HC Deb 24 May 1939 vol 347 cc2381-4

Motion made and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

7.1 p.m.

Mr. Henderson Stewart

I think the Committee will agree that the Minister must insist upon duties imposed upon local authorities being properly carried out. I am perfectly ready to consider the case, where the case is proved, of taking functions from one authority and handing them over to another which is more likely to carry through the work. I have the greatest admiration for the efficiency and the enthusiasm of county councils in Scotland, but it is a very serious proposal to suggest taking from the small burghs certain powers which are theirs. Subsection (1) (a) says: If the defaulting authority are the council of a county district. and on page 63, in the case of Scotland, a county district means a small burgh. Small burghs hold a peculiar position of independence, and they cherish and cling to that independence with a grimness which it would be difficult perhaps for other than Scottish Members to understand. I am certain that they will look with considerable suspicion at a Clause which suggests in any circumstances that their power shall be transferred to the county council. The Clause sets out that that transfer can only take place after the holding of a local inquiry. Who is to order the local inquiry? How is it to be constituted? Who are to be the judges of whether the local authority has failed or not? It would be helpful if we could have the clearest statement on that matter because, suppose the inquiry found that a certain small burgh had failed in the performance of a vital function, the Minister has then to adopt one of two courses, either to hand over the function to the county council or to take it over himself. I suppose a third possibility would be that he could oblige the local authority to carry out the function. What are the circumstances that my right hon. Friend has in mind? What sort of functions does he anticipate may not be carried out by a small burgh. In what sort of case will he hand over the functions to the county council and in what sort of case will he take over the functions himself? In what sort of circumstances will he take neither of these courses but force the local authority to carry them out?

There is a very important further consideration to be taken into account. If a small burgh loses its right to perform certain duties and they are handed over to the county council, the small burgh remains liable for the cost of performing the duty. Is it to sit by and see great sums spent without having the slightest opportunity of saying "Halt"? I want an answer to that question. These seem to me to be serious fears in the minds of the small burghs. In drafting the Clause were the small burghs consulted? Have they examined and approved it? Have we any reason to assume that they are not anxious? My information, such as it is, is that they are suspicious. I know that the small burghs are as anxious to play their patriotic part as any others and I am satisfied that the county councils, if ever they are required to do it, will carry out additional duties with great satisfaction, but the small burgh is a centuries old institution. It has powers and rights, some of them conferred upon them by the King himself in by-gone days, which they are determined to hang on to in all circumstances and it would cause a first-class row if these functions which they hold dear were in any circumstances to be transferred. I invite my right hon. Friend to make the fullest statement that he can to satisfy the Committee.

7.7 p.m.

Mr. Elliot

This is a reserve power only intended to be used in very exceptional circumstances. It is true that the Clause was not drawn up with the consent of the small burghs, or indeed of any burghs, and it is also true that, if this very exceptional power were exercised, the superseding authority would have the power to spend money not at the discretion of the smaller authorities. That is inherent in such a power. The Minister would hold the inquiry. He would have to be satisfied. We are dealing with conditions approximating to conditions of war, and the Committee must keep that in mind. I beg my hon. Friend to accept our assurance that we regard these as reserve functions only. We put this in because we must have a safety net to ensure that if for any reason any authority, a small or even a large burgh, were not carrying out such functions as it is the desire of Parliament that it should perform, there should be machinery by which such functions should be carried out. To go into detail at this moment might exacerbate feeling and lead to the detailing of a number of circumstances which I am sure will never arise. It ought not to be regarded as anything but an emergency power of the most exceptional character, and to define exceptional circumstances which in all probability will never arise will, I suggest, not facilitate our progress. I hope my hon. Friend will not press the point further.

Mr. R. C. Morrison

Can the Minister say that throughtout the country at present there is no local authority which is in any way wilfully taking such action as would make it necessary for this Clause to be applied?

Mr. Elliot

Certainly, I know of no case in which it would be necessary.

Mr. McLean Watson

I understood the Minister to say that it is not only small burghs that might be dealt with but large burghs as well, whose powers might be handed over to the county council.

Mr. Elliot

Any local authority, even a county council. It is a reserve power for the purpose of ensuring that in fact the will of the National Executive should prevail. It is only in exceptional cases that the National Executive will take over functions which have been entrusted to the local executives.

Mr. R. C. Morrison

Would it be fair to say that the right hon. Gentleman does not anticipate ever having to use this power?

Mr. Elliot

I say so in the most unqualified terms. Local authorities are only too anxious to perform the duties entrusted to them.

Mr. David Adams

Is it not a fact that the Minister already has a power of mandamus?

Mr. Elliot

I have considerable default powers under many other Acts.