HC Deb 03 April 1950 vol 473 cc932-41

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."—[The Chairman of Ways and Means.]

7.1 p.m.

Sir Herbert Williams (Croydon, East)

I rather gather that the Bill is not to occupy as much time as one would have liked and that there is a possibility of some accommodation. Nevertheless, I think the House ought to know what are the points in the Bill that some of us do not like. Hon. Members who are not connected with the Metropolis may not quite understand the procedure in connection with London County Council Private Bill legislation. The London County Council is a body which acts not only for itself but on behalf of the 28 borough councils in the London area. It is therefore not merely petitioning on its own behalf but it may be petitioning for one or more of the local government authorities in the London area. That is what distinguishes a London County Council Bill from a Bill by any other local authority. It is in a class apart.

I think it is the case that every year a General Powers Bill is presented by the London County Council. The present Bill is not quite so long as some of its predecessors, but there are certain Clauses in it about which there should be some explanation before the Bill goes to a Committee—if it gets to a Committee. Clause 12 deals with enclosures in connection with entertainments in open spaces and the use of the parks for certain purposes. Most people have sympathy when it comes to open spaces, whether it is in the interests of those who just want to go and sit or stroll in the parks or those who want to play games. When I read the Clause I thought it was some part of the obsession of the Lord President of the Council with regard to the Festival of Britain. However, I may be wrong in that respect. Clause 12 proposes to increase the area which the London County Council can set apart for playing certain specific games rather than the general use of the park by the public.

Clause 13 seems to me ambiguous, do not understand it. It has some thing to do with footpaths in parks. Whenever I meet something like this which I do not understand my instinct is to oppose it. That is a very sound doctrine. It forces the Minister to explain what it is all about. My experience has been that many Ministers do not understand what their Bills are about, and it is therefore a very healthy exercise for them to debate their own Bills.

There is a whole series of Clauses in this Bill relating to a Westminster City Council undertaking. I happen to live in the City of Westminster and the Westminster City Council have obtained powers for a district heating scheme. On Wednesday we shall be discussing that subject in connection with the Bill the rejection of which I am moving. That Debate will raise the issue in a more satisfactory form. The Westminster City Council obtained certain powers two years ago in connection with some flats, along the Embankment I think, very nearly on the other side of the river from the Battersea Power Station. I understand that there are certain technical difficulties about it and that unless they can get powers they cannot proceed. We should have some explanation why, when they got their original Act, they did not make it, in the words that are used in connection with the Royal Assent, a "good and perfect Act of Parliament." I believe that those words only refer to the fact that every court of justice has to regard the Measure as such.

In Clause 30 there is a strange thing, which I do not understand, I cannot read this Bill. The side notice to the Clause says: Cesser of payments in respect of chimney fires, etc. It is a strange Clause. It refers to Section 60 of the London County Council (General Powers) Act, 1934, which relates to payments in cases of fires in chimneys or ducts, and it says that that Section is hereby to be repealed. Then it goes on to say in subsection (2): The Council shall be deemed always to have had power either generally or in such cases as they thought fit to remit the payments which they were entitled to demand or recover under the said Section 60. I take it that they have had some trouble and that they are trying to validate that trouble by legislation after the event. There may be some restrospective significance. I observe that some members of the London County Council, who are more numerous here at the moment than they are at County Hall, are shaking their heads. If the Clause has not some retrospective effect why should those words be put in?

Clause 31 is in respect of the service of summonses. I am a little surprised at it. I should have thought that the service of summonses was a matter for general legislation and was not very appropriate to a Private Bill like this.

I come to another very strange Clause, 35, which appears to me to amend the Representation of the People Act, 1948. I should have thought that was a very solemn and respectable kind of Act which was essentially the province of the House of Commons in its general capacity and which was passed under the inspiration of the Lord President of the Council and the Home Secretary. The Act ought not to call for Amendment by the London County Council. I should have thought that the Lord President of the Council would have been sufficiently careful that when he was not here his supporters would know which is North Battersea and which is South Battersea. The object of Clause 35 is to make it quite clear what is North Battersea and what is South Battersea. Again that suggests the Festival of Britain, but I hope not.

I come on to a rather meaty Clause, 36, which is designed to authorise all the London Boroughs to run commercial laundries. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I have not the slightest doubt that the Labour Party would be glad to have some convenient, municipalised institution in which to wash their dirty linen. That I can quite understand, but possibly that is not the purpose of the Clause. They need to use the rates of London. I am a ratepayer and I think I pay rather too much in rates. Hon. Gentlemen opposite want to run municipal laundries which will engage in competition with private individuals. Suppose they suffer losses? Borough councils nearly always suffer losses.

Nearly every municipal undertaking is a flop, even when it has a complete monopoly. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Oh, yes it is. We set up a municipalised London transport organisation in London and it ran from 1934 until the other day. It was passed by a rather piebald Government and was part of the inheritance brought along by Mr. Ramsay MacDonald and Mr. J. R. Thomas when they came out of the Labour Government and entered the National Government. I opposed the Bill at every stage. The result is that Londoners have paid more for their fares than anybody else in the country. That was a semi-nationalised, semimunicipalised undertaking. I do not respect these undertakings. These laundries will not be a monopoly. They will be in competition with private laundries, and they will be bound to lose money. The ratepayers of London will have to make up the loss. Clause 36 is thoroughly bad.

For all these various reasons the Bill ought to have the most careful scrutiny before it gets a Second Reading. I think that the hon. Member who was returned for one of the salubrious parts of Clapham is now going to explain what the Bill does.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton (Brixton)

What does the hon. Member mean by "salubrious"? Does that imply a reflection upon Kennington?

Sir H. Williams

Obviously I referred to Clapham, which will be even better when they have got the dump off the common. The hon. Member may want to make a few observations which will simplify our proceedings tonight, and therefore I will not occupy any more of the time of the House.

7.10 p.m.

Mr. Gibson (Clapham)

I can assure the hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) that although I have moved from Kennington to Clapham I am quite as happy in Clapham as I was in Kennington, and I do not regard one as being better or more salubrious than the other. They both have horrible slums, among other things. The hon. Member for Croydon, East, will not expect me to go into any detail in dealing with all the Clauses which he has mentioned. I will say, however, that Clause 12 seeks to enable better use to be made of our parks for the entertainment of the people of London, and I should not have thought that that would have any strong opposition.

The Clause relating to properties in Westminster is concerned with a district heating scheme. Westminster and other boroughs in London are very anxious to see a large-scale experiment carried out. I know from my own experience that Westminster has done its very best to meet the objections which were originally made against pipes being carried through the property mentioned in the Clause. With regard to chimney fires under Clause 30, the hon. Member will be glad to know that if he has a fire in future and the fire brigade put it out for him, they will not charge him.

On the whole, I regard the Bill as a good one. As the hon. Member for Croydon, East, said, it contains some matters which the London County Council have found in the course of their day to day experience to be necessary for the more effective carrying out of their functions and duties, and most people will not object to that. It is also true that some of the borough councils have asked for certain additional powers so that they may more effectively carry out their task of efficiently governing London and providing what I hope will be better conditions generally for the ratepayers of London.

A similar Bill to this comes up every year, as the hon. Member for Croydon, East, said. I believe that to be a good thing because it permits the fullest possible ventilation and discussion of different points of view. Even though we may disagree, it is worth while having such matters discussed. I understand that one or two petitions have been entered against the Bill and I am advised that there should be no difficulty in meeting, during the Committee stage, the points which the various petitioners have raised. I give an assurance on behalf of the London County Council that everything possible, consistent with the carrying out of the objects of the Bill, will be done to meet the petitioners.

I now come to Clause 36, which I admit has stirred up most criticism and opposition. I think it is a good Clause. I must express a personal view on this. It is a logical development of the powers which local authorities all over the country have been given under the Public Health Acts and the Housing Act of last year. Incidentally, the Manchester Corporation already have the kind of powers for which the London borough councils are asking. That does not necessarily mean that the London boroughs ought to have those powers, but it is evidence that the House has considered the matter in the past and granted such powers to Manchester.

I cannot help wondering why people who believe in competition so strongly should object to a little more competition of this kind, but they do, and as the sponsors of the Bill are very anxious to get the rest of the Bill through and would not want to endanger its progress by insisting on Clause 36, they will be prepared to withdraw that Clause in Committee. I ought to add that they retain the right to introduce the Clause either in this form or in an amended form in any future Bill which they may introduce. However, to facilitate public business and to meet the objections, which some of us find rather difficult to understand, they will withdraw the Clause. I hope that with that undertaking the House will give the Bill a Second Reading and allow all the other matters, which I believe to be capable of adjustment, to be dealt with in Committee.

7.17 p.m.

Mr. Mellish (Bermondsey)

I cannot let this occasion pass without saying on behalf of many Metropolitan Boroughs that there is very great regret that it has been decided to sacrifice Clause 36 to meet those who have petitioned against it. I know that it is not the personal wish of my hon. Friend the Member for Kennington—

Mr. Gibson

Salubrious Clapham.

Mr. Mellish

I beg his pardon—the Member for Clapham (Mr. Gibson) to sacrifice the Clause. My own borough regards it as a tragedy. We believe that we were ready and equipped to do a good job of work for our people. I should have thought that the people in the laundry business as a commercial undertaking would have welcomed competition because they would have had an opportunity to prove conclusively that they could do the job better than the local authorities. I should have thought that provision could have been made that the service should be self-supporting and not maintained by the rates.

My constituency, Bermondsey, has had a laundry service for 100 years. It was instituted by the Conservative Party of that day. I have looked at the records and I find that the mayor of Bermondsey was a Conservative, and in introducing the scheme he talked about the great need for the laundry service and prayed that the people would use it. Today we are still restricted from doing what we believe to be the fundamental duty of an authority in this matter, that is, collecting and delivering. I do not know what experience the hon. Member for Croydon. East (Sir H. Williams) has had. He speaks about Bills which he cannot read and cannot understand and says that if he cannot understand them, he always votes against them. It seems to me that much depends upon the intelligence of the person reading the Bill.

There are hundreds of people in Bermondsey who cannot afford to send their laundry to commercial laundries. We have gone into the figures very carefully, and we estimate that 75 per cent. of the people of my borough cannot afford to send their laundry to commercial laundries. Last year, by means of perambulators and so on, 62,000 people pushed their laundry through the streets of Bermondsey to our own public laundry—by law we are not allowed to collect or deliver the laundry—and we put that laundry through our machines and they waited and carried it home. The hon. Member for Croydon, East, approves of that. He says we are now entering into competition. I will give him some figures about competition and economic prices which he ought to have known before he made that argument.

The cost today for the completed laundry of a family of five is estimated by my council to be about £1 a week. In Bermondsey that represents one-sixth of the average income. The average price of the commercial firms for "bagwash," as we term it—the "posh" name is "hydrocleaning"—is 2s. 3 ½. for 17 lbs. My council are doing hydro-cleaning at 1s. 9d. for 28 lbs. Consequently we say that we should be allowed to collect and deliver this laundry in our own vans, but we are denied the right to do that because of petitions. Petitions by whom? People who already have a monopoly of it: people who will not allow councils like my own to go into competition. I say in this House that it is despicable and deplorable that we are denied this right.

7.20 p.m.

Mr. Poole (Birmingham, Perry Bar)

I apologise for intervening in a London County Council matter, and I do so not because I am concerned with the merits or demerits of this Bill, but because it represents legislative procedure at its worst. I deplore it when I find petitions against Private Bills. I thought there was a tender interest on the benches opposite for the rights of local authorities. I have heard speech after speech about the attitude of this Government, which hon. Members opposite say is taking away the powers of the local authorities. Here is an instance of the largest local authority in the country putting into a Bill the things which it feels it ought to have power to do, and this is the place in which the legislation of this land ought to be determined. But, of course, under this procedure it is not being determined in this House, because someone who has a vested interest in opposing a certain piece of legislation, petitions against the Bill.

I object to the House of Commons having no right in this matter. In view of the arrangement reached between the sponsors of the Bill and the petitioners, this question has been removed from the ambit of this House, and therefore we cannot now determine whether this is a good bill or a bad Bill. That is bad practice. It is a shocking business. I am sorry that the London County Council have acquiesced in this—[An HON. MEMBER: "They had to do it."]—but I realise that they had to do this or they would not get the Bill. It is either having 75 per cent. of what they want or nothing at all.

Mr. Shurmer (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

A condition of sale.

Mr. Poole

It is blackmail, and I hope that soon this House will review its procedure in connection with Private Bills. I hope that we shall have an opportunity of deciding these issues here in this House; not at the back of the Chair or in some room in the precincts of Westminster where petitioners and sponsors of the Bills are brought together and some common bargaining is done as to whether Clause I shall stand or Clause 2. It is bad legislation, it is bad for the country, and I am sorry that in this House the London County Council have had to give way.

7.23 p.m.

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, West)

I am sorry that I missed the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Clapham (Mr. Gibson) in which he stated the case of the London County Council. I understand that the National Joint Council of Chiropodists are disturbed about the contents of Clause 32. Perhaps my hon. Friend will explain to me whether paragraph (a)— requiring persons carrying on establishments for massage or special treatment to make scales of the fees … and to put them on display will apply to all kinds of different professions. Will the dentists, for instance, come under the heading of special treatment? Since I know that a petition has been lodged, I will leave it there, hoping that those responsible for the Bill will give due consideration to the case of the chiropodists, who do not want to feel that they are losing professional status in this regard.

7.24 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

I support what has been said by my hon. Friends the Members for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) and Perry Bar (Mr. Poole). I also much regret that those who represent the London County Council in this House have felt it necessary as a result of the petitions presented, to withdraw Clause 36 in Committee. I realise that on this occasion it is too late for any of us in this House to do anything about it, but I hope that the L.C.C. will pursue their attempt to obtain powers for the Metropolitan Boroughs of London to provide these laundry facilities. I hope they will include a Clause to this effect in their General Powers Bill next year, and so give this House an opportunity of dealing with it on its merits.

Furthermore, I hope that we may find some other opportunity in this House. Earlier today we had a discussion about Private Members' time. This is precisely the kind of thing which, if the opportunity were available for Private Members' Bills, might usefully be a subject for testing opinion in the House.

Mr. C. S. Taylor (Eastbourne)

The hon. Member supported the Government.

Mr. Fletcher

I supported the Government on the hon. Member's Amendment but I have no doubt that, if this subject were left to a free vote of the House, and if the L.C.C. were not placed in the situation of having to surrender this Clause to make sure of carrying the whole Bill, it would ensure local authorities being given these powers. There is a wide demand not only among the people of Bermondsey, but in my own borough of Islington and other London boroughs that local authorities should have power to provide these laundry facilities. These are precisely the powers which a municipal authority should have. Nowadays a great many powers of one kind or another are being taken away from local authorities, but this is precisely the kind of function which they are well equipped to carry out, and could carry out, to the great advantage of their citizens. I hope, therefore, that the L.C.C. will pursue their attempt to give the Metropolitan Boroughs these powers.

7.27 p.m.

Sir H. Williams

With the permission of the House, Mr. Speaker, may I say that I am glad to accept the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Clapham (Mr. Gibson). As to the references to petitions, I was totally unaware that this point was mentioned in the Debate. I was not aware that any petition had been presented against this Bill. The decision of my hon. Friends and myself to oppose it was taken before the General Election when I was not a Member of Parliament. I have had no communication with any body other than communications with Members of Parliament and the correspondence I had with the agents acting on behalf of the L.C.C. So all the reference to petitions has no reference to the actions taken by my hon. Friends and myself in this House.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed.