HC Deb 09 December 1943 vol 395 cc1176-87
Mr. Lipson (Cheltenham)

I beg to move, in page 1, line 7, to leave out "thirty-first day of December," and to insert "thirtieth day of June."

The Minister who is responsible for this Bill and those of us who are critical of it lave this in common, that we both regard the Bill as undemocratic and undesirable in its purpose and one that should not be allowed to be continued for a day longer than is absolutely necessary. It deprives municipal electors of a privilege which we value in this country and which is one which Parliamentary electors have. When this Bill has been before the Committee before and a similar Amendment has been moved the Minister responsible has used the argument that it was not unreasonable to ask that the powers under this Bill should be renewed for another year. In previous years there may have been something to be said for that argument, but to-day we meet at a time when we can see more daylight into the future, and the case for renewing this Bill for six months only instead of for a year is very much stronger to-day than it was on any previous occasion. We want too, to have an assurance that the Government are taking the necessary steps immediately conditions permit to ensure that municipal elections shall be possible under proper conditions. Therefore, we feel that the circumstances are such that to-day we are justified in saying that the Bill shall be renewed this time for six months only to the date specified in the Amendment. If the conditions in that period are such that it is essential that the Bill should be renewed for another six months, it will not be difficult for the Minister to come down to the House and say so, and if he can make out his case, no doubt the powers will be given. If, on the other hand, the conditions are such that we might be in a position to say that the Bill should be brought to an end, as everybody desires, at the earliest possible date, then this Amendment would make it possible. I move the Amendment in the hope that it will be considered by the Minister as a reasonable proposal and that he will respond to it in that spirit.

Sir Percy Harris (Bethnal Green, South West)

My hon. Friend the Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander), whose name is also down to this Amendment, is, unfortunately, prevented from being here at the moment. The Amendment deserves real sympathy. There is some sort of confused idea that this is following up the principle of the party truce, but it is made clear that it is nothing of the kind. It is suspending the right of the electors to have any say in the constitution of the local authority which administers the services for the particular area. There is an extraordinary number of anomalies. Complaints have been made about the selection in some boroughs. In my borough—I make no complaint about it—the constitution of the local authority entirely belongs to one party. That applies to a great number of boroughs. Some in London are entirely in the Conservative interests, while others are entirely Labour. The result is that no one can offer himself, however competent he is to discharge the duties associated with the administration of the area, because of his political opinions. That is rather a serious state of affairs. It is perhaps inevitable in war conditions, but that it should continue to be absolutely necessary is rather a serious proposition.

Perhaps the hon. Member was optimistic in thinking that an opportunity will be available next summer, but the principle is there, and it would be a nice gesture if the Government could see their way to accepting this most reasonable compromise, so that after six months they could reconsider the proposal. I believe the whole Committee believes in local government. I know my hon. Friend does. There is no greater exponent of the principles of local government than he. After the lapse of some years it is destroying all interest in local government if the electors never have a chance to express their opinion, and it is something novel in our Constitution that local authorities should be able year by year to co-opt members, always being careful to see that only those are co-opted who belong to the predominant party. (An HON. MEMBER: "Not always.") There may be exceptions, but certainly in London it is so. Human nature being what it is, it is very natural if one body entirely commands the authority to see that no one is elected who does not belong to their political party. In my constituency there is no chance of a man, getting on the borough council unless he joins the Labour Party.

Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke)

That is as it should be.

Sir P. Harris

It is wrong in principle, and it strikes at the very root of our democratic system of local government.

Mr. Messer (Tottenham, South)

I have never been able to understand why you can have by-elections for Parliament but not for local authorities. At present local government is completely unrepresentative, because the public has not been given an opportunity of making any choice.

The Chairman

The only question is as to the date. We ought not to extend the scope of the Debate any further. It may be possible on the Clause to say something on the lines of what I gather the hon. Member was going to say.

Mr. Messer

I was only going to say that there are so many features which everyone regards as undesirable that it would be desirable to remove them as soon as possible, and therefore there is something to be said for consideration of the Amendment. I was trying to prove that there was a reason for the Amendment in showing that the undersirable features in the present situation are such as to justify an Amendment of this sort.

Mr. Mander (Wolverhampton, East)

The Amendment really seems to me to fit in with the Government's own declaration of policy on the Second Reading. They intimated then that they were studying the situation and preparing for the time when elections could take place, and knowing the rapidity of action for which the Government are notorious, I could not help feeling that a period of six months ought to be more than ample to work out all the details of the new legislation and introduce it and pass it into law. In their own interests and to be consistent with their own record, they really should consider accepting the Amendment. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to give rather more information than was possible on the Second Reading. The Committee would like to have some sort of idea when it is proposed to introduce the Measure. Is it going to be during the period of the war, or is it to wait until afterwards, when things will have to be done in a tremendous rush? I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to tell us that they are going to introduce it during the present Session. If he will tell us that, it will go a very long way to satisfy those of us who are anxious to see the matter put on a proper basis.

Mr. Ralph Etherton (Stretford)

The continuation of the present procedure would seem to be leading to an undue proportion of co-opted members. I wonder whether the Minister can tell us the present number of councils on which those co-opted are as many as 20 per cent. and 25 per cent.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Westwood)

It would be impossible to answer that question without notice.

Mr. Mander

I asked a question a week or two ago for that very information, and the Under-Secretary for the Home Department said he would make such inquiries as he could and give us what information there was, so that it is not without notice.

Mr. Westwood

If my right hon. Friend gave that promise, I am sure that he is making the inquiries. I regret very much that owing to "flu" he is unable to be present to-day. There is an earnest desire on the part of everyone interested in local government to see the restoration of elections as early as possible. I made that clear on the Second Reading. If it were possible for me to say that the Amendment was practicable and reasonable, nothing would give me more pleasure than to accept it, but I know there is no desire to suggest anything that is impossible in the circumstances. There would be no object in proceeding by six monthly stages in dealing with this problem. If on 30th June it should appear that the suspension of local elections ought to be continued, a further suspension of the Bill would be necessary. But none of us know what the war position will be in June, and it might be an unnecessary using-up of the time of the House. On the other hand, if it should appear at any time during 1944 that local elections ought to be resumed, the Local Elections and Register of Electors (Temporary Provisions) Act might be repealed forthwith. The fullest consideration has been given to the suggestion, but we believe that it is impracticable and useless to accept the Amendment in existing circumstances, and I hope it will not be pressed. I again assure the Committee that there is an earnest desire on the part of the Government at the earliest practicable moment to restore local elections, believing as we all do that it is on our local government that we have actually built up the democratic system of which we are so proud.

Mr. Henderson Stewart (Fife, East)

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain somewhat further what he has said? The principal argument that he has used for refusing the Amendment is that as the Clause now stands and as the Government now feel, if at any time during 1944 they think circumstances have so changed as to make elections possible certain steps will be taken. That is of course a very important point, which is bound to weigh with those who are sympathetic with the Amendment, but we must understand what it means. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us what are the sort of circumstances that he had in mind when his carefully prepared statement was put together? What does he foresee as the likely circumstances in which he would say, "Here is a Bill to amend the present Regulation"?

Mr. Westwood

The answer is very simple. I foresee nothing at the moment which would in any way justify us in allowing the Bill to operate for only six months. I am not a prophet. I cannot see the unforeseeable, but something that I and the Government cannot foresee might happen. It has always been understood that it is within the power of Parliament to repeal any Act that it has placed on the Statute Book.

Mr. Lipson

The right hon. Gentleman has given a pledge which I consider of some value. He has said that if circumstances permit, the House will be asked by the Government to repeal the Act. In view of that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 2 and 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Lipson

On a point of Order. I have on the Paper a proposed new Clause dealing with the new register. May I move it?

The Chairman

The hon. Member's Clause is out of Order.

Schedule agreed to.

Bill reported, without Amendment.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

Mr. Ammon (Camberwell, North)

I rise only to repeat what I said on Second Reading and to express the hope that this is the last time we shall see this Bill. There cannot be the same need for suspending local elections as there is for suspending national elections, which are concerned with the conduct of the war. We have had some encouragement in the statement which the right hon. Gentleman the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland has just made. I only hope that those things which he cannot foresee now will emerge in the next few months and that he will be enabled to bring in a measure to repeal this Bill. There are not only the difficulties created by not having any local elections, but everybody is not abiding by the terms of the agreement. This does not apply to one side any more than another, but there are cases where a majority on a council have taken advantage of their position to prevent somebody representing the party held by a retiring member coming in. That sort of thing causes ill feeling and brings the law into contempt. Rather than have a law on the Statute Book which it is impossible to enforce it would be better to abolish it. I enter a caveat against the Bill and sincerely hope we shall see the right hon. Gentleman standing at that Box in about another seven months moving to revoke it.

Mr. Henderson Stewart

What I want to say follows on the remarks I made earlier and links up with what the hon. Gentleman the Member for North Camberwell (Mr. Ammon) has just said. We all wish that the circumstances will be such that my right hon. Friend will be able to do what he hopes to do, because this is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs. It is not only that one party or the other is inclined to exclude all opponents, although that is the way the game of politics is played. What I object to are, as I find in many council areas, little cliques within a party picking their own men to fill vacancies. That is the most objectionable of any form of public life. One understands a party on this side or the other inviting people of the same political description, but to have these little cliques and to have a man, because he happens to be provost of a place, bringing in his personal business friends, is something we all resent. This is the point I want to put to my right hon. Friend. If the war ends in six months we may be able to do a lot of things like revoking this Bill, but suppose the war does not end. Is there not a very strong case, even in the middle of the war, for repealing this Measure? It was the circumstances while the war was on to which I wanted my hon. Friend to address his mind. I can conceive of circumstances in six months, even if the war continues, which will fully justify the repeal of this Bill. Had my right hon. Friend that consideration in mind when making his statement?

Earl Winterton (Horsham and Worthing)

I would like to express my entire agreement with what my hon. Friend the Member for North Camberwell (Mr. Ammon) has said and to thank him for the action he has taken throughout the Bill. I also want to thank the right hon. Gentleman the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland for the conciliatory way in which he has met us. I want him to recognise that so far as the Tory and Socialist parties are concerned—I am not in a position to speak for the various sections of the Liberal party—the views which have been expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for North Camberwell and myself represent, not a con-census of opinion, but the unanimous opinion of Back Benchers. I venture to hope that the Minister of Health will draw the attention of the War Cabinet to the views that have been expressed on this Bill. If the war is going on this time next year and there is a repetition of this Bill, there will be much more opposition than there has been in the past.

Sir P. Harris

My right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham and Worthing (Earl Winterton) with great modesty said he spoke for the Conservative and Socialist parties, but not for the Liberal party. I can assure him that he would have been on safe ground if he had included the three parties, or the four parties, or even the five parties, because the Independents take the same line. There is a frontal attack being made on local government. I am glad to see the Minister of Health here. He is fresh to Parliamentary life and to local government work and he comes to it with an open mind. I warn him that an attempt is being made by benevolent people in all political parties to undermine local government and to glorify bureaucracy, suggesting that i[...] be run much more efficiently by keeping out the democracy, the ignorant public, the mob, who cannot run things so well as those able and competent commissioners, of whom the right hon. Gentleman was one for a short time, incidentally doing his work extremely well. I warn him that there is a danger if we postpone local elections year in and year out. If the public get out of the habit of taking an interest in local affairs it will weaken the whole structure of local government. We are pleading for something which we really care about. I had 28 years on a local authority and I think that they were the most profitable years of my life. In the House of Commons we pass Bills, some good and some bad. Their administration depends on having behind the work a good healthy public opinion. That can only be created by elections and contests among the electors. I know that my right hon. Friend who represents the Scottish Office is with us. He has given a great part of his life to the study of local government and to local government work. There are people who are not so friendly to local government. Therefore, we want a definite assurance that it is the Government's policy without any unnecessary delay to restore the whole organization of local government, founded as it is on the democratic system of free elections.

Mr. Lipson

I do not claim to speak on behalf of any political party, but I can claim to be acquainted with the views of representatives of local authorities, having been associated with them for so many years. It must be obvious to the Government from the discussion in the House and in Committee that though this Bill will be given a Third Reading without a vote against it, there is obviously a strong feeling on the matter. I want to remind my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health that he is in the Government as the special custodian of local government, and I hope that he will use his influence to see that the powers under this Bill are not continued a day longer than is absolutely necessary. Though we pass the Bill to-day we dislike it intensely and we hope that this is the last time we shall be asked to agree to it.

Mr. George Griffiths (Hemsworth)

I do not agree entirely with the hon. Member for East Fife (Mr. H. Stewart). He has referred to cliques inside parties who co-opt members when there are vacancies on local authorities. I have been a member of a local authority for 32 years without a break, and I am still a member of the local urban district council. We have had changes since the war began but we have never had anything like cliques. If there has been a majority of Labour on a council it has always observed the principle propounded in this House that a co-opted member should be a member of the political party of the person who vacated the seat. I did not want it to go out into the country that what the hon. Member for East Fife said was the case all over the country. It is not the case in Yorkshire, if it is in Scotland. I want to tell the Minister of Health and the War Cabinet that the Urban District Councils Association, of whose executive I have been a member for 12 or 13 years, ate very uneasy about the future of local authorities. If the House had not been sitting there was to have been an important conference in Yorkshire at which Members of Parliament were to meet the West Riding County Council, the North Riding County Council and the big boroughs in Yorkshire because they are afraid—and some of us are afraid also—that powers are to be taken away from local authorities. I want to enter one protest against the centre here. You cannot work everything from Whitehall. During the war there have been many times when the Government have had to take over because of the emergency, certain duties that have been performed by local authorities. There will be a great uproar from local authorities, from parish councils up to county councils, if the Government take any further powers away from them. I hope that we shall soon return to local elections. I have enjoyed my part in them. I have fought in them for about 40 years, and it is the spice of life in a locality to have elections. I enjoy a political fight, whether it be for a parish council or for Parliament. Life would not be worth living if you did not have a few fights. I say that although I am not very heavy—only about seven stone when wet through with a big top coat on. Elections also give the electors a chance, if the local authority in power are not carrying out their wishes, to turn them out. I wish the Minister of Health success—I expect I shall be a thorn in his side. I hope he will see that this is the last time this Bill will be brought forward.

Mr. McNeil (Greenock)

May I add another reason, which I am sure the Government have in their minds, why this state of affairs should be terminated as quickly as possible? A good deal of our reconstruction legislation will affect the shape and functions of local authorities. Much of it will, I hope, too, change the actual shape and conditions of our towns and villages. It is essential that as quickly as possible we should know what people locally think about the proposed changes in the functions of local authorities. I share the views already expressed by many hon. Members about the attack on local government. I know that both right hon. Gentlemen opposite have identified themselves with the preservation of the powers and functions of local authorities, but I also know that we cannot expect what I would call the local government services to return to the pre-1939 position. No one wants that. We have in these circumstances to face up to changes in the scope and the powers of local government, and we must find out what our people think about it, not only because that is the democratic method of government but because the activities of this House will be abortive and inoperable if we impose duties or limitations upon local authorities which the people outside will not accept. If we want to get the local government machine into gear again as quickly as possible after hostilities we should at the earliest possible moment, and certainly before the close of hostilities, find out what people locally are thinking about the problems of reconstruction. I am sure that consideration is in the mind of the right hon. Gentleman, who has himself been an Assistant Commissioner.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Westwood)

I have nothing to complain of in regard to the tone of the speeches that have been made on all stages of this Bill. They have demonstrated a real desire by this House to have a restoration of local elections as speedily as possible, and I can assure the House that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health is fully aware of his responsibilities in regard to this particular problem. I can also assure the House that attention will be drawn to the points that have been made during this Third Reading Debate, and to the earnest desire of the House to have local elections restored if possible in the course of next year. I am giving no pledge; I did not give it on the Second Reading. The hard fact is that we are at war. All I can say is that nothing will give me greater pleasure than to have the honour of standing at this Box to introduce the new local government Bill that will restore local elections, because it has been part of my duty to stand five times at this Box to deal with these particular proposals. It will give no one in the House greater pleasure than myself if I find before another 12 months elapse that there is no need for any further suspension of local elections, and that I may have the honour to bring forward the necessary Bill, complicated though it may be, to deal with some of the problems that will arise out of the temporary suspension for four years of those local elections. I have spent a fair amount of my life in local government and am keenly interested in it. If anything was suggested by any Government that would seek to destroy the basis of local government and all it means they would have to get somebody else to stand at this Box to defend it, because I believe that local government is vital to the life of this country. I want to emphasise that this Bill is in no way a frontal attack upon local government, but merely a temporary provision made necessary by the war to suspend the elections. With that further explanation and thanking the House for the way in which it has debated this problem I sincerely hope that we may now get this Bill without a Division.

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

Bill read the Third time, and passed.