HC Deb 23 January 1945 vol 407 cc726-36
The Lord Advocate

I beg to move, in page 40, line 15, at end, add: and (ii) for sub-paragraph (2) of paragraph 1 the following sub-paragraph shall be sub-stituted— (2) For the purpose of registration in the ratepayers register the references in the provision substituted by Section forty-three of the Act of 1918 for Section three thereof to the qualifying period shall be construed as references to the period of two months ending with the said qualifying date, and Sub-section (2) of Section seven of the said Act shall not apply for the purposes of the aforesaid provision as modified by this sub-paragraph. Provided that, if on the said qualifying date Section one of the Parliamentary Electors (War-Time Registration) Act, 1944, is in force, the aforesaid provision shall have effect as if for the words 'last day of the qualifying period' there were substituted the words 'qualifying date' and as if the words 'and has been during the whole of that period' were omitted. This is a drafting Amendment to apply the provisions of the Schedule better to the Scottish law provisions.

Amendment agreed to.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."—[Mr. James Stuart.]

2.56 p.m.

Mr. Pethick-Lawrence (Edinburgh, East)

I do not think that I can allow the Third Reading of this Measure to pass away from us without saying a few words relating to it, and they shall be very few, because I understand it is desired to proceed to other Business before the House rises this afternoon. My first words, Mr. Speaker, will be of thanks to you for presiding so ably at our Conference in the first half of last year. I feel that I am only expressing the view of all those who took part in that Conference that your judgment, tact and conciliatory methods were mainly instrumental in enabling us to reach conclusions which the Government have seen fit to embody, partly in the Bill which has already become an Act, partly in the Bill which is passing through its final stage here to-day, and partly, I should hope, in other proposals which the Government will, no doubt, introduce to implement what is still left of your Conference Resolutions. I would also like to express my thanks to the Home Secretary and the Government generally for so wisely adopting, and so admirably putting into Statute form, the recommendations which we arrived at under your guidance.

Prior to this Speaker's Conference there were two Speaker's Conferences within my memory. The first was that which took place during the last war, the outstanding feature of which was the enfranchisement of a certain proportion of the women of the country. There is nothing in the present Bill which is quite comparable with that very great change. Probably the largest item in what we are doing to-day is the assimilation of the local government with the Parliamentary franchise, but I cannot imagine that that would have the spectacular recognition of the more revolutionary change of this earlier Conference. Subsequently, there was a further Speaker's Conference, somewhere about the year 1930, and that was wholly abortive, because Members who took one view stood exactly where they had been before and Members who took the other view stood exactly where they were before, with the result that no conclusion was reached at all.

I am glad, therefore, that you, Sir, yourself and most of us who took part determined to model our conduct upon the Conference of the earlier time during the last war, when positive results were attained, rather than going back to the intermediate Conference which produced no results whatever. It is as a result of that that these recommendations were made, some of which the Government adopted in the previous Act and some of which they are adopting to-day.

I was intending to say a few words to my hon. Friends on the Liberal benches and of the universities, but I am afraid they will not have oral cognition of what I am saying. Perhaps I may hope that some of them will read my modest remarks with regard to them or perhaps, for greater accuracy, they will obtain a copy. I was going to say to them that I have a certain amount of regret that I could not acclaim their white-headed boy of Proportional Representation of whom, in later years, they have become such enthusiastic supporters. I have never believed that Proportional Representation would attain—

Mr. Speaker

Proportional Representation is not now in the Bill, and we ought not to discuss it.

Mr. Pethick-Lawrence

I recognise that, Mr. Speaker, but perhaps I may be allowed to say that I prefer the Bill in the form in which it is coming before us on Third Reading to any changes which some of my Liberal friends would desire to see in it. On the other point to which they have taken exception, there is a feature of it in the Bill and, therefore, I think I should be in Order in referring to it—the plural vote.

I am in agreement, in principle, with my Liberal friends on that point, but the resolution of your Conference, Mr. Speaker, which is embodied in this Bill, is for a compromise on the matter—the same kind of compromise which Members of the Liberal Party made in the last war—that is to say, without abolishing plural voting altogether, they cut it down from being indiscriminate, from triple, quadruple, quintuple and multi-plural voting, which it was in accordance with the proposals of that time, to the exercise of not more than two votes, and we have adopted a somewhat similar plan now which is embodied in the Bill and, naturally, those of us who took part in producing the compromise stood by our bargain when the time came.

The next feature of the Bill which calls for some remark is the creation of the annual register and the May register. I was very glad that the Government introduced the principle of the annual register, because it has done away with the long delay and complicated procedure of the 1943 Act for the most usual time for an election somewhere in the latish Autumn. With regard to the May register, I think that, too, is a very good thing, although I am afraid it is rather a case of the "may be" register, because when it was first adumbrated there was a more optimistic view about the termination of the war than perhaps the more sober judgment we have to-day. However, we live in hope that it may be, after all, that the May register will be called into requisition.

Now a word about the postal vote of the soldier. It will be remembered that that was a point on which we paid some attention in the Speaker's Conference, and it is embodied in the Report. I am very glad to find that the Government, after considering the matter and appointing a special committee to go into it, came to the conclusion that they could accept the proposal and embodied it in the Bill. We are so often told of the procrastination of committees and Governments that I think that the celerity with which the committee reported, and the celerity with which the Government adopted and inserted it in the Bill, are certainly worthy of very high praise.

There is only one thing more I want to say and I hope, Mr. Speaker, you will allow me to put the question very briefly and to get an answer. In your Conference, Mr. Speaker, we carried a very large number of resolutions regarding a number of different questions. Some of them were embodied in the Bill which has already become an Act, and most of the remaining ones are embodied in the present Bill. There only remain the recommendations which the Government have not yet put into statutory form. I will not enumerate those because it would be going beyond your wishes, Mr. Speaker, but perhaps I may be allowed to ask the Government what their proposals are with regard to the extension of university franchise to cover, without fees, all graduates, and the registration and conduct of elections generally. I would like to ask the Government what they are already doing and whether they are going to bring in another Bill embodying such recommendations. With those brief words I commend and support the Third Reading of this Bill.

3.7 p.m.

Lieut.-Commander Hutchison

There is just one question I wish to put to my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate before the Debate is wound up. Clause 20 of the Bill deals with electoral registration regulations. Will he see that provision is made under these regulations, or, alternatively, in view of the urgency of the matter, will he give instructions to the registration officers to make available forthwith to accredited agents or secretaries of political parties, supplies of the forms necessary for making application for the business vote, so that they may be distributed by the agents or secretaries if they so desire? My reason for making this request is that I fear there will be considerable difficulty in gathering all the necessary applications from the potential business voters within the very limited space of one month. Furthermore, if this process of voluntary distribution were adopted, it would cut out a good deal of unnecessary correspondence which would occur if each individual voter had to write to the registration officer and ask for a form. Perhaps my right hon. Friend will be kind enough to answer my question.

3.8 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. T. Johnston)

Perhaps I might reply to that matter, as it affects Scotland only. I have no definite information, as the point is a new one to me, but I can certainly give my hon. and gallant Friend the assurance, subject to the forms being available—and if they are not available to-day, they will be in a few days' time—that they will be distributed in the ordinary way to those who deal with the matter, and that there will be no hold-up on the basis that forms cannot be distributed until the Act has been passed.

3.9 p.m.

Mr. Tinker (Leigh)

The right hon. Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) said there had been a lack of interest shown in the Bill in this House. One can understand that. It is partly an agreed Measure of the Speaker's Conference and, naturally, there is not the same keenness shown in debate when we know that all parties are pledged in advance, but I do want to emphasise one or two points dealt with in the early part of the Bill. I want to find out, if possible, whether the Home Secretary has given any instructions as to the promise he made. When we dealt with the question of local government elections we tried to get them brought forward so that they could be held in better weather. The Home Secretary, in his reply, stated that in a Bill of this kind it would be difficult to alter it, but there would be a chance later on of something being done and, on this particular point, he would consider setting up a committee. Unfortunately the Home Secretary is unwell. We are all sorry about that, because he would like, I am sure, to be here and to see the culmination of his Bill. However, nature has intervened and prevented him from being here. I wonder if he has left any instructions on the matter being considered at some future time.

My next point deals with aldermen. This is a more difficult matter. I tried to get the removal of aldermen from the Bill, because I think they are obsolete, although different points of view arose in the House on this matter. I have been trying to discover what aldermen really do mean, how they arose, and how the practice grew up, and I will read what I found out: Aldermen have existed from the dawn of Anglo-Saxon history and were once commanders of armies and governors of provinces. Their decline began as far back as the eleventh century, when the equivalent of a modern earl superseded the alderman, and they might have disappeared altogether when municipal corporations were being reformed in the 1830's. However, a compromise 'preserved the title of alderman and, what was more important, introduced the device by which the elected councillors' could elect aldermen 'having the same position in the council as those who had been elected, thus serving for a double term.' So we are carrying forward ancient history. The privileges of aldermen have been summed up as including gowns of richer quality and hue than those of ordinary coun- cillors and the reservation of special seats in the parish church. There is also the more doubtful privilege of being much more often the target for satire than ordinary councillors. That is from the "Manchester Guardian" of 27th December, 1944. I was expecting that in the examination of a Bill of this kind this matter might have received better treatment than it has, because we seem to carry forward step by step the old traditions, and we seem to be governed by what has happened in the past. The Home Secretary made a clever reply, as he can on any subject. Sometimes he seems to me like a lawyer who can state a case for both sides. I think we ought to raise this point again and I cannot allow a Bill containing something of this kind to pass Third Reading without making a strong protest and saying that on the very next opportunity this will be challenged and fought to a Division. I am not using that threat to-day on this Bill, because I realise that many of my friends are compromised on this matter—they insisted at the Speaker's Conference on certain things which they thought belonged to them, and they have had to give way on other things. I do not know whether they examined the question of aldermen in the same light as I have, but I do not think it would have been defended very ably by anybody had it been discussed in the Speaker's Conference. That is all I have to say. I thought we might have some further reply just to show that the next time this is examined aldermen will have to go.

3.14 p.m.

Rear-Admiral Beamish (Lewes)

On the Third Reading of this Bill I would say that I am deeply impressed by the Bill as a whole but, at the same time, I made some remarks on the Second Reading on the subject of aldermen and I feel it is justifiable again to place on record the doubts that are in some of our minds in regard to continuing such a system. We have incorporated in this Bill the continuation of the aldermanic system, and I foretell that the time will come in the fairly near future when this House will make a drastic change and we shall then see the benches, of which I am at the moment pretty nearly the sole occupant, crammed with Members of Parliament arguing in one way or another. I am not quite sure what my party will do, but what I am quite certain of is this, that 90 per cent. of the Members of this House cannot justify the aldermanic system. The arguments in favour of it have been put with considerable lucidity by the Home Secretary but, however lucid they were, they were to me entirely unconvincing. I noticed that the Home Secretary remarked the other day, in reply to a supplementary question in connection with the representation of the people: I should have thought that local authorities were all elected with an equal degree of democracy." — [OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th January, 1945; Vol. 407, c. 365.] Nothing can be farther from the truth. To say that the system of electing county councils and borough councils and county borough councils is equally democratic with the system which prevails with urban districts and rural district councils is just not a fact, and I am astonished that the Home Secretary could bring himself to say such a thing.

I do not wish to weary the House by pursuing this subject; I merely wish to place it on record that it is an undemocratic system and one which will have to be changed, and I will try to sum up how it strikes me in a short sentence. It seems to me that by passing this Bill and perpetuating this system we fail to put our trust in the local electors, whom we have placed on the register, by saying to them, "We do not consider that you are capable of judging properly as to who shall represent you on the councils of your local authority. At any rate we will permit you to elect a certain number of them but, as for one quarter of them, namely 25 per cent. of those councillors, we do not trust you to elect them." I can only say that as a local elector that is something which I am not prepared to swallow.

The other effect that the Bill will have in the perpetuation of this system, is this: It is said that the idea of the aldermanic system makes for stability and continuity of policy. If that is the argument, all I can say is that in addition to failing to put our trust in the local electors we fail to put our trust in the permanent officials, than whom there is no more excellent body of people in the country. The clerks and their assistants, and all the other employees of the great borough councils and the county borough and the county councils are an admirable body of men, thoroughly well aware of what is necessary for continuity of policy and stability, and for the good of their county or their county borough as the case may be. We, in effect, say that because of the slight difficulties which might occur by having normal elections, such as are necessary for representation in this House, "We do not trust you and we do not think that your capacity for stability and permanent policy is sufficient." I think we are quite wrong in putting that stigma upon the permanent authorities of the councils and county borough councils. I am rather proud to place on record my protest against the perpetuation of this bad system.

3.19 p.m.

Mr. Magnay (Gateshead)

As one of the few members of your Conference in this House to-day, Mr. Speaker, I would like to say a word or two of thanks—for that is all that is necessary—if it is not too belated to do so, for your Chairmanship of that Conference, which has been so ably referred to by the right hon. Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence). However, that is not the main purpose of my rising on the Third Reading of this Bill. I think that the last speaker did "protest too much." We knew quite well what we were doing at the Speaker's Conference when we said we thought that the aldermanic bench should not be disturbed. What is wrong with that? Why should my hon. and gallant Friend, as a so-called democrat, stand up so vehemently for permanent officials? Why should he go out of his way to talk in favour of bureaucracy against the properly elected members of councils? Aldermen and councillors determine the policy of their authority, a matter which we must jealously guard.

There are no better clerks and other officials than those of a council in my constituency in which I take a great interest, but I will not for one moment bow the knee to them; I stand for the rights of democracy, namely, that the elected people alone shall determine the policy of the public body of which they are members. We stand for continuity of the elder men, the older men, for that is what "aldermen" means in plain language, for men with experience who have spent years as members of their council or other authority. There are some Members here to-day who look like aldermen, and they are none the worse for that. We benefit by the experience of these men. We know that aldermen are specially fittted for their job. Councillors are not fools in choosing aldermen to be in office for five years instead of three. I cannot understand why there should be this jealousy of these preferred men, who are doing such excellent work. We in the Speaker's Conference made all sorts of compromises, but there was no compromise about this and if various Members here want a fight on this question they can have it at any time, because experience has shown that aldermen are fit and proper persons to do the job they are chosen for by their colleagues.

3.23 p.m.

The Solicitor-General

May I first thank my right hon. and hon. Friends who have spoken, for their general welcome of this Bill and for its completion in all stages in this House, and also thank the House as a whole for the assistance which has been given in the course of the passage of this Measure. If I may very briefly deal with the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence), the answer is that of the outstanding proposals a number have been accepted, but others require further examination and elucidation from a technical point of view in order to see whether they are workable. As soon as the report of that examination is received, it is the intention of His Majesty's Government to introduce those that have been accepted in the form of a Bill, and it is desired that that should be done as soon as possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) raised two points. The first was with regard to the time of local government elections. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is considering that matter and I am sure he will not disappoint my hon. Friend, at any rate in the amount of consideration which he is prepared to give to it. My right hon. Friend realises that there are different opinions held on that point which require examination. I do not think the House will expect me to go into the aldermanic controversy once again. We had a few words about it on the Second Reading, and during the Debate in Committee, in which the Home Secretary expressed his views. All I can do is to take note, once again, of the views that are held so strongly by my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes (Rear-Admiral Beamish), and which have been expressed to-day, and to ask the House to remember that my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Mr. Magnay) has shown that there is another point of view which is widely held in the different political quarters of the House.

So, I leave that knotty problem and with two other sentences I take leave of the Bill. The first is that we have on many occasions in this House expressed our admiration for the principles of democracy and their value to the human spirit in the world. That valuation demands that we should not shrink from the day-to-day working of democracy, one of whose requirements is finding the best process and the best lines along which it will work. We can say that we have taken some steps, not inconsiderable steps, in that proper direction by this Bill. The other sentence is to make the proceedings on this Bill turn full circle, and to finish as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary began by thanking you, Mr. Speaker, for presiding over the labours of the Conference which produced this Bill, and which has met with such general approval.