HC Deb 21 April 1948 vol 449 cc1848-63
Mr. Heathcoat Amory (Tiverton)

I beg to move, in page 52, line 9, to leave out "ninth," and to insert "twentieth."

This is a very simple Amendment, the object of which is to give a little more time for the preparations for county council elections. The Subsection provides for a date for county council elections which would make them fall between 9th and 15th April. The date of publication of the Spring register is 15th March, and that means that a month or three weeks would elapse between these two events. Personally, I appreciate the amount of difficult work involved in the preparation of this register, but I understand that some authorities feel that three weeks is too little, more particularly in view of the fact that it so happens that during that period county quarter sessions would fall to take place, and that might impose an additional difficulty in respect of the returning officers. I hope that, if the right hon. Gentleman agrees that this object is reasonable, he will accept this Amendment or propose an alternative which would give effect to the same intention.

Mr. Ede

The fixing of these dates was a matter of very prolonged negotiation between me and all the local authorities' associations—the County Councils' Association, the Association of Municipal Corporations and the Urban and Rural District Councils' Associations—and we had to find a method of fitting in the dates so that the, county council elections and the county district council elections, that is, the non-county boroughs and the urban and rural districts, could take place in the months of April and May. I had hoped that we might be able to have all the elections on one day, but there were very strong objections to that. If we were to move the date of the county council elections, as suggested by the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Amory), it would involve us in having a very short space of time between the county and the district council elections. It was represented to us very strongly by those who are acting returning officers in both these elections that they must have a reasonable time between the two elections.

I would point out that the registers have been published on 15th October for the borough council elections to take place on 1st November. The spring register will be published on 15th March, and the elections will not take place until 9th April, which is eight days more than has been allowed hitherto in the case of borough council elections in the autumn. These dates were adjusted at a conference at which all these associations were represented, and I think it would be a very great pity at this stage to upset an agreement which was reached. I must say that everybody felt that there was bound to be inconvenience, but this was the arrangement reached by all the associations meeting together, and I accepted it, because it seemed to me that they were the most likely to know.

I do not think the quarter sessions point is very serious. After all, the acting returning officer for a county council election is generally the clerk of some county district council—one of the non-county boroughs or an urban or rural district. He is not concerned with quarter sessions unless he happens to have been driving his car in such a way as to bring him before the bench, and he decides to go to quarter sessions instead of being dealt with summarily. He can be getting on with the job while the clerk to the county council, in his capacity as clerk of the peace, is looking after the quarter sessions. I do not think there is anything in that point at all. The people who actually do the work are the people in the constituencies who are also engaged in the task of getting ready for their county district council elections, and they represent to me that the work would be too continuous for them and that they might not be able to carry out their duties if the second election were so close after the first.

The Deputy-Chairman (Mr. Hubert Beaumont)

I think it would be appropriate, and perhaps convenient to the Committee, if we were to discuss with this Amendment, the next two Amendments: In page 52, line g, leave out "ninth," and insert "fifteenth"; in page 52, line 10, leave out "ninth," and insert "fifteenth."

Mr. Frederic Harris (Croydon, North)

I am sorry that the Home Secretary made the point that having the register ready on 15th October for the borough elections on 1st November is a satisfactory arrangement, because I feel that there is a very strong argument indeed, that it is too short a time and that it has always been found completely unsatisfactory in the past. I cannot understand why the associations have agreed to the shorter period, because I should have thought they would have wanted the date brought forward. To suggest that, because the register is published on 15th October, there is adequate time to prepare for the borough elections on 1st November, is, with great respect to the Home Secretary, untrue, because I have found it very unsatisfactory. I think that point should be borne in mind in future, so that as much time as possible can be given to the provision of all the information necessary for fighting the election. The position in the past has been completely unsatisfactory, and it is a pity that this date cannot be carried forward. I hope the Home Secretary will reconsider the matter.

Mr. Grimston

I appreciate the point which the Home Secretary made about the consultations he has had with the various associations, but I think it must be remembered that the point of view which they put up, is entirely governed by the convenience of their own administrative officers, whereas the point of view which this Committee brings to bear on this matter is the interests of the various political parties, or, at any rate, a different political angle on these points. We have another Amendment on the Order Paper which is being discussed with this one, and, as it happens, it effects a compromise between the Bill as it stands and the Amendment which was moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Amory).

May I suggest to the Home Secretary that he should have another look at this, particularly bearing in mind the fact that a Committee of this House does bring a different view to bear on the question from that put forward by those outside interests which he consults? I urge the right hon. Gentleman to reconsider the matter and see whether he cannot accept the compromise between the Amendment which has been moved and what is in the Bill.

Mr. Ede

I am always willing to look at things as frequently as may be necessary, but the difficulty created here is that, if this date were moved, it would involve moving the other dates in relation to the county district council elections. It is not true to say that the people consulted were entirely officers of the local authorities. Some of the associations were, in fact, represented by members of authorities and people who would have to take part as candidates in the elections. The arrangement that we reached between the associations seems to me to represent the maximum convenience to everybody concerned.

As to the point raised by the hon. Member for North Croydon (Mr. F. Harris), we are giving eight extra days beyond those allowed for borough council elections in the past, so that to that extent, it is an improvement. I do not want it to be thought that I regarded the previous time as perfect. I think 16 days is a little short, but 24 days is a quite sufficient time. After all, we are here concerned only with the change in relation to the publication of the register. The rest of the work of the election can be going on. I think that it would be better to leave the date as we have it in the Bill. In view of the plea by the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Grimston), however, I will undertake to look at the matter again, but I must point out—and it would be wrong of me to conceal it from the Committee—that if I make any alteration, it would involve altering the dates of all the other elections as well.

Mr. Harris

I thank the Home Secretary for his offer to reconsider the matter find I invite him to remember the representations which have been made to him. Personally, I still think that 24 days is a very short time for all this work to be completed. I think this matter has been considered wily from the point of view of the administrative bodies and not from the point of view of those participating in the elections, and I claim to have had some experience in fighting elections in the last two or three years. This is a very important matter, and I hope that, even if it does involve moving the other dates forward, the Home Secretary will be prepared to consider it. We want to fight these elections on an up-to-date register, with all information available at the time. It makes it very difficult if we have not sufficient time in which to get everything ready. I think this applies to all parties and associations involved in any election whatsoever. I trust that the Home Secretary will reconsider the matter from the point of view of the people involved in the elections.

Mr. C. Williams

I would like to ask the Home Secretary one question. He referred to the other elections in May. Would it have been easier to explain that position if an Amendment in the name of one of his hon. Friends—to leave out Subsections (2) and (3) and insert new Subsections—had been dealt with? If the acceptance of this Amendment would mean altering all the dates, it requires very careful consideration. Obviously these dates have been the subject of negotiation, but I do agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Croydon (Mr. F. Harris) that it is not so much the officials' convenience which we consider as the possibility of getting the largest possible number of people to the polls. That is a common object among all of us, and I am sure that the Home Secretary will not object to my emphasising that that is the most important point of view of all.

5.30 p.m.

Mr. Amory

I was very glad to hear from the right hon. Gentleman that the authorities concerned had been consulted and that a kind of compromise agreement had been reached. I know it is impossible to give satisfaction to all the authorities on those occasions, but I believe that from the point of view of administrative convenience, a number of these authorities are far from happy about this matter. Therefore, I am very glad the Home Secretary is going to look into that point and see whether he can either telescope these elections—

Mr. Ede indicated dissent.

Mr. Amory

Apparently the right hon. Gentleman cannot do that. If he cannot, then perhaps he can push them a little further on. In view of the assurance that he will look into the question, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Younger

I beg to move in page 52, line 27, to leave out "in," and to insert "for."

This Clause provides that the day of election for borough councillors shall be fixed in each year by the Secretary of State. It is thought that as the wording stands it might be taken to require that the day should be fixed in the calendar year, whereas it may well be desirable that it should be fixed towards the end of the previous calendar year for the coming spring. The new form of words, leaving out "in" and inserting "for," will, I think, achieve that purpose.

Mr. Butcher

I would like to express my gratitude to the Under-Secretary of State for going some way to meet the case for a definite fixed period. I think it would have been advantageous if the time had been clearly stated. Nevertheless, I would like to thank the hon. Gentleman.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Butcher

I beg to move, in page 52 line 28, at the end, to insert: not later than the end of the preceding November. There is little need for me to argue this point after the observations which I made just now. I think the Home Secretary will realise that for all concerned there is a considerable advantage in knowing at what time the Home Secretary will fix the date. I do not doubt that the right hon. Gentleman will say that the Home Office has always given good notice in regard to Summer time and that they will continue their commendable practices in regard to this Autumn. On the other hand, many local authorities publish diaries of engagements of their prominent officials, such as the mayor, and they are usually prepared a long time in advance. If the right hon. Gentleman will accept my proposal I feel sure that he will be assisting and co-operating with many people who have to plan their future, and I hope he will see his way clear to do so.

Mr. Ede

I do not think it would be wise to tie the Secretary of State in this way. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has just moved an Amendment which makes it clear that it is contemplated that this decision shall be reached in the later months of the year before the election takes place. I should not have thought that it would make much difference whether it is November or December. There might, perhaps, on occasion be advantages in postponing the date if it was thought it might conflict with some election which might be in contemplation. I have no hesitation in saying that we shall try to give the notice in the calendar year before the year in which the election takes place.

Mr. Butcher

In view of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Grimston

I beg to move in page 52, line 32, to leave out from "consultation," to "with," in line 33.

Subsection (5) obliges the county councils to consult the rural district councils in fixing the date for the district elections, but not for the parish elections. In many parts of the country it has been customary for rural council elections to be held on the same day as the parish elections. The position here is that the county council only has to consult the rural councils upon the one lot of elections. Some such situation as this may arise: the county council will fix the date of the parish elections, which it can do without consultation with the rural councils, and will then say to the rural councils, "We have fixed these parish council dates; what dates do you suggest for your rural council elections?"

They will either have to accept the date which has been fixed, without consultation, in accordance with custom, or if they want to select another date they will have to break that convenient custom which has been running for many years. It seems proper that the county councils should consult the rural district councils on the dates for both elections. I do not understand why these words, which provide that such consultation should not take place, are left in. I raise the point to obtain an explanation from the Home Secretary.

Mr. Ede

It is the custom in this country, although it is not a requirement of the law, that rural council elections and parish council elections in the same county are held on the same day. I am informed that it is not statutory, but I think the custom has been so universally followed that most administrators by now imagine there must be some statutory effect behind it. I do not think the rural councils should be consulted about the date of parish council elections. The usual custom hitherto has been that rural councils have been consulted about the date on which their elections are to be held, and the county council has then said "Very well, on that day the parish council elections will also be held." I am sure the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Grimston) will agree that that arrangement has worked very well hitherto.

I can see no reason for departing from that arrangement, because I do not think anyone would suggest that a parish council election is as important from the point of view of its arrangement and the effect it has on the life of the community as the rural council election. It is very desirable that we should retain the position that both these elections are held on the one day. If the parish councils and the rural councils suggested different days there might be difficulties. I do not think there has been any difficulty in the past, and I think we might very well leave the custom where it is.

Mr. Grimston

I find it a little difficult to follow the Home Secretary's argument. Does he say that the present position is as is laid down in this Subsection?

Mr. Ede

So I am assured.

Mr. Grimston

I suppose it is one of those anomalies in our Constitution which works. For that reason, perhaps, it should be accorded some support. This Amendment is designed to cause to happen the very thing which is wanted—namely, that these elections should take place on the same day. As the Subsection is drafted, there seems to be a distinct danger that they may not. However, I do not want to force the point. If this provision has worked in practice with the desired result, let the anomaly remain, and I will not press the matter further, but if the Home Secretary is not quite certain that this is how the law stands, it might be worth while to have another look at it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Pargiter (Spelthorne)

I beg to move, in page 52, line 36, at the end, to insert: (a) (i) The term of office of councillors in England and Wales shall be four years and one-half of the whole number of councillors being those who have been for the longest time without re-election shall retire every second year. (ii) The term of office of alderman shall be eight years, of whom one-half as nearly as may be shall retire every fourth year. (b) The Secretary of State shall make regulations for the purpose of carrying into effect the foregoing provisions of this Section and in particular such regulations shall provide for the retirement of one-half of the councillors for each county in the year nineteen hundred and fifty-one and for the retirement of one-half of the councillors for every county borough, borough, urban district, rural district or parish in the year nineteen hundred and fifty and for requiring the council for every local government area to submit before the fifteenth day of December, nineteen hundred and forty-eight, in the case of a council of a county, county borough or other borough to the Secretary of State and in the case of every other council to the council of the appropriate county a scheme for constituting the number of councillors to be elected for each division, ward, parish or other area at two or a multiple thereof. The regulations so made by the Secretary of State shall not take effect until approved by resolution of both Houses of Parliament. This Amendment is designed to effect a fairly considerable change in the question of the election of members to local authorities. It is designed also to meet cases which will arise in view of the other changes which are proposed in this Bill. I do not think I need deal with the second part of the Amendment. It merely provides that the Home Secretary may have the power to make regulations which would give effect to the principle.

The present position is that county councillors are elected for a period of three years, with all the members retiring at the end of that period. Borough councillors are elected for a period of three years, with one of the members retiring annually; that is a statutory provision. Urban district councils have a combination of the two. Either they may have members retiring every year or they may be elected for the full period. I am not quite sure what the position is with regard to rural councils, but in any case there is a considerable variation in the arrangements regarding local elections, and I would have thought that it would be desirable to introduce some uniformity.

Another purpose of this Amendment is to deal with the problem of the lack of interest in local government elections. I am of the opinion that there would be a greater interest in local elections if they were held rather less frequently. Democracy would be well served if, for local purposes, elections were held every other year and the period of election was four years, half the councillors retiring every other year. Such an arrangement, I think, would ensure a greater degree of interest in elections which would be to the general benefit of local government as a whole.

The other point with which I am very much concerned is that while there has always been a difficulty in the third year on the election of county councils, just preceding the election of urban district councillors, the position will now become very much worse, because borough councils are to be brought into line. The gap will therefore not only affect urban districts but the period in between will also have a bad effect generally on the elections either of county councillors or of borough councillors, in view of the difficulty of this very short gap that remains in between. I am of the opinion also that in the transfer of functions as between authorities it is highly important that the public should have a clear conception of the differences between the two types of local authorities, and should also be able to deal with them separately rather than have them tangled and mixed up.

5.45 p.m.

The object would be for county council elections to be in one year and all the other elections in the other year. There would, therefore, be local elections in one year, but one would be clear-cut for county council purposes, and the other would be clear-cut for district council purposes. This might commend itself to the Home Secretary as a means of increasing interest, and of improving democracy rather than interfering with its operation. I inserted the provisions dealing with the terms of office of aldermen only because it follows logically on the period of four years. I am not unduly worried about that. Although I have been an alderman on a borough council, and am an alderman on a county council, I should not be at all worried if county or borough aldermen were washed out, and persons elected in the ordinary way at the appropriate time. I know that may be somewhat heretical, but it is a view which I hold, although rather against myself. I do not need to discuss the Amendment at great length. I hope that the reasons I have given will commend themselves to the Home Secretary. I appreciate that this would involve a number of consequential Amendments, which I have not put down, preferring to leave them in the hands of the Home Secretary.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I hope that the Home Secretary will not accept this Amendment. The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Pargiter) put forward a very interesting point of view and argued it with great force and clarity; but his argument finally came down to the fact that he was suggesting a longer tenure of office for councillors. To urge that one needs some stronger arguments than those adduced by the hon. Member. After all, however much it is sought to disguise it, lengthening the tenure of office of any elected official reduces the control which the electors have over him, and there seems to me no case at the moment for reducing the countrol of local government electors over councillors.

As I understood it, the argument of the hon. Member was that in so doing the interest in local government would be increased. I agree that it is important to increase that interest, but I think the hon. Member is a little out of date. In point of fact, interest in local government elections, as I believe statistics prove, has been steadily increasing in the last few years. Therefore, while the hon. Member's argument might have had a certain validity 10 or 15 years ago, it is much less strong today. Under our present system and with the present tenure of office of local councillors, interest has increased, as is shown by the percentage of electors going to the poll, so there is much less need than there was to stimulate that interest.

Finally, there is the consideration, whether the hon. Member likes it or not, that local government elections are being conducted more and more on party lines in most parts of the country. If that be so, surely it is more important that local authorities should remain very closely related to prevailing political and public opinion in their localities. The effect of accepting this Amendment would be to increase the period during which local authorities would carry on, although the majority of local political opinion was against them. That seems to me to be undesirable, because so far from increasing the interest of constituents in the conduct of local affairs it would, if anything, tend to diminish their interest. Though this Amendment certainly puts forward an ingenious point of view I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not accept it.

Mr. Ede

This Amendment, as I understand it, is aimed at bringing about something like uniformity in the method of electing local government bodies in this country. I should have thought it would have been more appropriate to a Local Government Bill than to a Representation of the People Bill, because the necessary Amendments to the law that would be involved if the Committee adopted this Amendment would have to be made in the Local Government Act, 1933, and not in any previous Representation of the People Act, although that is not an insuperable difficulty.

I suggest that this attempt to emulate the American Constitution is not a thing that we should carry out in this country. The variety we have is a very interesting example of the way in which we fit our administrative machine to the requirements of particular cases. County councillors and metropolitan borough councillors are elected for three years. When non-county borough councillors in the country are elected, there is an annual election, and each councillor so elected sits for three years, one-third of the council retiring annually. Urban and rural councillors are elected for a term of three years; but it is at the discretion of county councils whether elections take place on one date triennially, or whether there is an annual retirement of one-third of the councillors. That seems to me to be a machine so flexible that it can be adapted to the particular needs of particular areas.

I can see no advantage in having retirement by halves in areas where retirement now is by thirds. The advantage of the retirement by thirds is that any change in the composition of the council generally comes fairly gradually, and in administrative affairs there is reasonable continuity of administration. The retirement by halves would involve more drastic changes, and if people want more drastic changes they should have the courage to go to the county council and ask that the urban council shall be submitted to election en bloc every three years. As far as I know, there is no demand in the country among administrators—and by that I mean, not the officials, but the councillors—or among the electors for a change of this kind. I am bound to say that, until I saw this Amendment on the Order Paper I had never heard the suggestion canvassed before. I suggest that this is not the appropriate Bill in which to do it, and that there is no demand for it. I think that the Committee would be well advised not to accept it.

Mr. C. Williams

I was sincerely glad that the Home Secretary resisted the very able speech of his hon. Friend, who undoubtedly put forward a strong case on behalf of a very weak Amendment. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) said, this Amendment would lengthen the period of office. At the present time there is an immense growth of interest in local elections—a growth which is being stimulated in a perfectly ordinary political way. It would not be right to try to stimulate that interest by lengthening the period between elections.

I consider that lengthening the period between elections would set a very dangerous precedent in a Parliament of this character—or, indeed, at any other time. There is always a great temptation for any legislature to lengthen the term of their mandate; and, with the Leader of the House sitting on the Government Front Bench, I was glad to hear the Home Secretary take up the attitude that he did. We have now been given an excellent precedent for not lengthening any term of office. I see the Leader of the House smiles; but I noticed the sympathy with which his face glowed when the Amendment was moved. That was why I was worried whether or not the Home Secretary would stand up to him. An interesting situation might arise on this Amendment, which was obviously put down sincerely, having a certain amount of support on the Government side, albeit not very vocal. Are we to have a Division on this? Shall we see some hon. and right hon. Members opposite supporting it and others opposing it? Shall we have the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department getting up and saying that this is an excellent idea? We may. I hope we shall, because it would add enormously to the interest of local authorities to think that they had started such a discussion in this Committee.

Obviously, one of the ideas at the back of this Amendment is to put off local authority elections as long as possible. That might affect—I do not say it does—elections of one of the worst governed bodies in the world, and we do not want that put off. I shall not enlarge upon that. I only use as an illustration how accepting this Amendment might effect a postponement of the election of one of the worst governed bodies in this country—the London County Council.

Mr. Pargiter

I am sorry, but I could hardly follow the logic of the argument put forward by the Home Secretary. He extolled the principle that there should be an annual election, and said that it was a very good thing; but when it comes to county councils, who will exercise very wide and important functions, he is silent on the question of bringing that before the electors to a greater extent than before. My Amendment would at least have the merit of giving electors an opportunity to express their views on the conduct of county councils a little earlier than at present. If there is any logic in having an annual election, it ought to apply in spite of so-called flexibility; if the principle is good an opportunity ought to be given to county councils as well as to borough and urban district councils. Also, the position of urban district councils is quite illogical, because adjoining urban district councils have varying periods between which elections take place. Therefore, the question of flexibility does not appear to be of importance.

The hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) said that whether we like it or not national politics are infringing on local affairs. I know from recent experience that that is very true, and I think it is a deplorable tendency. While I have no objection to politics and policies being concerned in local government affairs, I want to ensure that the policy of electing members to local authorities should be on the basis of the members and the electorate being concerned with the problems with which they are faced locally, and not being encouraged to deal with local affairs on national issues, to the exclusion of local considerations. I could not follow the rather devious argument of the hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams), who suggested that in this Amendment there was a motive on which the Home Secretary might seize in order to lengthen the life of Parliament. That was quite fantastic, and I am sorry that any hon. Member should try to read such a thing into this Amendment which, as far as I am concerned, is designed solely to improve local government, and to encourage local government issues to be put more clearly before the electors so that they might exercise discretion in voting.

The Home Secretary says that this Amendment raises very important issues of local government which would involve considerable alterations in other Acts. It may well be that if I pressed the Amendment, it would be resisted. I am glad the question has been aired, and I hope that Members will give it some consideration, but in view of the difficulties, I do not propose to divide the Committee. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Mr. C. Williams rose

The Deputy-Chairman

Is it the pleasure of the Committee that the Amendment he withdrawn?

Hon. Members


6.0 p.m.

Mr. Williams

I only wish to intervene, because the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Pargiter) went out of his way to attack me. I have the same right to my opinion as he has to his. There is a considerable difference between us about the time of the election, but I think the hon. Gentleman might have done me the honour of accepting the point I was trying to put. After all, it is an honour which we all try to accord to each other when we are trying to thresh out our difficulties. The hon. Gentleman said something about local authorities and local elections. I, too, dislike the idea of local elections being fought on party lines, but I would point out that that has been forced upon us by hon. Members opposite—

Mr. Pargiter

I did not say anything about local elections being fought on party lines; I said it was objectionable if national issues were introduced into local affairs.

Mr. Williams

That interruption covers what I mean. What I thought the hon. Gentleman said was—

The Deputy-Chairman

I have already given the hon. Member undue latitude. I would remind him that we are discussing the period during which elections should be fought.

Mr. Williams

I accept your Ruling, Mr. Beaumont, although there is an answer which could be given to the hon. Gentleman, and which would be very unfortunate from the point of view of the Government.

Amendment negatived.

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