HC Deb 29 July 1947 vol 441 cc379-91

10.4 p.m.

Mr. Niall Macpherson (Dumfries)

I beg to move, in page 45, line 45, to leave out from "Council," to the end of the Subsection, and to insert: specially called for the purpose, by a circular addressed to the members of the council not less than seven nor more than fourteen days before the meeting. I would like to raise my small voice for a few minutes to draw the attention of the Committee to what was said in the course of the proceedings of the Joint Committee, when my hon. Friend the Member for South Edinburgh (Sir W. Darling) asked what the Town Clerks' Association said about the alteration. There is an alteration in the Clause, and the Amendment seeks to restore the position to what it was under the 1900 Act. The words of the Amendment are practically identical with what is in that Act. My hon. Friend the Member for South Edinburgh asked: What did the Town Clerks' Association say about that? The reply was: They have no objection. We have saved the position of officers holding office at the commencement of the new Act. My object is to defend the office and not the officers. I wish to defend it particularly for those offices which are independent offices, that is to say, not practising solicitors who are employed as town clerks. Hon. Members in all parts of the Committee—Scottish hon. Members at any rate—will agree that the town clerk is in many ways the hub or pivot of local administration, and that it is absolutely essential that we should get a man of entirely independent judgment and complete impartiality.

I have said "the town clerk." The same would apply to the county clerk. It may be asked why I have not, first of all, moved an Amendment on an earlier Clause with regard to the county clerk. In the provisions of the present Bill there is an essential difference as between the method of convening a county council and the method of convening a town council. If hon. Members will look at the Third Schedule, they will see that for county councils there is an obligation to give seven days' notice, whereas for town councils there is an obligation to give only 24 hours' notice. This Clause says that the question of the removal of a town clerk may be placed on the agenda of a town council in among many other items, and that only 24 hours for reflection may be given. That is entirely inadequate. If it is proposed to remove a county clerk, then seven days' notice is given for reflection.

Hon. Members on all sides of the Committee will agree that the town clerk is and must be a personality. He has to spur on the backward or slothful provost, he has to hold back the. too thrustful provost, and he has to give good counsel on all matters. One of the things he has to do is to make certain that St. Andrew's House is not going beyond what it is entitled to do. He is the guardian of the interests of the local authorities as against St. Andrew's House. Complete impartiality and complete honesty are required. What has also to be remembered is that the town clerk has to earn his living and that this impartiality is all the more required because there is inevitably a temptation to swing with the majority.

Under some local Acts, I believe, town clerks were appointed for life, provided there was no misbehaviour. There is something to be said for bringing one single code into force for the whole of Scotland, but there is nothing to be said for bringing the wrong code into force. This rule would be entirely wrong. I ask the Committee to reject it, and I ask that for these reasons. First, it is wrong that a town clerk should be removed without due notice. Twenty-four hours is quite insufficient notice for consideration of the matter. Secondly, it is wrong that he should be removed without the matter being treated with the respect which the position of town clerk, as the pivot of local government, requires, and simply to put it down as one item on a long agenda is certainly not giving it that respect. If it is proposed to remove a town clerk it is a matter of major interest to the whole community, and should be treated as such. Lastly, it should be remembered that the town clerk has no appeal, though I believe that the fire officer, for example, has an appeal. The words on the Order Paper reinstate the position as it is at present.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan (Perth and Kinross, Perth)

I must apologise, Major Milner, for not having been in my place when this Amendment was called, and I will briefly support the Amendment moved so clearly by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. N. Macpherson). The town clerk is immensely important to local government, and is, as far as 99 per cent. of town clerks are concerned, of the highest possible calibre. Therefore, I do not think it is right that they should have less than the advantages proposed by the Amendment. It is only fair to them, and it is fair to the high principles of local government.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Westwood)

I will try briefly to explain the position as proposed in the Bill. First, the reason for the longer notice in the case of county councillors is that they may have to come a long way to a meeting and the town councillors in most cases are actually on the doorstep. That is the reason for the longer period of seven days as against the 24 hours' notice so far as the town councillors are concerned. In accordance with the unanimous recommendation of the Jeffrey Committee, on which I had the honour to sit, when we were seeking to draft this Bill, the Bill proposes that the town clerks of all burghs, like the town clerks of police burghs now, and the clerks of other local authorities, should hold office during the pleasure of the council, but it still provides that the clerks shall not be removed from office except by a resolution of the council passed by no less than two-thirds of the members present at a meeting of the council, the notice of which specifies the consideration of the removal from office of the town clerk as an item of business.

The effect of the Amendment, as pointed out by hon. Members opposite, would be to require the removal from office of the town clerk to be considered at a meeting specially called for the purpose by a circular addressed to the members of the council not less than seven nor more than 14 days before the meeting. This requirement, as I have indicated, applies at present to the removal from office of the town clerks of police burghs in accordance with Section 78 of the Town Councils (Scotland) Act, 1900. Under Part II of the Third Schedule to this Bill, the town clerk must give notice of the time and place of a meeting of a town council not less than 24 hours before the meeting by leaving notice at, or sending it by post to, the usual place of residence or the place of business of every member, and it must specify the business proposed to be transacted.

It is quite right that we should see that town clerks have nothing unfair done to them. It is true that they are specialists in a way, but may I submit that they are not entitled to special privileges when we are dealing with this problem? The town clerk must also call a meeting at any time within four days, or 24 hours if required by the provost, or on receiving a request in writing from one quarter of the council specifying the business to be transacted, and in instances of special urgency the provisions made are also subject to certain safeguards requiring the town clerk to call meetings at less than 24 hours' notice. I submit that this code substantially re-enacts the existing law, and I wish the Committee to note that it has not been objected to either by the local authority associations or on behalf of the town clerks.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. N. Macpherson

Will the right hon. Gentleman allow me to say that existing town clerks are already assured of their offices. They cannot be dismissed by this short-term procedure. They are under the old law, but we wish to ensure that this shall also apply to existing town clerks.

Mr. Westwood

The Bill before the Committee is the result, not of weeks, nor months, but of years of work in which a tremendous amount of time has been spent in negotiating with the various bodies to get that codification, simplification, and standardisation,' which I think is necessary when dealing with a Bill of this magnitude, and the whole problem of administration in Scotland, by consolidating Acts, some of which are 100 years old, and it was necessary to get that simplification and clarification. The code substantially re-enacts the existing law, and has not been objected to either by local authority associations or on behalf of town clerks. Under the provisions of the special requirements of the Act of 1900 there must be 7 days' notice of intention, and the change is in the interests of uniformity. There would appear to be no case for making an exception in the normal procedure in respect of one particular type of business, and it would certainly seem to be wrong to do so in a Bill which is designed to produce uniformity of procedure in the interests of the town clerk and other officers who, like him, are protected against dismissal by the requirement of a two-thirds majority. For these reasons, I hope the Committee will reject the Amendment.

Mr. McKie (Galloway)

I am very sorry the Secretary of State for Scotland has taken the line he has taken. I think it is quite unnecessary for him to engender heat as he has done by the way in which he has rejected the Amendment. Our object was simply to safeguard, or make more secure, the position of the town clerks of Scotland in the future. It is perfectly true that this is merely a consolidating Measure. But even though it goes back nearly 60 years since first the local government of Scotland was put on its present almost democratic footing, we can have a consolidating Measure which might be subject to amendment when the Bill is considered in Committee of the whole House. But the right hon. Gentleman comes to this Committee and rejects out of hand, more or less, the proposal admirably expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. N. Macpherson) in regard to the position of town clerks.

10.15 p.m.

The right hon. Gentleman has had very great experience of local government in Scotland, and he well knows the noble service that town clerks have rendered to local government in Scotland. I say nothing about the county clerks, because they would be outwith the scope of the Amendment. The right hon. Gentleman

knows a good deal about them also. Simply on the question of the position of town clerks, I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman, by his demeanour tonight, rejected the proposal put forward. [Interruption.] There is not to be a Coalition. It would not have my consent. Here is merely an Amendment which seeks to safeguard the position of civil servants who have rendered notable service, and how the right hon. Gentleman can consider this as a wrecking Amendment passes my comprehension.

Mr. Westwood

I am sorry if there is any suggestion that I treated this as a wrecking Amendment. I did not do anything of the kind. The fact is that if I am placed in the position of accepting this Amendment, moved after the Bill has gone through all these negotiations, I may be placed in a position of having to accept other Amendments which I seek to resist because it would be a breach of faith with those with whom I have carried on negotiations. I am not treating this as a wrecking Amendment, but I am opposing acceptance because of the fact that this Bill has been negotiated, and I think it would be a breach of faith with those with whom I have negotiated.

Mr. McKie

Naturally, I accept the right hon. Gentleman's explanation, but I must regret the way in which he has expressed it. It seems that by his interpretation of my own quite modest speech he has in fact rather denied the democratic principles of this House. He says that the Bill has been to a Select Committee, that it is a consolidating Measure of 382 Clauses and 14 Schedules, and that, therefore, when it comes to the -House of Commons, and is considered in Committee of the whole House, it would be quite out of Order for him to accept an Amendment which is moved in this democratic assembly. I do not want to do him an injustice, and I hope that that is not the thought which if governing his mind. He has said that he will not accept the Amendment, and I do not suppose that my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries would wish to press it to a Division. I am sure, however, that when the county clerks of Scotland read tomorrow what the right hon. Gentleman has said, as they will—they read HANSARD most carefully; HANSARD has never been more generally read by all classes of people than it is at the present time——

Mr. Carmichael (Glasgow, Bridgeton)

Hear, hear.

Mr. McKie

I am glad to have the agreement of the hon. Member for Bridgeton. When the county clerks read what the right hon. Gentleman has said tonight, particularly the way he distrusts the democratic process of the House in Committee, it will not be favourably received by them. All that my hon. Friend had in mind was to make more secure the position of the town clerks of Scotland, who have rendered great and notable service to their burghs for many years, as the right hon. Gentleman knows full well. If he had seen fit to treat the Amendment rather more graciously than he has done, even though he was not in a position to accept it, they would have been more pleased than they will be when they read his words tomorrow.

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot (Scottish Universities)

This is an entirely non-party Measure, originating with an Administration of one complexion, and considered by a Committee on which Members of all the main parties served, and I think it would be a thousand pities if we fell into a division between the two sides of the Committee. Obviously, it is a matter of great convenience to the whole administration of Scotland that this consolidation Measure should reach the Statute Book. I have every sympathy with the Secretary of State for Scotland in his desire not to admit Amendments, not because of any distrust of the democratic principles of the House, but because the Bill is like the queen bee. It is not lawful for the bees to kill the queen bee, but it is lawful for a series of bruises to take place from which she dies. It would be quite easy, as none knows better than yourself, Major Milner, for a series of discussions to take place as a result of which it would be quite impossible for this Bill to reach the Statute Book before we rise. Therefore, I do not think that any Amendment could possibly be made at this stage without common consent from both sides of the Committee. I think the only thing upon which my hon. Friends on this side of the Committee felt uneasiness was whether in present conditions a notice as short as 24 hours was possible, and that a notice posted the night before might lead to some slip-up in the summoning of the council.

I certainly urge upon my hon. Friends not to insist upon the Amendment and not to divide the Committee on this occasion. If the sense of the Committee as a whole was that some modification—say, a matter of two or three days—should be made to avoid any danger, then I think that might possibly be done. However, I do not think that we should jeopardise the Bill. It is of greater importance that we should get this great codification placed on the Statute Book for the convenience of Scottish administration than that one Amendment or another should be made. As chairman of the Joint Committee at which the decisions were arrived at unanimously, I should like to be seized of opinion held by those who sit, for purposes of geography, on the other side of the Committee though for this purpose we are, so to speak, a Council of State considering a State document to which, as my right hon. Friend has truly said, nearly 10 years of work and thought have gone. This is a point upon which no objection has been raised hitherto even by the guardians of this office themselves, the town clerks. It is a dangerous thing to make Amendments at the last moment in a document which has received so great attention. If the sense of the Committee as a whole were that at least 48 hours notice should be secured, then I would urge my hon Friends to fall in with the general feeling of the Committee. If it came to a clash certainly, I should hope that they would not insist upon their views and risk the loss of the Measure at this stage.

10.30 p.m.

Mr. McLean Watson (Dunfermline Burghs)

Whether or not this Amendment is accepted is, I think, a matter of technical politics. It is almost inconceivable that any town clerk would be removed from his office within 24 hours. A town clerk is not removed from office without some reason, and the reason is usually a matter for discussion, perhaps for months, before a decision is arrived at to dispense with his services. Therefore, it does not matter a great deal whether the words remain in the Bill or whether the Amendment is accepted. As the Bill stands, I think the town clerks will have plenty of notice that the end of their period of service is approaching. That, at any rate, has been my experience of local government in Scotland, and I do not think that it will be changed if we do not accept the Amendment. I was interested in the intervention of the Secretary of State and also in the remarks of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for the Scottish Universities (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot). It is true that this is an agreed Measure. It has been agreed by a Select Committee. On Second Reading, I explained the difficulty which I experienced in discussing anything in the Measure because I understood that not a comma in this Bill could be altered unless it was for the purpose of simplification or clarification.

If this Amendment simplified or clarified a particular part, then it would be in Order, but if it did neither it would be out of Order. I should have thought the matter having been arranged between the two sides, it was most unreasonable and unnecessary that any discussion should take place on any Amendment unless, as I have said, it was for the purpose of clarification or simplification. This Amendment changes the character of the Measure so far as I can see, and it is not in harmony with the Act of 1929. I do not want to take up the time of the Committee because I thought we could not discuss Amendments, but that the joint Committee could make Amendments Surely, when it comes to this Committee, we are not entitled to make Amendments.

Mr. McKinlay (Dumbartonshire)

I want to say a few words because, like my hon. Friend, the Member for Dunfermline Burghs (Mr. Watson), I am surprised to find Amendments on the Order Paper. The right hon. and gallant Member for the Scottish Universities (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot) said this was a Measure to codify the law in Scotland, and I want to make my position clear, because I would have supported the Amendment of my hon. Friend if I had had more time to look at it. Before this Government took office I myself wrote to the Scottish Office and I was informed that one could not amend the existing law.

The Chairman

I am sorry but there cannot be discussion on general matters on this Amendment, which is a specific one. And I must point out that it cannot be suggested the Committee has no power to amend the law. That is not the case, but as has been stated, this is more or less an agreed Measure and one which I hope may be passed without any undue expenditure of time.

Mr. McKinlay

I was trying, Major Milner, to explain my view. The right hon. and gallant Member for the Scottish Universities gave an explanation and, surely, I am right in saying that, in justification to the people who sent us here and to the local authorities, we ought to be told why we are discussing Amendments. All I can say is that the enthusiasm for looking after the interests of Scotland has evaporated. This codification took ten years to draft but it is going to take 15 minutes in the House of Commons to pass it. I only want to make my protest.

Sir John Graham Kerr (Scottish Universities)

I happen to be a member of the original Regional Committee and on that Committee, there were, apart from myself, experts on every kind of Scottish local government. There were persons who had served in local government, there were county clerks and the Town Clerks of Edinburgh and Glasgow, representatives of the Scottish Office, and representatives of the law, and this Committee sat month after month and devoted an immense amount of time considering this Clause. I could not help immensely admiring the manner in which that work was done. The report was eventually drawn up and then as remitted again to the various bodies. As a result of all this, we have this Bill. What I want to do is simply to appeal to the Committee to let this Bill through without Amendment, more especially as there was no idea that it should amend the local government of Scotland, but merely the idea that it should form a platform from which any future revision could be started.

Mr. J. S. C. Reid (Glasgow. Hillhead)

I only want to ask a question, the answer to which will, I think, help the Committee to reach a decision. I do not wish to add anything to the general point of the speech made by my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Scottish Universities (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot). I want to know what, exactly, "24 hours' notice" means in this connection. Does it mean that the notice, if not delivered personally—delivered at the town councillor's place of business, or at his place of residence—must be posted in such time as to allow delivery, in the ordinary course of the post, at least 24 hours before the time of the meeting; or does it mean that the notice must be in the pillar-box 24 hours before the time of the meeting? I hope that it means the former. I hope the Secretary of State, or the Lord Advocate, can give us an answer. If the Clause means that it is sufficient to post the notices 24 hours before the meeting, then clearly in the present lamentable state of the Post Office services there is no certainty at all, even in a small town, and certainly none in a big town, that the letter will be delivered in time for the man to get to the meeting. Very often, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the first delivery does not now reach a person's house before he goes out to business.

Therefore, it is quite essential that a notice should reach the man's house the day before that to which it relates; otherwise he will never see it before he goes out in the morning. I want to know that it is clear in the Bill that if, let us say, a meeting is to be held at noon, these notices must be posted so that in the ordinary course of the post they will reach the houses of the town councillors before noon on the previous day. If that is the law under the Bill, I personally would be inclined to say that, although I would like to have seen something more on the lines my friends have been contending for, I would not like to disturb the unanimity of the Committee, or of previous Committees, on this comparatively small question. But if it turns out on examination that there is no certainty that these notices will ever reach the councillors in time for them to get to the meeting, then I am sure that no one on either side of the Committee would object to an extra day being put on to the time for the posting of the notices. That would make no difference to anyone. I hope, therefore, I shall receive an answer giving the meaning of the 24 hours' notice.

Mr. Westwood

I understand that the 24 hours counts from the date and time that is always stamped on a letter. I do not know whether it is possible between now and the final stages of the Bill to do anything, but I am prepared to do something if that is possible. I do not want to endanger my Bill. I have spent too long a time on it, and the local authorities are so desperately anxious to get it. I will have to be advised as to whether it is possible to make any change. It was the unanimous recommendation of the Committee which has been referred to, and there was no challenge on this point in the Joint Committee which considered the whole matter subsequently. I hope we can now get on.

Mr. Reid

May I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that it might meet the objection to which he refers if we added at the end of Subsection (3) the words: "and of which at least 48 hours' notice has been given."

That would solve the whole question. I cannot ask the right hon. Gentleman to accept a manuscript Amendment now, but I hope that he can do something. I am sure that he realises that if one posts a notice at 11.30 on Tuesday the odds are that a great number of town councillors will not have got it by the first post on Wednesday morning before they go out. There are towns where the first post is not delivered until after they have gone out, and there is no chance of them therefore being able to attend.

Mr. N. Macpherson

I would like to say a word or two on this matter. The Minister has said he was disposed to reconsider the matter not on the case I put forward, but on the skilful blandishments of my right hon. Friend on the Front Bench. I would like to point out to the Committee that, while this is a consolidation Bill, this is actually an Amendment of the existing law and as such this Committee is thoroughly entitled to discuss this matter. I think a good deal of service has been done by the discussion and I am much obliged to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his undertaking to do his best to reconsider the matter.

Mr. Westwood

I do not know whether it is in order, Mr. Chairman, for you to accept as part of the Amendment the words: not less than 48 hours and not more than 14 days before the meeting. I am very anxious to try to get over this difficulty.

Mr. N. Macpherson

I for my part would be very willing to accept that whether it is considered as a manuscript Amendment in my name or that of the Secretary of State.

Mr. Westwood

If the hon. Member would withdraw his Amendment I should be prepared to move to leave out from "council" to the end of the Subsection and insert: specially called for the purpose, by a circular addressed to the members of the council not less than forty-eight hours and not more than fourteen days before the meeting.

Mr. N. Macpherson

In view of what the Secretary of State has just said I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: In page 45, line 45, leave out from "council" to the end of the Subsection and insert: specially called for the purpose, by a circular addressed to the members of the council not less than forty-eight hours and not more than fourteen days before the meeting.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 85 to 106 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

10.45 p.m.