HC Deb 20 August 1945 vol 413 cc400-12

Order for Second Reading reads

9.15 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Ede)

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

In conjunction with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, I have prepared and presented this short Bill for Second Reading. We have today been surveying affairs throughout the world. Now we turn for a few minutes to survey the municipal elections that will shortly be resumed in our own country. The Bill before the House is a temporary Measure. It will expire at the end of 1947, and it is necessary in order that men now serving in the Forces, or seamen or persons engaged in war work abroad, may be candidates at the forthcoming municipal elections, and after election may not be disqualified by what may really be pure technicalities. I present the Bill with some feelings of personal interest, because in 1919 I was demobilised on the very day fixed for the nomination of county councillors in the county of which I had been a county councillor prior to the war. I know the anxieties that beset the candidate faced with the technicalities of making his candidature effective at a county council or borough council election. Under the existing law many men now serving on councils who are abroad for the reasons I have mentioned would be disqualified, and many people who may be desirous of being candidates would be similarly disqualified.

There are three points on which we desire to have an alteration of the law. Before a person can be validly nominated as a candidate for a borough or county council election in England or Wales, if he is not present at the nomination, he has to consent to his nomination in writing, and. that consent must be delivered within one month of nomination day. With people serving in very remote parts of the earth it may be difficult so to time the receipt of such a notification as validate the candidature. Either the notice may arrive too soon or, in order to avoid that, with the difficulties of military posts and so on, it may arrive just a few hours too late. Since it may be impracticable for a candidate to make his candidature valid through his consent in writing, we ask the House to agree that he may be allowed to send this consent by telegram. I have heard of certain quadrupeds being scratched by telegram and the scratching subsequently confirmed. We ask that notice may be confirmed by telegram; we are not asking that there shall be any subsequent confirmation.

When a man has been elected to local government office in England and Wales it entails his making a declaration of acceptance of office within two months of his election. The mayor of a borough, the chairman of a county council, borough councillors, county councillors, urban and district councillors, all have to make this declaration of office within two months of election day. Again, it may be almost impossible for a man to make this declaration of office within two months. We therefore ask that he may be excused from making this declaration of office until a day within two months of his return to this country.

Clause 3 deals with the declaration, of election expenses. County councillors and borough councillors have to make a declaration of their election expenses within a limited period of the tme at which, they are elected. For some reason which I have never understood, urban and rural councils do not have to make any such declaration, and I believe the consequence is that some rural and urban council elections are far more expensive than borough and county council elections. Again, it may be impossible for a man to make his return within the time specified in the statute. We therefore ask that in that case also he may be granted additional time, and the time is that which the returning officer fixes as a reasonable time for him to make the return.

Clause 5 provides for the application of the Bill to Scotland. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is here and will be able to deal with any point which may arise on that, for I would not wish to embark on what is to me the almost uncharted sea of Scottish local government law. These elections start in November. Elections in England and Wales for borough councils will be held on 1st November and for town councils in Scotland on 6th November. It is, therefore, important that we should have the Bill before the House rises for the Recess, and we are grateful to the House for consenting to sit after the normal hours to night in order that the Second Reading may be taken. It may be of interest to the House to know that the arrangements for any Service candidatures are not made by the Home Office but by the Service Departments concerned; but the Services have been in touch with my Department and with representative asociations of local authorities. Certain instructions have gone out from the Service Departments to the Services.

There are five main points, and perhaps the House will allow me to enumerate them. Members of the Forces will be allowed to be nominated without the sanction of the Service authorities. Second, if a member of the Forces, either manor woman, intends to seek election, it is advisable that the commanding officer or the equivalent should be notified so that the position of the candidate may be recognised. Third, in the area of the council for which the member of the Forces is a candidate, he or she will be free from the normal restrictions on political activities; that is to say, they will be free to address meetings or issue election addresses or carry on normal election propaganda. Fourth, the same rule that applied at the General Election will apply to these candidates. It will not be permissible to wear uniform while addressing meetings or while canvassing in support of their candidature. I presume the same rule will apply with regard to the photographs that appear on the election address, and it will be left to them to decide whether they look better in uniform or out of it.

Finally, no special leave will be granted for municipal elections, but, subject to the exigencies of the Service, normal leave may be anticipated or postponed by arrangement. That will enable the candidature to be pursued without inflicting any injury on the leave prospects of other members of the unit with which the person may for the moment be serving. This is a workmanlike little Bill. To use the language of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. R. A. Butler), it is neither ermine nor rabbit. It is not even mole skin. It is just plain corduroy, and we hope it will stand the test of hard work.

9.25 p.m.

Mr. Peake (Leeds, North)

It is not the intention of me or of my hon. and right hon. Friends on this side of the House to offer any opposition to the Bill. In fact, we welcome it, and we welcome the statement also which my right hon. Friend has made in regard to service conditions affecting Servicemen desirous of standing in local government elections. I should like to congratulate my right hon. Friend—if I may still call him so—on his accession to one of the highest offices of State. In years gone by I have been a close colleague of the new Secretary of State for Scotland in securing the postponement of local government elections during the war, and on many occasions when we found it difficult to defend that proposal I had a very stalwart colleague in my right hon. Friend.

Therefore it is with pleasure that we greet the Bill. I should like to ask a question or two about its detailed provisions and if we secure satisfactory answers there will be no need for us to raise any point on the Committee stage tomorrow. Clause 1 is, of course, already part of the law, so far as the filling of casual vacancies is concerned. There is nothing novel in the idea of a telegraphic assent to the nomination of a candidate. On Clause 2, which provides for extending the time during which a successful candidate must indicate his acceptance of office, a point does arise. The proposed Clause states that where any person is elected to any one of a number of local government offices at a time when he is a member of the Forces or a seaman, the time shall be extended until two months after he again sets foot in this country.

Hon. Members will observe that no time limit of any sort is placed in the Clause, and that it would be possible for a serving man to be elected to a local council in November and for him to remain overseas for virtually the whole period for which the Bill will be law. I am not sure that that is in the interests of good local government. A man has, it is true, to be a member of the Forces in order to secure the benefit of this provision, but he has to be a member only at the time when the election takes place. It is possible, under the Clause, that a man might be elected to a vacancy on a local authority, might become demobilised overseas, might settle himself in India or Egypt or elsewhere, and the vacancy on the local authority would never, in practice, be filled. I should have thought there might have been a case for inserting in Clause 2 something to the effect that a serving man should, within whatever is a reasonable period, signify his acceptance of office in exactly the same way as, under Clause 3, the returning officer has a discretion to extend the time during which the return of expenses may be made. I would draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the point which, I think, has a certain substance in it. We are all anxious to see local authorities functioning efficiently, and we do not want to see vacant seats round a table which might have been filled had the proper conditions been laid down.

The only other point I want to ask is in regard to the duration of the Bill. It is stated that the Act shall remain in force until the end of December, 1947, and then shall expire. I take it that the purpose of the Bill is to benefit the man with war service. The ordinary serving man under peace conditions is fairly well provided for under the ordinary law; notably in Section 63, I think it is, of the Local Government Act, 1933, which prevents him being discharged from the council by six months' absence abroad; but I would ask one of my two right hon. Friends opposite to tell us a little more in detail why this Bill is to last until the end of December, 1947. Is it assumed that men on war service will still be overseas in something over two years' time? That seems to me rather a serious assumption to make when we all hope that demobilisation is to be greatly speeded up. It rather looks as if this Bill had been drafted before the end of the war with Japan, and it is possible that my right hon. Friend, on further consideration, might be able to bring these provisions to an end at an earlier date than December, 1947. With these observations, on which I am sure my right hon. Friend will be able to give us satisfactory assurances, I welcome the purpose of this Bill.

9.31 p.m.

Mr. Gallacher (Fife, West)

Everyone realises the importance of local authorities, and the work which lies ahead of them will be more important than ever an the past, especially with regard to housing. A message has been sent out by the Minister of Health, and the work which the local authorities will have to do is the most important in the country so far as the people are concerned. Surely the answer to the spokesman of the Opposition, who raised a question about empty seats on the local authorities, is that, wherever a serving soldier or a man working abroad is elected to a local authority, he should immediately have the opportunity of returning. While the war was on some of us tried to get members of local authorities the right to return so that they could carry on their local authority work. Now that the war is at an end there is no justification for keeping abroad a man who has been elected to a local authority. I suggest that the Minister should consider the possibility of giving that opportunity to anyone serving abroad. It is the least he can do if we are to take the work of local authorities seriously and if we realise the heavy responsibilities which they have. In Committee we should amend the second Clause so that members of local authorities will have the right to return from service abroad.

9.33 p.m.

Mr. M'Kie (Galloway)

Like my right hon. Friend who spoke from the Opposition bench, I welcome the Bill, but I rise to enter a caveat. My right hon. Friend had some doubts with regard to extending the provisions of this Bill until 1947. If it is intended to carry the Bill on until then, it raises the question of the local government electoral register. I hope that that register will be a much more complete one than the one on which we fought the recent Parliamentary elections. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I notice that hon. Members opposite cheer. Members in all parties gained proportionately by the faulty register. That, however, does not alter my main point, that it is very necessary that the local government electoral register which is forthcoming in 1946 or 1947 should be a much more complete and accurate one than the recent Parliamentary register. After all, local government elections—and I am sure I shall receive support from the Government benches inthis—will assume a very much greater importance in the future than in the past, and that does not apply merely to town councils but to county councils as well.

I make this point in all seriousness. The Home Secretary in submitting the Bill said that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland would answer any points of special relevance to Northern people, and though I have no special points of that kind to make, I do hope that the new register will be more complete than the recent Parliamentary one. The latter was very inaccurate, and there were many notable exceptions from it. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) for instance was not included. There were many heads of local government bodies who had no vote at the Parliamentary election. This does not reflect in any way on those; who had the invidious task of making up the register. I think it would be very much better if we went back to the old household register at the earliest possible moment. With those points in mind I cordially support the main principle which underlies this proposal.

9.37 p.m.

Mr. Frank Anderson (Whitehaven)

There are just two or three points on which I should like information. The Home Secretary in his introduction of this Measure particularly referred on two or three occasions to borough councils and county councils. There are also the rural district councils. Does it not apply equally to them as to the other local authorities, because some of us represent a group of county areas and we want to know where we stand?

Mr. Ede

Perhaps it will help my hon. Friends if I draw attention to the fact that some requirements of borough and county councils do not apply to rural and urban councils. As I indicated in the course of my speech, some types of council are more obstructed by legal requirements than others.

Mr. Anderson

I am glad that point has been cleared up. My next point is that the Home Secretary said that no special leave would be allowed under this Bill. I can quite foresee the possibility that some persons aspiring to local government service might be granted leave while their opponents were not able to get leave at all. That would place some candidates in a very disadvantageous position. In the circumstances, if the question of leave is to rest with the commanding officer, is it not possible for something to be done, say a communication or letter to be sent to Service authorities, to see that everything possible is done to have leave granted if it is requested for the purpose of fighting a municipal election? I feel that it is necessary that all should be put on an equality basis; it should not be possible for one candidate to have leave to fight in the election and another, perhaps because his commanding officer does not take the same interest in the subject, to be unable to do so, but have to stay where he is and fight the contest under disadvantageous circumstances.

The only other point I wish to ask about is that of election costs. Who is to be responsible, as far as Servicemen are concerned, for seeing that declarations are made within the prescribed time laid down in this Bill? It would be a peculiar situation if you had a man away in the Far East and someone had undertaken the job of fighting the contest for him and money had been expended. I am anxious to know who is actually responsible for seeing that the declaration is made under the terms laid down in the Bill.

9.41 p.m.

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)

I have not spoken in this Chamber before, and it will seem rather a piece of affrontery to ask a question. I have long been associated with local government, but there is a practical difficulty in regard to which I hope the Secretary of State for Scotland will help me. I am serving in the Army and decide to stand for the next municipal election. I get leave from my commanding officer, and I arrive in the constituency to fight the election. I approach the electorate and I make speeches and I issue my election address, but I tell them that if returned there is no guarantee that I shall be able to take my seat in the municipal chamber to represent them. It is very important, before we allow this Bill to become law, that those who offer themselves at municipal elections should have the assurance of the Government that they would have their discharge from the Service if elected. Otherwise, it would merely be offering to these men and women who were anxious to render municipal service something which was quite impossible. No man, no matter how eloquent and capable and informed he might be, could get the electors to vote for him if, after the election, he had to return to Burma or to Holland or to wherever he might be serving. If this House is really concerned with local government, it will surely not give support to a Measure which will not guarantee that candidates, if elected, will be able to serve.

9.43 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Joseph Westwood)

We on this side of the House are very well pleased with the manner in which this very short Bill has been received this evening. It is something to help those men who want to gain local administrative experience by serving inside a local administrative body. A point was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Edinburgh (Sir W. Darling), who has delivered his maiden speech rather late in the evening. I am sure we will hear longer speeches from him in the future and probably on even more interesting subjects, and I want to congratulate him on the shortness of that speech and the way in which he managed to get his point across. I can assure him, however, that it has nothing whatever to do with the Bill. The question of whether a man will be released from the Services is a matter for the Services. The question of whether he will be returned to a local administrative body, having honestly stated that he does not know whether he will be released from the Services or not, will be for the local people to determine.

Mr. Gallacher

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will excuse me a moment. The right hon. Gentleman says that this question of releasing the soldier to serve on the council is a matter for the Services. Was it a matter for the Services whether Members of Parliament should be released from the Forces, or was it a matter of Government policy?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

That question certainly does not arise.

Mr. Westwood

I will deal with the two points that were raised by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake). We were more than once in the unenviable position, in this House, of having to legislate for the postponement of local government elections. It was not always an easy task. It is far more pleasant, I can assure the House, to be dealing with a Bill which makes provisions for the local elections which are to come in the autumn. Two points were raised. So far as Clause 2 is concerned, we will certainly look into that matter, and will see whether it is possible to deal with the point which was raised by my right hon. Friend. That probably could be done as the result of agreement if we find that it is advisable to do so by means of a manuscript Amendment to-morrow, but it is a very important point and we will look into the matter at once.

The second point raised was the question of date. That also was arbitrary. We will have a look at that and see just exactly what can be done, because I am sure there is an honest desire on both sides of the House to see that this short Bill works equitably and justly so far as administration is concerned, and so far as the serving men are concerned, for whom we are seeking to make provision in this Bill.

Just a word or two in connection with Clause 5. All the other Clauses are United Kingdom Clauses, but Clause 5 is the application Clause to Scotland. Now the law relating to local elections in Scotland differs in some respects from those relating to such elections in England and Wales, so it was necessary in a United Kingdom Bill to have a Scottish application Clause. Paragraph (a) of Clause 5 substitutes for Clause 1 [Consent to nomination by telegram] a Clause to similar effect but suitably adapted to the law governing Scottish elections. It provides that any enactment relating to election to the office of councillor whereby nomination papers are required to be signed by or on behalf of the candidate nominated are, in the case of a candidate serving abroad as a member of the Forces or a seaman or a war worker, to be deemed to be complied with, if a telegram consenting to his nomination is sent by him and is received by or delivered to the person, at the place and within the time to or with whom and within which the nomination paper is required to be delivered or lodged.

Paragraph (b) substitutes for Subsection (1) of Clause 2 a provision whereby there is extension of the time for the acceptance of office—a Sub-section for the same purpose but again adapted to Scottish conditions.

Paragraph (c) applies to Clause 3, which deals with the extension of time for the claiming and paying of election expenses and for making returns and declarations as to election expenses to Scotland by substituting for reference to the provision of the Municipal Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Practices) Act, 1884, reference to the corresponding provisions of the Scottish Act—the Election (Scotland) (Corrupt and Illegal Practices) Act, 1890.

This is a temporary Bill, a Bill to deal with temporary needs so far as these serving men are concerned, but it is urgent if it is to be of any use so far as the incoming local elections are concerned. For these reasons I trust we have got unanimous approval to the Second Reading of this Bill.

9.49 p.m.

Mr. J. S. C. Reid

Would the right hon. Gentleman be good enough to clarify one remark which he made with regard to demobilisation? It is obviously of the greatest importance that we should know before the municipal elections come off whether it is or is not Government policy that a man who is elected to be a councillor—perhaps in an important city where being a councillor is almost a full-time job—isto be released from the Forces in order that he may perform his duties. It will not do for the Secretary of State to say that this is a matter for the Services. It is not a matter for the Services but for the Cabinet. It is important Government policy, and I ask the right hon. Gentleman to let us know what is Government policy in this matter. Is it Government policy that a man who is elected to a post of great importance of this character is not to be sent back to do a job, perhaps a perfectly useless job, until his turn comes round in the class to which he belongs or is it the Government's policy that a man elected to an important position of that kind is to have his release from the Services expedited? I think we are entitled to a definite answer.

9.51 p.m.

Mr. Ede

I can only speak again with the leave of the House. The Government policy on demobilisation was declared by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in the course of his speech on the Address. The Government's policy remains as was laid down by my right hon. Friend the present Foreign Secretary when he was Minister of Labour. There are Class A releases and Class B releases and as far as I know municipal service as a councillor is not regarded as qualifying for Class B release.

Mr. Reid

Does that mean that it is Government policy that under no circumstances will elections to, say, Glasgow Town Council be regarded as a reason for earlier release than in the ordinary course?

Mr. Ede

It must not be taken that in no case would it be so regarded but it certainly is not regarded as being in every case a reason for arranging for demobilisation.

Mr. Reid

Will the right hon. Gentleman be good enough to say in what cases early release will be allowed and in what cases it will not be allowed? I think we are entitled to know the criteria.

Mr. Ede

The right hon. and learned Gentleman himself suggested that there were some cases more important than others. I do not think it is likely that any large number of cases would be considered but I can assure him that this matter must be governed by the statement that was made by the then Minister of Labour last autumn, the policy which was accepted by right hon Gentlemen opposite when they were in sole charge of the nation.

Mr. Reid

If I can have an undertaking that anyone elected to be a town councillor of the city of Glasgow will be released—and that is the second city in Britain—then at least we shall have, got some distance.

Mr. Ede

I cannot give the right hon. and learned Gentleman any such assurance.

9.54 p.m.

Lieut.-Commander Gurney Braithwaite(Holderness)

I am anxious not to delay the House, or delay the right hon. Gentleman, but I feel that we have here a point which is of importance to all parties. It is not a party point at all, it is not a case of the Opposition endeavouring to hold up the Government's legislation. I feel that the Home Secretary has not met the objections put to him by the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North Leeds(Mr. Peake). What I would like to see would be Servicemen who are elected to local bodies put on the same footing in this matter as Members of Parliament. In other words, if the man is returned he should have the option of returning to his unit or concentrating upon his municipal duties. I feel that the right hon. Gentleman would be well advised to look at this matter again. We are not anxious to hold matters up now. The Secretary of State for Scotland has already mentioned another matter in which the Government may produce a manuscript Amendment on the Committee stage to-morrow. I suggest that that procedure be followed regarding this rather difficult point. I think the right hon. Gentleman should take it back, have a word with his colleagues in the Cabinet, and try to meet us on the Committee stage to-morrow.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for To-morrow.—[Mr. Mathers.]