HC Deb 14 December 1944 vol 406 cc1433-42

3.34 p.m.

Sir Harold Webbe (Westminster, Abbey)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Clyde Navigation Trustees (Extension of Term of Office) Order, 1944, a copy of which was presented on 5th December, be annulled. This is the first of three Motions, in my name and in the names of my hon. Friends, the others being: That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Epping Forest Verderers (Extension of Term of Office) Order, 1944, a copy of which was presented on 5th December, be annulled. That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the General Medical Council (Temporary Provisions) Order, 1944, a copy of which was presented on 5th December, he annulled. The points that I desire to raise are common in all three and I would ask you, Sir, if I might be allowed, in making my argument on the first, to refer by way of illustration to the facts relating to the two bodies which form the subject of the other Motions, in which case I should not desire to trouble the House by speaking more than once.

Mr. Speaker

I think the hon. Member's request is quite reasonable. It may seem odd that one should debate on the first Motion, something affecting the Clyde, Epping Forest and the General Medical Council, but I understand that the point in all three Motions is exactly the same, and, therefore, it will be convenient to debate all three on the first Motion.

Sir H. Webbe

I feel that I have some explanation to give to the House for the appearance of these three oddly assorted Motions. I assure the House that I have no feeling of animosity for any one of these three admirable bodies. I am sure that under the watchful eye of the Clyde Navigation Trustees our shipping moves freely, happily and safely through the waters of that great river. I am happy to think that the Epping Forest Verderers are studious to preserve the beauties of our countryside for the enjoyment of our leisure and I am confident that, when we have played our part, and taken our ease in this world, the General Medical Council will very efficiently arrange for our passage to the next. The reason why I have put these Motions on the Paper is that there have just been tabled three Orders in Council, which exempt these bodies for a further year from the obligation to hold elections. When I saw those Motions I asked myself why it should be necessary to grant this further exemption. I am aware—I do not offer a word of criticism—that in the early days of the war, in the confusion that existed when the House was obliged, for obvious reasons, to extend its own life and to postpone its appeal to the electors and when local government elections were suspended, there were many bodies similar to those which form the subject of these Motions, anxious to be relieved of an obligation which they might well find themselves unable to fulfil. That position was met and relief was given by the Chartered and other Bodies (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1939. But the position surely is not what it was at the beginning of the war. The House at present has before it Bills which are designed to make possible elections of Members of Parliament and an early resumption of early Government elections, and I find it difficult to believe that in the sixth year of the war it is still necessary to exempt bodies of a kind similar to those that I am mentioning from the obligation to hold elections.

I have been at pains to find out exactly what is involved in the holding of these elections. In the case of the Clyde Navigation Trust, there are 42 trustees, of whom 18 are elected. The electors are the harbour ratepayers. There are, it is true, something over 1,800 of them, but they are all harbour ratepayers and they must, therefore, be easily accessible to the authority which initiates the election. The election, I understand, is by poll ballot. I find it very difficult to understand why, in the conditions that exist to-day, it is necessary any longer to exempt this body from the obligations of holding elections. In the case of the Epping Forest Verderers, a body with a delightfully romantic name, which is closely associated with the City of London, the election is of course a little more complicated and picturesque in character, but of the total body of verderers, of whom I think there are 16, four are for election. They hold office for seven years, so that the necessity for this Order implies that every one of these eminent gentlemen—I am afraid I do not know their names, but I am sure that they are eminent and capable—has been in office now for at least seven years, and more probably nearly 12.

Who are the electors there? They are those who have rights of common in Epping Forest. I am afraid I do not know what that means, but they must certainly be people who are within reach of Epping Forest, or the right of common could not be much use to them, and they must be people who can be got at. (Laughter.) I apologise for any misunderstanding caused by the use of that phrase. There are 536 of them. If an election is held, it is true that, with the pomp and ceremony associated with the City of London, these 536 gentlemen or their representatives have to gather together somewhere to declare their will. I do not think that that is a much more serious business than the election of aldermen and Lord Mayor, which has gone on quite sweetly without any difficulty during the years of the war, and I find it difficult to appreciate that it is impossible to contact these 536 gentlemen and ask them whether they would like their seven- or nine-year-old representatives to continue.

I admit that the case of the General Medical Council is a little more difficult, for there are a large number of constituents, comprising all the registered practitioners, who number 50,000 or 60,000. I am told that the register might well contain as many as 44,000 names. An election is not an impossible business and is certainly not much more difficult than holding an ordinary by-election. It might be argued that in this case the Council could not get a proper election because so many of the electors, the medical practitioners, are away serving the country in the Forces. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will not use that argument, because the House has already decided that the absence of all these doctors in the Forces is no valid reason for postponing legislation which fundamentally affects the whole medical service and drastically and vitally affects the future of every one of them. Therefore, I submit that in this case also an election should be possible.

I do not want it to be thought that this is really a trivial point. I submit that a serious point of principle is involved. We are a democratic country, and the whole of our government by public bodies is based on the conception of representative bodies freely elected by those whom they serve. We attach great importance to the process known as refreshing those elected bodies by calling on the representatives to show themselves to those whom they represent and to seek their suffrages. I submit that this right, which is an essential feature of democracy and democratic government, which we were obliged to surrender at the beginning of the war for reasons quite beyond our control, should be restored to us as soon as possible. I ask the Government to make a start now by accepting these Motions and by following a similar line of policy towards any other bodies which ask for further exemption from the obligation to hold elections. I make that plea to the Government, and I hope that any of those friends of democracy who a few days ago were so vocal in its defence will support me in that plea.

3.45 p.m.

Mr. Ralph Etherton (Stretford)

I beg to second the Motion.

My hon. Friend has moved it so adequately and focused the arguments so well that I do not wish to detain the House more than a moment. I hope that the fact that only two of those associated with us in this matter wish to occupy the time of the House on it will not be taken as any indication of the fact that there is a lack of feeling about it. It is a question of principle. It has been promised that elections throughout the country shall be restored as soon as possible, and a Bill is about to come before the House which will provide the machinery for the resumption of elections generally at the earliest possible moment. In these circumstances, it seems wrong to us that these Orders should stand as at present drawn. We feel that the Prayers should be allowed to pass and that the Orders should be annulled, and that, if necessary, some Orders limiting the time, perhaps to next April, or at least to six months, should take their place. It is wrong that a full extension of another year should be given to these bodies if any extension at all is necessary. I can well see that some short extension may be necessary, because some of the Orders are back-dated, and to that extent it may be necessary for some small extension before elections can be held. My hon. Friend drew attention to the fact that there is no reason in these three cases why the elections should not be held. They can be held with comparative ease, and the fact that legislation has been brought before this House and passed which affects the whole of the medical profession, should be a strong argument in favour of the election taking place so far as the General Medical Council is concerned.

3.47 p.m.

The Lord President of the Council (Mr. Attlee)

I entirely agree with the hon. Member for the Abbey Division of Westminster (Sir H. Webbe) that, wherever we can and wherever it is feasible, we should restore the right of elections. I would remind the House that this is not something which is imposed on various bodies by the Government, but that it is done at the request of these bodies. Of course, it is necessary that we should watch to see that bodies do not perpetuate themselves unnecessarily. These Orders are not granted as a matter of course. They are examined very carefully, and steps were taken last month, in view of the changing circumstances, to send around to every body which has taken advantage of the Act to ask them how soon they thought they could get rid of action under the Act. Therefore, I think my hon. Friends will agree that this is not a matter in which the Government are trying to keep the electors away from their rights. On the other hand, I thought my hon. Friend was perhaps a little optimistic in thinking that we had already got out of the difficulties that the war imposes on elections.

I will give some examples from these bodies. Let me take, first, the Clyde Navigation Trust. Certain members of that Trust are appointed by the local authorities, etc., and 18 are elected by the payers of dues, merchants and shipowners, using the Clyde. My hon. Friend thought that that was quite easy and presented no difficulty. They have to pay dues or rates of at least £10 in the 12 months ending on the preceding 1st September. The qualification of the trustees depends on the payment of at least £25 in rates during that period, but here is the difficulty, that on account of the war the ships of a large number of shipowners have been requisitioned by the Government and therefore they have not paid the dues. Therefore, if you were to proceed straight away, you would disfranchise a large number of most important people who should be represented on the Trust. I think my hon. Friend will realise that this is a very real difficulty, and I do not expect to see the ships derequisitioned all at once. We are not in that position in the war which enables us to do that.

Apart from that, there is a great deal of strain—and this applies to almost all of them—upon their clerical staffs. A good deal of cost is also involved—I am not making a great point of this, but that is a point of interest to those who are keen on economy and the utilisation of our man-power in the best possible way. We are trying to avoid putting such burdens on people at the present time. There is an unanswerable case in connection with the Clyde Navigation Trust, in the fact that if you had the election now, you would disfranchise a large number of people who ought to have a voice in the representation of the trust.

Let me turn to the case of the Epping Forest Verderers. There are four of them to be elected. They are elected once every seven years by persons or bodies entitled to rights of common in or over Epping Forest and whose names are entered upon a Register of Commoners made in accordance with the provisions of the Schedule to the Act. The normal septennial election was due to be held in March, 1943, but had twice to be postponed. It is proposed to postpone it again. There again, I do not need to tell my hon. Friend, who is so prominent in London government, anything about the kind of conditions that obtain in the places from which that electorate is drawn—Epping, Theydon Bois, Loughton, Ilford, Waltham Holy Cross, Chingford, Chigwell, Woodford, Walthamstow, Leyton, Wanstead, Little Ilford and West Ham. There has been a good deal of movement of population from those areas and a good deal of destruction of property, and it is not so easy, without a vast amount of trouble, to trace all those people, some 500 individuals scattered about these various habitations, who have these rights of common. This is an ancient body, as hon. Members can see from its name, and various steps have to be taken. The Corporation have to give notice to the commoners of their intention to prepare a register, and there has to be further notice that the register is open for inspection. There have to be various days for the hearing of objections and complaints. It has been found in practice that you have to put the machinery in operation a very long time ahead. It is too late to do it now in regard to the verderers.

It is worth while noticing also that, owing to conditions in the City of London, the Bill of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary with regard to local elections proposes to postpone the elections for the City Corporation because of the condition of certain wards which have suffered very severely in the blitz. Therefore, there would not be a renewal of the whole of the verderers. There is one final point, which is that in case it might be thought by any hon. Member that we are here trying to prevent some very enthusiastic democrats from exercising their rights, it might be interesting for hon. Members to know that there has been no contested election since 1921.

I now turn to the General Medical Council of which there are 39 members. There are 32 nominated with the advice of the Privy Council or chosen by certain colleges and universities, which may be held to be mainly indirect representatives of the medical profession. There are seven who are elected by medical practitioners. The latest available figures show that the electorate numbers somewhere about 65,000. The strain on the medical profession at the present time is immense. The strain on the General Medical Council has been pretty heavy. The fact is that people do not know where a large proportion of those 65,000 members are. A large proportion of them is overseas. A great many of the other doctors have been moved about she country according to the exigencies of the war. Even in normal times this election is fairly costly. A single election costs about £500 and sometimes there have to be two or three a year, according to the changes and chances of this mortal life. The staff of the Council has been very greatly reduced. It would be very difficult and take a very long time and involve an unnecessary amount of time, if the election papers were to reach all members of the profession.

Therefore, I do not think there is a case at present for holding up these Orders as against any other Orders. On their merits, I think they should go forward. These things do not come forward as a matter of course. They are examined very carefully, by the Department. I have examined them myself. It is quite right that this House should be jealous in these matters and watch them closely, but I will ask my hon. Friends to withdraw their Prayer, in the knowledge that the very closest watch is being kept on all these matters, and that steps have already been taken, asking these various bodies to see how soon they can get back to elections so that as soon as possible we shall get back to the regular system of elections. One further point is that hon. Members might say: "Let us sweep away the Act." You cannot do that. You have to carry it on, even if no further calls are made, in order to validate what is done under it. My hon. Friends having ventilated these points have drawn attention to the need for preserving our democracy against any in-roads and perhaps they might now allow these Orders to go through.

3.56 p.m.

Commander King-Hall (Ormskirk)

After listening to the remarks of the mover and seconder of this Prayer, I waited with great interest to hear the other side of the story. I am bound to say that I think the Government have made out a practical case for, at any rate, the temporary carrying on of these arrangements. At the same time, I am glad this matter has been raised because it is important that the world should see that the British Parliament is keeping a very vigilant eye even on such small instances of democracy as these, which are of great psychological importance, so far as the principle is concerned.

I wish only to make one point, which I hope will be noted by the Government. I understand that, with the exception of the Epping Forest Verderers, who seem to be thoroughly imbued with the right and proper spirit of national government, there is no suggestion that these bodies would not like to have elections. There seems to be rather a danger in the remark made as regards the Clyde Navigation Trust. Till these firms are back again in their pre-war position, with derequisitioned ships, it is apparently impossible to hold an election and it seems to me as if it might be a very long time before a register on pre-war lines will be available. Might it not be worth considering whether a by-election could be held on the old register, or whether some new method might not be devised of getting out a new electoral register for the Clyde, if it should turn out that several, if not many, years may elapse before the Clyde can return to an entirely normal state of affairs?

Mr. Attlee

My hon. and gallant Friend will no doubt understand that that would mean a separate Act of Parliament in order to change the Clyde Navigation (Constitution) Act; but I quite agree that if it is going on for a long time the matter will have to be looked at again.

Commander King-Hall

I would note in conclusion that the Government have told us that they have asked these bodies when they think they can resume their normal practice. I hope there will be some means of giving information to the House about their replies when they have been obtained.

4.0 p.m.

Dr. Russell Thomas (Southampton)

I should not like the occasion to pass with- out emphasising the fact that I have taken particular note, and that the House has taken particular note, that the right hon. Gentleman, on behalf of the Government, has made it perfectly clear that the medical profession cannot be expected to come to any decision on any matter at the present time. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making his decision so clear. I think we shall bear this in mind when future Measures may be brought before the House.

Sir H. Webbe

Although I am a little disappointed that the right hon. Gentleman is so alarmed at the difficulties, I feel that, in view of the assurances he has given, I should not press this matter further, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Speaker

I assume that the hon. Member does not wish to move either of the next two Motions in his name?

Sir H. Webbe

No, Sir.

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.