HC Deb 17 January 1945 vol 407 cc197-206

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

12.6 p.m.

Mr. Petherick (Penryn and Falmouth)

I rise to express some doubts in regard to this Clause, which deals with the assimilation of the franchise. I am looking upon this as a non-party matter although I am told that the assimilation of the franchise would, in fact, help the party of which I am a Member. None the less, I think it is a very doubtful move and I am not sure that the benefits which it is alleged to confer, will not be outdone by the disadvantages. The Speaker's Conference, of which I was a member, did say, in the letter to the Prime Minister sent by Mr. Speaker on 24th May of last year, referring to the Resolutions: Most of the other Resolutions were adopted unanimously: In the remaining cases there was a large majority in favour, and the minority accepted the conclusion and did not desire their disagreement to be recorded. I was somewhat diffident in intervening on the Committee stage or at any stage of this Bill, having been a member of this Conference, but as it was stated that the decision was not necessarily unanimous, I feel I ought to say something on this matter.

It seems to me that the argument against the assimilation of the franchise is that it interferes with one of the main principles of local government, in fact almost the essence of local government, which is that it should be local, because it will, I understand, create some 7,000,000 new electors, a large proportion of whom may have nothing whatever to do with the localities in which they are given the franchise. It therefore seems to me that that is a dangerous move, because it is most important that every voter in an area should have an interest in his borough, or urban district council, or county council as the case may be, and should really feel identified with local interests, and should feel a solicitude with regard to the spending of the ratepayers' money. The only continuing test of whether a person is or is not interested in a particular locality, is the test of residence, and that test is to a very large extent that of rating. The definition of ratepayer has been much widened fairly recently, and I think that, broadly speaking, practically all those who have a real interest in a locality are ratepayers there, and would have the vote. I am rather afraid that should this Bill go through, as it seems likely to do, with the assimilation of the franchise included, there will be, particularly in relation to the immediate future, a very large number of persons who have perhaps removed their residence during the war to another locality, and will temporarily be in that place, and who will have no interest except a purely transitory interest in that particular district. Therefore, it seems to me that the danger is that a large number of those people will be given a vote in an election concerning local finance without having any interest in the place. In many cases they may only be waiting to move.

The constitutional position is, I think, a little impaired. The old cry used to be "No taxation without representation," and the converse would hold very nearly equally true, "No representation without taxation." Now, as a result particularly of war Measures and of the Income Tax being applied to a very low income level, practically everybody in the country does contribute to the central Government's taxation, and taxation and the vote go together. But in this case, if the assimilation of the franchise goes through, a large number of people who do not pay rates will receive the vote. Therefore, it seems to me that the projected proposal is somewhat dangerous. I do not know if it is realised how great such movement of population is, even in ordinary times. I remember the Conservative agent in my Division in Cornwall—to which, as hon. Members know, England is attached—telling me some years ago that in one period between two registrations, one-third of the voting population, that is to say 16,000, had moved their residence. That may surprise a number of hon. Members. One would have thought that people in the county of Cornwall would be satisfied with their lot without wishing to change their houses. So if the change is as much as that in Cornwall, changes in many other parts of the country would be even more numerous.

I would like to answer the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Parker), who, if I may say so, produced the best arguments in favour of the assimilation of the franchise during the Second Reading Debate on this Bill. He said that the Association of Municipal Corporations was in favour of the assimilation. As I understand it, that Association had only asked its individual corporations what their views were and those views were by no means unanimous. A number of them—I think a very considerable proportion—registered their disapproval of the change. There is no evidence whatever to show that each corporation did, in fact, consult its electorate at all. Therefore, how did it know what the general view of the ratepayers was in this matter? The County, Urban and Rural District Councils Associations had not, at that time, and even up to date, as far as I know, given their views at all. Secondly, the hon. Member for Romford said that everyone was entitled to the local government vote, in view of the fact that a considerable percentage of local government income came from the central Government. That is perfectly true, but already the people in the country have a control of that as taxpayers through the central Government, and if a taxpayer is not satisfied that the 50 per cent. which is being contributed by H.M. Government to the local authority to supplement the rates is being properly spent he can object to his representative in Parliament. That argument is not a very strong one either.

12.15 p.m.

His third argument, which was, I think, by far the best, was that he was anxious, as I feel we all are, to get young people, particularly ex-soldiers, sailors and airmen who have been fighting in this war, interested in local government. That is a strong point in favour of the assimilation of the franchise, but the qualification is so low that after the war, as His Majesty's Government provide enough houses for the people, they will in fact become ratepayers, as occupiers or owners, and will get the vote anyhow. Therefore, I maintain that that argument also is largely demolished. Finally, I think it will be admitted that at the present time the burden of rates is absolutely terrific. Whether we shall have time to reconsider and in due course bring about a reform of the rating system I do not know, be- cause we shall have so much on our plate in the next few years that it will be difficult to do so. But the ratepayers themselves, as a result of this assimilation, may make a very strong demand for some reform in the rating system which it may be difficult to resist, because their case will be a fairly strong one. They will say that if they have not been swamped they have at least been diluted with 7,000,000 new electors who will spend the ratepayers' money and that surely these 7,000,000 new electors ought to be ratepayers, and that is a demand which it will be difficult to resist. For these reasons I feel extremely doubtful about the advisability of this move, and feeling more than uncertain, almost hostile to it, I felt that it was only right to put forward my views.

Mr. Woodburn (Clackmannan and Stirling, Eastern)

The Speaker's Conference, of which the hon. Member for Penryn and Falmouth (Mr. Petherick), with myself and several other hon. Members, was a member, discussed this matter very thoroughly and made a recommendation that there should be assimilation. Some of the arguments why this should be done have been stated quite concisely. The first, a very practical one, is that it is doubtful whether local government elections could take place at all, with the existing electoral machinery, unless this change were made; in other words, it would be almost impossible to compile a register in the old sense of the word for a municipality unless the present Bill did something to change the position. There is a fundamental reason, I think, why this change is necessary. The municipal franchise, as the hon. Member said, is automatically given to people who get married and as soon as they get a house. On account of the war it will be physically impossible to give large numbers of people houses for the next 10 years. The homes of the people have at the present time two or three families crowded into one house. Under the existing law, with the existing rents of those houses, it would not be possible for perhaps more than one family or a portion of one family to get the vote, and if this Clause were not passed we should be disfranchising large numbers, nearly all as a matter of fact, of the young men who had gone into the Forces and who afterwards married and would have been setting up homes for themselves but for the difficulty of getting houses. The Conference felt that the ex-Servicemen were entitled to have their votes for local authorities in their towns and counties as well as to have their votes for Parliament.

In addition there are many people who were left at home and did not go into the Forces; they have been playing their part in the civilian life of the country and will also be unable to get houses. They may be young men or young women, or old men and old women, living in their parents' houses, and they would not be able to exercise the franchise because the family could not move to a bigger house. On the other hand people who may not have contributed very much to the life of the community would, because they have a big house with a large number of rooms, get the vote, as the rental of the house would cover the amount stipulated as qualifying for a vote. The hon. Member said these people were not paying rates, but local government is not financed entirely out of rates. Approximately half the cost is in many cases paid out of the taxes, and to-day all the population are paying taxes relative to their incomes and sometimes are a very high proportion of them. Taxation has extended into realms of the population which prior to the war it did not touch, and therefore, through taxation, these people are making a very big contribution to local government expenditure. It is a folly to say they are not contributing to local government expenditure. Anyone with experience of the rents charged for sublets of houses and for apartments will know that people who have not the vote are paying not only their own rates but the landlords' rates as well, and probably subsidising those who own the house and paying all the expenses. If a landlord is able to explain to them that the charges are due to the rates the people will have a very great interest in looking after the rates. Indirectly they pay too, because the young people are those who are spending the money. They spend money in shops, in theatres and in cinemas, and thus indirectly contribute to the rates, because a great part of the rates is provided by these organisations of social wellbeing. I think these arguments are sufficient to show that the Committee ought to pass this Clause, so that the men who have fought for us or worked in industry should have the right to vote as citizens, and there is no better education in citizenship than giving people the responsibility of carrying out their duties. That was the opinion of the Speaker's Conference, and if it was not recorded unanimously it was agreed practically unanimously.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir Gilbert Acland-Troyte (Tiverton)

I do not want this Clause to pass without entering a protest, but at the same time I do not want to repeat all the arguments used so very well by my hon. Friend the Member for Penryn and Falmouth (Mr. Petherick) and by the hon. and gallant Member for Petersfield (Sir G. Jeffreys) on Second Reading. One of the strongest points which has been made was about people not being able to get houses and having to live with their families. That is a strong argument, but that condition of affairs will disappear by degrees, and I do not think we ought to pass permanent legislation based upon a temporary situation. This proposal is quite opposed to the principle that representation and taxation should go together, as they must in our state of democracy. The suggestion that people who do not pay rates subscribe to the expenditure of local authorities through taxation does not, I think, hold water, and at any rate the people who pay as taxpayers all have a vote for this House. I hope the Minister will be able to give this matter further consideration. One point which has not been raised at all is that under this Clause it will be possible for a man who is not a ratepayer to be elected to a local authority and he will be spending the money of the ratepayers to which he himself is not contributing. That point is one which ought also to be considered.

Mr. Reakes (Wallasey)

I should like briefly to support the Clause, although I was interested in the speech of the hon. Member for Penryn and Falmouth (Mr. Petherick), which gave a very well-considered viewpoint on behalf of those who are against the Clause. I feel there is a tendency to-day to regard the payment of rates as the be-all and end-all of citizenship. It is not. All these people, whether they are tenants of houses and, as such, ratepayers, or are in apartments, have a direct interest in the affairs of the town in which they live. They are directly concerned with the decisions of the education authority, the health committee, and, in cases where the municipality owns transport and other services, with the decisions of the trading committees. To my mind that is an important point, because if these people are not getting an adequate motor-bus service—and in the case of Merseyside a ferry service—or if the fares charged are excessive, they have no alternative but to put up with it. Why should not these users of municipally-owned trading undertakings have a say in the formation of the committees and in the policy pursued by the local authority? There is a ridiculous fear that young people are going to stampede town councils into squandermania, taking their duties as electors in a light-hearted fashion. That is not true. I believe they will display far greater intelligence in voting than have some of their seniors in the past. We know, further, that all the big issues in local government are not decided by the elected representatives of the the people. If there is a big development scheme there will be a private Bill in Parliament, and if it is not a big enough scheme for that it may still be subject to loan sanction. The local authority has to go to the Ministry for sanction for a loan and before sanction is given there is always a very careful inquiry into the proposal to make sure that it is sound and in the interests of the local authority and of the Government Department. Therefore, whilst there is a great deal to be said against this proposal on the argument of shifting populations and the like, we have to recognise that for a number of years married people of responsibility and of political intelligence will have to live in apartments, and why should they have to continue for years without a say in the election of the local authority? I think it is an excellent Clause and I strongly support it.

Mr. Glenvil Hall (Colne Valley)

I think the Committee are making rather heavy weather of this matter. As has been said, it was discussed at length by the Speaker's Conference, on which there were excellent representatives from the Conservative side, and that Conference decided by a majority that this proposal was not only expedient at the present moment but was desirable, I think the arguments put forward to-day about many people living in localities which they will presently be leaving and the fact that there is a shortage of houses are not considerations which affect the real reason for this Clause: this thing is absolutely right in principle, and the only objection raised against it is on behalf of privilege. Therefore, I hope the Committee will pass this Clause without delay.

12.30 p.m.

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

This matter was, of course, debated on the Second Reading of the Bill and very competent and able speeches on both sides were made and, indeed, that has been the case to-day. The Government thought that, having regard not only to the merits of the case, but to the general agreement among members of the Speaker's Conference, it was right and proper to make the change. I quite agree that it is a substantial change, and it is right that the Committee should take notice of it. We did think, however, as I have said, that it was a proper change to make.

My hon. Friend the Member for Penryn and Falmouth (Mr. Petherick) said he had been advised that the politics of the proposal were all right, as far as his party was concerned, but that, nevertheless, he was rather worried about it. To be frank I have not the least idea what the political results of this change will be on the fortunes of the parties. I do not know, and I do not think anybody will know until the event—and even then they will be lucky if they do—what influence this factor has had. It is worth noting that complete Parliamentary universal suffrage did not come about until the General Election of 1929. That was a similar big change. It is perfectly true that the 1929 Election, from the Labour and Liberal points of view, was better than the one before, but I cannot say that we have had a great deal of luck in any dramatic sense at elections since. What effect that great change had on the Parliamentary franchise is very disputable, and it is highly probable that the young people divide their votes in much the same proportion as the older ones. In any case, the thing is to do what is right and proper.

Is it not a fact that the distinction as regards local government franchise has become rather unreal? In relation to local government franchise the theory was that the ratepayer voted because he paid rates; therefore, if the rates went up he got stung, and if they went down things were better for him, and it en- couraged him to take an interest. Logically, it ought to have been confined to the direct ratepayer alone. A large proportion of the ratepayers, or rather the occupiers, the voters, do not pay rates direct, and a large number of them do not know what the rates are. The next thing is that the lodger vote had become farcical. If the furnishing was provided by the father or mother, the young man or woman could not vote, but if it was provided by the young man or woman they could vote. What happened in a number of cases, where the family was an intelligent one, was that they provided the young man or woman with a rent book, and they got the vote.

Broadly speaking, I think local government voting has to be done on the broad basis of citizenship, in the same way as Parliamentary voting. There is the point about the ex-Service man who may not come back to unfurnished accommodation. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Stirling (Mr. Woodburn) said, it would be too bad if he were excluded. The hon. and gallant Member for Tiverton (Sir G. Acland-Troyte) did say that it would broaden the right to stand for election, that is to say, a person who is not a ratepayer will be eligible for election as a councillor. If I may say so, that was already the case. The qualifications for a candidate are being an elector, the ownership of property, either leasehold or freehold, or 12 months' residence. I can say that without any briefing, because I have said it so many times. Therefore, there is no change in that respect.

In all the circumstances, I trust the Committee will approve this Clause, and if we could approve it now I would be grateful. I do not wish to hurry the Committee unduly, but we would like to get through the Committee Stage to-day because, frankly, we are fighting time on this Bill especially in view of the postal vote for Service men.

Major York (Ripon)

In regard to evacuation areas such as my own constituency, if this arrangement goes through, as it is now proposed in the Bill, a large number of civil servants and other evacuated personnel will have the right to vote in municipal elections although they may soon be leaving such areas. It seems to me that we are on rather dangerous ground if we give large numbers of people the right to vote in municipal elections in an area in which they have no intention of continuing to live. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider that point.

Mr. Morrison

I appreciate my hon. and gallant Friend's point. I am afraid that is so. I admit there is something in what he says, but I do not see what can be done about it. The same point will arise on the Parliamentary franchise though I admit that a local authority is one thing, and Parliament another. I cannot see what I can possibly do to meet the point, unless the Government take the matter in hand and more civil servants at the right time.

Major York

Is that the right answer?

Mr. Morrison

I would not like to commit myself.

Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.

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