HC Deb 11 November 1955 vol 545 cc2188-94

Order for Second Reading read.

2.7 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The main purpose of the Bill is to secure that rural district and parish council elections are held together throughout the country. This is in the interest both of convenience and economy. Before 1933, parish councils were elected by show of hands. A poll could be demanded afterwards, but the show of hands was the first necessity. Under the Local Government Act, 1933, county councils were empowered to order that elections should be held by nomination and, of course, a poll in case of necessity, but that was not a mandatory provision. It was not until the Representation of the People Act, 1948, that nomination and poll became necessary under Section 60 of that Act.

Since 1948, parish council elections have been held throughout the country on three occasions. Experience has shown that the cost of these elections is high in relation to the rateable value of the parishes. The National Association of Parish Councils has said that the cost often exceeds a 3d. rate and sometimes it equals an 8d. rate or even more.

Discussions have taken place between the associations concerned, in which, of course, the Home Office has taken a part. A number of useful suggestions have been made as a result of those discussions, some of which do not require legislation. For example, it has been suggested that more use might be made of volunteers to man polling stations on Election day. These suggestions are being pursued locally.

Other proposals involving legislation have been agreed to. Those suggestions were embodied in a Private Member's Bill which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Clitheroe (Mr. Fort) during the previous Parliament, and all those who are interested in this subject are indebted to my hon. Friend for his efforts in this connection. The principal proposal was that rural district and parish council elections should be combined in all cases. The Rural District Council Elections Rules, 1951, and the Parish Council Elections Rules, 1952, already provide that where elections of rural district and parish councils are held on the same day, in the same area, they shall be combined and that the cost shall be divided equally between them. This has been found to be a satisfactory and economical arrangement, and the Bill enables such an arrangement to operate universally over the country.

There are three kinds of local elections which can be held in rural districts. First there are the county council elections, when all the councillors come up for election every third year. Then there are parish council elections, where again all the councillors come up every third year; but in the case of rural district elections, in about half the cases all the councillors come up for election every third year and in about half the cases one-third of the councillors come up for election every year. In the last case, therefore, the normal result is that rural district councillors for a third of the parishes in the districts concerned are elected at the same time as parish councillors, but in about two-thirds of the parishes in the districts concerned the councillors are elected in different years from the parish councillors.

To get over this difficulty Clauses 1 and 2 provide that the next parish council elections shall be postponed in those cases where they do not synchronise with the rural district council elections until the next year when they will synchronise. From then on synchronisation will be established permanently in all cases. I believe that everyone will welcome that change. I should mention that it is also generally agreed, though not universally agreed, that county council elections and district and parish council elections should be kept separate from one another, and the Bill leaves that position.

Clause 4 deals with the payment of the expenses of parish council elections. The National Association of Parish Councils has urged that county councils or rural district councils should contribute to those expenses, but that suggestion has not been acceptable to the other associations. Moreover, it is contrary to long established principle. An Amendment was proposed to the Representation of the People Bill in 1948 when it was being considered in this House but it was resisted by the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), who enunciated the principle that each local government area should pay the cost of its own elections. That is a principle with which the present Government fully agree, and it is the principle embodied in the Bill.

The Bill leaves each parish to pay the expenses of its own elections, but it improves the method by which this will be carried out. At present a parish council has to pay these expenses directly. Section 193 of the Local Government Act, 1933, limits parish council expenditure. It is limited to a 4d. rate without the consent of a parish meeting or to an 8d. rate without the approval of the Minister of Housing and Local Government. I think the House will see that the cost of elections which, as I have said already, in the case of some small parishes may be 3d. or even as much as 8d., makes a serious inroad into these figures.

Moreover, the present method of payment of these expenses is cumbersome. The cost is first met by the rural district council, which has to recover the amount from the parish council. The parish council includes the amount in its precept to the district council and then the district council raises it by levying a rate on the parish council. Clause 4 provides that the cost is to be paid by the rural district council out of a rate levied on the parish concerned. This has two effects. In the first place it greatly simplifies the procedure which I have described briefly and, in the second place, it will mean that the cost of elections in future will not figure in the parish council's own budget, that is to say, it will not come out of the limit which was laid down as I have mentioned.

Clause 6 deals with a completely separate point, the question of filling casual vacancies on county councils, borough councils and district councils. Under Section 67 of the Local Government Act, 1933, an election to fill a casual vacancy must take place within 30 days of notice of the vacancy being received, and those 30 days include Sundays and holidays. Under the Representation of the People Act, 1949, 20 days' public notice must be given of a by-election to fill such a vacancy. In the case of rural districts it is two days longer, 22 days. These 20 or 22 days, as the case may be, exclude Sundays and holidays.

The House will see that if these events occur over Easter or Whitsun or at a time when there are several holidays, the period of notice that must be given is almost as long as the period within which the election must be held, and this, of course, leads to serious administrative difficulties, and, moreover, it may limit the choice of a suitable day on which to hold the election. In many areas it is most desirable that a particular day in the week should be chosen for the convenience of those who may have to vote. Clause 6 excludes from the 30-day period, that is the period within which an election must be held, Sundays and holidays. Therefore, it puts the 30-day period and the 20—or 22—day period in a par with one another.

I have tried to indicate to the House the purpose of the principal provisions of the Bill. It is necessarily a somewhat lengthy Bill, and includes a great deal of detail. If any hon. Member wishes to raise any point I will try to answer him, but I think that these matters can best be dealt with in Committee.

In conclusion, may I say that an active parish council has a value in rural life far exceeding the statutory powers which are given to it. I am sure that hon. Members in all parts of the House will wish to agree to the Bill and so remove any small encumbrances which may get in the way of these councils doing their job properly.

2.22 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Younger (Grimsby)

The House will be grateful to the Joint Under-Secretary for his detailed explanation of the Bill. It is a minor Bill, but it seems to us, at this stage, to be a useful one, and, so far as I have been able to ascertain, there is no reason why it should turn out to be controversial. All the interests whose opinions I have been able to dis- cover appear to be in agreement that this is a useful Bill.

As the hon. Gentleman said, this Bill started life in the last Parliament as a Private Member's Bill, promoted by the hon. Member for Clitheroe (Mr. Fort). It was blocked for reasons quite unconnected with its merits, and it is rather bad luck on the hon. Gentleman that he cannot be here to help launch this Bill today. I do not think that at that time anyone took objection to the Bill itself.

We have now had five years' experience of the general method of election by ballot in parish council elections which was introduced in the 1949 Act. I think that everyone will agree that this Bill will increase the convenience of the holding of these elections, and we hope that it will reduce the expense. I wondered why we did not think of these things at the time of the 1949 Act, but I suppose the reason was that we had not had any general experience of the operation of these elections on a universal scale throughout the country. Therefore, it is not surprising that something of this kind should be necessary. I see no reason why we should have objection to the Bill, and we are quite content that it should have a Second Reading.

2.25 p.m.

Mr. H. Hynd (Accrington)

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Younger) said, this is a non-contentious Bill, and my only objection to it is a general one, namely, that I am sorry that we should have another instalment of what I might call tinkering with the subject of local government. It is very difficult for hon. Members to venture into the field of criticism of local government in this House. They are going to get into trouble in their constituencies if they do. In this case, I feel relatively safe, because I have neither rural district councils or parish councils in my constituency, so perhaps I may say that I think it a pity that these clumsy provisions should have been put forward in this way before we tackle the system of local government and try to clean it up. It is a pity that the Bill should be so restricted for that reason.

The Joint Under-Secretary has said that nearly half the rural district councils have the system by which the whole of the members retire each three years and the other half have one-third retiring each year. That is a simple sort of thing which surely the Government might try to clean up in this Bill. Why not begin this cleaning up of the system of local government by providing that all local councils should have one system or the other. That, of course, could apply to the parish councils as well.

I would go further. Why should we continue to have county councils, county borough councils, borough councils, urban district councils, rural district councils and parish councils? I see one of the numerous Under-Secretaries of State for Scotland sitting on the Front Bench, and he will agree with me that they do these things much better in Scotland. They seem to get on fairly well there with two kinds of councils, and I do not see why we should have to have this complicated system in England. I would ask the Government to see whether they cannot go a little further, in the Committee stage, along the lines which I have mentioned. If we do that we may go some way towards achieving what has to be tackled at some time, and before very long, in this House, namely, the complete reorganisation of this unwieldy system of local government which we are trying to operate at the present time.

2.27 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

I hope that it will not be regarded as detracting from the merits of this useful Bill if I add a few words of commendation. It certainly serves a useful purpose, and I do not think that the Joint Under-Secretary will accept the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd) that we should make use of the Bill for the purpose of abolishing parish councils altogether. My justification for taking part in the debate is that I happen to be a parish councillor, and I know that parish councillors generally will very strongly support the principles embodied in the Bill.

Mr. H. Hynd

I do not think I said anything about abolishing parish councils as such. I said there should be fewer kinds of councils, and if the kind that is allowed to remain cares to call itself a parish council, I am sure that my hon. Friend will still be a member.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

All that I am trying to point out is that the Bill will save many parish councils very con- siderable sums of money if it is laid down that election to the parish council shall take place at the same time as election to the rural district council. It may not effect a very large saving in some parishes. In the case of the parish council of which I am a member, a penny rate produces about £60. The last occasion on which an election took place involved an expenditure of over £30. It may be that the parish council on which I serve would have saved from £7 to £10 by having the election for the parish council at the same time as that for the rural district council. I am inclined to go further, and say that it might be ala advantage in many rural areas if the elections for the county councils, the rural district councils and the parish councils took place on the same day. Of course, that is perhaps more controversial and is not embodied within the terms of the Bill.

In the case of parishes the rateable value of which is not great, a parish council election can involve, as the Joint Under-Secretary said, anything up to an 8d. rate, though that is rather an exceptional case. Therefore, from every point of view, the principle involved in the Bill of having elections for rural district councils and parish councils taking place at one and the same time is one which I am sure will find favour with almost every parish council in the country.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 38 (Committal of Bills).