for which the local authority is not responsible, the expenses are being added to all the time.
I do not want to delay the House much longer by a mere recital of the conditions and the difficulties, with which hon. Members are familiar, but I do want to suggest that there are one or two directions in which it is possible for us to remedy this condition of affairs. I have asked for an inquiry, and I do hope and trust that the hon. Lady the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health, who is going to reply, will find it possible to give me the Inquiry for which I am asking. It is a very modest request. Inquiries are sometimes as plentiful as blackberries in autumn, but on this matter I would suggest that an Inquiry is necessary, because the whole affair is very complicated. The alteration of one Standing Order very often has important repercussions on all other Standing Orders, and only an Inquiry can provide the House with the remedies which would be most effective in saving time. May I be allowed to suggest that the Committee of Inquiry, if it is appointed, might give its attention to one or two aspects of the matter.
2135 This is not the first time that this matter has been raised in the House. I think, in 1922, the Chairman of Ways and Means at that time proposed certain Amendments which were accepted, and made a number of suggestions which were never embodied at all in Standing Orders. Also I am told that in 1916 the Reconstruction Committee made certain suggestions, some of which have been embodied in Standing Orders, but a number of which have never received attention at all, so this matter has from time to time been under the consideration of the Department and of those hon. Members of the House who have had experience of its difficulties. May I suggest that one of the first things that should be done is to abolish the House of Commons fees for local authorities. I do not see why a Municipal Authority should have to pay fees for obtaining from Parliament powers which are obviously desirable. I cannot think of any reason which would apply to local authorities. I can think of a reason why fees are applied to the operations of private persons other than local authorities who want powers, because private persons might apply for powers frivolously, and it is necessary for obstacles to be raised against that frivolity; the time of hon. Members of this House cannot be wasted upon what might be merely an advertisement on the part of the individual applying for powers; but to charge fees to a local authority with the sanction of public convenience and the needs of public administration behind it appears to be indefensible.
I do not see why a local authority should find it necessary to employ a Parliamentary agent. I can understand it as things are now; a Parliamentary agent is very necessary in order to find some degree of clarity in these very complicated Standing Orders, hut I do not see any reason for having vested interests in complications. The proper body to provide the local authorities with information and with guidance in making applications to the Houses of Parliament would be the appropriate Government Department. We have Law Officers, who are expert in the procedure, and they should, in my judgment, have placed upon them the obligation to assist local authorities in making applications to Parliament for powers. I want to be very 2136 carefully guarded here; I do not for a moment suggest that the appropriate Government Department should have power to alter the application of a local authority. The very last thing that should happen is that a Department should put itself between a local authority and the Legislature. This House is the seat and the source of authority, and we ought to protect local authorities against a Department being able to put itself in the way between Parliament and a local authority; but the Department might very well, under simplified Standing Orders, assist a local authority in putting its legislation in proper form, and in complying with the Standing Orders of the House, and might provide any other assistance which might be necessary to secure the powers for which the local authority asks.
Then, again—and here what I say must be considered tentative, because I know I shall be accused of speaking without my book—may I be allowed to suggest that the Local Legislation Committee should be less a quasi-judicial body and more of an inquiry—that it should be less a body to sit to listen to evidence and more a body to elicit evidence. What occurs to me is that instead of sitting down and listening, as a Court of Law listens, to representations from the promoters and the opponents of a Bill, it might itself adopt the role of assisting the promoters or opponents of a Bill to make known their views before the committee. At the moment they act more or less as a judicial body, listening to the evidence, and giving very little assistance in eliciting the relevant facts. These are merely tentative proposals. I am not suggesting that they should at once be adopted, and I am not suggesting that they will stand examination by more experienced persons, but I am suggesting that if they are adopted they will very largely expedite the procedure and reduce the cost of promoting legislation in this House.
Before I sit down may I be allowed to say one word about an instrument which has been suggested, and which is very largely in use: I mean the Provisional Order? There are certain persons who think that the way to get over this constitutional difficulty is to make greater use of the Provisional Order. I do not subscribe to that view, because I think that this House ought to put all the 2137 obstacles possible in the way of any increase of the power of Whitehall over local authorities. I think that it is undesirable in the extreme that Government Departments should be able to give to or withhold from local authorities powers for which they apply. Many Acts now contain Sections which confer upon a Minister power to give to local authorities or to withhold from local authorities administrative powers, but that does not necessarily diminish the cost, because if a local authority disagrees with a Government Department, to the costs of getting powers from Parliament itself have to be added the cost of a local inquiry which the Department holds; so that it is not necessarily the fact that in every case Provisional Orders will reduce the costs to local authorities of promoting legislation. Perhaps the Provisional Order could be used in certain directions; and indeed it is already being used. Water boards can now have powers, I understand, without obtaining special sanction from Parliament. There are certain overriding considerations in the case of water boards and sewerage boards which can promote alliances between local authorities without finding their way to Parliament at all for those powers; and the Provisional Order might be adopted in certain cases and in certain defined directions. I do not think, in all humility, that the Provisional Order is itself a proper way to get over all the difficulties facing local authorities, but rather that local authorities should be able to come to Parliament and obtain powers more simply, more cheaply and more expeditiously.
I apologise to the House for having spoken so long, but I knew when I rose that it was impossible to present to the House any case which would have very much coherence, because I find very little coherence in the Standing Orders themselves. I have spent some time in looking them up and I hope right hon. and hon. Members will forgive me if I have not been as clear as I might be in describing the difficulties which they create. Clarity, I suppose, can be realised rather in the administration of them than in the reading of them in the library. I hope I have said enough to convince hon. Members that serious consideration ought to be given to my proposal, and that an inquiry should be held in order that local 2138 authorities may be relieved of the incubus which at present rests upon them.
§ Mr. J. H. PALIN
I beg to Second the Motion.
While I am afraid that I cannot follow altogether my hon. Friend who has moved this Resolution with such fluency and eloquence in the remedies which he proposes, I certainly can endorse his diagnosis of the complaint from which local authorities are suffering. The chief difficulty at the moment, and one which will become more acute in the immediate future, arises from the fact that we have altered the date at which Parliamentary Sessions begin and the date when they end, but have made no alteration in the dates on which the various notices which have been referred to by my hon. Friend have to be presented. Representations have been made by those who devote a considerable amount of their time to this work, and as it is very close and exhausting work, to which we have to pay close attention, I feel that in addition to the difficulties which stand in the way of local authorities getting a decision as quickly as possible consideration ought also to be given to the difficulties of hon. Members who devote their time to this work.
As the Standing Orders work out now, Members of the Local Legislation Committee and, to a very large extent, the group committees cannot begin their work before March and that means that the most exacting portion of their duties has to be performed during the "dog days," when it is very difficult to keep awake while listening for hour after hour to some of the prosy speeches which we hear. Best work is not secured by concentrating the consideration of these very important Bills into the three hottest months of the year. By a small alteration of the Standing Orders it would be possible to spread the work throughout the year, and I believe that would result in Bills receiving more consideration and in much wiser decisions being come to. My hon. Friend suggested that private Bills could be held over from Session to Session. I am afraid there is some misunderstanding about that. Certain Bills were held over last year, but I am informed it has been the custom that a Bill which did not get through both Houses in one Session had to start de novo in the next; all the great ex- 2139 pense incurred by the local authority being therefore wasted.
I feel that some alteration could be made in the direction of sending Bills of a certain type to be dealt with by one Committee under the direction of one chairman. At the present moment there are no methods of dealing with this type of Bill. An "omnibus Bill," which contains almost all things, is considered by the Local Legislation Committee, but an extension Bill, or any other type of Bill promoted by a local authority which does not contain police and sanitary measures, has to be dealt with by a special committee who probably have had no previous experience of this type of work. The result of this is that we get decisions which are inconsistent and quite illogical. Although the Local Legislation Committee meets in two sections, the Chairman always sees to it at the commencement of a Session that no new principle is decided until it has been thoroughly discussed by the whole of the Committee, and in that way it is made certain that no new precedents are created until proper consideration has been given to them; but a Bill might be committed to a group committee which has given no consideration to those points and which creates anomalies and inconsistencies in consequence.
The difficulties of agents and counsel would be very largely met, and a great deal of opposition to Standing Orders would be removed, if the work were spread over a longer time. But there is one difficulty which I do not think could be met by any Amendment of the Standing Orders and that concerns the expense of counsel, because not only do local authorities engage counsel to present their own case, but very often they engage other counsel in order to prevent their opponents from securing them, feeling they know too much. This results in a great deal of waste, but how this difficulty is to be met I have not the temerity to suggest. Still, it is a very great evil.
The procedure laid down is considerably out of date. The Mover of the Motion did not say very much with regard to the difficulties of getting to this House in the first instance. Before a local authority can secure consideration of their proposals by Parliament quite 2140 a number of obstacles have to be overcome in their own district. First of all, they have to get a two-thirds majority in their own council. I have seen a great deal of trouble taken to prepare a Bill, and then the opposition walk out and leave the council without the necessary two-thirds majority. Very necessary legislation has often been delayed by a rigid insistence on a two-thirds majority. The ratepayers' meeting is another very great obstacle. It was all right when we could all meet on the village green and discuss whether we wanted a drain or did not want it; but there is no large industrial centre to-day where you can get a quarter or a tenth part of the population into the largest hall you can find in the district. Therefore, the ratepayers' meeting becomes an absolute farce. In the same way, the poll which is inevitably demanded is quite as great a farce, because, while you may get people to understand what the municipal candidate is putting forward at an election—and some of them are to be complimented on their understanding—it is very difficult to get the ordinary ratepayer to enter into the numerous Clauses of a Parliamentary Bill, and to have sufficient enthusiasm to go and record a vote in its favour or against it. The result is that only interested parties record their votes, and very often the Bill is defeated by those who have some vested interest to support.
I feel also that the Standing Orders might very properly be looked into with regard to strengthening the powers in relation to the right of people with no apparent interest to oppose a Bill. I feel that the petitions against Bills are sometimes so thin that they resolve themselves into a species of blackmail against the authority that is promoting the Bill. I have seen many instances in which, to prevent further time being wasted, local authorities have been compelled to buy off opposition which in my judgment ought never to have been allowed to be put forward. I quite endorse all that the Mover has said with regard to the question of the revision of fees and the more frequent following up by Public Health Amendment Acts to endorse the chief decisions given by the Local Legislation Committee and place the advantages of the powers granted to those promoting Bills at the disposal of other authorities 2141 without their having to incur the very great expenditure of promoting further legislation.
The expense of this is very great, and often quite out of proportion to the advantages that may be gained by the promotion of a Bill. There is a classic instance, which has been quoted in this House before, with regard to the town of Ramsbottom, in Lancashire, which has a population of 15,381. In 1923, that small local authority asked for power from Parliament to run seven omnibuses to supplement an existing transport service. The total cost of promoting the Bill to secure that power amounted to £2,025, or 2s. 7d. per head of the population, all for the privilege of running seven additional omnibuses. I have no doubt that hon. Members who have served for any length of time on local authorities could furnish even more absurd examples of wasteful expenditure.
It would seem that possibly there might also be some advantage in taking evidence in the locality. I am not going to commit myself to that as a remedy, but it requires consideration. I can quite see that, in the case of some Bills, the expense of members of the Committee and counsel proceeding to the locality would be greater than that of bringing the witnesses to London, but there have been Bills before this House in the case of which, if a Commissioner could have been appointed to take the evidence in the locality, the proceedings would undoubtedly have been considerably simplified and a considerable amount of unnecessary expenditure saved, while probably a much better result would have been brought about in the long run.
While we speak of these ancient things with very great respect, there is very good ground for the appointment of a Committee by the Government to give consideration to the matters which we have so inadequately put before the House this evening. Should such a Committee be appointed, I am convinced that satisfactory evidence could be adduced in favour of providing simplified procedure and more up-to-date Standing Orders, and that very great benefit would result in the direction of saving the ratepayers' money and increasing the amount of legislation passed during an ordinary Session. I have very great pleasure in seconding this Motion, and trust that it may not 2142 only be carried by the House but may also receive the very earnest attention of the Government.
§ Mr. HURD
I should like to say a few words in support of the proposal that there should be some inquiry into this matter. It has been my good fortune to serve upon the Local Legislation Committee for some period, and much that has been said by my hon. Friend who has just preceded me really appeals to one as arising out of his close and intimate association with the work of that Committee. One cannot refer to the work of that Committee without paying a tribute to the devotion of its chairman. I do not know that I have ever sat upon a committee which had as its chairman one who was more intent upon scrupulous fairness, unbending zeal, and devotion to his duty. Nothing could exceed the time and labour that he devotes to that work.
§ Mr. HURD
The hon. Member for Stretford (Sir T. Robinson). If my hon. Friend does not know him, I suggest that he should quickly make his acquaintance. He is one of the most useful Members of this House. He comes from Lancashire. It would not be easy to exaggerate the value of the work which that Committee does. I happened the other day to be on the high seas somewhat far away from England, and I came into touch in a casual way with some one who, in the course of conversation, disclosed that he was a member of a well-known municipal corporation in this country. He disclosed to me, without knowing that I was a Member of Parliament, some of the troubles that they go through. "Why," he said, "do you know, the way in which the House of Commons interferes in our business is something outrageous." I asked him what he was referring to, and he said, "The other day they had one of our Bills up there, and they had our officials, own town clerk and our treasurer, on the grid, with the result that we had a terrible time. They complained that the finances of our electricity undertaking were not separated from the other finances of the corporation, so that we were not able really to tell them whether it was or was not a paying proposition." I said, "It seems to me the Committee did you a good 2143 service." He said, "After that jacketing, our people came back and put our heads together and we have changed our whole method now."
That is one illustration of many that could be quoted in which the Committee, by its quiet persistent attention to matters of efficiency in municipal life, have really done a great service. All the same, I agree with my hon. Friend, watching the work of the Committee from day to day, that the procedure has become out of date. It was created in days quite different from these and it is very costly. Sitting there day by day, you frequently find seven or eight learned counsel, K.C.'s and others, fighting over a comparatively minor municipal proposition. I remember that one little body that came to the Committee had to incur expenses involving a 4d. rate. The procedure could be simplified. At any rate, it is a subject well worthy of inquiry. I well remember that we had a long, legal argument addressed to us as to whether a small municipal body should or should not be entitled to close a pier on certain days of the year to suit the convenience of the community, and also whether or not they should be allowed to raise the pier charge.
There are questions of all sorts that might well be left to the discretion of a municipality, with the feeling that if it made a mess of things, the ratepayers should have enough interest in local affairs to give it its proper punishment. I feel that in all these matters we should learn to trust local authorities far more than we now do, and in that and in other ways it will be most useful if the Government undertake an inquiry, not with a view in any way of depreciating the most valuable work the Committee does, but in order to bring the procedure of local legislation more into touch with modern conditions.
§ Mr. EGAN
I rise as one who has served on a local legislation committee and knows' something of this work and has had to present several Bills to Parliament through the committee. I should like to add a word or two to what has been said in favour of the inquiry that is being asked for. The method at present is that in sending a Bill forward, all the Departments that have any interest at all are invited to 2144 supply criticisms as to whether they think the suggestions are workable or not. This ought to simplify the matter very much indeed as to arriving at a considered conclusion, especially as most municipalities have their Bills framed on model resolutions which, having once been put on the Statute Book, should not admit of any obstruction. I have been concerned with Bills which have been before the Committee for three weeks. We come up on a Monday or Tuesday and bring the officials of the corporation with us. I have known as many as 40 or 50 important officials from an urban area covering 20 or 30 miles, who have been away from their duties for three weeks. There is the expense of going home at the week-end, coming back on the Monday morning, staying till Friday and departing for home again, to come up the following week for a Bill consisting of one contentious Measure and the rest of it agreed matters which have already been passed.
The suggestion has been made that inquiries might be held in the towns. In my town we approached the Minister of Health with regard to the first settling of rents under a Housing Bill. An inspector came to Birkenhead, saw the property, held his inquiry the same afternoon, arrived at a decision and went back the next day to London. I am confident that this would not have been settled in one day if we had had to bring all the people to London to argue the point before the tribunal. Again, may I point out the unfairness of the procedure as it affects municipalities. If you have a omnibus service and seek to extend its operations, you must come to the House for permission, but a private company which has applied for a licence to run into the town and has been refused, can apply to the Ministry of Transport, which may hold that consent has been unreasonably withheld, and give permission to run, without the municipality having an opportunity of arguing its case before the tribunal. Instances of that sort could be multiplied, and they ought to be met by some form of inquiry rather than the long procedure we have to go through when the Bill is upstairs.
I do not know that we always get a fair decision, because the gentlemen who practise before it one day advocate the 2145 benefits of a certain; Measure, and the next day, on another Bill, you hear them argue that it is the worst thing a municipality could be allowed to do. It appears to me that with a trained adjudicator, much might be saved in the way of witnesses and the fluctuations of a Committee changing from session to session. I think there is real good ground for an inquiry. I do not know anything that would be more ardently wished for by our municipal councils and the officials who work under them and frame the legislation. I am sure it is a Measure which would be received throughout the country with more approval than anything else. I am very glad to have the opportunity to add my suggestion to that of the others that the hon. Lady should take the matter into consideration.
§ Mr. JAMES HUDSON
It is extremely unfortunate that, on a subject of this importance, the House is apparently so wearied by its efforts last night that so few are prepared to give much detailed consideration to the matter in hand. My experience upon these Committees leads me to believe that this is a subject of major importance for Parliament to consider.
The very rapid change in local affairs and the rapid changes in population to which the Mover of this Motion referred will continue to produce more and more cases which will require the detailed attention of Parliamentary Committees dealing with the subject of local legislation. I cannot take the view that the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Hurd) took about the great effectiveness of these Committees. I will at once admit what he says about the hon. Gentlemen who serve as chairmen, not only the hon. Gentleman, the Member for Stretford (Sir T. Robinson), who presided over the main Local Legislation Committee, but the chairmen who have been appointed to take their part in several Committees which deal with appeals concerning the extension of municipal boundaries and so on. Generally the amount of detailed attention, constancy and care which are given by them to the matters in hand is beyond all praise, but while that is so it makes it the more remarkable that the Committees, constituted as they are of Members who are agreed to be efficient persons to examine into these issues, 2146 should allow the development of the Parliamentary Bar and of the Parliamentary agent up to the point which has been reached to-day. In my judgment, it is one of the gravest scandals of our times.
There has been an explanation made as to how it comes about that members of the Parliamentary Bar are able to extract the fees out of local authorities which they do extract. The crowding of the business, as my hon. Friend said very effectively, into the dog days, gives certain barristers who are much in demand a very special opportunity to extract all they want to extract. There is a legend, I believe, both among Parliamentary barristers and amongst barristers in general that it is a good thing for the more successful barristers to charge high fees; that it is a good thing from the point of view of everybody, otherwise everybody would be running for the specially effective barristers and our Courts would be crowded with cases requiring to be adjudicated upon to such an extent that nothing could be done.
I sat on one of these committees dealing with a case brought by the Birmingham Corporation some two or three years ago. The most distinguished Parliamentary barristers in the land had been engaged on one side or the other, and they were dodging from the room in which we were sitting to other rooms on the same corridor where other cases were being heard. Their minds were so confused that we who sat on the bench hearing the case knew far more about it than they did. The hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite laughs. I saw this sort of thing, as he must have seen it if he had been present at proceedings of this sort.
§ Major GEORGE DAVIES
I was only laughing because I thought the situation was an amusing one. I was not laughing at what the hon. Gentleman was saying.
§ Mr. HUDSON
I am obliged to the hon. and gallant Gentleman. It would be amusing if it were not a tragedy, which, as has been so well shown, leads to local authority after local authority refusing to bring forward questions that very badly require to be deal with. The particular instance of which I am speaking led to the expenditure of many thousands of pounds both by Birmingham, the neighbouring municipalities and 2147 the neighbouring county councils. In a way the payment of Members of Parliament makes this issue the more paradoxical. You put upon a committee—in the case of which I am speaking there were three Members of Parliament—and threaten them with all sorts of penalties if they dare to be absent. You hold the meetings of the committee throughout the week, sometimes beginning on Monday morning. In my own case, living as I do in a constituency far away in the North, I usually manage to get down to the House in time for the afternoon sitting on Monday. When I was put on this Committee we began on Monday morning and I had to come down to London on Sunday in order to be ready for the work. We are paid a Parliamentary salary to discharge all the functions expected of us, including this difficult judicial function of sitting on a committee.
Here we sit in front of Parliamentary barristers who, by the chance given to them through the extraordinary disorganisation of business, extract thousands and tens of thousands of pounds annually out of the cases of which I am speaking. From every point of view, from our point of view as Members of Parliament as well as from the point of view of local authorities, we ought to strive to make such a reorganisation of public business that this sort of thing should be ended. The same thing applies to the Parliamentary agents. In a way, perhaps, the local authorities are themselves to blame for attaching so much importance to these barristers and agents. I cannot understand why municipalities, large municipalities like Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham, who are generally led in their administrative affairs by gentlemen of very high legal qualifications, town clerks and so on, special people appointed for their legal knowledge and their powers to judge upon issues of this kind, do not content themselves with appointing their own officials who know through and through the case which is being adjudicated upon.
§ Mr. HUDSON
Many of them are barristers, and whatever may be the reason why the municipalities do not content themselves with appointing their 2148 own employés, their own barristers, to put their case forward, at any rate Parliament ought to make greater efforts to save the waste and the scandal that this state of things represents. There was not only the case to which I referred, which dealt with an extension of boundaries, but at the same time as this particular issue was being decided, an examination was being held in a room in another part of the same corridor into the case of the Port of Glasgow and the neighbouring authorities. On that case well over £20,000 was spent in Parliamentary fees and expenses. We have been told about the classic instance of the town of Ramsbottom in the County of Lancaster, and of the enormous burden placed upon each ratepayer in that area as a result of the expenses incurred in order to get the right to run some six or seven extra omnibuses. The amount that was charged would have bought two or three of the omnibuses which were ultimately run.
It is with this spectacle before us that we ought most seriously to give our attention to the claims which my hon. Friend has so eloquently made in the Motion he has submitted to us. Large migrations of populations are now going on as the result of slum clearances. I have no doubt that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health will be able to remind us of larger and larger slum clearances which will take place in the near future, and that there will be a migration of town population into the areas contiguous to the town where the expense is being incurred in order to secure changes and improvements in the housing conditions of the people who have hitherto lived in the slums.
Not very long ago we had the case of the Manchester City Council, which was examining into the possibilities of making a great housing extension into the area of Wythenshawe, which is a place well known to hon. Gentlemen opposite and was given through the beneficence of one of the hon. Members sitting on the Liberal benches, the hon. Member for Withington (Mr. Simon). It is a place delightfully adapted for the purpose of a greater population, a place that Manchester wants to see rapidly developed, and a place over which Manchester ought to have some control, yet, on account of the opposition, in my 2149 opinion the very insufficient opposition, of the Cheshire County Council, thinking merely of the rateable value that it thought it would lose, in the long run Manchester was prevented from going forward with a very effective scheme that ought to be gone on with. I understand that Manchester will come again, very shortly, to put the case before Parliament and it is likely that they will go again through the same expensive process, and some £10,000 or more will again be spent when the matter is referred to a Committee upstairs.
There is no justification for this sort of thing. I suggest that we ought to produce an arrangement by which the business could be scattered throughout the whole year, and that fewer Parliamentary barristers should be appointed. A rule ought to be made that would prevent the appointment of barristers. I do not think that we could entirely stop people from appointing barristers, but we might limit the number appointed by the various municipalities. A rule of that sort might make a very considerable improvement in the matters we are discussing to-night. Seeing that we are likely to have in the immediate future, particularly near great cities like Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Birmingham, more cases where re-adaptations of boundaries will be brought before committees of this House, I am sure that the need for altering our Standing Orders and the procedure which applies in regard to these questions, is greater than at any time we have known. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to announce that the Government intend to set up an inquiry into the whole history of committee proceedings, out of which perhaps may be found the best step to take in order to effect the improvement for which we ask.
§ 9.0 p.m.
§ Sir DOUGLAS NEWTON
I have much pleasure in supporting the Motion, which has been moved in such eloquent terms by my hon. Friend opposite. I have pleasure in supporting the Motion because I believe its main purpose is to cut through what I regard as unnecessary red tape. The promotion of Bills so far as most local authorities are concerned is not very frequently resorted to. County councils, for example, do not promote much Private Bill legislation. Borough councils come before this House with 2150 Private Bills more frequently than county councils. Nevertheless, the number, of Bills that any individual local authority promotes is in most cases, not very numerous, and it is perhaps, for that reason that this matter, which is a genuine grievance, has not found public expression in this House. It is only when a local authority finds it necessary to promote a Bill, such as perhaps for the extension of its boundaries, that it realises what a great many difficulties there are, and how much expense is entailed, and it appreciates then for the first time the need for some revision in the existing machinery. In the main, almost without exception, local authorities promote Bills in the general public interest. If the Bill is in the public interest, every possible facility for the passage of that Bill should be given. In some cases the Bills are promoted for sanitary reasons, which everyone admits is a desirable object, yet they have to go through the same costly procedure. I believe I am right in stating that in the case of a Bill promoted by the Middlesex County Council, the Thames Bridges Bill, which was promoted only last year and opposed in one House only, the cost amounted to £5,000. The same authority promoted a Bill in 1925, and again the Bill was opposed only in one House and yet the cost of the passage of the Bill amounted to over £2,500. If these Bills had been opposed in both Houses the costs would have been higher. It can hardly be argued that these heavy costs, which fall upon the ratepayers, should be incurred by local authorities who are promoting Bills in the public interest.
Reference has been made to the Parliamentary Bar and the high fees which are exacted from those who promote Bills. No doubt that is a very considerable factor in the cost of the Bills, and it makes it perhaps all the more urgent that the machinery should be made as simple as possible, and that the simplest procedure should be evolved. There is a general measure of agreement in this House as to the grievance and the difficulty under discussion and the necessity of steps being taken to deal with the matter. I should like to examine some of the possible methods of ameliorating the position. When a Bill is promoted, first of all it has to be done by a definite 2151 date. I do not take exception to that, but there is always a rush on the 25th November in regard to these Private Bills. Expensive advertising has to be resorted to. Two publications have to be made in various organs of the Press. Large numbers of plans have to be prepared and deposited in different places. It might be possible to save expense by giving notice that the plans are available in one particular place, and can be inspected there. The preliminaries are expensive, but those expenses do not all appear in the general account although they are expenses which have to be met by the ratepayers. Then there is the lengthy procedure of the inquiry if the Bill is opposed in this House and in another place.
Is it necessary to resort to this cumbersome procedure? I suggest, with all respect, that a Joint Committee of both Houses could be arranged for and a much cheaper process could be evolved than the existing one. We already resort to that method in regard to certain Bills and I think the same machinery might be used in respect of other Bills. Provisional Orders might be made more use of. I believe I am right in saying that it is not possible to have a Provisional Order unless some special Act of Parliament governs the particular matter under consideration. Resort to Provisional Orders might, however, be more extensively made, although that might require a further Act of Parliament. Allusion has been made to the fees payable to the House in respect of these Bills. I believe the fees have been raised 33⅓ per cent. during the last five years. It may be desirable that the fees should be revised, but I suggest that if they are revised again they should be revised downwards and not upwards.
For these and other reasons I hope the House will support this Motion, and bring into the limelight the very difficult position of local authorities. The duties which are imposed on local authorities are ever growing, getting larger and more important, and as that is the case there will ever be more and more need for them in the future to promote private Bills. It is, therefore, up to us as the guardians of the taxpayer as well as the ratepayer to do all we can to lighten that burden.
§ Mr. SHERWOOD
I hesitate to take part in this Debate, and I am prompted to intervene for only a few minutes because of a very bitter experience I have had in connection with Private Bills and Provisional Orders. An hon. Member opposite has said that local authorities discover they are in difficulties only when they want an extension of their boundaries. That is not my experience. The Corporation of Wakefield has been compelled to come here with Private Bills when they have had no desire to do so. The whole point in connection with this Motion is that the Borough Funds Acts will have to be reviewed. My own locality has gained a little notoriety lately. We promoted a Bill in this House in 1924. The House fees were £452. I submit that the fees to a local authority presenting a Bill either in this or the other House ought to be nothing. In 1923 we had a Bill, and the fees were £250; in 1906, a Provisional Order, in which not even a single witness was necessary and no barrister, not even the town clerk in attendance, and the fees were £350. Who gets these fees? If you desire to help local authorities these fees should be abolished altogether.
I agree with the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. J. Hudson) that you should limit the number of counsel. I would limit counsel and barrister to one case at a time. In 1924, two rival Bills were promoted before the Committee upstairs, Oldham and Rochdale Corporations on the one hand and Wakefield and Morley Corporations on the other—each with its own counsel. I sat through the whole of that case. Counsel came in every five minutes and then went to a case in another room. He did not know his job; but it cost the corporations £41,000. The Bill was in connection with the acquisition of the Rochdale Canal Company's undertaking, and it cost the Oldham and Rochdale Corporations £21,000 between them; two-thirds for Oldham, and one-third for Rochdale, or £14,000 for Oldham and £7,000 for Rochdale. It cost the Morley Corporation, a comparatively small borough, £14,000, and the Wakefield Corporation £6,500. I think the House agrees that there is a necessity for inquiry into this matter. Let me get a little bit nearer. We have had an advertisement recently in the City of London, and we appreciate the kindly encouragement we have received 2153 from the Minister of Health and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health, but are not over grateful for the help from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We are mulcted in a rate of 1s. 4d. in the £ for 30 years. It may be somebody's fault, but it means that not only my own bairns but my grandchildren are going to be penalised to the extent of 1s. 4d. in the £ in rates. We cannot get out of that difficulty. I am sure hon. Members opposite know more about this than I do. It is bad enough to bear, but we have to come here with a Bill which means a few more coppers in the pound in rates on the top of it all.
I submit that it ought to be within the power of the Minister of Health to sanction such matters, just as in the same way they can give sanction to expenditure, on the credit of the rates. Our credit is good yet, and it ought not be necessary to come here again with a Bill to get out of the difficulty. It is simply piling the burden on the ratepayers, and when all is said and done it is not a question of Liberal, Socialist or Tory ratepayers. They have all to pay. We have to meet it. The present machinery, in my opinion, hinders every opportunity and every desire of a local authority to advance. I know the Motion will be carried, but I hope the Government will act upon it, and act quickly. You get five or six Bills upstairs and five or six lawyers. Not one knows his job. If any hon. Member wants a little experience let him go upstairs at the start of these Committees. He will see the man to whom you have paid thousands of pounds running from one room to another like a terrier in a fit. If it is a borough council the town clerk has probably said, "I ought to be given an opportunity of consulting and engaging counsel on this "—the fat-head—and when he gets here he has to do the job himself, but he is not allowed to do it because of the fellow in the gown, who is bleeding us. If a man is returned as a member of his local authority and also to Parliament he is a better judge of the needs of the local authority than all the barristers in the world.
§ Captain BOURNE
I think this is the first occasion on which the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Sherwood) has addressed the House, and, if so, I wish to offer him my sincere congratulations.
2154 I also wish to express a great deal of sympathy with the cases which he has brought forward of the very heavy costs sometimes incurred by local authorities. But that is not a matter which is within our control. If people chose to engage very expensive counsel, and to bring very expensive expert witnesses before the Committees upstairs, it is hardly fair to blame either this House or its Standing Orders for the expense involved. I have spent many hours upstairs on those Committees, and I, for one, would have been grateful had I been spared some of the eloquence and had I been able to listen to the evidence of the officials of the authorities concerned, rather than to that of expert witnesses whose evidence in one case was probably contradicted by the evidence given a week previously in another place. I do not think there can be any objection to the suggestion that there should be an inquiry into the Standing Orders dealing with private legislation, but while listening to the speech of the Mover of this Motion, I could not help feeling that it was a pity that he, being a new Member of this House, had not had that experience of the work upstairs which is rather necessary in dealing with a Motion of this kind.
To begin with, we have to remember that Private Bill legislation, whether promoted by a local authority or by any other body, is peculiar. It started originally in petitions presented to Parliament on some matter outside the ordinary law of the realm, and it has been continued in that form to this day. The point which ought to be emphasised is that a petition for a Private Bill is, in effect, a request to Parliament to endow a local authority or some other body with powers which are not possessed under statute law by the ordinary citizens of this realm. It is a request to us to give a special legal power to a special body for a special purpose. I submit that when a body—I do not mind what kind of body it is—asks for powers and rights in law, not possessed by His Majesty's subjects in general, it is our business to look into that request with extreme care. That is our duty.
There are on the Statute Book a number of consolidating Public Health Acts, and Acts of that sort containing provisions which any local authority can adopt 2155 if they wish to do so. But when they come to Parliament to ask for powers they are asking for extra powers, powers which must, of their nature, invade the rights of others of His Majesty's subjects, and it is extremely important that before such rights are granted there should be a careful inquiry by an impartial tribunal. I have sat on many of those Committees upstairs, and if I were, either a person promoting a Private Ball, or a person opposing a Private Bill, I, personally, should not ask to go before a more impartial or painstaking tribunal than that provided by the Members of this House, who devote many hours of hard work and patient hearing to trying to arrive at just decisions in these cases. I hold a very high opinion of the Private Bill Committees of this House. I feel that some tribunal is necessary, and I very much doubt whether, if you decided to remove the jurisdiction from this House, you could find a tribunal which would command more support or more general confidence than that commanded by the Committees of this House.
That is the first point. The second point which we have to remember is that of the Standing Orders relating to Private Business. One would not like to suggest that these Standing Orders could not be improved, or that an inquiry is not necessary; but the main thing to realise is that the bodies who present petitions to Parliament for Private Bills are seeking special and extra legal powers, powers which are likely to invade the rights and privileges of His Majesty's subjects in general. The whole object of these Orders is to make sure that anybody whose rights and privileges may be invaded by the proposed legislation shall have the utmost notice of such legislation and the utmost opportunity of presenting objections to it if he wishes to do so. Complaint has been made of the complicated rules which have to be complied with, the necessity of giving notice all round, and the very close inspection which is made in this House to ensure that the Standing Orders have been complied with, but what is the object of these Standing Orders? It is to ensure that those people whose rights or interests may be affected by the proposed legislation have notice of it. They may agree and they may think that the legislation is excellent, but they may, on 2156 the contrary, have quite valid objections to it. I am certain that many of the objections raised to Private Bills are in themselves substantial, though they may not be sufficient in the judgment of the Committee to call for the rejection either of the Bill or of the particular Clause on which they are made.
It is only fair and reasonable that those people whose rights are affected should have the fullest notice of what is intended, and the fullest opportunity of putting their case before the tribunal. That is the object of most of the Standing Orders dealing with private business. The Mover suggested that local authorities are very intelligent persons and that they have very skilled assistants—and I agree—and that therefore, any measure which they propose should ipso facto receive the assent of the House. But he overlooked the fact that although a proposal might be admirable from the point of view of the local authority, it might be extraordinarily detrimental from the point of view of other people affected by it. A local authority might desire to establish a sewage farm in a certain place. That would be an excellent project from the point of view of the local authority but it might be very detrimental to all the people living in the vicinity where it is proposed to establish the sewage farm. Then, not infrequently, we have to deal with Bills promoted by local authorities on the question of water supplies, and one or two have been sanctioned by this House under which the water supply of a municipality—I am thinking of Birmingham, Liverpool and Bolton—is drawn from another district far remote from that municipality, and the interests of the people in that district must of necessity differ totally from those of the municipality promoting the Bill.
It is obvious that big municipalities have a right to the opportunity of getting the water supply which they require, but I do not think that even the biggest municipality has the right to come down on another district and to say, "This is a suitable place for our reservoir, and we propose to dump it here," and to do so without listening to the objections of the inhabitants of that district in which it is proposed to dump the reservoir. I do not think that is reasonable. I submit to the House very earnestly that the whole ob- 2157 ject of the Standing Orders relating to private business is to give to persons whose rights are affected by some proposition, such as that I have just outlined, an opportunity of stating their case to what I, for one, believe is one of the best tribunals you can find for the purpose. If I am right in that, although I do not for a moment oppose the Motion, I do think the House or the committee or whatever other body is get up, should very carefully consider that point of view before it makes any serious recommendations or alterations in the Standing Orders.
I have only one other point to make. A great deal has been said about expenditure. I would point out to this House that the expenditure, namely fees, exacted by the Standing Orders is not very heavy. I have worked it out that a Bill can have five days in Committee and go through all the other stages in this House for a fee of £125. There was a Bill which dealt with a capital sum exceeding £5,000,000 and which had a considerable period of the time of this House for £750. These sums are not very excessive when you come to consider the magnitude of the interests involved. I am convinced that a great deal of the expenditure on Private Bills is high because the municipalities think that there are certain counsel whose services they must have. As always happens in this world, if you have several people demanding the services of one man whose time is limited, he is able to put a very high price on those services. The same is true of expert witnesses. You have municipalities and private companies competing for the services of one or two expert witnesses whom they desire to call before the Committees of this House, and in consequence of this the charges of these gentlemen are very high. I believe, like the hon. Member who has just spoken, that many of these Bills could be promoted far more cheaply if the municipalities would use their own officers and would rely for evidence on their own officials.
§ Mr. ARNOTT
I am sure every Member on this side is grateful to the hon. Member who has just spoken. I began to fear for this Resolution because I believed that nothing was so dangerous as apparent unanimity and that unless 2158 you got some element of contradiction or combativeness, no resolution or scheme had the least chance of fructifying. The hon. Member who has just spoken informed us that he would not oppose the Resolution, but the whole of his speech was a eulogy of the present methods. It may be worth while examining that speech for a few moments. The hon. Member began with a history of the origin of private legislation. He pointed out that the municipalities, like other bodies, were under a common statutory law and came here in the form of petitioners asking for special privileges which were not possessed by other people. I would ask him if he knows of a single municipality, of any magnitude, at any rate, in the whole of the country, which could carry on its work efficiently simply by the statutory law. I do not know of one. Every municipality, as far as I know, has to get special legislation to carry on this particular work.
This Resolution is a very modest one and might even be opposed on the ground that it did not go far enough. It admits that, for the time being at any rate, a great municipality, with half a million people or more, should not be allowed to extend its powers and do things that no single one of its citizens can do under the ordinary law, without promoting legislation here. We are not asking you to change that for the time being. What is suggested is that when a municipality comes here after carrying out the ordinary procedure with the support of two-thirds of the members of the local council and obtaining very often the support of a body of representative citizens, the Standing Orders should be amended so as to enable a judgment to be given at reasonable cost and in reasonable time, both of which are of very great importance.
Every member of a municipality has had experience of what these two things mean. They have had experience of what cost means and of what delay means and the hon. Gentleman who has just spoken explained why barristers command such high fees. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Sherwood), that municipalities are always foolish in engaging barristers. I do not agree with the hon. Member opposite either that the engaging of barristers is 2159 not an extravagance in many instances. The municipality which is conducting a Bill is faced with this difficulty: Their town clerk may be an admirable man and their officials may be admirable men. They may know much more about the subject than any particular barrister or collection of barristers, but they have not always got the aptitude to put the case in the way in which it ought to be put in order to appeal to the particular committee which is dealing with it. It is quite conceivable that a barrister, without knowing so much of the case, may put it in the most acceptable way which is likely to carry the best results in the committee. We know that sort of thing has been done again and again, and the fact that the witnesses brought forward by the municipality undergo proper examination by a most expensive barrister on the other side makes it necessary for the corporation, if it is to have a reasonable chance of winning its case, to engage equally costly barristers on the other side.
Very often even the distinguished town clerk has only one method of judging the efficiency of a barrister, and that is by the cost, very much in the same way as in judging the efficiency of a football player—and probably with as little justification. Therefore, if we want to give justice, I think we do need to ensure that it should be given with reasonable cost and in reasonable time. The cost is very excessive, and part of that cost is due to the wide scope of the inquiry. I have attended one or two inquiries, and have found that, no matter what powers are being sought in a Bill, every single thing in connection with the municipality is examined before the committee. I remember reading, many years ago, a rather famous book, called "Gulliver's Travels," in which a distinguished writer deals with lawyers who are making examination as to the ownership of a cow.
We find pretty much the same thing when a Bill brought forward by a municipality comes before the Committee upstairs. Whatever powers are being sought, you are asked first of all to describe the population of a city, the extent and acreage, the sewerage system, the number of officials and the number of miles of roads. Every conceivable 2160 thing connected with that particular city is asked for, although the Bill may have nothing whatever to do with it. That all fills up the days and gives an opportunity for asking questions and for cross-examination. If a municipality asks for powers to run an omnibus service outside a town, they send the Bill up here, or one or two Clauses in a Bill giving them the power, and it goes through the processes I have described, including a long period of cross-examination, and after all the finances of the city have been brought under review, to see if they are fit persons to run half a dozen vehicles, although they may be running a hundred already, they are successful, and every person who has any interest whatever in any rival or possible rival service can not only come there, but if he is skilful, he can pose as a representative ratepayer and be represented by counsel and give a great deal of trouble to that municipality. While this is going on at enormous cost, a decision may be reached one way or another, and in spite of the complimentary things said about the Committees upstairs—and I am prepared to admit that they do their work judicially—no one can say what their decisions will be. The same municipality may bring forward a proposal one year and get it turned down, and then bring forward practically the same proposal another year, and it goes through, and no human being can foretell what the result of an inquiry will be after all this expense.
There is another aspect of this question, which I think has been entirely overlooked. We have been discussing it all the time as if all the procedure in connection with a private Bill was connected with a Committee upstairs, but that private Bill has to undergo certain stages down here, and I can remember a case when this particular Chamber was packed to the door. I happened to be in the Gallery representing a municipality on that occasion, and I agree that it was a very extensive Bill, which aroused a great deal of controversy, but every possible means had been taken by that municipality to conciliate the opposition. It had come before an official of the Ministry of Health, who had held his inquiry and given the scheme his approval. He had eliminated certain areas that he said should not be included in the scheme, and passed other areas which, according 2161 to his adjudication ought to have been included in the scheme, and that particular Bill, after a great deal of fuss and many public meetings, not only in the particular city but in all the neighbourhood, and after almost, getting an assurance from the Ministry that it would go through as far as they could enable it to go through, never reached the Committee stage here at all. We had a heated debate in this Chamber, and the Bill was turned out, and the whole effort in connection with it was entirely wasted.
§ Mr. ARNOTT
It was the Leeds Extension Bill of a few years ago. Seeing that we are dealing with history on this occasion, I think I can give the reason why that attitude was taken up. Another municipality had a Bill before this House and that municipality, the municipality of Edinburgh, carried the Second Reading of its Bill here, and I think it passed its Committee stage but was rejected on Third Beading; and the indignation of the local authorities throughout the country at that decision was so great that another Bill was promoted soon afterwards, which passed this House. Obviously the people who were opposed on principle to the extension of municipal corporations at the expense of county councils were sufficiently strong to organise opposition in this House so that our Bill never got a real hearing on its merits. But it is not my purpose tonight to argue the justice or the injustice of any of these decisions. What I am arguing is that it is unfair to subject great municipalities, and even more unfair to subject small municipalities, to a very costly procedure, with no reasonable guarantee that the case shall have what one might call a fair opportunity of being decided justly and promptly. Although an hon. Member opposite did claim that there were good reasons for the present procedure, and that it was necessary to have close inquiry in order to do justice, even he never claimed that the work was done with any sort of expedition. There is a great deal of talk about ca'canny in industry, but I claim that the reversal of that policy of ca'canny should also be applied to this House, and that local authorities should have a reasonable chance of getting powers 2162 given them to which they are justly entitled.
§ Major G. DAVIES
I should like to take the opportunity of relieving the anxiety of the hon. Member for South-West Hull (Mr. Arnott), who said he was afraid of this Motion because everyone was so pleased with it. I am glad to let him know that I shall not follow suit in that connection. I am in a little difficulty on account of two speeches that have been delivered from these benches by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Oxford (Captain Bourne) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Sir D. Newton), in that, being a Cambridge man, I am compelled to support the view of the hon. and gallant Member for Oxford rather than that of my colleague from Cambridge. The gravamen of the criticisms which have run through all the speeches centres on two main issues. One is the cost, and the other the cumbrousness, of procedure in connection with local government legislation. Although I am sorry to see he is no longer in the House, I should like to pay a tribute to the speech of the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. A. Bevan), who opened the Debate. It was remarkable for its fluency, its choice of language, its knowledge of the situation, and for the flambuoyancy of youth, which those of us who are in the sere and yellow leaf sincerely envy, and also perhaps for a somewhat brief experience of procedure in this House.
In regard to the question of cost, I think the figures that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Oxford put forward regarding the costs of legislation that comes here, those costs that are laid down, are remarkably moderate when you think of the issues involved. But these big sums that are incurred by local authorities which come here are not really due to the procedure for the regulation of costs as laid down by this House. They are the result simply of the desire on the part of litigants to get the best possible presentation of their case. It is natural, therefore, if you are going to bring a case before a particular branch of legal activity, that you should go to a department of the Bar that has made a special study of it. If anybody were so unfortunate as to be mixed up in divorce proceedings, they would be unwise to go to a barrister well versed in company law.
2163 The same thing applies precisely when you are dealing with a matter which is in the special line of Parliamentary law, and there is a special department of the Bar which, having made a life study of the subject, is probably better fitted than anyone else to present those cases.
The local authorities have received no criticism in this Debate. All the criticism has been in regard to the procedure of this House, but it is the local authorities who are resposible for these costs climbing up to the great figures that have been mentioned by hon. Members opposite, because they are satisfied that they are getting their money's worth in having the very best representation of their cases. I submit, therefore, that the question of heavy costs does not really arise under this Motion. I come back then to the real gravamen of the charge, which is the question of the cumbrousness or the reverse of the procedure. The hon. Member for South West Hull devoted a considerable portion of the latter part of his speech to a criticism of the decisions that were given here by the representatives of this august assembly. If he thought carefully, I do not think that he would come to the conclusion that his remarks were justified.
After all, we have party Government here; we have two sides to the House, and obviously something of that is sometimes reflected in certain questions, such as municipal undertakings, which come forward in some of these Measures. That is inseparable, from the mentality, the individuality and the whole formation of this House, and it does not mean that, because a decision at one time may be favourable and at another time unfavourable in a precisely similar situation, that you are not getting the most earnest, genuine and honest consideration from the Committee which sits on these Measures. Any hon. Member who has been as unfortunate as I have been in trying to show livestock at agricultural shows, will realise that one's success or lack of success does not depend entirely on the excellence of the beef one puts in, or on the fine condition which it is in, but somewhat on the vagaries of the judges who are judging that particular class of entry. The same thing applies in this question of considering private Bills, because after all in the whole judicial system, where we have trial by 2164 jury, it is something of a "toss-up" to say how the jury are going to decide a. particular case, and in order to have the best chance you can, you get the very best counsel that you can to present your case. That is precisely on all fours with the situation which develops in promoting local government legislation here. There may be, therefore, no real foundation for the criticism of it.
Therefore we narrow it down to the question whether the procedure is too cumbrous and too long drawn out. It is based very largely on generations of experience going back into the dim ages, which we see reflected day by day in the procedure of this Chamber. The hon. Member who moved the Motion, if I may say so in criticism of a speech which I have praised, has had very little experience of the procedure of this old House of Commons, of which we are so proud to be Members. I remember well when I first entered as a very green new Member, and tried to imbibe the whys and wherefores of our procedure, that I soon found that the apparently inconvenient and absurd procedure through which we went was based on absolute common sense and sound experience. A Measure that comes before us has to go through its First Beading, Second Beading and Committee stage—as some of us rather sleepily remember this morning—and then through the Third Beading, and afterwards it has to proceed through another place and finally has to receive the Royal Assent. It is true that there are certain Measures of an emergency character which have the approval of all parties of the House, and which are given every facility in all their stages. Others are fought tooth and nail on both sides of the House, and the tradition is that that can be, as the Americans say, no "railway roading" of legislation. The whole discussion has to take place in the light of day.
That is the basis on which local legislation is also built up. It is all very well of hon. Members who know the desirability of their particular locality to want facilities for a piece of legislation which they wish to see passed. They know more about it than the judge, jury, counsel and the House of Commons. But for what are they asking? They are asking for a piece of legislation which they are sure is excellent, but they must re- 2165 member that there are other people's rights to be considered, which are just as sacred in the eyes of the House as those of the local authorities. In this country local government began in the little parochial system, and as the country has become increasingly populated, as transport and rapid transit from one point to another has developed, interests have overlapped more than ever, and it is necessary, in questions of local legislation, when local authorities are trying to ask for special privileges, to safeguard other interests which, with the increased complexity of our civilisation, become involved. It is a matter of the free will of individuals or of local authorities to go into heavy costs in order to have their case presented in the best way. I feel that it is chasing a hare to bring up this question, but at the same time, I do not propose to vote against the Motion, because I think that we have nothing to fear from an inquiry.
§ 10.0 p.m.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the MINISTRY of HEALTH (Miss Lawrence)
I think that we have every reason to be grateful to the Mover of the Motion for bringing before the House so interesting and important a subject. We all of us know what our local authorities need, and I therefore do not think that it is surprising that there should have been on the whole so great a consensus of opinion with regard to the fact that local authorities have an undue difficulty in getting the new legislation which they need passed. The Department to which I am attached has received lately a very great number of earnest and serious representations from local authorities with regard to the troublesomeness of the cumbrous procedure by which they attained powers. That is perfectly true. The Mover of the Motion said that that was due to Parliament, and not to local authorities, and he reminded us of the important deputation which this Department received from a large number of local authorities He also reminded us that this was not altogether a new question, that it has been repeatedly discussed by various committee and that the last committee which made recommendations was the Reconstruction Committee of 1916, which recommended the extension of the system of legislation by Provisional Order, and the appointment 2166 of a Joint Committee of the two Houses of Parliament to consider questions affecting procedure. There are three or four different classes of cases on the Statute Book which are very well known to hon. Members. They are first of all the applications which come up from local authorities, which are almost in common form, and the Committee have a long history of precisely similar applications from other localities which have been granted, and after the procedure giving notice and so forth has been gone though, they are granted merely as a matter of course.
With the development of local government, certain matters which at one time were the experiment of one municipality, have been made pretty general, and in each case there was the application of a special private Bill to deal with the one authority's experiment. We have sometimes had general legislation consolidating the main trend of local legislation. The last important Act of that kind was the Public Health Act of 1925, and hon. Members will remember that what was done in that Measure was to review the local legislation for a number of years and include in the Act powers which were very generally sought. If Parliament can manage to keep that up-to-date, it relieves Members of the Standing Committee of a very considerable amount of work. That is one of the ways in which Parliament ought to deal with this matter.
Then we come to the Parliamentary Committees. Members may say in principle that this is a very desirable thing. I have known Bills, of which the Second Reading was approved without a whisper of opposition, which have yet in their later stages taken a considerable time in the House, more perhaps than the Government could afford. It is necessary, in considering these matters, for a Government which has other legislation on hand to move warily and to make sure that it secures the most favourable way of meeting the needs of local authorities. Then there is the case where an authority is asking for entirely new experimental powers. I may instance Birmingham. It is proper that Parliament should consider absolutely new steps by local authorities.
There is a third class of case, the most troublesome of all, where we have seen the time of Parliament taken up and so 2167 much money wasted, when one local authority is fighting another, or three or four local authorities are engaged in a general fight. That is a very absurd state of things. I do not want to criticise local authorities, but some of them are altogether too combative, and I do not know how these matters could be removed from Parliament except by the expedient, to which there might be a good deal of resistance, of increasing the powers of Departments to deal with certain matters. These boundary disputes are matters which need an arbitrator. It might be done more cheaply and quickly, no doubt, by professional arbitrators, but I cannot say whether that would meet the views of local authorities or Parliament. I mention it as one of the ways in which some of the burden of legislation could be removed from the House.
Then we come to the matters which are particularly mentioned by the hon. Member—the extremely long proceedings and the cost, which in some cases is excessive. I have great sympathy with the view urged by many Members of the House, but this is part of a very much larger question, and the whole of what Members intend to do could not be done by a mere cheapening of the procedure. We have to look at the case of this Imperial Parliament. It is not right that so much of the time of Members of Parliament should be taken up in dealing with cases, a good many of which could be settled, as I have said, either by general legislation or some cheaper form of arbitration. With regard to this inquiry, the Department to which I am attached is not capable of giving a definite answer. It is a matter which will receive the most earnest consideration, but hon. Members will remember that the question of whether a Government can afford the time for so intricate a matter must depend largely on the state of other legislation and the degree of unity and harmony and so forth that we can expect from Members of Parliament. I will undertake that we shall note the feeling of Members of the House as expressed to-night, and I can say that the Government will give this careful consideration. No definite promise, however, can be given in the matter at this 2168 stage of the Session and in the present position of our business.
I had no intention of taking part in this Debate until a few moments ago. I quite agree with the Under-Secretary in regard to part of her speech. It is certainly true that in certain matters we can coordinate by means of a single law and enable authorities to carry on some of the work for which they have now to come to Parliament, more easily and cheaply. There is one point, however, on which I must deprecate very strongly what the Parliamentary Secretary has said. There is a feeling in many parts of the House that Departmental powers as a general rule do not want increasing. H a resolution of this kind is to be used by the Departments as a means of increasing their powers the House will be very ill-advised to pass it. The Parliamentary Secretary hinted again that it might be possible to do many things by professional arbitration. I have listened to many criticisms of Governments based on a feeling against professional arbitration. I emphasise these two points because it is essential, when we are dealing with a general resolution of this kind, which has the sympathy of many of us in the House, that we should be very careful lest we should lay down something which will give the Departments any sort of excuse for increasing the administrative powers which they can carry on without having to come before the House itself.
Having said that, perhaps I may be allowed to make one or two comments on a part of this Resolution. The amount of actual Parliamentary time which is used in the course of a year in dealing with any of these local government Bills is not very great. If you go back through the last few years you will find the cases are comparatively rare and are almost invariably cases in which a great deal of local feeling has been aroused one way or the other. Where there is feeling in a considerable body—as in London, for example—it is no bad thing, and certainly not against the interest of the locality or country that the people representing these localities should be able to come and lay their case clearly before the House of Commons itself; and for this reason, that however excellent these Committees upstairs are, I do believe 2169 that there is about the House of Commons itself a form of publicity which makes people very careful of what they do in these matters, and it does mean that local authorities are careful to walk in a reasonable way, and in a way which will command the respect of the country as a whole. For that reason I do not for one moment deprecate the fact that occasionally we get these Bills before us in the House of Commons; and they almost invariably lead to a very interesting and instructive Debate.
I will say a few words upon what I believe has been discussed earlier in the evening, namely, the vast expense entailed—not expense in consequence of Regulations laid down by Parliament, but expense because authorities will insist on getting very highly skilled legal opinion. I am not a lawyer, and I am one of those who consider that resort to lawyers is one of the highest follies that one can possibly commit. I say that if you are foolish enough to get into evil things of that kind, then most certainly you ought to bear the consequences. But although I believe there is hope for lawyers, I do think that when you come to expert witnesses you have in very many cases gone beyond the limit altogether. After all, in nearly every one of these cases, or, at any rate, in a very large percentage of them, the actual officials in the locality can themselves give very good evidence indeed, and if Committees upstairs could in some way or other be empowered to give to the actual people who know the locality and live there more encouragement to give their evidence clearly, simply and shortly, and if you could discourage some of those legal gentlemen in their long robes, and the expert witnesses, I believe you would be doing something very good. After all, it was once said of two lawyers—and this will never be said, possibly, of expert witnesses:Here lie George and Robert Benn,Lawyers both, but honest men.God works wonders now and then.
Like many other other hon. Members of this House I have had considerable experience of local government work, having since 1919 taken some part in that matter. I am very strongly in favour of this Resolution. I myself think that if there is any way to lighten the work which now comes before the Local Legislation Committee, 2170 cumbersome and unwieldy as it is, it is imperative that it should be done. I know that legislation will be required to lighten the load, and I hope it may be found possible to pass that legislation. A subject which very often comes before us is that of water, and I am firmly convinced that sooner or later that matter must be dealt with; and the sooner the nation as a whole takes hold of that subject the better for this country. In the present state of affairs a local authority may construct a reservoir somewhere miles away, and sap and drain the whole area which they take over as the source of their water, and the smaller and poor local authorities intervening are bound to accept whatever their big brother is inclined to give them. That to me appears to be folly. I remember a case when a local authority, finding that their water resources were running out, constructed, a reservoir which drained the water which had been supplying some smaller authorities, and they cut off that supply and left us in the villages without any water at all. I suggest to this House that that cannot be allowed to go on, for after all, all the citizens of this country especially with regard to that commodity, which is necessary for life, should have a fair share of what is going. Again may I suggest that larger authorities go very much further a field than it is necessary for them to go to get a supply of water, because it is cheaper in the long run than a nearer supply, and some of the local authorities who are on the borders of that supply have to go without water. These things need the earnest attention of any Government.
I agree with the criticisms which have been made with regard to the legal help (if I may put it so for the moment) given to us in Committees upstairs. It is too ponderous, too heavy, and too costly. Many times in my own experience my mind and the minds of my colleagues—whom I praise for the great work they are doing in those two Committee rooms Nos. 8 and 9—have been made up after we have heard the evidence called by the local authority; but those people have paid very high fees to brief great barristers to plead their case, and we have had to sit and listen to one, two, three or four barristers from the various sides before we have been allowed to come to a decision, whereas 2171 we might just as well have decided it before. Of course they had to address us because the local authorities had to pay them, and they expected so much from those men.
Then I come to expert witnesses. I dread them. Very often the expert has to be coached by the town clerk or clerk of the county council or even the clerk to the rural district council. Why cannot those men themselves place their case before us in Committee? Those men who have been working for the Council and who know more about it than any barrister can know, know exactly where the shoe pinches. Why should not those people be the people to place before us their case? If they did, many thousands of pounds would be saved to local authorities. The work is growing, and as the population grows and as the desire and need grow for newer forms of enterprise to bring happiness to the people, we shall have Bill after Bill in another form and another shape before us in Committee.
It was said by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health that they very often followed legislation enacted by the Local Legislation Committee. I want to see that Committee continued, because I believe that the men who are selected for it have been selected not because they are Members for this, that or the other Division, but because they had spent a lifetime as local administrators, had done their work well, and know exactly what ought to be done as between one locality and another. I would that the Government would give some consideration to this question. It is necessary; it is essential.
Much has been said about the Department. I want to praise the Department. Very often the Department steps in between experts on either side; very often it steps in between great barristers on either side, and guide the Committee to ' a right conclusion, as against the advice of other barristers. Last year a Bill which had been promoted by a town council seeking an extension of the town boundaries came before the Local Legislation Committee. Had it not been for the staff of the Ministry of Health, who examined the whole case and suggested what ought to have been done, the Bill, instead of occupying two days upstairs, 2172 would have lasted for two weeks., on account of the opposition there would have been. Costs can be reduced and time shortened, and Members, who have spent so many days in those Committees, given a little more leisure, and at the same time, if we have the right men to assist us to come to a decision, the work will be infinitely better done. I urge the Government to take this matter into their consideration.
§ Mr. HOLFORD KNIGHT
I intervene to give my general support to this Motion, but particularly to correct some misunderstanding which seemed to prevail on the benches behind me. It would be unfortunate if this House were to call for an inquiry into matters over which it has no control, and I desire to remind hon. Members of some simple facts which they ought to bear in mind. In the main, local authorities promote legislation either to seek additional powers or to extend their boundaries; and, of course, there are cases, such as that which was mentioned with such feeling by the hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. B. Richardson), where local authorities seek additional powers in connection with their water supply. In each of the two general classes of cases I have mentioned, the rights of other people are affected. Starting from that point, may I remind some of my hon. Friends behind me of some simple considerations? Where a person's rights are affected, he is entitled to be heard. Not only is he entitled to be heard, he is entitled to be represented. Is it suggested in any quarter of the House that a person or an authority whose rights are affected is to be prevented from being heard or, if heard, is to be prevented from being represented? If those two simple facts are accepted, as in my respectful submission to the House they must be accepted, a large part of the complaints which have been levelled against the system upstairs disappears.
If a man is entitled to be heard and represented, the expense of being represented is his concern and not that of this House. If any Member on these benches had to be beard in a court of justice, or even upstairs, and desired to be represented, this House has no power to regulate the costs in that proceeding. Therefore, some of the complaints raised 2173 to-night are not complaints which could be remedied by this House. As to the expenses I have just mentioned, which are within the power of the authorities themselves, I think there is a legitimate grievance. However, I do not enter upon that now, but I make this general observation, speaking as one who began his association with local government exactly 36 years ago and has been connected with the Bar for nearly 30 years.
I say without any hesitation, and I say it with all due respect, that, when the history of this time comes to be written, one of the most amazing features of it will be the exaggerated importance placed upon the services of particular counsel. I ant old enough to remember the days at the Bar of England when really great men were content to practise upstairs and elsewhere for reasonable fees—not a tithe of the fees now being exacted by men whose work and standing have no comparison with theirs. I do not want to disturb any susceptibilities on the benches opposite, but I make that general observation which applies to the matter before us. While I say that, quite clearly that is a matter which rests, not upon this House, but upon the local authorities who engage these services, and any inquiry which this House might set up, as called for by this Motion, could not bring these matters within its cognisance, because they are outside the cognisance of the House. Therefore I would, if I may, beg my hon. Friends here, who undoubtedly have some prejudice against the profession to which I happen to belong, not to carry that prejudice over two matters which are really not connected with the subject before us.
§ Mr. KNIGHT
My hon. Friend has obliged me by emphasising the very point that I am presenting to the House. The fact, assuming it to be a fact, that there are too many there is not within the competence of this House, but is due to the officials and corporations who engage these men, and, therefore, it could not be the subject of inquiry by this House. There is, however, a branch of this matter which could be inquired into by this House—[Interruption.] I do not want to detain the House by 2174 putting before it matters which are beyond the range of this Debate, but I would say that there are certain practices of the Bar which ought to be reviewed. I have pressed for that for many years outside, but that again is not a matter Which is within the competence of this House. There are, however, matters into which this House might I think inquire. I do not gather that any hon. Member has impugned the impartiality of the work of the Committees upstairs. It is not alleged that their work is not conducted in the highest possible way, but there may be a question, and I think an inquiry might be instituted into it, as to whether the expenses to which petitioners are put in coming before Committees upstairs might not be reduced, and whether the charges imposed by this House on petitioners approaching its Committees could not be reconsidered. The general scheme of expenses to which local authorities and other petitioners are put might be considered at such an inquiry as is called for, and for that reason I support the proposal for an inquiry. I think that there are matters which might properly be inquired into, but I would beg the House not to imagine that this inquiry can open or go into matters which are not within the purview of the House.
§ Mr. SIMMONS
I have been a member of a Parliamentary sub-committee that had the framing and drafting of a Bill, and I was struck with the enormous amount of expense to which it was put in order to get the Bill on to the Statute Book. I was, therefore, glad to see this Motion on the Order Paper. There have been from the opposite side of the House attacks made upon local authorities. I regard the work of our local authorities as not less important than the work of this House. We are charged with being responsible ourselves for the high costs that are involved in engaging legal advice. We have to face the fact that we are the trustees of the rights of the people whom we represent, and we have to see that those rights are safeguarded to the utmost. There is a comprehensive Bill now being discussed upstairs safeguarding the rights and interests of people who live in slum property against estate agents, landlords and property owners associations, which engage the very highest possible legal assistance. We should be betraying the interests of 2175 the people we represent if we did not engage equally competent assistance to combat the case they put forward. I think the procedure ought to be so simplified that the aid of the legal profession would be entirely unnecessary. After all, who knows these matters better than those who are engaged day by day and week by week in the conduct of the affairs of a local authority? It is suggested that discussions in this House and in Committee are necessary in order to safeguard certain interests and in order that points should not be overlooked.
Do hon. Members realise the safeguards that are already provided? Do they realise that before a general powers Bill is finally brought to the House, its Clauses have first of all to be discussed by the Committee responsible, where it undergoes a very close examination; eventually the Bill is drafted by the general purposes committee and is discussed by them and by a special meeting of the borough council, and then it has to go before a town's meeting to receive the approval of the citizens? Every precaution is taken before a Bill even enters this House to see that the interests of the citizens in whose name the promoters are moving are looked after. I object to the delay which this enormous cost imposes upon very necessary local legislation. It has been pointed out that it is a very common practice for these local government Bills to be of a comprehensive nature covering periods of three, four or five years. It means that very necessary reforms in local government have to wait that period of time in order to be embodied in a comprehensive Bill because it would be too costly to bring them separately.
Do members of this House realise what this means to people living in rat-infested disease-ridden slum property in the central areas in some of our large industrial towns and when actions designed to protect these people have to be delayed for a period of time entirely on a question of cost. We were told from the other side that it was necessary to have all this procedure and legal advice and argument to safeguard the people's rights. Surely we can leave to our local authorities the task of safeguarding the rights and in- 2176 terests of their own citizens. If that is so—and I think it ought to be generally accepted that a local authority would safeguard those interests—there is no reason for the present cumbersome procedure to be continued.
Another question which was raised in respect of this matter was the question of party. I think that the question of public ownership was mentioned on the other side. We have to realise that in the advanced local authority which I represent, namely, Birmingham, which is recognised as the Mecca of municipal socialism and which is a pioneer as far as these things are concerned, it was the party represented by hon. Gentlemen sitting on the opposite benches above the Gangway who took the lead in the public ownership of many of our great services in that great city. It is not a party question at all. It is a question of doing the best in the interests of the city you represent. I think that if this House fully realised the difficulties which those of us who serve on local authorities are under at the present time and realised the growing civic consciousness amongst the people, especially in large industrial areas, and the increasing interest taken in local government matters, it would do something towards increasing that interest by making the procedure more simple for getting these Bills presented to Parliament.
I hope an inquiry will be set up and that steps Will be taken to make it possible for matters affecting local government legislation to be brought to this House in the simplest possible manner and presented without all these legal obligations having to be incurred, and for the servants of the community who serve, either as members of local authorities, or who are employed as the servants of local authorities, to have the first and last word as far as these Bills are concerned when they appear in the Committee room upstairs.
The CHAIRMAN of WAYS and MEANS (Mr. Robert Young)
I only rise to make one or two comments on the discussion which has occupied the attention of the House to-night, and in doing so I would like to tender my meed of praise to those who are responsible for the Committee work in connection with private Bill legislation upstairs. They are very conscientious people and do the work to 2177 the best of their ability. There can be no criticism as to the way in which they do their work. I would point out that the Motion does not seek to take away from this House any of the work that is now placed within its purview. The Motion is for the purpose of amending the Standing Orders relating to Private Business, in order to facilitate and expedite the procedure and to cheapen the cost. On these two points I would say a few words. From the discussion to-night one might think that the very heavy cost attached to this kind of legislation places the House of Commons in the position, as it were, of an institution seeking to make profit. That is not so. So far as the House of Commons is concerned the fees charged are averaged out just to meet the expense imposed upon the House by the private business and nothing further. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Sir D. Newton) referred to an increase in the fees charged by the House, and I think he said that they had been increased by 33⅓ per cent. a few years ago. That is not correct. There was no general increase in fees but a number of small increases were made. The total increase as a result was something between £800 and £1,000 per annum, and that was in dealing with the very large amounts of money' to raise which powers were sought.
In so far as general legislation is concerned, alterations in the Standing Orders cannot affect that. Reference has been made to the fact that towns meetings have to be held. That does not come within the purview of this Motion. That is part of the law of the land. They have to hold their town's meetings and come to their decision in their own way. We have been led to believe that the expenses imposed by this House are very great. I have taken the trouble to get out some examples, which will show that so far as the expenses are heavy they certainly do not arise out of the House fees. If local authorities in promoting Private Bill legislation cannot agree amongst themselves as to what should be done, and they enter into competition for experts and highly paid counsel, nothing under the Standing Orders will prevent them doing so. It is unfortunate that they should compete for counsel and very highly skilled experts, but nothing in 2178 the Standing Orders can prevent them doing that. I do not think there is anything to prevent a town clerk from taking the place of counsel at these Committees. Certainly, they are not prevented in the Standing Orders from doing so. I presume that town clerks—I am not at all belittling the town clerks of our great cities and towns—think that they have a better chance of getting their Bill through if they employ counsel. Therefore, the municipality becomes responsible for the fees of counsel.
I said that I had procured one or two instances so that hon. Members may clearly understand that so far as the fees imposed by this House are concerned they are not high. Here are the particulars of a Bill which occupied 42 pages of print at as deposited and 52 pages by the time that it received the Royal Assent. It was petitioned against in both Houses but became unopposed by the time that it reached a committee of both Houses. It was a local legislation Bill, and was before the Committee on two days. The costs were £1,540. The fees of the House of Lords were £150, and of the House of Commons £100. Advertising in the London Gazette cost £ll. There were very heavy costs in relation to the printing of the Bill and other documents, amounting to £545 13s. 8d. Then there were counsel's fees, two of them, £217, 1s. 9d., shorthand writer's charges, £17 14s., other disbursements £18 11s. 4d. and agent's charges £480 3s. 2d. If a Committee is to decide between one corporation and another they will have to employ agents, and these fees will be payable. But all I am concerned with is to show that as far as the Houses of Parliament are concerned the fees imposed are not heavy. Let me give the case of an opposed Bill. It was before the Lords Committee on five days, and before the Local Legislation Committee on five days. The costs were £3,581 18s. 1d. House of Lords fees, £197; House of Commons fee, £191; printing, £988 13s. 11d.; Counsel's fees, £1,177 1s.; shorthand writer's charges, £101 11s. 1d.; and agents charges, £857 10s. 4d. That proves conclusively that so far as the House of Commons is concerned the fees are not high and are not of a character which some hon. Members have led the House to believe.
§ Mr. A. BEVAN
Will the Chairman of Committees tell me whether there is any special reason why a local authority should be called upon to pay fees at all?
As I have already indicated, these fees are put on in order to meet the expense imposed upon the House of Commons in dealing with these Bills. It is not for me to pass an opinion as to whether they should be paid or not. But they are not the heavy sums which some hon. Members have indicated.
The hon. Member made a statement just now that he did not know of anything in the way of the town clerk of an urban authority which is promoting a Bill conducting the case in the Committee upstairs. Is that correct? I understand that the rules of the Bar will not allow anyone below the status of a barrister or a King's Counsel.
At the moment I am not concerned with the rules of the Bar but I am concerned with the Standing Orders of this House, which are under consideration. They do not preclude a town clerk from performing that duty. The words, as far as I remember them are, "either themselves their counsel or their agents." Regarding the other point which has been raised, I am sure that everyone, including the Members of the Local Legislation Committee, would be glad to shorten the proceedings but no suggestion has been made as to how it is to be done. References have been made to the dates prescribed in Standing Orders, but in the circumstances operating at the moment I think that those dates are necessary. At present these Bills start in October and November and there are reasons against starting earlier. I suppose that those responsible for these Bills like ourselves want to have September and August for holidays, but, apart from that consideration, there is this great difficulty. Most of the municipal elections take place in November and if an earlier date were fixed for starting Bills one might find a municipality putting forward a Bill; then after the municipal election the composition of that body might be altered, and the new body might want to withdraw the Bill and in- 2180 troduce a new one, or else amend the old Bill. That would not be decreasing but increasing expenditure. The Standing Orders have been utilised in so far as this House is concerned to expedite the procedure. It is true that if there were an inquiry some slight speeding up might be found possible, and some way might be found out of the difficulty of these heavy costs for which, as I have already said, the House is not responsible.
§ Mr. MAXTON
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned a case in which there were Parliamentary charges of £250 for a Bill which took two days. What justification can there be for that?
These charges are all laid down in the Standing Orders themselves and I would point out that £250 is a mere bagatelle compared with the total amount.
§ Mr. MAXTON
The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned printing, which is surely an item within the control of this House. He mentioned a printing bill of £900. Do the Standing Orders lay down the extent of the printing or kind of printing to be done?
I do not think that those who are presenting Bills receive any instructions as to the kind of paper which they are to use in the printing or matters of that kind. The House of Commons is not responsible for that, and these Bills have to be printed in any circumstances. I think the Mover mentioned that the Standing Orders had not been considered since 1902.
I beg the hon. Member's pardon if I misunderstood him. The question of simplifying the procedure and the reduction of expense has been constantly engaging the attention of the officers of the House. The Standing Orders were carefully considered as recently as 1922 and a number of changes were made in the direction of cheapening costs and expediting procedure. I rose only to draw attention to these two points 2181 raised in this Motion, namely that the House itself is not responsible for any huge expenditure and also that there are certain substantial reasons why these dates are in the Standing Orders.
§ Mr. T. LEWIS
I should not have intervened in this Debate but for the reply of the Parliamentary Secretary and the speech of the Member for South Nottingham (Mr. Knight). The Chairman of Ways and Means seems to be very satisfied with things as they are and seems to think they are not so bad. I understood this was a Labour party Motion to expedite things, but the reply seems to be that it cannot be done at present. The stumbling block to-day is the same one that has existed for years, namely, the legal and professional interests. They are responsible for the machinery which was set up, and it rather seems to roe that the Ministry would be rather afraid of tackling such important interests as those. It is all very well for the Chairman of Ways and Means to tell us that the House of Commons is not responsible for costly barristers. The hon. Member for South Nottingham knows what happens. I have been acquainted with borough councils for 28 years and we have promoted quite a number of Bills. Only last year for a small bridge it cost us thousands and thousands of pounds in the Parliamentary and arbitration proceedings. There were some very costly professional men and not only counsel. They seemed to work together. The professional interests back up the legal interests, and the legal interests back up the professional interests. I do not blame the hon. Member for South Nottingham for taking a hand in it.
§ Mr. LEWIS
The hon. Member agrees up to a point, but he certainly put in some defence for his profession, which he thought had been attacked. I thought we should have had a little more help from the Parliamentary Secretary. It is true you cannot discuss this question without going a little wider than the Motion before the House. The procedure is carried out, no doubt, according to the book, but we want a new book. In our innocence those of us who have not 2182 been here very long thought we were supporting Bills which our friends on the Front Bench really wanted. We all make these mistakes, I know. We have our respective local bodies and sometimes we have things turned down because the cost of obtaining them would be too great. We always find the reactionary people putting up that argument. We want the assistance of the party to make things easier, and we shall not do it unless the party is prepared to fight the professional interests who exact the last farthing. It is all very well to say you need not have these costly' counsel, but has the Chairman of Ways and Means ever known a town clerk who dared do other than suggest the ordinary course of having counsel at least of the standing of counsel on the opposite side? Then you have all this rigmarole in the legal profession that the junior must have two-thirds. Then they say, "The other side is having so and so as expert witnesses, and we must have at least one equal," and whereas, in the ordinary course of business, you could get a man to give evidence for £25 who would be just as qualified, you find that you have to have a man to whom you must pay, say, £250 in fees.
I suggest that the Ministry must devise new ways and means and simplify the process. There are certain things which ought to come to Parliament, such as water works and questions as to infringing other people's rights, but there is a host of other things that borough and county councils want to do and the Ministry ought to bring in a. Bill to define the things which those councils ought to be able to do by virtue of their own desire, things that can be done in a simple fashion. I do not agree with one hon. Member that the Provisional Order is costly. I think it is the cheapest thing in the long run. The Ministry should bring in a Bill defining these things, and setting forth that a barrister should have a certain fee for certain work. They will fight tooth and nail against it, but I say that these things should be simplified, and I expected more sympathy from the Ministry in this respect. I urge the Department to take this matter seriously, and though I do not expect to have it in the next 12 months, I expect them to bring in such a Measure within the next two or three years.
§ Mr. STRAUSS
I want to put a point which has not been fully put up to now. It is a matter which particularly affects a big municipality like the London County Council. Let us take the position which that Council may be in if the Charing Cross Bill is presented to this House. It may happen that, after the Second Reading has been agreed to, possibly, by all sides, and the Bill has been before a Committee and fully discussed, it may be delayed by the objection of a single Member when it comes to the Report stage, and it is, I understand, quite conceivable that it might be delayed for as long as two months. It might go so far in a Money Bill which the County Council puts before the House as to delay it to such an extent, through pressure of Government business.
§ Mr. A. BEVAN
On a point of Order. In the course of this Debate there has been no opposition to the Motion, and would it not be in the circumstances a proper thing that the House should express an opinion upon the Motion? May I therefore ask leave to move, "That the Question he now put"?
§ Question, "That the Question be now put," put, and agreed to.
§ Question put accordingly, and agreed to.2184
That, in the opinion of this House, inquiry should be instituted into the desirability of so amending the Standing Orders relating to Private Business as to facilitate and shorten the proceedings on legislation promoted by local authorities and to lessen the heavy costs now incurred.