§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 2.48 p.m.
§ Mr. John Hay (Henley)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
May I say at once that this Bill is intended to have only a limited application, and that any hon. Member who has noticed in Clause 1 (2) reference to a Scottish Act of Parliament need not imagine that the Bill applies to Scotland. It happens to be one of those technicalities which from time to time we run up against in this House without understanding why it is a technicality. The Bill applies only to England and Wales and to county, county borough, metropolitan borough, urban and rural district councils.
The Bill enables such councils to make payments for travelling and other expenses which are reasonably incurred by members or officials of the council carrying out official or courtesy visits inside or outside the United Kingdom on behalf of the council. It enables them to pay certain types of visits. It also enables them to receive and entertain distinguished visitors and persons representative of or connected with local government, whether they come from inside or outside this country, and to supply them with information.
There is a proviso to subsection (1) which limits the amount to be paid for travelling and subsistence allowances in respect of visits inside this country to those which are laid down by Section 113 of the Local Government Act, 1948. The pith of the Bill is in subsection (1) of Clause 1. Subsection (2) deals with the necessary financial matters, and I hope that the Government, in whose hands this matter must lie, will be willing, if the House should give the Bill a Second Reading, to provide the necessary Money Resolution to enable it to make progress. Without that, I am afraid that we cannot go on.
Having explained what the Bill does, may I now say a word or two about the need for it and why I am introducing it? These or similar powers are possessed already by some of the larger county boroughs, who have obtained them by 1283 special Acts of Parliament. Many others have no such powers and, being subject to district audit, may find themselves in difficulties from time to time when they have to entertain distinguished visitors or send representatives of the council on official visits.
Under Section 228 of the Local Government Act, such visits are not prohibited, but if expense is incurred there is always the risk of the council being surcharged, unless the Minister is prepared to sanction it. It is desirable that councils should have the opportunity of giving reasonable entertainment to visitors from abroad, not only from Europe but from the other side of the Atlantic or from within the British Commonwealth. It is equally highly desirable that municipalities should be in contact with each other; the Bill is a practical way to do something for world peace.
A resolution was passed by the Council of Europe on 14th October last year. We often hear that the Council, to which some of our colleagues go from time to time, is a sterile body which does a lot of talking but nothing practical. The reason may be that Parliaments—ours is one of the worst offenders—never do anything about the resolutions passed by the Council. This resolution was passed as a result of three years' hard, constructive work by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Smithers), with a special committee on municipal and regional affairs. They prepared a report which the Council has now adopted, and which has the objective of closer contact between towns and similar districts, and their populations, in Europe. No doubt my hon. Friend will tell us about it if he is able to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker.
The resolution said that it was desirableto promote and foster exchanges and contacts between members of European local authorities …as an important factor in disseminating among local populations the idea of a European community.That is something in which I firmly believe. The Bill, though modest in its scope, can do something to implement the resolution.
On the question of contact between towns, I would mention the work done by a small organisation with which I am connected, The Bilingual World. It enables relationships to be set up among towns in England and France. Exchanges 1284 have been going on between the two countries, but the work has been hampered by the difficulties of local authorities in spending money to send small deputations or to receive representatives from foreign towns. The Bill will promote such contact and lead to better international understanding.
Two criticisms might be made of the Bill. The first is that it appears to give a blank cheque to local authorities to spend the ratepayers' money on trips abroad. It is highly unlikely that any responsible local authority, particularly in these days of stringent economy, will spend money which cannot be fully justified. An important word in page 1, line 7, of the Bill is "reasonably." My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government will be familiar with it. It enables a council to defray expensesreasonably incurred by or on behalf of any members or officers of the council.That is a fairly good safeguard against extravagance on the part of a local authority. It is unlikely that any such extravagance will take place.
The Bill is a modest Measure and does not try to set the world completely right. A number of Members in all parts of the House, particularly on the Opposition Front Bench, have been kind enough to express their support, and so have the County Councils' Association and the Urban and Rural District Councils' Associations. The Association of Municipal Corporations has a benevolent interest in the subject and feels that the proposals are in accordance with the policy of the Association of extending discretion to local authorities generally.
I ask the House to give a Second Reading to the Bill, and thus do something to enable local authorities to carry out a certain amount of reasonable entertainment, to create links between our country and others and to add to international understanding.
§ 2.58 p.m.
§ Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)
I beg to second the Motion.
I do so with very great pleasure, and express the appreciation of the House to the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Hay), who has used his opportunity so wisely by promoting a Measure which, as he had 1285 already indicated, will be very much welcomed by local authorities. Let me emphasise that this is not a party political matter. Both sides of the House are interested in improving our contact with foreign local authorities, and we think that the Bill will help.
I have always taken every opportunity in the House to emphasise the need for giving the utmost discretion in these matters to the local authorities. I remember that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) also took an opportunity to widen and make more flexible the provision regarding the allowances payable to members of local councils. At that time i received representations from my own local authority, and met—and I mention this to emphasise the non-party political character of this proposal—the all-party Durham County Boroughs Committee. Regardless of political differences, that committee felt that such matters should be left to the wise discretion of the local authorities.
When the hon. Member speaks of a blank cheque, I feel that we are sometimes more concerned with the machinery for ensuring economy than with the promotion of the virility of local authorities. I do not want to pursue further the issue which the hon. Gentleman has raised by implication—the attitude of the district auditor—but in the North-East, as the hon. Gentleman will know if he has looked at the files, we met with some difficulty in connection with smoke abatement.
The district auditor is, of course, in a partially-judicial position, and I hesitate to comment, but in the North-East his decision has had an unfortunate effect on the work of smoke abatement which our local authorities wished to pursue. That could, perhaps, be quoted as an example of proper restraint and wise economy, but personally I do not think it is. We were all anxious to do what we could to help smoke abatement, and are very sorry not to have had an opportunity to do more.
My own local authority has not met with any particular difficulty in regard to the form of activity which this Bill seeks to promote, and because of that is most anxious that equal opportunities should be available to other local authorities which would otherwise have difficulty with the district auditor. By quoting from the municipal diary which 1286 records our "notable events" I should like to draw attention to what we have been able to do in Sunderland.
The last three events recorded are the return visit to Sunderland of H.M.S. "Swiftsure," a visit to Sunderland by a civic delegation from St. Nazaire in France—"a town with which Sunderland has formed a friendly association"—and the visit of the American destroyer, U.S.S. "Lewis Hancock."
I am sure that were he here, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. P. Williams) would agree that such events are very important to the civic life of Sunderland. This association with St. Nazaire is something which has been enjoyed not only by the civic authority but by the town generally, and I would certainly agree with the hon. Member for Henley that such an association is a concrete contribution to a better understanding between European countries.
It is something not purely in the interests of the town hall alone. We are very happy to have the various mementoes that have been presented, and to know that the visit of our own delegation last year was equally appreciated in France, but we are also very conscious that it is in this sort of way that we shall get a greater feeling of unity and common purpose between the peoples of Britain and France. We should very much like other local authorities to be able to do what we have done.
We have formed an association not only with France but with the people in West Germany. That was a more difficult job, but political events have shown its wisdom. Just as we had visits in the case of France, so we have had visits in the case of Germany, and those have been a very concrete contribution to a new understanding between the countries. The importance of such associations is not limited to relations between civic heads. Those are not, of course, without importance, but consequential to those visits we have arranged visits of parties of schoolchildren.
I can think of no better way of getting a real understanding between peoples than an interchange of children. I have no need to emphasise that we on the-North-East Coast are rather insular. These visits of children from Germany to Sunderland and the return visits by children from Sunderland to 1287 Germany and also to France have helped considerably to give us a far better understanding of the common purposes of western Europe.
I mentioned the visit of the American naval vessel to Sunderland. That in itself was not unimportant. We should emphasise that it is not unimportant also that the local authority should feel that it has a wide discretion to entertain. That vessel did not call only at Sunderland; she called elsewhere. Though the people of Sunderland are as careful as anyone else in considering the rates—I have always pointed out that far more important than the rates themselves is the value we get for the rates we pay—we should not like to feel prevented from expressing our generosity. We certainly should not like to feel, in a matter like this, when those being entertained will make comparisons with the reception and cordiality with which they are entertained elsewhere, that our hospitality was in any way less than that of any other port.
As I said at the beginning, we should all be greatly obliged to the hon. Member for Henley on his initiative in trying to meet a very real need. If we encourage local authorities to take advantage of this Measure when it is on the Statute Book we shall be making a big contribution to better understanding between peoples of different countries, and that will be well worth while.
§ 3.13 p.m.
§ Mr. Peter Smithers (Winchester)
The city which I have the honour to represent in this House is happily married with Versailles. As marriage should be, this has proved both a joyful and a fruitful union. I am not sure that we may not also be bigamously married. We have at least had a flirtation with the town of Beaune as well. However that may be, I think our excursion with Beaune was pre-matrimonial.
I should like to support the Bill on a number of grounds. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Hay) for having spoken about a project of mine in this connection. At the outset I say that the argument in favour of the Bill, which the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) has put in other words, is, first, that the Bill will make a contribution to inter-municipal contacts and, secondly, that inter-municipal contacts can do something effective towards 1288 the consolidation of Europe and that, in turn, the consolidation of Europe can make a very powerful contribution towards the cause of peace. All of us here have seen two wars arise in Europe, and anything which, directly or indirectly, can help to prevent another is welcome to us all.
It is very difficult to get people of diverse European countries and traditions into any kind of a political union, as the various attempts to do so have shown. I myself have little faith in constitutional documents as such; nor have I much faith in the good intentions so generally expressed on this subject. As an Englishman, I incline to think that true union comes about as a process of organic growth—simply the process of a thousand different connections, social, commercial, cultural, growing up in various ways over a period of time; and when there are enough of those contacts, then opportunity may come to place a political structure upon them.
The reason that I think inter-municipal contacts may play a part of some importance in this field is this. It is no good just getting people together at international conferences on a basis of good will. One must find a common theme. One must find some ground upon which they can meet. I had the privilege of serving for a number of years on my local authority, and anybody who has served on a local authority in this country cannot help but be impressed by the immense amount of enthusiasm which local government in itself generates as a pursuit. In fact, in England I might almost say it is elevated into a sport, such is the enthusiasm with which it is pursued.
I have noticed that when one goes to the great international conferences dealing with local authority matters—and I had the good fortune to attend one in Rome this summer and another in Venice the previous year—one cannot help observing that this spirit produces a remarkable concentration of minds from different nationalities upon different problems.
Nor do I think that the benefits are confined simply to the international field. It seems to me that local government also benefits very much. If one studies French local government one soon comes to realise that, though one may prefer the British system, nevertheless there are lessons which we can learn from other 1289 people; and I am bound to say that there are some countries which, I think, have a great many lessons to learn from us. When the problems of local administration and politics are discussed in an international forum, a great deal of learning is done by everybody concerned.
I hope it may be of some service to the House if I say a word about the existing structure, which is quite complicated, for promoting these contacts, because there are a number of organisations for this purpose and some of them are of great power and importance. The first is the International Union of Local Authorities, which is a world-wide organisation. When it calls its conferences they are attended by mayors from great American cities, great European cities, the Far East and all round the world. In Britain, I think, this is our principal organisation in these matters, and I should like, if I may, to pay a tribute to the work of Mr. Hayward, the leader of the L.C.C., who is Chairman of the I.U.L.A. in this country and who, with untiring devotion, has pursued the objects of the I.U.L.A. here with very great effect.
Next comes the C.E.M.—the Council of European Municipalities. That is an organisation devoted exclusively to Europe, and within Europe it is highly specialised, highly developed and very powerful indeed. The C.E.M. is not active as an organisation in this country, although I believe it has a nucleus here.
Then comes the organisation of which my hon. Friend the Member for Henley is, I believe, the Chairman here—le Monde Bilingue. This organisation is, again, a little narrower in scope; it deals simply in relationships between municipalities in this country and municipalities in France. While its scope is more concentrated, its work is perhaps extremely effective as a result.
There are other organisations in the field such as, in Scandinavia, the powerful Foreningen Norden, in which the three Scandinavian countries get together for inter-municipal contacts. There is also the effort of U.N.E.S.C.O. to bring together a number of trade union or other organisations, but on a local and regional basis. Finally, there is my own humble project, which, through the auspices of the Council of Europe and the Municipal Committee of that Council, is endeavour- 1290 ing to provide an exchange of hospitality between members of local authorities in different European countries. By that means one might consult a directory and find in the country that one proposes to visit some local authority which would be willing to give a day to instruct one in the way the local authority works and, if desired, to offer simple hospitality to the visitor.
This is all a quite complicated structure. Nevertheless, I think that as machinery it is enough. I do not want to suggest to the House—nor, I am sure, does my hon Friend—that a very great deal of money is needed here. It certainly is not. It would be quite wrong if we were to envisage extravagant hospitality and waste of ratepayers' money on a scale which I am afraid takes place in some countries. But we all know cases where small local endeavours are hampered for the want of very small amounts of money. I believe that the purpose of this Bill is good. It is to make sure that for want of what my hon. Friend calls reasonable expenditure—using that useful political word—efforts of this kind will not be prejudiced. I very much hope that the House will support the Bill.
One thing I want to emphasise, in conclusion. It will be a great help if these small amounts of money are available to local authorities which at present cannot obtain them, but it is absolutely indispensable that the international organisations now working in this field should work together. In the past, there has been a lamentable tendency towards rivalry and overlapping. I hope that in the thumbnail sketch I have given the House of their different functions I have made it perfectly clear that they serve different purposes, that their functions are complementary, that all ought to be able to work effectively together in the same field and there is no need for any conflict.
I am glad to say that relations between the I.U.L.A. and the C.E.M., which, formerly, were none too easy, are now very good, and with the project in which I am interested they are co-operating. I hope that the other organisations in this field will also extend the same spirit of international co-operation, appreciating that they have the common task to perform and that attempts to beat one another in membership and rivalry of that sort can be of really no service to 1291 the cause. While expressing that hope of harmonious working among those already mainly concerned to take advantage of these funds when they are available, I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend and to wish success to his Bill.
§ 3.18 p.m.
§ Mr. Ede (South Shields)
I join in the congratulations expressed by the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Smithers) to the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Hay) on having introduced this Bill following his good fortune in the Ballot. With the limitations on expenditure which it has been generally indicated we think should be fixed, this is a matter which is entitled to the unanimous support of the House.
If I may do so, I should like to thank the hon. Member for Winchester for the clear and concise exposition he has given of the opportunities for appropriate organisation of this form of national and international courtesy that the various bodies now existing can provide for those municipalities and counties which wish to avail themselves of the advantages of this Bill.
I regretted to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) that there appears to be some difficulty in depriving Sunderland of its smoke. As one who represents an adjoining constituency, may I say that if any testimonial of mine is needed I am quite willing to say that if there is any place which ought to receive help in that matter it certainly is Sunderland.
I want to support the Bill in two capacities, first, as the Member for the important seaport which I represent. We have already formed a friendship with the great and historic port in France of La Rochelle. It is undoubtedly of great advantage to great seafaring communities which like to speak as a unit and as a unity that opportunities such as this should be provided.
We could, of course, form a liaison with practically every port of the world, for one in seven of the seamen of this country originate in the port of South Shields. Therefore, we may very well occasionally have relationships with great seafaring communities in all parts of the world. Already, although our contact with La Rochelle has not been very long sustained, it has undoubtedly led to an 1292 understanding both in France and in this country of some of the common problems that face seafaring communities in particular. I hope that the liaison already established will grow and flourish.
Secondly, as President of the County Councils' Association, I want on behalf of that organisation to express its unanimous and sincere support of this Measure. Probably, in the early days, the use that will be made by county councils of this Measure is not likely to be as great as the use that will be made of it by county boroughs and urban districts. It is more easy to find Continental organisations corresponding to these smaller units than the exact foreign unit that is represented by our county council. It is one of the curious things that in this country the historic units have always been the county and the parish, whereas abroad the form of local government that a county provides is not found in quite the same form, or sometimes in anything like approaching the form, that the English county represents.
I also hope that this will lead to a better understanding abroad of the exact function that officers play in English local government. When I was Home Secretary, I received fairly frequently burgomasters and other people from Germany and it was quite plain that they could not understand a non-political police force. What we have seen in the first half of this century makes it very necessary that people should understand that it is possible in a democracy to have a police force that owes its allegiance to the community and not to the people who happen to be in power at a particular moment in the municipality.
I recollect a burgomaster saying to me, "Home Secretary, I am told that the chairmen of standing joint committees and of watch committees which you have been describing to me are, in the main, to be found in a party other than your own. Is it true?" I replied, "I have never taken the trouble to count them, but I would not be surprised if it is true." The burgomaster said, "Do you think it is safe that the police forces of this country should be in the hands of people of a political complexion different from yours?"
Another burgomaster asked, "What is the political view of the Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis?" I 1293 replied, "I do not know. What is more, I do not care." He asked, "Do you never talk politics with him?" "No," I said, "I do not." He asked, "Does he never talk politics to you?" "No," I said, "and it would be a bad job for him if he did. I am not quite sure what I could do with him, but I am certain that it would be very painful."
It is one of the triumphs of democracy in this country that we have police forces which are not identified with any majority which may happen to be in power in a municipality at any time, and I am quite certain that one of the richest blessings this country can confer on the world is the knowledge that that is the key to the successful development of democracy and to its preservation.
I hope that we shall have visitors to this country from whom we can learn, for I do not pretend that any form of local government in this country is in itself perfect, for it is a human institution with all the strengths and failings that come from independent human experience. Therefore, we shall learn something from them. I know that, by showing them some of the things we have been able to do, we can demonstrate that democracy is more than a system; that it is a real association of free human beings striving, by the clash of opinions, to work out a form of life, a daily way of life, which enables each individual citizen in a municipality to feel that he is a vital part of that municipality, and that his own life can be enriched by his association with it and with his fellow burgesses.
§ 3.28 p.m.
§ Mr. George Jeger (Goole)
I should like to join in congratulating the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Hay), who moved the Second Reading of the Bill, on the able way in which he did so, and also upon the aims that he has in mind. Like many other hon. Members, I, too, can speak from various points of view, but I hope I shall do so very briefly so that there may be the more time for other hon. Members who wish to speak in the debate. I am fortunate in having been a member of a Metropolitan borough council, and it was my duty for some period, while I was the mayor, to entertain visitors who came from other 1294 municipalities, from other Metropolitan boroughs, and occasionally from abroad.
Shoreditch, the borough of which I was mayor, is of great historical interest, even if only to those who like to attempt to discover the site of Shakespeare's first theatre, the Curtain. Moreover, in Shoreditch we had some unique health services. We considered ourselves pioneers in municipal health services. At that time also we were engaged in a large scheme of slum clearance which was of more than local interest, and attracted people interested in housing developments not only elsewhere in this country but abroad.
It was the duty of the mayor to entertain visiting dignitaries from other towns and other countries; and the cost of such entertainment, the cost of receiving those visitors in the way they ought to be received, and also the cost of our visiting other places to view other people's developments, was a matter of great concern. It was beyond what our small borough could afford. It was certainly beyond the small allowance which was made to the Mayor of Shoreditch at that time. Indeed, my brother and I, being exceedingly interested in housing developments, paid visits at our own expense to other countries and other towns, notably Vienna, which was pioneering in housing at that time, in order to bring the benefits of other people's experience to bear on our own local problems.
The second angle from which I view this matter is from that of my present position as the hon. Member for Goole, the tenth port in the country and one which we consider of no mean importance. Indeed, it is the only port in the West Riding. It has distinguished visitors from other countries. As a result of the trade which goes on between Yorkshire and the Netherlands through Goole, we often receive visitors from the Netherlands ports. We have had exchanges between the burgomasters of Amsterdam and Rotterdam and the Mayor and Corporation of Goole. Those exchanges must be restricted at present because the means for meeting expenditure on these visits and the exchanging of hospitality are extremely limited.
If it happens, as it has happened, so far, once only, that there is a representative of the working class as Mayor of Goole, he discovers that the cost of entertainment is 1295 high, and the facilities for entertainment existing in the municipal buildings of Goole are shocking. There are no cups, teapots or even glasses available there. An outside caterer has to be summoned when any entertainment of even the smallest kind has to be provided in the mayor's parlour. These are matters which could be covered by the mayor's allowance if it were large enough or by the provisions of this Bill if the hon. Member for Henley would agree in Committee to extend it a little to cover the borough and port of Goole.
§ Mr. Hay
As I said when moving the Second Reading, I am very largely in the hands of Her Majesty's Government in this matter, because upon their good will and upon the Money Resolution which will have to be tabled will depend whether or not one could agree to any concessions at this stage. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Member will address a remark or two on that point to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.
§ Mr. Jeger
I willingly acquit the hon. Member of any desire to exclude Goole from the provisions of the Bill. I hope that later discussions with representatives of Her Majesty's Government will enable the port of Goole to be included.
I am quite sure that we shall be successful, because Her Majesty's Navy regularly pays courtesy visits to Goole. The children particularly enjoy the hospitality of the vessels which come to Goole because the Navy knows how to put on a children's party. Obviously, the mayor and corporation return that hospitality as best they can, but it would be of great assistance to them if, under the provisions of the Bill, they were able to go a little further than they have been able to do in the past and not have to rely on the pocket of the mayor, who is not always a wealthy man in a small town like Goole.
We hope that the Bill will have a Second Reading and be so amended in Committee as to enable Goole and places like it to be included. The question of expense is important but the district auditor keeps a very close watch on these things. My experience is that even a sum of £2 for a framed testimonial to the mayor did not escape the eagle eye of the district auditor, who surcharged each member of the council 1s. 6d.
1296 Therefore, we can rely on him to keep a watch on expense and to see that it is reasonably incurred, as laid down in the instructions which he receives from the Government.
The third angle from which I view this matter has been referred to by other hon. Members who have spoken of the Council of Europe and its activities. I have had the great pleasure of being one of the representatives from this Parliament to the Council during the last year. I was greatly impressed with the growth of the European idea and the enthusiasm with which it is taken up in Strasbourg and then disseminated amongst constituent bodies in the various countries. The passing of this BUI will enable us to play our part on the Council of Europe, as perhaps we have not done in the past, in pursuing the European ideal even more rapidly than hitherto. I hope we can spread that idea, because the future of mankind depends on a greater understanding and bringing together of the peoples of Europe and, ultimately, of the world.
§ 3.36 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. J. Enoch Powell)
All hon. Members who have taken part in this debate have, from their differing points of view, commended the Bill which is before the House. I must remind hon. Members, however, that it is essentially a Bill which provides for, and facilitates, additional expenditure falling largely upon the ratepayer but partly upon the taxpayer.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Hay) pointed out, the expenditure is governed by the expression "reasonably." My hon. Friend observed the slight emotion I showed on hearing that word. It derived from the recollection of an occasion two or three days ago when I found myself explaining to the House, in Committee, exactly what was the meaning of the word "reasonably." Even with that qualification, however, much or little as it may import, the fact remains that this is a Bill to facilitate additional expenditure, and Her Majesty's Government could not at present positively support and commend to the House a Measure which has the effect of facilitating additional local government expenditure on anything but an essential purpose.
1297 On the other hand, it is true that the powers which this Bill seeks to confer on all the authorities defined in it are already enjoyed under local Acts by quite a number. I am informed that the powers mentioned in Clause 1 (1, a) are enjoyed by about one-fifth of the authorities covered by that paragraph, and those specified in paragraph 1 (1, b) by one-third. The majority who are still outside provisions of local Acts divide themselves into those which are subject and those which are not subject to district audit, and the incurring of expenditure by those two classes of authority involves different procedure.
Where the body is subject to audit, a specific dispensation must be obtained under the Local Government Act, 1933, from my right hon. Friend. So that there is an anomaly as between different authorities in the position as it stands today, and in view of the opinion which has been expressed in the House, and the atmosphere in which this Bill has been received, Her Majesty's Government would be willing to take the pleasure of the House upon the subject.
§ 3.39 p.m.
§ Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)
I was glad to note the last words of the Parliamentary Secretary and I associate myself with every other speaker in thanking the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Hay) for having made such good use of his place in the Ballot.
I have been making inquiries among my own hon. and right hon. Friends and I cannot find any opposition anywhere to this Bill. On the contrary, I have heard from people representing the most various places strong' expressions of support for it, support that I am quite sure would not be given if they felt that there were any possibility of municipal extravagance in this respect; or, indeed, if it were to involve, even without extravagance, any serious burden on the rates.
I feel sure that, as a matter of practice, local authorities can be relied upon not to abuse powers of this sort, which, of course, are purely permissive, either by extravagance on any one occasion or by too frequent repetition. If we feel that, as I do, I do not think it is really for us to try to lay down any more than the sort of general criterion which I gather the Parliamentary Secretary agrees is imported by the word "reasonably." 1298 Whether or not it is a matter of strict audit—I believe that it is, of course—I do not think there is likely to be anything about it which would cause any trouble with ratepayers when it happened.
I feel that there is room for reminding local authorities that there is a great deal to be gained, even in a quasi-practical form, from these sorts of receptions and visits. I am sure that all of us, and particularly those who, like the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Smithers), have concerned themselves with these matters at the Council of Europe, have noticed how very different the structure of local government is not merely between this country and any foreign country but between the foreign countries themselves. I am certain that no one could go to Stockholm without appreciating what a magnificent job—at any rate, to the outward eye, and, I believe, beyond that— has been done by way of municipal work there and how different appear to be the relations between the central and local governments in that country.
I have never met Mr. Brian Chapman, and I know nothing whatever about him, but I have been reading an extraordinarily interesting recent book by him about the prefectoral system in France. The system is vital to local government in France. It represents something which is completely unknown in this country. It is a completely different kind of machinery from anything that we have. We can all form our own opinions as to whether in its long and chequered history it has been a good thing or a bad thing for France, but, surely, to examine that kind of difference must be a most stimulating experience for local authority people in this country.
I entirely agree with what has been said. This is not just a question of one council visiting another. It is a question of broadening the basis of international understanding, and, where proper use is made of the provision, it will be something which will affect the inhabitants of any town just as much as it will affect the councillors.
If I might refer to my constituency, Kettering has always been exceedingly good at some kinds of international relations, largely because it has been very much a centre of the Co-operative movement. Quite apart from questions of trade, and so on, the Co-operative move- 1299 ment has undoubtedly been very conscious of its own international character and of the need to promote international understanding. On that account visits take place between Co-operative people all over Europe and, indeed, other parts of the world.
On the coat of arms of the borough we have depicted an emancipated negro supporting a hide, out of which boots are shoes are made; because it is a small place which, at one time, deserved its name of the Holy City—I do not know whether it still does—and used to be so conscious of international obligations of a very different character that it took a prominent part in sending missionaries to Africa, Asia, and so on, and, later, a very prominent part in the history of negro emancipation. That kind of thing is found all over the country if one looks for it.
I entirely agree with what has been said upon the question of exchanging children. Nothing could be more useful. Here again, it begins in an official way and leads to exchanges of visits which go on upon an individual basis and which make a very real contribution to the sure foundation of world peace—as good, perhaps, as any that can be made. If that principle is extended, as it ought to be, to local government relations, it will be extended to something which is rather broad, touches the life of every citizen, and comprises a whole variety of interests.
We have our inter-Parliamentary associations. They have no normal function other than to promote friendly understanding between Parliaments and their members, and a knowledge of what they are doing as Parliaments. If we have those, surely the time has come to extend that principle to local government units. This country has taken a leading part in that matter—a fact which some might find surprising, because we once had a reputation for being very insular. I do not think that we are insular now; on the contrary, we are so proud of our own institutions—and rightly so—that we desire to show the world how good we are and, at the same time, oddly enough, English people have the requisite humility to be prepared to learn from others, however proud they may be of what they do themselves. That also applies to local government.
1300 The question of expenditure has been raised. This is the most valuable form of education. It is education in practice; voluntary education—something which we take upon ourselves to do. What could be better than that? I trust that no one will forget that that is of real value, and something which is worth spending money, time and trouble upon. It is for that reason that I welcome the Bill.
At the risk of being a little tedious, I want to say a few words of a general character. I believe that I shall have the support of the House in putting forward the proposition that true democracy, as we understand it, is now at risk. It has been at risk for many years. I am not talking party politics in any form whatever today. As I sit here and try to carry out my constituency duties I feel more and more that for some purposes we take the responsibility of being links between the Government and the people, and we sometimes find it uncommonly difficult to discharge that duty in the way we should like.
It is becoming increasingly difficult, and we all know it, to keep the close personal touch that was possible before all the devices of scientific publicity had attained their present fruitful development. That may seem to some of us a rather personal political matter. But I regard it as a sign of the difficulties of democracy nowadays. What we feel in that respect is also the case, of course, in local government.
Just as it is true that all that we can do here depends in the last resort on the vigour and freshness of our link with our constituencies, it is equally true that that is the case with local councillors. Everyone knows that it is not always easy on many of these councils to get, shall I say, all the good candidates that we would like to get, and that seems to me to be a very serious matter.
This Bill will make councillors think and feel a bit more. It will show them things which may or may not be capable of exact imitation, probably not, but it will give them some new inspiration in the work which they are doing. In the last resort, their effectiveness and freshness and the link that they can keep between themselves and their constituents depends on the vigour and freshness of their approach, just as our continued vigorous life as a Parliament depends on the vigour and freshness of our approach.
1301 It may be said that that, at least, is not at risk. I think that it is. I think that even within the small limits of local government we have to look to it to retain vigour and freshness. Things are very complicated nowadays, necessarily so, and it is only too easy for those engaged in local government, as it is for us, to be so overburdened by the trees that they cannot see the wood. They have got to see it. This will be of help to them.
I should not like to sit down without adding one word to what I think has already been said by others. I always feel rather guilty that I have never been on a local authority. I ought to have done it. I had a chance long, long ago and I did not take it. I think it is too late now. I admire people who do that work. They are of all kinds, of all political parties, some of them working day by day for their pay packets, others being much better off, and there is every grade in between. Some of them I prefer to others—that is only proper—but, on the other hand, to each and all of them I say: I believe that the country as a whole owes you a very great debt. Local government in this country is something of which we ought really to be proud. Those who serve in it, paid and unpaid —I am including the officers, too—all deserve our thanks for what they are doing.
If, therefore, this Bill will do anything to give them thanks in the right way, by giving them a chance to see what other people are doing, to feel that there is fine work going on all over the world as well as in this country and that the conditions are so varied that there is something to be learnt everywhere—if it will do that, I would regard it as a piece of thanks, in the first instance, perhaps, from Parliament and, in the second instance, from those whom we represent, the people of the country, to their co-citizens and colleagues who give their time to local government, and of whom we are really proud for doing so. I hope that the Bill will make its way on to the Statute Book.
§ 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).