HC Deb 30 September 1942 vol 383 cc887-95

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."

This is the fourth occasion on which a Bill with this Title has been submitted to the House, and the third occasion on which I have had the honour of moving the Second Reading. I confess that I have had greater difficulty each year in finding any new observations to make upon it. Its objects are well known, and, I think, generally accepted. On the only occasion when there was any controversy in the House, in 1939, it was carried on a Division by a majority of 222 to 0. I see opposite my hon. Friend the Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander), who has on occasion taken an attitude of downright opposition to the Measure, and on another occasion an attitude of qualified support; his attitude, I think, varying more according to the degree of bombing which the country was undergoing at the time than to the geographical position which he happened to occupy on the seats of this House. In the ordinary way it might have been expected that a Bill of this character would have been included in the Schedule to the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill, which, as the House is aware, always obtains its Second Reading without discussion. An undertaking was, however, given to the House when the first Bill was introduced, in 1939, that a full opportunity would be given for discussion on any occasion when it became necessary to ask the House to extend the provisions of that Bill, and it is in consequence of that undertaking that I now beg to move the Second Reading.

Mr. Lipson (Cheltenham)

I accept the main purposes of the Bill, which is the logical consequence of the Second Reading of the Bill which the House has just approved; but there is an important difference between the proposals of this Bill and the proposals contained in the Bill for extending the life of Parliament. In both Bills it is agreed that those who are Members of the respective bodies shall continue to hold their seats, but there is a difference in regard to filling casual vacancies. In regard to Parliament, the electors are given power to choose who shall fill such vacancies. That is a right which they have exercised, and I think it has been to the good of the Parliamentary institutions of this country that the privilege exists. So far as municipal bodies are concerned, the method of filling casual vacancies is by co-option. The electors in the constituency are deprived of the right of saying who shall fill this casual vacancy. In view of the length of the war this practice is having a very serious effect on the attitude of the people towards municipal government in this country. If it had been a short war perhaps the harm would not have been very great, but already the war has lasted for over three years, and nobody can say how much longer it is likely to last. I therefore plead with the Government that they should consider whether it is not desirable now to give local electors the same privilege as is given to Parliamentary electors.

I would give this additional reason for further consideration. The war itself has provided new problems for local government and it has also, through its Civil Defence services, brought into voluntary unpaid public service a great many men and women who, previously, were not actively associated with local government. It is very desirable that these people should be given the opportunity, if they so desire, to play their part as county councillors or town councillors or members of other local bodies. I regret to say that they are not the type of persons who can lend themselves to the local party caucus when a casual vacancy is to be filled. It is only right that these people who are taking an active part in Civil Defence should be given the opportunity, if they are dissatisfied with local administration, of being able to offer themselves to the electors and to take their places on local bodies and try to get local administration altered in the directions they want.

Before the war there was considerable uneasiness at the apathy shown in various parts of the country towards municipal elections and I am afraid that, if the practice of filling vacancies by co-option is continued, this apathy will grow. The war itself has brought into the sphere of local government many men and women who would be useful recruits in that service. I feel there is a very strong case for reconsidering this point. All the arguments against holding municipal elections apply with even greater force to Parliamentary by-elections. I admit that there are some objections, but there are arguments in favour of restoring this modified right of election in the interests of local government. It would be a very important factor in maintaining democracy in this country and that makes it advisable that reconsideration should be given to this matter. I particularly appeal to the Minister to say that he will not "dig his toes in" on this matter but that between now and the Committee stage he will consider meeting the point I have ventured to raise.

Mr. Mander (Wolverhampton, East)

As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State said I always felt it necessary to oppose this Bill since it was first introduced, so tar without any large measure of support m this House. I am very glad to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Lipson) the same arguments that I have been putting year after year. Personally, I cannot see that there is a strong case for the Bill at all. I do not intend to press that view to-day. I have no desire to embarrass the Government during the war, but I would ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to be good enough to consider the suggestion that my hon. Friend has made with regard to casual by-elections. I have asked him in the past to try to put forward some logical arguments to prove that while you can have a Parliamentary by-election you cannot have a municipal by-election. He has not done so, for the simple reason that there is no logical argument or, indeed, argument of any kind why it should not be done, beyond the fact that it was so arranged by Parliament. Therefore, I ask him between now and the next stage of the Bill to consider whether the time has not arrived to give local electors an opportunity of filling casual vacancies by the exercise of their votes. All the argument about a stale register and all the rest of it applies in exactly the same way to Parliamentary by-elections. In all seriousness—and I do not wish to press the Government beyond what they feel they can do—I hope they will take into consideration the view which is so widely held in the House that some concession should be made in this direction.

Mr. Sloan (South Ayrshire)

I rise merely to prove to my hon. Friend the Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander) that the number of recruits is growing. I, also, take the view that something ought to be done to make it possible to have by-elections in local government. The argument that a municipal by-election would in any way affect the progress of the war cannot be used. Fresh blood of a youthful nature is badly required in local government bodies. If this House is becoming a chamber of old and decrepit men it can be said, with truth, that our local bodies are very much more so. No attempt whatever is made to introduce young blood into our local councils. The local authority of which I am a member is being filled with older men than those who have retired, and it is necessary, in view of the fact that the war will come to an end some day, that new blood should be introduced into these local councils. To-day they are more important than Parliament. There are many Acts of Parliament on the Statute Book which have never yet been properly administered by the local authorities responsible for them.

To-day it is becoming more and more difficult. These bodies are faced with tremendous responsibilities in the postwar years. The question of housing alone is of the greatest importance. All the talk in this Chamber will not build the houses, required to house the nation. It will be necessary for the local councils to apply their minds to the question yet little is being done in that respect at the present time. There is the question of the provision of sites for postwar housing. It is difficult to get local councils to move in that direction. I remember after the last war the tremendous difficulties with which we were faced in getting ahead with housing—difficulties of securing sites and getting schemes prepared. Although there had been warnings during the war of what it would be like in the years ahead, we had to contend with all sorts of difficulties when the war was over and I earnestly hope that such a state of affairs will not occur again. Local councils are becoming more reactionary to-day than they have ever been. The facility with which they accept recommendations of a reactionary nature is amazing. For instance, there has been no difficulty in getting local education authorities to accept the recommendation that school children of 12 years of age should be allowed to stay away from school to do farming work. The conditions have been so relaxed that it has been very difficult indeed to get children at school during harvesting periods, whether or not they were doing harvesting work.

It is the duty of the House to see that it is made very easy to have local elections to fill these very important positions. At the present rime, when vacancies occur, they are canvassing all the old men; they are bringing in to a large extent superannuated people, men who have served their day and generation in their ordinary work. These men are superannuated out of public funds. The very people who are paying them the superannuation are accepting them as members of the council. They are paid from the superannuation funds of the county councils, and they are coming in to take places in the very councils for which they have worked. That would not occur in many instances if there were local elections. I hope that on the Committee stage the Minister will give very serious consideration to the question of making amendments in regard to local elections, at any rate for the purpose of filling vacancies. Such a provision could be made quite easily. One can create difficulties about the matter in one's own mind, but there would be no insuperable difficulty in making such a provision. The longer the war goes on the more new faces we shall see in the councils; people will come in who have had no experience of local administration. I do not mind young men coming into a council because they have a lifetime before them and will be able to learn, but it is objectionable to have coming in old men who can be taught nothing, who learn nothing and forget nothing, and who will be a dead weight in the council as long as they remain. On these grounds I support the plea which has been made that there should be a provision for local by-elections to fill vacancies.

Mr. George Griffiths (Hemsworth)

My experience as a member of a local authority has been entirely different from that of the three hon. Members who have spoken. I see that the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander) is here no more. I do not know how the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Lip-son) would work a municipal election if one cannot work a Parliamentary election.

Mr. Lipson

A municipal by-election. We have Parliamentary by-elections.

Mr. Griffiths

At a by-election there has to be a register. Where is the register now? It is depleted. The hon. Member for Cheltenham spoke about co-opting members. In the West Riding County Council and in my own local urban district council, when a member of the council ceases to be a member, a man is appointed from the same political party. It is not a matter for the caucus. The party itself does it. With regard to what was said about young men by the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sloan), I do not see any old, decrepit, pensioned-off, superannuated people, who are only just this side of the coffin lid, being appointed. From our standpoint, the members who are being co-opted by the political parties are young men who are interested in municipal authorities. Again, the hon. Member for Cheltenham says "lam prepared to vote in the Ayes Lobby to-day, but I stay here myself without any election."

Mr. Lipson

I am supporting the Bill. I only am asking that it shall be brought into line with the other Bill.

Mr. Griffiths

I am sorry if I missed the hon. Member's point. I feel that local authorities should retain the power that they have had since 1939 and I support the Bill.

Lieut.-Commander Gurney Braithwaite (Holderness)

I apologise for troubling the House twice on the same day. Three years experience—that is the normal life of a borough councillor—has shown in practice that the system of co-option is not working properly. There is a tendency for the party caucus—this is not a party question; we are all guilty of it—to take the opportunity of putting on to the council ladies and gentlemen whose local electoral records have been, to put it mildly, unhappy in the past and who have been rejected on three or four occasions. That is the negation of democracy. I do not see any difficulty at all in bringing these local elections into fine with Parliamentary elections in this matter. The war has now lasted for three years. In London there has been no general municipal election since 1937 for either county or borough. There are issues arising in local government. I hope the Minister will tell us that the Government will consider the matter and, if possible, deal with it by Amendment in Committee.

Mr. Messer (Tottenham, South)

The Bill does not by any means assure that a vacancy will be filled by a member of the party to which the retiring member belonged.

Mr. G. Griffiths

In practice it is carried out.

Mr. Messer

If that were true, I should not be speaking. There are exceptions, and that proves that the legislation wants strengthening. There is the possibility of a local authority appointing some one whom the electorate would never look at, and that is a wider departure from democracy than the Bill that we were discussing earlier. In that Bill we say that we cannot have a General Election because of the difficulties of the war situation, the register and the rest of it. But we still permit by-elections. There is the further question of aldermen who will continue to act until they die. I trust that these points will receive consideration in Committee.

Mr. Peake

I should like to thank hon. Members for their courtesy in permitting us to get this Bill, and I would say a word on the question which has been raised why, if we permit by-elections to fill casual vacancies in the House of Commons, we do not permit casual vacancies in local authorities to be filled in the same way. Of course, in pure logic, there is no answer to the point, but when you come to consider the facts of the case I think there are one or two important distinctions. In the first place, there are between 1,700 and 1,800 elected local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales, but there is only one House of Commons. I think that everybody will agree that an election to the House of Commons is obviously a more important thing than an election to a local authority. If we allowed casual vacancies in local authorities to be filled in this way there would be a continual stream of by-elections in progress. Local councils have the aldermanic system, and the mortality rate among aldermen is higher than among any other class in the community. The result of permitting casual vacancies to be filled by by-elections would, therefore, be either to bring about a recrudescence of the party spirit in local authorities, or for the nominee of the caucus to be returned for a vacancy.

The most important point in this distinction is that there are good precedents in peace time for co-option to local authorities. The hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sloan) pleaded that we should have casual vacancies filled by by-elections, but throughout Scotland, even in peace time, it is the normal practice to fill casual vacancies in local authorities by co-option. What we are doing here is to take a leaf out of the Scottish book and make the Scottish practice applicable to England and Wales.

Mr. Buchanan

It is not the practice in Scotland.

Mr. Peake

It is in all parts of Scotland where there is no special Act of Parliament. Moreover, in England and Wales aldermen are elected by the council; that is to say, they are elected by what is in effect co-option. They do not depend for their election upon the votes of outside persons. There is, therefore, a precedent in local government in this country for filling casual vacancies by co-option which does not apply in any sense to a casual vacancy in the House of Commons. These points ought to be borne in mind, but if my hon. Friends like to put down an Amendment on the Committee stage we can carry this discussion further.

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.—(Major Sir James Edmondson.)