HC Deb 07 October 1941 vol 374 cc905-13

Order for Second Reading read.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peake)

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

The purpose of the Bill is to continue for another year the Act of the same Title which was passed in 1939 and which was amended by an Act of similar Title in 1940. The purpose of the legislation of 1939 was to postpone local elections and to continue existing members of local authorities in office. Casual vacancies upon councils were to be filled, not by election but by co-option. The Act of 1939 further suspended all steps for the preparation of a register of electors and of jurors' books. It moreover prohibited any alteration of the area or constitution of local authorities. That Measure was opposed by my hon. Friend the Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander) and by representatives of the Independent Labour party, but on a Division it was carried by a Vote, Ayes 220, Noes 0. Last year, the continuing legislation was carried without a Division. My hon. Friend the Member for East Wolverhampton, who had shown considerable critical spirit in regard to the legislation in the previous year, said he appreciated that the circumstances of the moment justified the Measure much more than when the original Act was introduced. I am hopeful that, on this occasion, we shall have the active support of my hon. Friend.

The Bill is brought before the House in consequence of a pledge given by the Lord President of the Council when introducing the Measure in 1939. It has not been included in the Expiring Laws (Continuance) Act because my right hon. Friend then gave the undertaking that the House would be given opportunities of keeping this matter under review. I will not repeat on this occasion the arguments in favour of the postponement of local elections which were adduced in 1939 and 1940, except to say that, as my right hon. Friend said on the Bill we have just dealt with, the register will be even more out of date to-day than it was a year ago, the population is dispersed to a greater extent than it was 12 months ago, and it is obviously not desirable to fan the fires of party controversy at the present time.

Some minor Amendments in the previous legislation are contemplated by the Bill, and I will very briefly explain them to the House. The Amendment to Section 4 deals with the position in the City of London. The principal Act applied to the City of London except as regards the election of aldermen which, in the City of London, is rather peculiar. In the first place aldermen hold their positions, and are elected, for life. They are elected, not by the Common Council, but by the voters in the local government area. It is one of the qualifications for being a candidate for the Common Council—and, of course, members may have to be co-opted to the Common Council as to other local government bodies—not only that the candidate shall be on the register of local government electors, but that he shall be in actual occupation of premises in the City. Owing to the destruction wrought in the City that occupational qualification, in some wards at any rate, may be one which is very difficult if not impossible to fulfil, and, therefore, the first Amendment we propose to Section 4 is to abolish the occupation of premises as a qualification for being elected to fill a vacancy on the Common Council.

As regards the election of aldermen also, it is a qualification that a candidate must be in actual occupation of premises in the City, in addition to being on the Parliamentary register; we therefore propose that the occupational qualification for election as alderman shall also be temporarily abolished. Lists are prepared every year in the City of those who are qualified to vote at an election of aldermen. It is proposed that those lists which are now in force shall continue to be the lists for voters so long as this Bill is in force; that is to say, that new lists of voters at the aldermanic elections shall not be compiled at the present time.

There are two other smaller matters regarding the application of the principal Act to Scotland. The first one provides that members of local authorities who have been elected to the office of bailie or appointed to the office of judge of police shall not remain in office for more than the normal period of three years, which would be the period during which they would hold those offices under peacetime conditions. The second Amendment to Section 8, which deals with the application of the principal Act to Scotland, provides that burgh representatives on county councils shall continue to be elected. These representatives are elected, I understand, by the burgh councils, and there is no reason why the stop on local elections should apply to them. After the passing of this Bill new elections will be held in the burghs to elect new representatives on the county councils.

I think I have said enough at this stage to explain the Amendments to the House, but if any hon. Member requires further elucidation, it could be given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland either at the conclusion of the Debate or during the Committee stage.

Mr. McKinlay (Dumbartonshire)

I should like to have one or two points in the Amendments relating to Scotland elucidated, while at the same time congratulating the Scottish Office for having given effect to what was the desire of local authorities in Scotland. As I understand the position under the original Act, there was nothing to prevent a bailie, once elected, from staying a bailie for the duration of the war. I must thank the Secretary of State for relieving me of an appointment which, had I so willed, I could have held until the war is finished. I think it is only right that the normal internal arrangements of local authorities should operate, even supposing that local government elections are suspended, but I am somewhat disturbed at the use of the word "bailie." I know that in appointments under the local authorities the term "bailie" is used, but one of its peculiar aspects is that when a man becomes a bailie he is always spoken of afterwards, in all his activities, as a magistrate. I want to know if there is any different treatment for a person who can be designated as a magistrate as compared with a person who is known as a common or garden, everyday bailie.

The Secretary of State knows that in Scotland we say, "Once a bailie, aye a bailie," but the point I have in mind is whether, in a certain town in Scotland, the chief magistrate is in a different posi- tion. In one town I know it has been suggested that, irrespective of the desire of the local authority, the chief magistrate will be superimposed upon the local authority by some mysterious method known only to the Government. I would like to ask the Secretary of State if he could give us an authoritative statement that no member of the Government, so far as he is aware, has ever made any suggestion that such will be the case. Quite frankly, those in authority must always remember that, while they may try out something like this, the local authority always controls the purse strings; if there is any intention of superimposing the chief magistrate in the town which I have in mind, I only want to give the warning that those who control the purse strings will cut off the supplies. I may be stressing too much what has been common talk in the West of Scotland for a very considerable time, but I would like the Secretary of State, in replying, to give us an assurance that that is not the intention of the Government, and that no member of the Government had been authorised at any time to make any such suggestion.

There is one other point I should like just to touch upon. I regret that many local authorities in Scotland, while carrying out the strict letter of the Act, are apparently violating the spirit intended. Whether you like it or not politics have entered local government to stay. I admit there were no politics in local government so long as the Labour party were in a hopeless minority, but when Labour obtained majorities in many cases, politics in local government apparently became a crime. But one or two local authorities have seen fit, when vacancies have occurred affecting the Labour party, by death or otherwise, to say quite innocently, "We never recognised politics in local government," and proceeded to elect an anti-Labour representative to that local authority. In one instance, I believe, the Provostship of the burgh was at stake, and by the opportunity presented of filling a vacancy in what had been a Labour seat, the local authority secured a majority of one and put their own candidate into that distinguished office.

I only wish to give this warning. There are some authorities on which we have a very considerable majority, and if need be we can retaliate. I would like the Secretary of State to make an appeal to authorities throughout the country that, when vacancies occur, they should, as far as is reasonably practicable, be filled by representatives of the nominating bodies who were responsible for the nomination of the departed member. Apart from that, I do not think I should desire to detain the House by going any further into the matter than to thank the Secretary of State for introducing the Amendments which clarify the position and prevent a continued or continuous staying in office of persons appointed at the outbreak of war.

Mr. George Griffiths (Hemsworth)

I wish to ask the Under-Secretary a question on Clause 1. He did not deal with it. It states that the Measure— shall continue in force until the thirty-first Jay of December, nineteen hundred and forty-two. But local urban district council elections are not contested in December; they are contested either in the last week in March or the first week in April. So that if this Bill goes through and the elections of local borough councils take place in November, how are the urban district councils going to have their elections in December, for it is stated that the Bill shall not go further than December? I rise only to ask the Under-Secretary if he will make that perfectly clear, because if this Bill passes and you do not come back again to the House on this matter before 12 months next March or April, the urban district councils cannot prolong the councils. They would become defunct. There would be no urban district councils at all. I hope that the Minister if he sees the point of view I am putting, will rectify that matter in Clause 1.

Mr. McLean Watson (Dunfermline)

There is one point in the Under-Secretary's statement on which I would like to have a word. I hope the Secretary of State will make it clear what is meant by the election of representatives to the county councils. I quite agree with what has been said with regard to the elections of bailies, and that they should not be continued in their office more than the three years for which they were elected. In making his statement on Second Reading the Under-Secretary said that elections of burgh representatives to the county councils would be held. What actually hap- pens is that under the Local Government Act, 1929, large burghs in Scotland have representatives on the county council for education purposes only. The representatives from the small burghs have a much larger interest in the county councils. They have their representation on the county councils. The election of representatives from the burghs to the county councils takes place within the burgh council itself. It is the burgh council which selects its representatives to the county councils, and I hope that no impression will go abroad in Scotland, from what the Under-Secretary said, that there was to be anything in the nature of local elections for the election of representatives to the county council. All that happens is that the small burghs, having a considerable interest now in county council affairs, elect their representatives from time to time. I rise only to make that point clear, because, from what the Under-Secretary stated, the impression might go abroad that local electors were entitled to take part in elections to county councils, whereas it is the burgh councils that elect to the county councils their representatives to look after their interests there.

Mr. Mander (Wolverhampton, East)

I am afraid that the opposition which I brought forward to this Measure previously I shall continue to-day It seems to me that at a time when Parliamentary by-elections are taking place frequently, it is altogether indefensible that local government electors should have no control at all of local government. On the last occasion I said that conditions were more difficult. The Battle of Britain was going on. We realise to-day that, from that point of view, conditions are more favourable, for the time being at any rate, for holding elections. We are in an extraordinary position, and quite an illogical position. The only reason why this Act was passed, as far as I can gather, is because it was done during the last war. A good many things were done then which are not applicable to-day but which are still being done. There are two ways of looking at this. You might say it is desirable to carry on these elections in the ordinary way every three years. You might say, alternatively, that the fair thing would be to take a complete analogy with what is done in the case of Parliamentary by-elections and say that any casual elections there might be should have the opportunity of being contested just as in the case of Parliament. When you put it on these grounds, it seems to me that there is no logical answer whatever. Every year I ask my hon. Friend to state what the difference is between Parliamentary elections and local government elections, and why you cannot have a contested local government election. He has never been able to put forward the slightest reason, because a reason does not exist.

I quite agree, however, that if you are to give local authorities the right to have contested elections, you would have to give the Government power, by Order in Council, to lay down that certain areas— Plymouth, or places of that kind—should be exempted, for reasons which we all understand. But there are many places throughout the country where it is just as practicable to hold a local government by-election as it is to hold a Parliamentary by-election. In most cases they would be unopposed and would go through automatically under the party truce, just as in most cases they do in Parliamentary by-elections. At the same time, surely it is reasonable to give local electors an opportunity of expressing their strong feelings from time to time on local administration. There may be some question connected with A.R.P. or the A.F.S.—I know it is mainly controlled from the centre, but there is local responsibility— to questions of food, questions of evacuation, how billeting is being dealt with locally, questions of transport, and questions of school, education, about which I know there has been very strong feeling in certain cases. Why should not the electors be given, at any rate, the opportunity of an occasional by-election to say what they think of those who are controlling them, and, by means of a vote, of putting somebody on to a local council who represents a point of view which has not been represented there before?

It is a thoroughly healthy thing, where you can do it, to give an opportunity for elections to take place. No doubt, it is not so agreeable to the councillors, who otherwise go on automatically, as it is to the electors; but the electors are the people who matter, and they should be considered wherever possible. It is true that the Register is tending to get stale, and that if the war went on for 50 years all the electors would be well over 70. But the question of that staleness applies in exactly the same way to, Parliamentary by-elections. I ask my right hon. Friend, before he comes to the House again with such a Measure, to consider seriously whether it is not possible to allow some democratic rights to local government electors in this country. I am sure that that is the wise and sound thing to do, and I believe that it would be consistent with the national interest to give local government electors an opportunity of expressing their opinions in the modest way I suggest.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. T. Johnston)

There is, I think, general consent to the essential purposes of this Bill. With respect to the first point put by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbartonshire (Mr. McKinlay), I can assure him of two things. The first is that by Section 57 of the Town Councils (Scotland) Act, 1900, it is provided that a magistrate other than the provost of a burgh shall be called a bailie. This Amendment deals with the tenure of office of bailies and police judges elected or appointed after the Act of 1939 came into operation.

Mr. McKinlay

It does not interfere with the question of magistrates?

Mr. Johnston

In no way whatever. The second point my hon. Friend made was this. Had any indication been given, he asked, by any member of the Government to the effect that a. provost in any area should be continued? The answer is "No." An hon Member asked a question about duration. He asked whether legislation would be necessary if this Measure required further prolongation. The answer is that further legislation will be necessary before the end of 1942 should this Government, or any other Government, be compelled to ask Parliament to prolong the present councils for any further period. As for the point put by the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander), that really raises the essential principle in this Bill. Should there or should there not be any occasion on which local elections should take place? There are considerable areas of Scotland which are now what is called protected areas.

Mr. G. Griffiths

If the date of, say, the first Saturday in April were inserted instead of 31st December there would be no necessity to bring in a Bill covering urban district council elections. They would be covered by Clause 1.

Mr. Johnston

Further legislation would be necessary to postpone elections in 1943.

Mr. Griffiths

Do you expect it to go on after 31st December?

Mr. Johnston

Further legislation would be necessary for whatever period of extension—if any—is required. The point I was putting in reply to the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton, is that there are areas where, for a variety of reasons, local government elections cannot be held.

Mr. Mander

Are not Parliamentary by-elections held in those areas?

Mr. Johnston

Yes and no. By consent, there are parts of those areas where no elections are taking place. Whether the Home Secretary or the Secretary of State for Scotland should be given power to delimit areas where no local government elections should take place, is a very big question. All I can say is that the point made by the hon. Member will be considered before another such Bill is brought in. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline (Mr. Watson) can be simply met. There is no provision in this Bill for elections in the ordinary sense to county councils—possibly a clearer word would have been "selection" and not "election."

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House, for the next Sitting Day.— [Mr. Whiteley.]

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.