HC Deb 30 March 1950 vol 473 cc634-54

King's Recommendation signified.

7.0 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Douglas Jay)

I beg to move, That the several Amendments to Standing Orders relating to Private Business hereinafter stated in the Schedule be made:


Standing Order 156A, line 5, leave out from "that," to "Exchequer," in line 8, and insert "any provision of the Bill—

  1. (a) constituting a new county borough or in Scotland a large burgh;
  2. (b) altering the boundaries of the area of a local authority; or
  3. (c) authorising expenditure by a local authority,
would or might operate to increase the sums payable by way of. Standing Order 156B, line 2, leave out from "authorising," to "have," in line 6, and insert "expenditure by a local authority which would or might operate to increase the sums payable by way of Exchequer Equalisation Grant under Part I or Part II of the Local Government Act, 1948, and the Standing Orders and practice of this House relating to provisions authorising charges upon the Public Revenue. Standing Order 169, line 11, leave out from "it," to end of line 15, and insert "contains any such provision as is mentioned in Standing Order 156A (Modification of practice as to charges on Public Revenue) Standing Order 191, line 10, leave out paragraph (c), and insert— (c) the sums payable by way of Exchequer Equalisation Grant under Part I or Part II of the Local Government Act, 1948. Standing Order 228A, line 16, leave out from "Act," to end of line 20.

I think that the House will want a short explanation of the Amendments which we are proposing. The need for these Amendments arises directly from the dissolution of the Local Government Boundary Commission and indirectly from the Local Government Act, 1948. The House will remember that the Act made the Exchequer equalisation grant dependent upon local authority expenditure. That, in turn, meant that an increase in a local authority's expenditure involved an increase in the Exchequer grant. Therefore, any rise in the local authority's expenditure meant an increase in public expenditure, and so a charge on the Exchequer. For that reason, from that time onwards it required a Financial Resolution where any Bill made an alteration in local authority expenditure. That meant that Private Bills having that effect would have required a Financial Resolution. That, of course, would have been highly inconvenient from the point of view of Parliamentary procedure and the House, therefore, decided in November, 1948, that the Standing Orders should be so amended as to make a Financial Resolution unnecessary in the case of a Private Bill authorising expenditure by a local authority.

In order, however, to preserve the principle, and indeed the substance, of Parliament's control over the resulting charge on public funds, it was at the same time provided in Standing Order 156B that a protective Clause should be inserted in any such Private Bill on the Committee stage which would lay down that the local authority expenditure in question should not be taken into account in deciding the Exchequer grant, unless the responsible Minister recommended on the Committee stage of the Bill that it should be so taken into account. That alteration was also applied to Scotttish Provisional Orders, with the addition that a Financial Resolution was also to be dispensed with in the case of Bills to confirm Provisional Orders which altered the local authority boundaries. That, was applied at the time to Scotland but not to England and Wales, because at that time the Local Government Boundary Commission was the machinery by which alterations in local authority boundaries in England and Wales were made, and it was not, therefore, necessary to apply this change to England and Wales.

What we are now in fact doing is to apply to England and Wales the procedure which was applied to Scotland in 1948, and we are doing that because the Local Government Boundary Commission has now, of course, ceased its operations. What this Motion actually does is to widen Standing Order 156A so as to include in its scope Private Bills either constituting new county boroughs or altering local authority boundaries. Standing Order 156B is left substantially unaltered. That is because the protective Clause is not necessary for Bills altering local authority boundaries. Such Bills are bound to involve some change in local authority expenditure, and, therefore, on the Committee stage of Private Bills of that kind, the Minister would be bound, if he approved the boundary extension, to recommend that such change in expenditure should be taken into account in deciding the Exchequer grant. The Amendments to Standing Orders 169, 191 and 228A are consequential on the changes in the other two Orders.

7.6 p.m.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd (Mid-Bedfordshire)

The point at issue is not as simple as the hon. Gentleman has suggested in his calm and reassuring speech. The House should know quite definitely what it is doing. It is doing something that matters in Parliamentary procedure. It is of the utmost importance that we should realise what we are doing. It may be right to do it, but it is certainly not right to do it without realising what is being done.

Stage by stage, the control of Parliament over public expenditure is being whittled away. The hon. Gentleman said that these proposed Amendments to Standing Orders arise because of the dissolution of the Boundary Commission. We did not dissolve the Boundary Commission. The Government dissolved the Boundary Commission, and one act of the present Government leads to another, with the result that Parliamentary control of finance is gradually losing its power and authority.

I think that if any hon. Member were asked in this House, and particularly if any new hon. Member were asked, wherein lies the initiative in financial proposals or legislation, he would say that the initiative lies in the Crown. He would point to the fact that the Opposition cannot initiate taxation, that no private Member can propose new taxes, and he would add that no local authority either can propose new taxes on the people. Only the Crown, he would say, can initiate taxation. But this is no longer true, and a further step in this progress is happening tonight. As long as the House realises it and decides by a majority, if it comes to that, to agree to it, then we can have no quarrel with the decision, although we may doubt its wisdom. But the great danger about all these changes in Standing Orders is that the majority of people know very little of what is happening.

Under the new system of Exchequer equalisation grants introduced by the Local Government Act, 1948, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the amount of Exchequer grant payable to any authority now depends on the amount of money that that local authority spends. The result is that now, and since 1948, any Private Bill promoted by a local authority authorising increased expenditure now imposes, or may impose, a charge on the public revenue. It has been for centuries the practice and the procedure of this House that any Bill imposing a charge upon the public revenue, whether it is a Public or Private Bill, should carry with it a Financial Resolution.

After the Local Government Act, 1948, there was, we recognise, a modification of the procedure, but only in one particular. It was agreed that the Financial Resolution could be dispensed with if a Committee of the House that was dealing with the particular Private Bill, inserted into the Bill a protective Clause providing that expenditure by a local authority which might or which would increase the amount of Exchequer grant could not be taken into account when calculating the amount of the Exchequer grant unless the Minister responsible for the Department concerned recommended that this protective Clause should be omitted. We agreed to this but I think that many hon. Members on this side of the House in 1948 were not altogether happy about it. We agreed to it because we recognised that new difficulties had arisen through the new procedure in regard to Exchequer equalisation grants. Tonight we are asked to go a great deal further, and to apply this new machinery to a number of other possibilities which are enumerated in this Schedule.

The hon. Gentleman has just said that the principle—and he added, indeed, the substance—of the control of the Crown has been preserved. I doubt whether even the principle has been preserved; most certainly the substance has not been. I think that the House ought to realise one or two facts. At the time that we agreed to this new procedure two years ago it was difficult to see how any Private Bill could authorise expenditure on such a scale as considerably to affect payments under the Exchequer equalisation grants. Again, under that proposed change, if we thought that the Minister had wrongly or irresponsibly given a certificate or recommended the omission of the protective Clause, we were able to attack the Minister personally.

Then again, as the hon. Gentleman knows, at the time that we agreed to this new procedure we did not apply these provisions for boundary extensions, as he indeed said, to England and Wales, because there was a Boundary Commission, and the House knew that if the Boundary Commission recommended certain changes in local authority boundaries, even if they did involve the taxpayers who did not live in those towns in expenditure and taxation, the proposed changes were done on the authority of a Boundary Commission in which the average Member would naturally have complete trust. But now the situation is quite different.

Perhaps I might, in passing, remind the House that on 8th November, 1948, when the first changes were being proposed, the then Financial Secretary—whose friends on both sides of the House will be glad to notice has lately been given a responsible and honourable office in his own party—said: As the House will remember, in England and Wales any future changes of that kind will be made on the recommendation of the Local Government Boundary Commission."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th November, 1948; Vol. 457; c. 1280.] That was one of the reasons which guided my hon. Friends to give approval to the proposed changes. But now we have an entirely new situation. No one can deny that the Boundary Commission has now been dissolved, and in future we are not going to ask the taxpayers to bear extra expenditure in particular local districts because the Boundary Commission thinks it right. But we are asking them to do it because a particular local authority thinks it right; and that is a very different matter indeed.

Another objection is this. It seems to us that the criticism that we were previously empowered to level against the Minister for his issue of a certificate is now diminished. It may possibly be true—and I was interested to hear the hon. Gentleman say so—that in so far as boundary extensions must lead to financial consequences, the Minister, at some point in the Committee stage of the Bill, is bound to show his approval or otherwise; but by that time the Parliamentary machinery has got well under way, and it is obviously much more difficult for hon. Members who feel strongly about this principle in general to be able to deal with it when, in particular, the Bill under discussion has gone a long way towards reaching the Statute Book. It does seem to us to be quite possible that some machinery could be introduced whereby the approval of the Crown, whether in the form of a Financial Resolution or in some other way, must be presented to Parliament before these Bills can start on their Parliamentary progress.

We have no wish whatever to diminish the authority of local authorities or to add to their many difficulties today. Indeed, it is our desire to see local government restored to a healthy state, and local authorities given the responsibilities that their organisation and their ability deserve. We are most anxious that the ever-growing power of Whitehall over local authorities should be diminished. None the less, we cannot forget that it is this House which is responsible for financial legislation; and we should not forget that hitherto the initiative in financial legislation has lain with the Crown. It is perfectly true that the House could, if it liked, insert Amendments in these Bills in their various stages, but hitherto the practice has been, not that the House of Commons or a local authority demands money, but that the Crown demands money and the House of Commons votes it. There appears to be no good reason at this moment why that procedure could not be maintained, even though it has to be maintained in a different form.

I ask the Government tonight whether they would not be prepared to take these proposals away again and think them over once more. I think that we are all out to achieve the same object. We have no wish whatever to add to the difficulties of local authorities, but we believe it to be possible to devise some machinery whereby the approval of the Crown at the beginning of these proposed Bills should be presented to Parliament. For example, could not the Minister table a note of his intentions to give approval when the Bill comes up for Second Reading; or could not the Committee report to the House that the protective Clause has been omitted on the Minister's own favourable report? This would really preserve not only the principle but the substance of the Parliamentary convention that initiative does lie with the Crown in all matters of finance.

Let me, in conclusion, make one reference to the remarks of the Minister of Health when the first stage of this new practice was introduced into the House two years ago. At a time when our whole economy is being threatened by reckless expenditure, mostly at the centre but not always, I think that we ought to remember these words. He said: As things were in the past, local authorities could not themselves initiate expenditure"— he was, of course, referring to expenditure involving a charge on the public purse— but now, if the Minister of Health says he does not mind"— if he does not mind, with all the possibilities that that casual phrase suggests— then whatever additional powers they want would attract money from the general revenues, so that local authorities need not worry at all."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th November, 1948; Vol. 457, c. 1285.] Now local authorities have a lot to worry about that they need not worry about, or should not have to worry about, but the consequences of incurring expenditure which will attract to themselves money from the general revenue should most certainly worry them, and I do not regard proposals introduced by words of that kind as justifying an unchallenged introduction in the House of Commons. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will, after consultation with his colleagues, agree to think again, to see whether by talks between the parties we cannot arrive at an agreed solution of what is, admittedly, a new and difficult situation.

7.20 p.m.

Sir Patrick Spens (Kensington, South)

I wish to add a few words to the very able speech we have just heard, because it was that speech and not the speech of the Financial Secretary which told the House what is being done. By way of introduction, I want to say that, coming back into the House after eight years' absence, the one thing that has shocked me more than anything else has been the loss of control by this House over public expenditure by the alterations which have been made during those intervening years. I understand that my hon. Friends assented on more than one occasion to these alterations, and therefore I am one of those who can blame them as well as those on the Government benches for what has been done in enabling the taxpayers' money to be spent without proper authority from this House.

I noticed with great regret that when we were discussing the Supplementary Estimates on 14th March, my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Gains-borough (Captain Crookshank) raised the point that the alteration in procedure had very seriously weakened the control of the House over Supplementary Estimates. Every time the control of the House over the expenditure of public money is weakened, the control of the Treasury is also weakened over the Departments. The only thing that compels strict control over public money is that Ministers should know they have to come to the House for specific permission, not general permission, when they want to spend public money.

This is not, in this case, a tremendous further licence for the spending of public money—it only goes to the Exchequer equalisation grants—but it does go to this extent, that if under provision (c) of the proposed alterations, local authorities decide to embark on further money, they automatically attract additional grants of the taxpayers' money. That must be wrong. It must be wrong that a local authority should be able to compel public money to be provided. It simply shows that the wartime feeling that it is possible to produce money for any purpose, has been introduced into the years of peace, and that the old-time authority of this House over grants and the Executive is being weakened bit by bit by the proposals of the Government. I am not prepared to let this pass without a word of condemnation. The suggestion that has been made, that there should be discussions on how to keep some sort of control over this increased local Government expenditure, should be adopted. There should be consultations to see whether it cannot be done in a better way than the proposal now being put forward.

7.24 p.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Wolverhampton, South-West)

I find myself in the uncongenial position of suggesting to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) and to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens) that they might perhaps modify their attitude of opposition to this Amendment to the Standing Orders. I do so, not because I do not share to the full their tenderness regarding the true functions of the Crown and this House in relation to the expenditure of public money, but because I believe they have misconceived the effect of the proposals, and also because the result, if these proposals are not accepted, will, I am sure, be displeasing to them and to hon. Members in general on this side of the House.

The essential point is that no extra expenditure of public money and no new imposition of taxation is involved in the boundary alterations of which the consequences are regularised by these proposals. I will give a simple illustration to show what is happening. Suppose that there are two local government areas side by side, which I will call A and B. Suppose that local government area A does not qualify for an equalisation grant and that area B does so qualify. Suppose that a square mile is to be transferred by a boundary alteration from area A to area B. The automatic consequence is that the extra expenditure now borne by area B instead of area A becomes grounds for an increase in the equalisation grant payable.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

What my hon. Friend is saying is directly contrary to what we have been told by the Financial Secretary. He said that any such change would impose a charge. Therefore, the Minister would have to declare his approval during the Committee stage. One or other must be right, but both cannot be.

Mr. Powell

I have no wish to interfere with the reply which the Financial Secretary will eventually make. The point is that no alterations in the services provided in the transferred area will take place. It is merely that the transfer from one area to another results in a change in the equalisation grant. No new expenditure is being incurred. I feel, therefore, that nervousness in allowing control over the financial consequences of the boundary changes to pass from the House is misplaced. I entirely share the feeling, which I think is a general feeling on these benches, that the operation of the equalisation grant procedure is too indiscriminate, but that is a matter of principle embodied in the 1948 Act, and so long as that Act remains on the Statute book, it is unreasonable to object to the purely automatic consequences of the machinery.

Having attempted to show why I think the grounds of objection on a constitutional basis are mistaken, may I suggest that if the House were to reject these proposals the consequences would be undesirable? On 2nd November last year, it will be within the recollection of those who were in the House at that time that the Opposition divided, rather less successfully than on a subsequent occasion, against the Second Reading of the Bill to abolish the Local Government Boundary Commission. When we divided on that issue we did so on a reasoned Amendment, of which the following were the terms: That this House declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which suspends the making of minor and urgent adjustments by a simple and inexpensive machinery originally set up by Parliament for the purpose. During the course of the Debate, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northants, South (Mr. Manningham-Buller) emphasised that there were a tremendous number of alterations to boundaries that urgently required to be made, and my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Kelvingrove (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot) took the view that if these alterations were held up, there would eventually be a much more serious disturbance of the structure of local government than if the minor alterations were allowed to take place. Unfortunately, owing to the mistaken action of His Majesty's Government, these alterations have now got to take place under Private Bill procedure. We ought to beware of any step which would prove an additional hindrance to that procedure in effecting minor boundary alterations; and it is because this Motion, while harmless from a constitutional point of view, is designed to facilitate these alterations, that I hope my hon. Friends will not oppose it.

7.30 p.m.

Mr. Hargreaves (Carlisle)

I hesitate to intervene in this Debate, but I should like to point out to the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) that it is impossible to reconcile the two points which he put forward, namely, that, on the one hand, local authorities are having powers and duties taken from them which are advantageous and important, and, on the other, that the local authorities are being hampered by the central authority in their demands for expansion of their work. The hon. Gentleman went on to say that he did not mind additional taxation falling upon the country by reason of the actions of the Boundary Commission, but he strongly objected to such additional taxation falling upon the nation because local authorities made some recommendations.

I am not complaining, but some hon. Gentlemen opposite have been very vociferous recently in their attempts to make the country believe that all the powers and duties of local authorities are being taken from them by this Government. What the Motion attempts to do is to make it easier for local authorities to render services to the people in their districts. The Motion deals with Bills constituting a new county borough, altering the boundaries of the area of the local authority or authorising expenditure by a local authority. Is there not sufficient protection for the House in regard to such Bills without a Money Resolution, because the Committee giving consideration to such a Bill may make such alterations as are considered desirable?

The point I want to make is that, at every stage, this House has control of the expenditure of local authorities. Let us take into consideration the possibility of a local authority going forward with a small expansion scheme and promoting a Bill of this kind. Even if this power is given to them to cover their expenditure such as borrowing money in order to purchase land, putting out tenders for sewering that land, or asking for tenders for buildings that may be erected on that land, at every stage they must refer to the central authority. First they must ask for the powers to borrow, for authority to seek tenders and so on, and yet it is suggested that this power—[Interruption.] I do not know what the mutterings coming from the hon. Gentleman opposite are all about, but I wish that someone would feed him.

The House is fully protected at every stage, and while I agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire that there may be cases where such expansion may have the effect of altering the equalisation grant, it is not invariably the case. It may not always alter that grant, but may make it necessary for the central Government to provide more money for the local authority. Because some indication was given to the local authorities at the time the work of the Boundary Commission was rendered null and void that this procedure would be available to them for vital, necessary and urgent expansion. I believe it would be betraying the local authorities to abolish it now, unless we make it easier for them to approach this House in the circumstances which I have described. Therefore, I hope that the House will agree to the Motion.

7.37 p.m.

Sir John Mellor (Sutton Coldfield)

I listened with the greatest interest to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell), but it seems to me that his main contention was that a change of boundaries could not possibly increase the charge on the Exchequer. If that were so, there would be no sense in this proposed amendment to the Standing Orders. The Financial Secretary said that it would be highly inconvenient to have a Financial Resolution, which would have to be passed for corporation Bills. I know that the promotion of a Bill by a local authority is an expensive and troublesome matter, but I cannot see how the requirement of a Financial Resolution would cause to the local authority either trouble or expense. A Financial Resolution would have to be produced by the Treasury, and it would lie with the Financial Secretary on behalf of the Government to give to this House an explanation of what it was all about and what were the possibilities of increased charges upon the Exchequer. That is the kind of thing in which hon. Members should be interested.

It is vitally important that we in this House should keep control of finance and that initiation of expenditure should be in the hands of the Government. It is also important that we should preserve Treasury control, and I am surprised at the Financial Secretary to the Treasury being so anxious to deprive the Treasury of that control. I cannot see how the requirement of a Financial Resolution for the purpose of these corporation Bills, involving the changing of boundaries, can possibly do any harm or result in in-creased trouble or expense. It is a perfectly simple thing for the Financial Secretary to come here and tell us all about it, and we are always glad to listen to him. I trust that the suggestion made from our Front Bench will be accepted by the Government and that this very important matter will be reconsidered, so that we may be able to reach an arrangement convenient to all concerned involving no serious trouble and at the same time one which will preserve both Treasury and Parliamentary control.

7.40 p.m.

Sir Herbert Williams (Croydon, East)

I am sorry to have to refer to the fact that the Leader of the House, during a discussion earlier today, objected to what he described as sausage-machine legislation which he thought that I was suggesting. That is precisely what he is suggesting in the Motion which stands in his name. I listened to the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Hargreaves), who said that he did not want to obstruct local authorities. I do not want to obstruct local authorities. I think that they have lost too many local governing powers. The rest of his speech had no relation to the subject-matter of the proposed Amendment to Standing Orders that we are now considering.

I am not certain whether the hon. Member is or is not an old Member of the House, because I am not yet familiar with all the faces. I would remind him that after a Bill has been through Committee and before we get to the Report stage, we often find the Minister in charge of the Bill moving that it be recommitted to a Committee of the whole House. For what purpose? Because certain Amendments which it is desired to move are so designed that they cannot be moved when Mr. Speaker is in the Chair, because they may impose a charge.

We take infinite trouble not to impose a charge unless the Motion arises in a Committee of Ways and Means. We must not lightly abandon these things. Every now and again we take constituents round the building and we show them the paintings, some of which illustrate the vital importance of our financial safeguards. They show our resistance to monarchs, or private Members keeping Mr. Speaker in the Chair in order to carry through iniquitous things that your predecessor, Mr. Speaker, had no power to prevent. All the safeguards are important, and we should not let them go lightly.

Suppose a municipality is proposing a Bill which would or might increase the sum payable. In all such cases, the Bills have to go upstairs before our colleagues who are sitting in a judicial capacity who have a mass of information and who are assisted by learned counsel. Nothing which imposes a charge of any kind can come before us unless it has a Financial Resolution associated with it. We know that in nine cases out of ten the Financial Resolution goes through without a word of debate, because Ministers are careful to draw Financial Resolutions in terms which are narrow and are only sufficient for the purpose. Why should a local authority have greater freedom than His Majesty's Government when proposing legislation, or than any private Member? If I had power to introduce a Bill, which now I have not got, and that Bill might conceivably impose a charge, I could not make any progress with it unless I could induce a Minister of the Crown to table a Financial Resolution to cover it. All proposals to originate taxation must originate with a Minister of the Crown, and that, in a sense, means the Crown itself.

Why should any local authority object to a limitation of its powers in this respect? If a Bill is sensible and reasonable, and if the Minister, who has the duty of looking through it, is satisfied that it does not impose a new or improper charge, he may be able to persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer to table a Financial Resolution to cover it. That is all we are asking. I believe that there are 19 Bills which might be affected by the Amendment of this Standing Order. If any of them involve charges which are so substantial that the Minister may have difficulty in framing a Financial Resolution, then the mere terms of that Financial Resolution, if he can frame it, will bring the matter to our attention and we shall know what we are doing.

I strongly reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) that the Government should reconsider this question. It is not a party matter. It should be regarded as preserving for the benefit of all political parties who might hold office in this House, effective control over the financial machinery. If we look at other countries where control is lax, we shall see that all sorts of things happen which could not possibly happen here. I again ask the Minister who is in charge of this matter whether he will not again think over the matter. There is no particular hurry. A lot of the Bills have been blocked for entirely different reasons. [An HON. MEMBER: "Hear, hear."] I am not referring to the Bills which I blocked and which contained proposals which I thought were undesirable. I have not blocked the extension Bills. I have taken no part in that. It would not matter if they were held up for a few weeks while the Government applied their mind to the question again to see whether they could get something better than they have put before us tonight.

Take this Standing Order Amendment: Standing Order 156B, line 2, leave out from 'authorising' to 'have' in line 6, and insert: 'Expenditure by a local authority which would or might operate to increase the sums payable by way of Exchequer Equalisation Grant …' That wording completely answers the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell). If it does not increase the charge, no Financial Resolution; if it does increase it, we ought to know about it, because it is money for which we are responsible. It is not money for which the ratepayers as such are responsible, and that is why we should retain control. It is money which we, by our votes, have to provide. Those who provide the money should call the tune. The Government are proposing that we are not to have the power to control the raising of the money because we cannot control the spending of it; but the responsibility will be thrown upon us.

If a Motion before this House is not raising any charge, the point about control does not arise. It only arises if the charge is being raised. That is where the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, missed the point—a very rare occasion. [Laughter.] I do not know what the cachinnation is about. I hope that those who are in charge of this Measure will respond to the appeal which has been made, not in any party sense, by many hon. Members in this House that the matter should be reconsidered before we lose control of an important financial restriction on the expenditure of local authorities which, in turn, may fall upon us.

7.48 p.m.

Lieut.-Commander Gurney Braithwaite (Bristol, North-West)

I was glad to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) bring the House back to the constitutional aspect of this matter. This is a House of Commons matter rather than one of party controversy. It is natural that hon. Members sitting on the same benches should hold different points of view and I say in all deference to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell)—who has just joined us much to our satisfaction—that had he been in the last Parliament, he would have approached this matter in the same attitude of suspicion and alertness as I do and as I hope all hon. Members do.

This is a matter for the private Member. I submit to hon. Members, on whatever benches they sit, that it is good for private Members to be particularly alert when any change of any sort is suggested in Standing Orders, even when that change has been agreed and negotiated through the usual, or indeed the unusual, channels. Hon. Gentlemen who sit on those benches should always remember that the Treasury Bench is peopled by Ministers, and the Opposition Front Bench by ex-Ministers who, overnight, may become once again Members of the Government. The history of the last 50 years, and certainly the history of the time of any hon. Member now in the House, is of steady encroachment by the Executive over the private Member. That has been Parliamentary history throughout the 20th century. We have witnessed, not only from one type of Government but from them all, small, piecemeal amendments to Standing Orders all of which have had the effect of removing from the private Member his authority to assist in governing the country.

On this occasion, it is a Government proposal. I want to remind right hon. Gentlemen opposite that they really must rid themselves of the mentality which saw them through the last Parliament. I would remind them, and also my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, who, I thought, was much too apt to swallow this proposal, that a Select Committee consisting of hon. Members of all parties which was set up to revise Standing Orders in the last Parliament, brought forward agreed proposals and was steam-rollered by the Lord President of the Council, who amended Standing Orders to suit himself and to suit the operations of the Government in the last House. That is a matter of history. They were alterations very much for the worse. For instance, the abolition of the Report stage of the Budget Resolutions deprived private Members of an important opportunity for criticising financial matters.

We have now before us such another proposal, but the Leader of the House and his right hon. and hon. Friends really must realise that this period of tyranny is over and that proper parliamentary government has been brought out of the cold storage in which it was placed for the past four and a half years. If hon. Gentlemen did not realise it before, they should realise it after the happenings of last night. They can no longer ride roughshod over democratic government and try to stop parliamentary institutions from working. That day is over.

So, without going into the merits of this Standing Order—[Interruption.] There is a far greater issue than that, and even the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Hargreaves) will realise it when he thinks it over. The issue is not so much what will happen to local authorities but what is to happen to the House of Commons and to private Members of the House of Commons. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) made a very reasonable proposal that the matter should be looked at again. At this stage that is a request to His Majesty's Government. Behind that request, of course, lie other measures and methods by which the views of the Opposition can be assisted to prevail. It would be a pity if the House were to sit too long into the watches of the night on this Order, or on others on the Order Paper. I am sure that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, a sagacious Minister who is shortly to embark on a long pilgrimage through the various stages of the Finance Bill, will realise the importance of being on good terms with the Opposition thus early and will realise that the Closure and the Guillotine are things of the past now in their effective operation.

Proper co-operation between the two sides of the House can work marvels. Therefore let the Government not attempt any dictatorial tactics tonight because 29th March may become 30th March—history has a habit of repeating itself—and we do not want to see the Prime Minister in a white sheet every afternoon after Questions. What a pity that would be. Back benchers on both sides of the House should assert their rights in this matter. They should say to the Government, and any Government which may succeed next week or in a fortnight's time, in the most emphatic language that when it comes to the encroachment of the Executive private Members must resist it. Standing Orders should not be altered except by agreement, certainly between the two Front Benches and, of course, if possible, with the agreement of hon. Members in all parts of the House. That is our task and our duty as private Members, and I therefore hope that the Minister will leap to his feet and grant the reasonable request of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire so that the House may pass to other business.

7.55 p.m.

Sir Harold Webbe (Cities of London and Westminster)

I wish to join in the appeal to the Financial Secretary to reconsider this, not perhaps for the same rather emphatic reasons as those advanced by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite). It seems to me, particularly judging from the speech of the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Hargreaves), that there is a danger of a misunderstanding of one very important point of principle involved in the proposal. I yield to no one in my desire to see the powers of local authorities not only maintained but restored to what they were in past years, but it is not correct to suggest that our objection to what is being done now is in any way inconsistent with that point of view.

The effect of the alteration to Standing Orders which is proposed is not merely to leave local authority powers where they are, but to confer on local authorities a power which, so far as I know, they have never before possessed, the power to promote legislation which will automatically involve a charge on public funds without any Financial Resolution or other restriction placed upon it by this House.

I am afraid that I cannot agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) in the example which he gave. His example of the effect of the transfer of part of an area from area A to area B will only be correct if the two areas are alike in character. The common extension of boundaries is the extension of an urban area into a rural area, and such an extension may very well involve, and almost certainly will involve, the provision of extra services, which in turn will automatically attract a grant from the Equalisation Fund. Because the passage of a Bill of the kind contemplated can, and in most cases will, have the effect of attracting grants outside the control of Parliament, I believe that we are conferring upon local authorities a power which they have never before enjoyed and which I believe they never should enjoy.

7.58 p.m.

Mr. Jay

Perhaps the House would wish me briefly to reply. I entirely share the desire of the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) to retain the strictest possible Parliamentary and Treasury control, but I think—here I agree with the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell)—that he and the hon. and gallant Member for Bristol. North-West (Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite), in his non-party speech, were seeing things a little out of perspective.

I will give one or two reasons for supposing that. In the first place, what we are discussing tonight is not the exemption of local authority Private Bills from a Financial Resolution in any case where they increase the local authority's expenditure. We are merely discussing the very much narrower point of Bills which alter local authorities' boundaries. The larger question has already been decided by this House in 1948, and I believe it was so decided without opposition and without debate. Therefore, presumably the Tory Party as represented in this House did not feel very strongly about the point at that time. In addition, as I have pointed out, precisely the same provision as we are proposing to apply for England and Wales today has since 1948 applied to Scotland. Indeed, it was in a sense accidental—because the Boundary Commission was in existence in 1948 and is not in existence now—that what is proposed now was not introduced two years ago.

Secondly, there is not so much substance in the argument of the hon. Gentleman because, although we are not merely discussing changes which are inevitably small, it will, of course, normally be the case that, since the increase in one local authority area must inevitably involve a decrease in another local authority area, whereas the expenditure by and the grant to one may be increased, there will be an offsetting reduction in the expenditure by, and the grant to, the other.

Sir H. Williams

Not necessarily.

Mr. Jay

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that is not necessarily so, but—

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

But would not the hon. Gentleman agree that that is not what he said 20 minutes ago? Then, in commending these proposals, he said there was no need for the Minister to express a view before Second Reading since he could not fail to express one during the Committee stage, as further national expenditure would be involved. He is now adopting the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, which is contrary to the argument he used first.

Mr. Jay

No, it is not contrary; it is perfectly consistent to say that the expenditure of the one local authority may be increased and that the Minister will feel bound to approve that increase, and to say at the same time that the expenditure of the other local authority, whose boundary is also affected, may decrease. It may not necessarily happen but it may happen, and it is consistent to say both things at the same time.

Thirdly, the major point which hon. Members opposite appear to have missed is that it is quite untrue to say that the change in local authority expenditure automatically, without any Parliamentary control or opportunity for Parliamentary intervention, involves a charge on public funds. These Private Bills will at a later stage after the Committee stage, come before the whole House and there is the ordinary opportunity for Parliament at that stage to amend or, if Parliament wishes, to reject them. Therefore, Parliamentary control is retained, and not merely Parliamentary control but what the hon. Gentleman called the initiative of the Crown in proposing expenditure. If the Minister does not wish the Bill to go through, and on the assumption that the Government command a majority in the House of Commons—which will no doubt normally be the case—there is the ordinary opportunity for Parliamentary control at that point.

Sir H. Williams

Can the hon. Gentleman give any case he has known where a Government has opposed in the Lobby any Private Bills in the last 25 years?

Mr. Jay

I am saying that there is every opportunity to do so if it wishes. Nevertheless, as I share the aims of the hon. Gentleman in this matter—to preserve the principle of Parliamentary control—I shall be glad to consider the practical suggestion he put forward in so far as it is not inconsistent with the terms of this Motion. I cannot go further than that, and I must ask the House to pass this Motion both because there are a number of Bills urgently needing attention which should go forward, and also because the case for this change has been made out this evening by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

In the light of that assurance, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, we do not propose to carry this to a Division.

Question put and agreed to.