HC Deb 21 April 1948 vol 449 cc1875-9

6.45 p.m.

Mr. Mitchison (Kettering)

I beg to move, in page 53, line 40, at the end, to insert: (2) The council of a county or county district may contribute towards the expenses of an ordinary election of parish councillors. This is a small point but one of considerable importance in rural areas. The Clause abolishes the parish meeting, and, if there are more nominees than there are vacancies, makes an election the only way of obtaining parish representation. The difficulty is that a parish meeting, though unsatisfactory in many ways, was at any rate cheap, but a parish poll and election in the way stipulated in this Clause will put a very heavy burden on parishes which have a good deal to do already and only limited powers of precept.

It does not meet the case that rural district council elections and parish council elections are often held together, because I believe that under the rules for the purpose the cost of such elections, when held together, is halved between the two bodies. So far as I can ascertain, unless power is given to county councils or county district councils to do this, they cannot at present contribute towards the costs of a parish council election. I suggest that, small though parishes are, they are very numerous, they are important organs of effective democracy in the countryside, and their importance is becoming increasingly recognised by their being given gradually more and more to do. Therefore, while one welcomes the principle of this Clause cordially, one would not wish it to be frustrated by the financial difficulty which would otherwise arise.

What is to happen if the parish cannot afford a parish election? There will be pressure on candidates to withdraw, and there will be difficulties in making effective the small scale democracy which this Clause has in mind. I hope the Home Secretary will be able to consider it a matter appropriate to this Bill, for this reason: that if the change is made without some provision of this sort at the same time, it may become immediately difficult to carry out. It is, therefore, not a matter that can be properly put off on this occasion.

Lastly, the Amendment is entirely facultative, there is no obligation on either the county council or the county district council to contribute. That is a matter which should obviously be decided locally, as also which of them shall contribute. I should have thought the county council was the more obvious body, because the effect of their contribution will be to put some of the expenses of parish council elections on to a wider body of electors than would be available to a rural district council, and it really is fair that the urban areas, which have other advantages, should make some small contribution in this way to democracy in the countryside. On the other hand, it may be felt that the county district council, if it shares its elections with the parish council, might be the better body for the purpose. This Amendment leaves it entirely open.

Mr. Asterley Jones (Hitchin)

I hope the Home Secretary will view this Amendment sympathetically. At the same time I do not think that my hon. and learned Friend is quite right in saying that the Bill will adversely affect the very small parishes. As I understand it, they will continue as they are today, without having parish councils at all. On the other hand, there are parishes with perhaps 200 or 300 inhabitants which will find the expense of a parish council election a great strain on their rates. In many cases a penny rate in a parish does not produce more than a couple of pounds or so. I hope the Home Secretary will provide for this amelioration for hard-pressed parishes.

Mr. Ede

No new problem is presented here, because in any parish in which a poll may be taken in future there was always the liability for a poll being taken in the past. What has happened hitherto has been that in parishes which are sufficient in population to have had a parish council there has been a preliminary election at the parish meeting. If a sufficient number of people were not satisfied with the result of the show of hands, a poll had to be held. Therefore, there is really no new problem presented by the alteration in the law. In the past the poll of the parish for a parish council election has been paid for by the parish in accordance with the principle that has been established in this country, that the local government unit in respect of which the poll is taken pays all the expenses connected with the poll. I cannot see that the alteration in the law, by which in future there will be no show of hands election at the parish meeting, alters the case in any respect.

Nor do I think it is fair that one should call on the urban districts and boroughs within the county to pay, if the county council decides, the cost of conducting the parish council elections. Would the parish welcome the idea that in the two years out of the three in which there are no parish elections, they should be called upon to pay for the urban and borough elections which are being held in the county in those two years? They have no expenses themselves for elections, and if they expected the urban districts to come to their aid in the one year out of three in which there is an election, it seems to me that reciprocity might be expected.

Let us face this: whereas boroughs and urban districts—all boroughs in the country outside London and most urban and rural districts in the country—have an election every year, the parish election takes place only once in every three years, and therefore any cost that may be incurred in the year in which there is an election should be spread over the two years in which there is no election. I have been pressed hard to make the concession whereby the vote at the parish meeting should be abolished. I had no hesitation, on a full consideration of the case, in thinking that the time had come when that should be abolished, but at no time was it suggested to me in the course of those representations that, if I did this, it would be necessary to provide financial assistance to the rural parishes in order to carry out their parish council elections, and I know of no case in the past where it has been represented as a grievance that they have had to bear this expense.

Mr. Attewell (Harborough)

I am sorry the Home Secretary is unable to accede to what appears to me to be a reasonable request, but there is one point that I would like him to make clear. If I understood him correctly, he said that all that had happened was that the Bill abolished the show of hands, meaning that polls that would normally take place under the old regime will be no more frequent under this Measure. I do not think that is so. As one who has stood for a parish council and has been voted upon at a parish council, it is within my recollection that a majority vote was actually taken within that parish council meeting, and the majority vote was accepted. It was only if it was challenged that one went to the expense of a poll. Now that no show of hands is to take place, there must be a poll on every occasion, unless there are no more nominees than places to be filled. There is bound to be an election where previously that was not so, because the show of hands determined it.

To ask the county council to bear the expense is not too great. The method of precept which is within the powers of the county council enables those within the parish council to have, not the luxury, but the necessity of a poll. Today, with more people in the countryside taking an active part in politics and in the government of their own locality than in past years, it must be expected that more polling will take place, and it appears reasonable to ask the county councils to bear at least a part of this burden which will otherwise fall on the inhabitants and the parish council.

Mr. Mitchison

May I ask the Home Secretary to consider this matter again? This is not an unauthorised request, as he seems to consider. It is made with the full approval of the National Association of Parish Councils which his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House instituted recently. They feel strongly on this matter. I do not want to repeat the point which has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Attewell) and, having put myself in the hands of the Home Secretary, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.