§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 1.9 p.m.
§ Wing Commander Eric Bullus (Wembley, North)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
In legislation at present before Parliament considerable emphasis appears to be on local government. It would appear opportune, consequently, to do a little tidying up of earlier local government legislation even in a Private Member's Bill.
The Bill seeks to dispense with the necessity for a borough or urban district council to hold a town's meeting, and, if demanded, a local poll, before it can promote a Bill. By the use of the word "borough", I include the twenty-eight Metropolitan boroughs. The provision for the calling of a town's meeting is a handicap which was placed on boroughs as long ago as 1872. The law is now contained in three Acts which are set out in Clause 1. They are: the Local Government Act, 1933, Section 255 and the Ninth Schedule: the London Government Act, 1939; and the London County Council (General Powers) Act, 1948.
I recognise that these proposals are not without controversy. Indeed, the National Chamber of Trade, of which I have the honour to be a vice-president, the British Hotel and Restaurants Association, and the Theatres National Committee, and no doubt others, are opposed to the Bill. But there is powerful support from other bodies. Three important independent commissions have recommended these proposals. The Association of Municipal Corporations, to which I am grateful for the drafting of the Bill and which represents practically all the boroughs and county boroughs in England and Wales, is a strong supporter: the Urban District Councils Association supports the Bill, and there are many hon. Members on both sides of the House, including the weight of the Front Bench, or at least the benevolent neutrality of the Government Front Bench, in support.
One of the strongest arguments for the Bill is the fact that existing requirements do not apply to county councils or 1634 rural district councils. They can promote Bills without this requirement. Hence there is a genuine desire for uniformity in these local government requirements and the righting of an obvious anomaly.
§ Mr. H. Hynd (Accrington)
Is it not even more of an anomaly that the county borough is not so required?
§ Wing Commander Bullus
I am grateful to the hon. Member. The distinction between an urban district and a county borough and a rural district and a county council appears to be due to an historical accident, because when the Borough Funds Act, 1872, first required the consent of owners and ratepayers to the promotion of a Bill by a borough, county councils did not exist. I have done a little research into local government, and I have found that when county councils were constituted—
§ Mr. W. R. Williams (Manchester, Openshaw)
I think there is an inaccuracy in what my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd) said about county boroughs. For the sake of the record, we ought to put it right. The position, as I understand it, is that these provisions do not apply to a Bill promoted by the council of a borough for the purpose of constituting the borough as a county borough or extending the county borough.
§ Wing Commander Bullus
It is true that Leeds Corporation, which is a county borough, had to go through these provisions of holding a town's meeting.
§ Wing Commander Bullus
In my researches I found that when county councils were constituted in 1888 they were not given power to promote Bills, but when that power was given to them some 15 years later, in 1903, there was no requirement that they should obtain the consent of the ratepayers. Similarly, when in 1929 rural district councils were given powers to promote Bills, Parliament expressly enacted by Section 55 of the Local Government Act of that year that those councils should not have to obtain the consent of their local government electors to the promotion of a Bill.
1635 That peculiar situation, created in 1929, remains today. Two types of local authority must obtain the consent of their electors at a town's meeting, perhaps by a town's poll, before they can come to Parliament for a Bill, while the other two types are not under any obligation to do that. The Bill seeks to remove a handicap and remedy an obvious injustice. I can trace no dispute which has arisen in the case of a county council or a rural district council because of the freedom of those authorities from the necessity of having a town's meeting or a town's poll. I am certain that this is because of the other provisions of the existing law, which will remain in full force and effect if the Bill is accepted.
That is because over-riding all these provisions is the fact that any Bill is subject to the vigilance of Parliament. Perhaps I can give a practical example of the vigilance of Parliament. I hope that hon. Members opposite will not think that I am trying to score a party point. I am using it as an example. When Leeds Council, dominated by a Socialist majority, introduced a Bill, there was some Clauses which offended the Tory minority and the council had to have a town's meeting; but the Bill was still carried and it was actually in the House that the offending four Clauses were thrown out by the Tory majority here, I am not trying to make a party point, because it could well have been the other way about. I want to show that Parliament itself can be vigilant and do exactly what the town's meeting in Leeds could not do.
The provisions which will still remain are not affected by the Bill—advertising of a local authority's intention to promote a Bill, followed by a favourable vote at special council meetings on two occasions, and the approval of the Minister. Outside London, that is required by Section 254 of the Local Government Act, 1933, and similar provisions for London are in Section 151 of the Local Government Act, 1939, and Section 47 of the London County Council (General Powers) Act, 1948.
Those Sections provide every opportunity for local government electors to express to the local authority and the Minister their views on any proposals for the promotion of a Bill by a local 1636 authority. Even after that, they can, of course, as so many do, always come to their Member of Parliament. Further, the Standing Orders of Parliament require full notice to be advertised locally of the matters proposed to be dealt with by the Bill and the notice must state when the Bill can be inspected and where copies can be obtained.
It will thus be seen that these provisions give a local government elector full opportunity to communicate with his representative on the council and his representative in Parliament. He also has the statutory right, if he so desires, to inform the Minister of Housing and Local Government if he objects to the Bill, and the Minister can deal with Any such objection in his report on the Bill to Parliament. Of course, apart from those provisions there is the additional necessity of satisfying Parliament that the proposed Bill ought to be passed into law.
I can give what I consider to be a pertinent example of that. I can give an up-to-date illustration of the practical absurdity of the requirement to hold the town's meeting. In the city of Plymouth, a Bill is being promoted in this Session jointly by the Plymouth Corporation and the Cornwall County Council in order to obtain powers to construct a bridge over the River Tamar. The borough council and the county council are equal partners in promoting the Bill and will be equal partners in constructing the bridge. Nevertheless, the borough council has to go through the procedure of a town's meeting, whereas the county council is free from that obligation.
It is not only to bring about uniformity in the promotion of Bills by local authorities that the Bill is submitted. It is also to do away with the difficulties encountered by boroughs and urban district councils under the present procedure. The council of a borough can never obtain the approval of the electors, or even a majority of a town's meeting, because there is no hall in any borough big enough to accommodate all the electors. At the most the council gets the approval of only those few who attend the public meeting, or who take the trouble to vote, and those few cannot claim to be regarded as representing all the electors, whereas the council, which is elected by the electors, can justifiably 1637 claim to be properly representative of local opinion. At most, those who attend can be said to have taken the trouble to do so, and that may be caused by a special interest which is not necessarily as great as the public good.
If a poll is demanded either by the council or by 100 electors, it has to be taken by reference to the resolutions proposed at the public meeting, whether passed or rejected. The mayor or any other persons presiding will indicate whether he proposes to have a single resolution in favour of the whole Bill, or separate resolutions in favour of different Parts or Clauses, but the ultimate decision rests with the meeting, which may—and sometimes does— require a dozen or more resolutions.
The form of voting paper is prescribed by Regulations of the Ministry, which require that each resolution shall be put as a separate question. I have with me a typical ballot paper containing six questions which were actually put at a poll on the Birmingham Corporation Bill. 1954. The voting paper had to be marked with a cross according to whether the voter voted for or against the resolution.
Of course, there may be a dozen or more questions on this type of paper. I suggest that such a voting paper is not a fair way of deciding an issue which may he of great local importance. In this respect, I may be allowed to read one of the six resolutions which appeared on the Birmingham Corporation Bill poll. The first resolution said:That the Electors of the City of Birmingham hereby approve the promotion by the Council of that City of Clause 14 (As to purchase of land for purposes relating to redevelopment of areas of bad layout and obsolete development) of the Birmingham Corporation Bill, 1954, together with so much of the preamble and of the other Parts of the Bill as relates or is ancillary to that Clause.I think that speaks for itself.
When a Bill is promoted by a council, the council always has the help of its professional advisers, the town clerk, medical officer of health, treasurer, surveyors and others and, when necessary, further advice from experts. It seems quite wrong that the decision of the duly elected representatives as to what is best for the town—arrived at after full discussion and after obtaining all necessary advice—should be overruled by a com- 1638 paratively few electors, who have no such advice and cannot claim to represent the whole of the electors.
The cost of having a poll may be very heavy. Polling stations have to be provided and fitted up. Presiding and other officers have to he appointed and to be paid. Notices have to be printed and posted. The cost may amount to £3,000, or even more. I will quote from the evidence of the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure, H.C. 139, page 294:During the last twenty years the attendances at public meetings of local government electors in Manchester in connection with Bills of the Manchester Corporation has varied from 800 to 20 out of an electorate varying from 498,000 to 345,000. Polls were taken on three Bills and the vote represented as a percentage was in one case 15 per cent. and in the other two cases 5 per cent. of the electorate.The Report goes on to say:The cost of the poll per vote ranged front 9d. to 2s. 11d. Compared with this the voting at the municipal elections in the same three years as the polls were taken varied from 39 per cent. to 44 per cent. of the electorate.I think hon. Members will agree that those figures are very striking.
I need not again remind the House that the promotion of a Bill by a local authority is merely a submission to Parliament that certain matters should be enacted, but before Parliament comes to a decision the subject is considered in great detail in a Committee of each House and by the Government Departments concerned. Also, of course, a number of Members of Parliament consider Private Bills in detail and call attention to provisions which they feel are open to objection. In other words, Parliament itself, as I have tried to demonstrate, is able to look after the interests of those who wish to object to the proposals of a borough or urban district council and that to retain the towns meeting in a borough or urban district is quite out of date.
I wish to draw the attention of the House to the views which have been expressed by three important tribunals upon the proposals contained in my Bill. The Royal Commission on Local Government in 1929 had substantial evidence on this matter. In its final Report it said that in its view borough councils and urban district councils had made a case for the repeal of the requirements of that Act in relation to meetings 1639 Of electors and polls. Most of the recommendations of that Commission requiring legislation have already been carried into effect. If this recommendation had also been adopted many thousands of pounds of ratepayers' money would have been saved.
The subject was again considered by the Local Government and Public Health Consolidation Committee, at whose instance the Bill for the Local Government Act, 1939, was drafted. That Committee was of the opinion that the repeal of these provisions was a matter beyond its terms of reference, but it added that it was entirely in favour of the recommendation of the Royal Commission. Clearly, had it been within its terms of reference to do so, it would have recommended again the repeal of those provisions.
Finally the matter was considered again by the Joint Committee of the House of Commons on Private Bill Procedure which reported in May, 1955, on the subject of Private Bill legislation—H. L. 58; H. C. 139. The Joint Committee had before it a great deal of evidence on this subject. It said that it concurred with the views of the Royal Commission and of the Consolidation Committee and accordingly, recommended that legislation should be introduced to abolish towns' meetings and towns' polls.
To summarise the arguments I have tried to make in favour of the passage of this Bill: The requirements as to towns' meetings and polls are inconsistent because they do not apply to all types of local authority. Secondly, full publicity is secured by other enactments which will not be affected by this Bill. Thirdly, the provisions proposed to be repealed fail in their purpose because of the impossibility of containing at a towns' meeting all the local government electors and the decision of the comparatively few who attend and vote cannot be taken as representing the views of all the electors. Nor is it possible for the voters to appreciate fully the effect and desirability of the proposals by a form of question and answer. The cost of this procedure may be very heavy, and its repeal has been recommended by three independent and important tribunals. Lastly, overriding all, is the work which is done in this 1640 House in safeguarding the interests of all concerned.
§ 1.28 p.m.
§ Mr. David Jones (The Hartlepools)
I beg to second the Motion.
I believe that the case for this Bill and for the abolition of the town meeting and town poll has been amply made. I do not want to cover any of the ground which has been already covered by the hon. and gallant Member for Wembley, North (Wing-Commander Bullus). One is impressed when looking at the ballot paper of the poll which was taken in Birmingham on the 1954 Bill.
I submit that we cannot operate the provisions of the present legislation properly. The hon. and gallant Member pointed out that it is impossible to do so. I wish to quote an example from my constituency, because I know that constituency better than anywhere else. On the local government register of West Hartlepool County Borough there are 49,000 electors. The largest hall in the town holds just under 1,000 people.
Therefore, if it were necessary to convene a town's meeting in that town, only one in 50 of the electors could be admitted to the meeting. One presumes that if there were interested groups in the town wildly enthusiastic in favour of the provisions, or enthusiastically opposed to them, all they would have to do would be to get to the meeting place half an hour before the advertised time of starting, pack the hall, prevent the remainder of the electors from gaining admission and secure their way. In these circumstances, I suggest that it is possible to operate this legislation only because, in fact, most of the electors do not attend. In other words, it is operated more in the breach than in the observance.
If one takes the other part of my constituency, which is a small borough of 19,000 inhabitants with an electoral roll of nearly 11,000, the biggest hall in that town holds only 1,500 people. That means that, even in that case, if it were necessary to hold a town meeting it would not be possible to carry out the provisions of the legislation because, in fact, the hall could not accommodate the necessary numbers. As I say, the hall would be packed by the people who were either enthusiastically for or against the provision.
1641 I do not want to waste the time of the House by reading from the Birmingham Corporation Bill ballot of 1954, but I would suggest that the proportion of voters would not be nearly so high in Birmingham as it was in Lewisham yesterday if the voters had to examine a document of this kind before deciding whether to vote for or against. How is it possible for the average local authority elector in any town or urban district in the country to be thoroughly conversant with all the implications involved in, for example, the first question read out by the hon. and gallant Member for Wembley, North?
Then there are the five other resolutions of the same kind which, apparently, every elector is expected to read and to come to a reasonable conclusion about and then to record in the two columns at the end of the paper whether he is for or against. I suggest that in these times that does not represent modern thought concerning the way in which these things should be done.
It is not without interest to recall, in connection with Bills which have been promoted by the Manchester City Council over the years, that in one case, as the hon. and gallant Gentleman pointed out, the Council succeeded in getting 15 per cent. of the electors to record their votes. In two other cases the number represented 5.3 and 5.2 per cent. respectively. The interesting thing about the last poll in which 5.2 per cent. of the electors recorded their votes was that the total cost of conducting that poll was £3,707, or, in other words, that the vote of each elector who took the opportunity of going to the poll cost the Manchester City Council almost 3s.
The British Hotels and Restaurants Association and the Theatres National Committee have written to me, pointing out that if this procedure were abolished through this Bill becoming law it would be extremely difficult for them to make their feelings known if they were against any provision which any borough council or urban district council in the country desired to put forward. They go on to say that as long as there has to be a town meeting and a poll—one appreciates immediately, of course, that if there is a small body of opinion in a town which is violently opposed to a provision in a Bill it has to get the objection of only 100 electors—it is easy to see how 1642 a Bill could be demanded by 100 people even in a town with a population of 72,000, or a town such as the one to which I have referred in my constituency, with 49,000 electors.
Those bodies go on to say that if these provisions were abolished it would cost them a good deal of money to carry their objections to this House. With all respect, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I suggest that you, more than anybody here, appreciates that fact at this moment because of what happened earlier this week We saw how easy it is for a single hon. Member to hold up any Private Bill. I am quite sure, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that you appreciate that more than anybody else, including the Government Front Bench. I should have thought that that safeguard in itself provided the opportunity for having the matter examined on the Floor of the House.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Sir C. Taylor) is not present this afternoon, because I am quite sure that if the British Hotels and Restaurants Association objected to any power sought by a borough or urban district in the country he would see to it that that Association's point of view was put before the House. I make no complaint about that. Indeed, I think that is the proper way to do it. It would certainly be more real to do it in that way than by means of a town meeting or a town poll.
What applies to the body to which I have been referring applies equally to the Theatres National Committee. I have not the slightest doubt that that body could get the matter raised and that, in due course, we should have a Second Reading debate. I recollect having on one occasion to move the Second Reading of an amalgamation Bill, when the whole of the facts were made public.
All we propose to do by this Bill is to abolish the town meeting and the necessity for a poll. Section 254 of the Local Government Act, 1933, remains and all its provisions still apply. That means, even when this Bill becomes law as I hope it will, that before an authority can proceed with a Bill, the resolution in favour of its promotion must be passed by two meetings of the authority concerned and that at each of the meetings there must be an absolute majority, not of the number of members present at the 1643 meeting, but of the total membership of the council. Ten days' notice of the meeting must be given and advertised in the local Press and the resolution to promote the Bill must also be advertised in the local Press.
Also, it is competent for a single elector who disagrees with the decision of the council to proceed with the Bill to write to the Minister of Housing and Local Government, voicing his objections. If the Minister feels that the objections submitted to him in writing by an elector are valid ones, he is entitled to include that fact in the report which he submits to Parliament on the provisions of the Bill.
In those circumstances, therefore, I suggest that the rights of every elector are safeguarded. All he has to do is to satisfy the Minister that the objections which he has are valid, and then the Select Committee which examines the Bill must have those objections before it and take them into consideration. I suggest, therefore, that the rights of every elector are safeguarded.
One of the most important things about this Bill is the fact, which has been brought out quite plainly, that three Committees of this House—one in 1929, another in 1932–33 and another as recently as 1955—all recommended that these provisions ought to be abolished. May I remind the House that, yesterday, the Home Secretary and Leader of the House, dealing with the Joint Committee on Private Bill procedure, read out a number of recommendations of that Committee which had been approved? If I remember rightly, he said that there were seven. I presume that this is one of them. It seems to me that we could very well reduce that number from seven to six by giving a Second Reading to this Bill and carry out the proposal that we should abolish the necessity for it.
I do not wish to weary the House with the history of this matter, except to say that although it was re-enacted in the Local Government Act, 1933, it found its origin in the Boroughs Funds Act of 1872. The Local Government Act of 1888 gave county councils authority to oppose Bills, but not to promote them. In 1903, the county councils were given authority to promote Bills in Parliament without the necessity for a town meeting 1644 or for taking a poll. That applies to rural district councils as well.
I cannot for the life of me see why it should be competent for a county council or a rural district council to be authorised to promote Bills in Parliament without the necessity for that, and to impose this obligation on county borough councils, borough councils and urban district councils. I should have thought this was one of the cases where we could treat local authorities in any category in exactly the same manner.
I commend to the House the words of the Minister of Housing and Local Government when, on 12th February, he said:Our aim is to foster and stimulate a vigorous and independent local government, and to give members of councils a greater incentive to take a lively interest in their local expenditure by placing much more of it under their own control."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th February, 1957; Vol. 564. c. 1083.]It is not much use giving municipalities control of their own expenditure unless we give them reasonable opportunity to promote Bills which they feel are in the interests of the districts which they serve.
§ 1.44 p.m.
Vice-Admiral John Hughes Hallett (Croydon, North-East)
Like the hon. Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones). I must say that after studying the correspondence I have had on this Bill I am by no means clear about the exact basis on which it is being proposed. It is not a matter on which I felt strongly originally, and I had not intended to take part in these discussions. But I was influenced by reading one of the letters which I received from an organisation similar to the organisations mentioned by the hon. Member for The Hartlepools, except that in this case it was a motoring organisation.
In the course of the arguments deployed against the Bill, the organisation based its disapproval on theproposed repeal of this democratic safeguard.I challenge the use of the word "democratic." After all, councils are elected on the basis of universal suffrage. What could be more democratic, therefore, than the present procedure whereby Bills are promoted, in as much, as has been pointed out, that they require two absolute majorities on the council before 1645 they can come to this House at all? Goodness knows, when a Private Bill does arrive here, it is vulnerable enough. Later in the same letter I found the statement that if the Bill were passed it would remove a simple means of objecting toa proposition which might he contrary to public interest.I question the use of the word public "in this respect. I can see that it provides the simple means of opposing a Bill which infringes some special interest, but I am bound to say that the present procedure of the town poll appears to me to be very much more of a happy hunting ground for particular interests than a democratic safeguard. Indeed, it is a gift to the "pressure group," and it is often used as such. But before we get rid of a safeguard which has been in force for a great many years, we must ask ourselves why it was originally introduced and in what way have the circumstances changed.
As the hon. Member for The Hartlepools said, it originated in its present form in 1872. But I have been told—I cannot claim to be an expert in these matters—that the conception of a town poll dates back to much more ancient times, to the days when the local government of towns was not carried out by an elected body at all, but by a nominated body. One can see that in those days it was important to have some local safeguard against the promotion of Bills by a nominated authority before they reached Parliament at all.
There was a time when the ordinary individual, living some hundreds of miles away from London, would have had some difficulty, to begin with, in discovering when the King had summoned Parliament to meet. Having discovered that, he would have found it even more difficult and expensive to reach London, and, I should imagine, though the details of the procedure in this place are not too well known after all these years—that an ordinary citizen might have had some difficulty in gaining access to Parliament at all.
Even in 1872 the electorate was a very restricted one, and it is possible that some very important minority, possibly even the majority, of townspeople might have been gravely affected by some project of the corporation, and that not one of them was represented on the electorate 1646 at all. Today that is all changed and, for the reasons which have been stated so clearly that I need not repeat them, there are ample democratic safeguards. For these reasons I conclude that the town poll is no longer either a necessary or, indeed, a proper way whereby the passage of a Private Bill should be obstructed or opposed.
At the same time we must recognise the genuineness of some of the fears which have been expressed by various groups and organisations. At the risk of introducing a note of party politics into the discussion, I will refer to what I think is a particular cause of apprehension, namely, the possibility of Bills reaching this House, and being passed, which authorise municipal trading in one form or another. Hon. Members opposite know that we on this side of the House, and an enormous number of small shopkeepers, are strongly opposed to any development or expansion in the practice of municipal trading.
§ Mr. D. Jones
Does the hon. and gallant Gentleman realise that in the Leeds Bill, to which the hon. and gallant Member for Wembley, North (Wing-Commander Bullus) referred, it was purely on a question of municipal trading that the Clause was rejected, so there is a safeguard in this House?
§ Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett
I am aware of that. Although I was not in the Chamber when my hon. and gallant Friend developed that part of his speech. I had prior knowledge that he intended to refer to that incident. I wanted to answer the argument in rather a different way. I confess that I speak as one who is very strongly opposed to any extension of municipal trading. What I question is whether this safeguard either can or should stand in the way of some hypothetical Measure. To begin with, it is perfectly obvious that no Private Bill which authorised municipal trading on a large scale would have a chance of geting through this House as long as there was a majority of hon. Members who were opposed to municipal trading.
If, on the other hand, we imagine at some future date a large Socialist majority in the House in favour of municipal trading—both hypothetical contingencies—I suggest that they would not rely on Private Bills to introduce it. 1647 They would introduce a Public Bill to authorise it generally over the whole country. Therefore, I come back to the point that I do not think that this procedure is the appropriate one for blocking Private Bills. I suggest that it has outlived its usefulness.
Finally, I ask those of my hon. Friends —if there are any here—who oppose the Bill to be logical. If they favour a town poll before a Private Bill is introduced, surely they should favour a referendum of the whole electorate before the Government are authorised to introduce any public Bill
§ Sir Wavell Wakefield (St. Marylebone)
Would not my hon. and gallant Friend agree that there is a common form of Private Bill and that frequently a local authority seeks to introduce a new Clause which may not be desirable? Is not this procedure of town meetings and polls admirable to enable people to express opposition to the introduction of a new or special Clause which, if introduced in one local authority Bill, would then create a precedent and be included automatically in all other Bills?
§ Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett
I appreciate that. It is indeed, the kernel of the opposition to the Bill. Nonetheless, I submit that the procedure before the Committee is a more effective safeguard. I am a comparatively new Member and I have served—if I may use the term—a sentence only twice on a Committee considering a corporation Bill: but nobody who has served on one of those Committees will deny for a moment the meticulous care with which the risk which my hon. Friend mentioned is guarded against, not only by the interested parties but also by the civil servants representing the Ministries concerned.
§ 1.54 p.m.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall (Colne Valley)
When I realised that the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. W. R. A. Hudson), who had won a place in the Ballot, had decided to introduce this Bill, I was pleased. As many of us know, this is not the first time that a Bill of this kind has been before the House but, unfortunately, so far a sufficient number of hon. Members have not been in its favour to ensure that it reached the Statute Book.
1648 I listened with great interest to the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Wembley, North (Wing-Commander Bullus) and to my hon. Friend the Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones), and I think that the case they made for the Bill was overwhelming. It was one which every reasonable man or woman should support.
What we want to do here is really quite simple. We want to take from county boroughs, boroughs and urban districts the absolute obligation which now rests upon them to hold a town meeting and, if there should be a demand for it by only a very small minority of electors, a poll. It is immaterial whether the issues in the Bill which the council desires to promote have been canvassed for years in the locality as, more often than not, they have been. Normally, people in a town or an urban district are well aware months in advance what it is that their local authority wishes to do when it seeks powers from this House.
In spite of that, there is this obligation on a local authority, because long ago, as the hon. and gallant Member for Croydon, North-East (Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett) pointed out, it was essential that safeguards of this kind should be instituted as a protection for ratepayers. The need for this has long passed away and, in fact, the methods for putting it into operation cannot now properly be applied. The House would be doing itself justice if it accepted the Bill and took steps to see that it reaches the Statute Book at an early date.
The astonishing thing is that even those who are in favour of retaining these provisions think that 100 electors are enough to make a poll necessary. We have been given instances, and others could be given, where cities like Liverpool with an electorate of over half a million, have been put to the expense of holding what really amounts to a referendum of all local government electors because a mere hundred or so have demanded a poll.
It is a most expensive process to hold a referendum of this kind. It involves the setting up of polling booths, the appointment of presiding and other officers, the issuing of notices of various sorts, and also the printing of ballot papers which, more often than not, are lengthy, complicated documents. All this costs money.
1649 As hon. Members have said, none of us would raise objection to this procedure if it really achieved the purpose for which it was originally designed, or even approximately achieved it. It is obvious, however, that more often than not the procedure is used as a device by a small minority of electors to ventilate a grievance which is not shared by the great majority of those who live in the locality.
It is physically impossible, in most towns, to find a hall large enough to take a modern electorate, or even a fair number of them and, even then, you can be by no means sure that the people there are entitled to vote and are local electors. Cases have been known in which a small minority, who felt very strongly on a particular subject about which its local authority desired to obtain powers from this House, have gone beyond the boundaries of the locality and have enlisted the help of outside supporters.
That is grossly unfair. It means that the ratepayers in that area have to foot the bill for the poll which has to be held. For these reasons, if for no others, we should hesitate long before deciding to oppose the Bill.
I saw recently a reference to the fact that not long ago, in Leicester, which has an electorate of about 200,000, a poll was demanded, but only about 1.4 per cent. of the people troubled to vote. The cost came, I believe, to between £1,500 and £2,000, which meant that every vote cost Leicester ratepayers 10s. That sort of thing ought not to be allowed to continue and the House should see to it that we so alter the law that it should not be within the power of a few people to put a great city to that expense.
It has been argued that as the 1933 Local Government Act was passed comparatively recently, when electorates were already large, those responsible for putting it on the Statute Book must have had that fact in mind. We ought not, therefore, it is said to tamper with legislation so recently agreed to. That Act, however, stems from the Borough Funds Act, 1872, as amended by the Act of 1903, which transferred the power to demand a poll to local government electors and took it from owners and ratepayers. It also made it impossible for opposition to depend upon one single person objecting and made it obligatory to have at least 100. 1650 In these days of large electorates even 100 people are not enough to authorise the holding of a poll.
These earlier provisions were reenacted in the 1933 Act because the Chelmsford Committee, which reported in 1932, though definitely in favour of repeal, included it in its draft Bill in 1933, because it considered its terms of reference gave it no option. It agreed with repeal and with the recommendation of the Royal Commission which reported in 1928, upon which report an earlier Act of 1929 was founded. That Royal Commission believed that these provisions should be repealed.
Because, therefore, a Royal Commission and two Committees—one a Select Committee, which reported as recently as two years ago—have all declared in favour, after due consideration and the taking of evidence, that these provisions should be repealed, the time has, I think, come when the House should agree to their disappearance. Except for a few specialised interests not many people have made a request to hon. Members to oppose the Bill. I have received only one, from the Hotels and Restaurants Association. On the other hand, every local authority in my area has asked me to do all I can to put this reform on the Statute Book.
I therefore hope that at long last, thirty years after it was recommended by a Royal Commission, the House will today give this Bill a Second Reading.
§ 2.7 p.m.
§ Mr. Dudley Williams (Exeter)
I rise to oppose the Bill because it takes away from local government electors powers that they should retain. Everyone knows that some local authorities try constantly to extend the area in which they can operate. Were we to give the Bill a Second Reading we should eventually find a spate of Bills promoted by local authorities to give them powers which many electors rightly think they should not have.
For example, we should see Bills put forward one after the other by boroughs and county boroughs to enable them to go in for municipal trading which would greatly interfere with the businesses of ratepayers in their areas. I am not in favour of taking away from sectional interests their powers of obstructing 1651 legislation. A pamphlet has been distributed to hon. Members by the Association of Municipal Corporations and by the Urban District Councils' Association. I would like to make extensive quotations from it. I consider the pamphlet to be a thoroughly misleading document, and I am astonished that a body of the respectability of this Association sees fit to put such pressure upon Members of the House of Commons.
The opening words of the second paragraph state:These provisions"—that is, the power to demand a meeting and a poll by local electors—do not apply in the case of a Bill promoted by a county council or a rural district council and it is not thought that in consequence thereof any mischief has resulted.The right hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Glenvil Hall) referred to this state of the law; but if there was anything wrong in the Bills promoted by areas controlled by rural district councils and county councils, surely the correct procedure would not be to take away the protection which ratepayers have in county boroughs and boroughs, but to introduce legislation to gain the same protection for ratepayers who live in the areas controlled by county councils and rural district councils.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall
I am very interested in what the hon. Member is saying. If what he has now said is put forward as a serious suggestion, will he also indicate how there could be a town's meeting of a county council area?
§ Mr. Williams
I appreciate the manner of the right hon. Gentleman's intervention. Of course, the taking of the poll might be difficult and it might be necessary to take it by completely different means. It might be necessary to take it by post. All sorts of systems could be used in the scattered areas of a county council.
The fact is that the contentious legislation which I foresee if this Measure is passed into law is not likely to be introduced for areas controlled by county councils or rural district councils, because those are not the authorities who like to embark on such activities as municipal trading. They cannot trade, because their populations are too scattered. This 1652 is a real protection for a certain section of ratepayers and it should be maintained.
I want next to refer to the criticisms which have been made of the power to call meetings. I refer to page xx of the Report of the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure, under the heading "Town meetings and polls." I am extremely surprised at some of the criticisms mentioned under that heading. The right hon. Member for Colne Valley mentioned, I believe, that no hall was large enough to hold a reasonable number of electors. The strange thing is that that paragraph 77 (b) statesThat in any case only a very small proportion of the electorate did so attend.One cannot have it both ways. Either one must complain that the halls are not big enough or that not enough people attend the meetings.
There is no legal compunction to hold the meetings in a hall. Use could be made of the local football ground or dog track, with loudspeakers. If the people of the borough concerned are so upset or feel so strongly about legislation proposed by their local authority, nothing would be easier than to go out to Highbury and have the meeting on the Arsenal football ground, or at the football ground or dog track in any area. That criticism of the present procedure is, therefore, a poor one.
I want to refer again to the criticism that few electors attend a meeting when one is called. It is a dangerous theory to suggest that because only a few people take advantage of their democratic rights to attend, the meeting is not a fair one. If we adopted that attitude, we would find ourselves driven inescapably to the conclusion that unless a certain proportion of the electorate vote at a general election, the election should be invalid. Such a suggestion would be monstrous. The fact that only a few people attend shows that the bulk of the people are not concerned whether the legislation should or should not be implemented, while those who do attend are really taking a serious interest. Those are the people whose will is to be counted.
§ Mr. D. Jones
Is the hon. Member arguing that if 5 per cent. of the electors of Manchester turn up at a meeting and record a decision against a project the 1653 other 95 per cent. who are absent, presumably, because of their indifference, must accept the decision of the 5 per cent.?
§ Mr. Williams
The hon. Member is putting forward a most specious argument. The 95 per cent. who do not turn up have no interest in the legislation. Nobody can say whether they favour or oppose it. We might say that if everyone had voted in the Lewisham by-election the Conservative candidate would have been returned by a big majority, but we cannot say that.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall
Would the hon. Member apply the same argument to last night's debate, when we were discussing the Rating and Valuation Bill and there was only the Minister and one other Member present on his side of the Committee?
§ Mr. Williams
What matters in a division, as the right hon. Gentleman, from his long experience, should know, is the number of people who decide to turn up and vote at the end.
To continue the argument about the weight to be attached to those who do not trouble at attend town meetings, we find the same state of affairs at company meetings. It is the people who turn up who decide whether the accounts should be passed and the directors elected. No one can say that because only five out of 200 shareholders turn up at a public company meeting, the directors should not be elected. It is the people who think and feel strongly about these things who attend. That applies in all phases of our democratic life, whether in local government, at a general election, or, indeed, in this House. It cannot be said that because 100 Members stay away from the House and do not vote, a resolution which is passed by the House is invalid. That is not the way we run our democratic life. It is the people who trouble to attend, to listen to the argument and to vote, who carry the day.
§ Mr. D. Jones
Is it not true that on the previous Bill, had the hon. Member got 45 others with him he would have prevented the Second Reading of the Bill and it would not matter to the other 500-odd Members, who would have to accept it?
§ Mr. Williams
That is true, but there is nothing wrong with it. We do not know how those who are not present today would have voted. There is no argument for saying that because only a limited number of people attend a meeting, the meeting is therefore unfair or should be invalidated.
§ Mr. Williams
My hon. Friend has referred to what happens at trade union branches. Anyone who has attended knows what happens.
I am not a trade union member and have no personal interest, but I remember attending a union meeting in Coventry in about 1947 at which I was to speak. There were 200 members of the branch. I attended on the Thursday night to put the Conservative case. Of those who came to pay their dues, only 23 remained to take any interest in what was going on in the activities of the union. It was the day when they were to decide their policy on various matters and there was not the sightest doubt that 21 of the 23 were Communists.
§ Mr. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)
I do not know whether my hon. Friend is aware that the other day a branch of the Amalgamated Engineering Union had a secret ballet and only 7 per cent. of the members voted.
§ Mr. Williams
That bears out the argument I have been putting to the House, that much as we should like to see more people exercise their democratic rights, the fact that only a limited number exercise them is not a justification for abandoning democratic rights.
Further arguments listed in this Report against towns' meetings are extremely interesting. On page xx, paragraph (c) it is said:That it was difficult to confine the attendance to electors.that is, electors on the local roll. If there is to be a town's meeting it should not be difficult to check which of those coming to it are on the electoral roll. It should not be difficult to find out which of them are justified and which are not in voting.
§ Sir W. Wakefield
There can be control of public meetings as there is of a 1655 meeting of a company in which there are many thousands of shareholders. The shareholders have forms which they show on going into the room where the meeting is to be held. Their names are entered in a list. The same sort of control is exercised when a trade union is taking a poll or having a meeting to which representatives come from all over the country. A trade union may hold a meeting of members coming from all over the country, but a town's meeting is for the people of one locality only, and so they are more easily identified, and that meeting is much easier to control. Is that not the case?
§ Mr. Williams
I wholly agree with my hon. Friend. I think that there should be no difficulty whatever in restricting entry to the meeting to people who are registered as electors in the area whose affairs are to be affected by the meeting.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall
I thought the hon. Gentleman wanted to transfer these meetings to Wembley Stadium.
§ Mr. Williams
No. I do not think that that intervention by the right hon. Gentleman was worthy of him.
§ Sir W. Wakefield
At Lord's in my constituency, or at Twickenham or any such sports ground, there are turnstiles to control the admission of every individual seeking to enter.
§ Mr. Williams
I cannot now deal with all the ways in which towns' meetings take place on or off football grounds. Personally I am not intimately concerned with the operation of football clubs, and I bow to the superior knowledge of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Openshaw (Mr. W. R. Williams), who says that turnstiles cannot control a crowd, and of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Sir W. Wakefield) who says they can.
I was about to reply to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Colne Valley, who suggested I was advocating transferring these meetings to Wembley Stadium. I was not doing anything of the sort. I said that if in a borough there were no hall suitable for a town's meeting the local football ground, or some 1656 such area, could be used instead. I am sorry if I misled the right hon. Gentleman, but I was not suggesting that every town's meeting should be held at Wembley Stadium.
We come to the next criticism of towns' meetings, which is reported in paragraph 77 (d). This is one of the strangest criticisms I have ever read:That businesslike conduct of the meetings was difficult, and in many cases it was impossible to ascertain correctly the views of those present on the clauses and parts of Bills which had to be put somewhat arbitrarily to the meetings.What a criticism that is of local authorities, that they cannot conduct public meetings. Of course there is no difficulty whatever in ascertaining the views of the people in the hall. There is no difficulty in keeping control of the meeting—not, that is, for competent people. I do not myself believe that these arguments are serious ones. Put as they are they do not reflect great credit on either the Association of Municipal Corporations or the local authorities who support it.
One of the last criticisms to which I shall refer, for there are other matters to which I want to come, is reported in sub-paragraph (e), and that is:That it was possible for a powerful or wealthy organisation to create opposition to the proposals in the Bill, even though the feeling of the electors was in their favour.What is wrong with people using their wealth to oppose a proposal which they think is wrong? If a local authority wanted to promote a Parliamentary Bill to make it illegal for any of its servants to be members of a trade union, would it not be proper for a wealthy trade union to oppose such a Bill? I should think nothing more proper could possibly be conceived. Of course there is nothing wrong in people using such money as they have to oppose a Bill which they think is opposed to their interests and is not generally in the interests of the ratepayers.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall
What proposal is there in the Bill which would prevent such opposition from fructifying? Trade unions or any other groups who felt aggrieved could still petition against a Bill.
§ Mr. Williams
They could not command a poll. I am saying that that is one of the quickest ways to kill a Bill.
1657 Of course, they could create a disturbance when the Bill reached Parliament: but I say that the people of the locality affected by the Bill themselves should have the opportunity to make their views felt at a meeting and at the poll consequent upon it.
There is a further criticism reported on the same page of the Report:That the subject-matter of the poll was often incomprehensible to the ordinary elector.That is a nice reflection on the people who send us here. The insinuation is made that the decision to be made is one which the people themselves are not competent to adjudicate upon.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall
It is quite clear that the hon. Gentleman has never seen one of these ballot papers. Sometimes they run to almost eighteen inches in depth, and are most complicated, so complicated that it is difficult for the councillors to comprehend them, let alone the ordinary electors who have not seen the Bill.
§ Mr. Williams
I do not know what experience the right hon. Gentleman has had of these local polls, but I took part in one once, and I was, perhaps, to some extent instrumental in getting the Bill stopped. I will deal with that later, if the right hon. Gentleman will allow me.
The Report says:That the promoter's opportunities for counter-propaganda were limited:That the ballot papers, in the nature of the case, were both complicated and uninformative;That in some cases electors had been subject to pressure to vote against all the proposals on the ballot paper in order to ensure the rejection of one.All these criticisms are nothing less than insults to the intelligence of the people of this country. I do not think the people of this country are misled in this way. I believe that they are fully capable of making decisions when confronted with the ballot box for such purposes.
I now want to refer to some of the polls which have taken place in the last ten to twelve years. Thus I shall also be able to answer a question raised by the right hon. Gentleman. Before any suggestion is made that the people of this country should have rights taken from them one should find out whether their powers have been used reasonably in the 1658 time in which they have had those powers. I shall go through all the cases since 1945. I am sorry to take up the time of the House like this, but I think that this is very important indeed, and that it must be considered before we decide that we can give this Bill a Second Reading.
On pages 168–9 of the Report of the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure hon. and right hon. Gentlemen will see a list of the town polls which have been held between 1945 and 1954. The first Bill referred to is a Bill promoted by the Portsmouth Corporation. The Bill authorised agreements between the Corporation and South Down Motor Services. It was not a Bill to which one could take very great exception. As a result, there was a large majority for it. There was a poll of 5.6 per cent. of the electorate and a majority for it of 6,000. It seems to me that that was a decision that was quite correct for the people of Portsmouth to take.
The next Measure was promoted by Felixstowe Urban District Council for the transfer of the Pier Company's pier to the Council. I think it is right to assume that the people of Felixstowe thought it wrong that a local authority should interfere with what was a private business. They voted against the Measure, and 46.5 per cent. of the electorate voted. I know of countless by-elections for local authorities where not so many people voted. Where is this business of always 2 per cent. or 3 per cent. carrying the day? In this instance, there was a narrow majority for throwing out the Bill.
In 1947–48 there was quite a number of Bills. The Beverley Corporation wanted power to develop surplus lands, and that was thrown out. The Birmingham Corporation wanted provision of furniture and power to provide municipal hotels. The two Clauses were thrown out of the Bill. The voters did not throw out the whole Bill, and I cannot understand the suggestion that the electorate are not sufficiently wise to decide.
§ Mr. Williams
The implication of an argument from the benches opposite was that the people of North Lewisham should not have had a Member elected at all because so many of them did not vote 1659 that the election should have been invalid. That is a most strange interpretation of our general principles and methods of conducting our public life.
I now come to the Bill about which I was told by the right hon. Member for Colne Valley I knew nothing. It is a Bill which Coventry Corporation promoted in 1947. It was designed to provide,Heating undertaking. Prohibition of smoke in certain areas. Power to provide concert halls. Power to provide entertainments etc. Wireless rediffusion. Power to provide municipal hotels. Power to provide and run motor hackney carriages. Collection and delivery of washing.At that time I was the Conservative candidate for Coventry. and it was my first introduction to political life as a budding Member of Parliament. I must disappoint hon. Members opposite if they say that the people of Coventry had the good sense to reject me. Actually, the constituency disappeared under redistribution.
I well remember that this was a terrific battle. There was very strong feeling in Coventry, and not only among shopkeepers who were naturally upset that a considerable amount of their business was to be taken away from them and a local authority would have to provide the necessary buying and selling departments, and therefore there was no likelihood of these same people having their rates reduced after having their businesses nibbled away.
§ Mr. Williams
We had a pretty active campaign in the city, and there was very strong feeling. A total of about 21.5 per cent. of the electorate voted and there was a majority of 13,197 against the council's proposals. I do not know what has happened in Coventry since they were so unwise as to let me go, but I should be very suspicious of any statement to the effect that since I left the corporation has gone in for any of these activities.
The next Bill promoted in 1947–48 was that by Cromer Urban District Council fordissolution of Commissioners for sea defences and transfer of their property (including the pier), powers and rights to the Council and various provisions relating to the pier.1660 One would not have thought that that was a contentious Measure, but it aroused a considerable amount of local interest and 37.8 per cent. of the electorate voted —not the 3 per cent. about which we keep hearing. They decided to register their votes either for or against, and there was substantial majority for the promotion of the Bill.
In the case of the last Bill for 1947–48, that promoted by Whitley Bay Corporation, there was an adverse vote against the whole Bill which sought to confer further powers on the councilin regard to the management and control of the foreshore, sea-shore, and the adjoining links and general powers as to streets, buildings, sewers, drains, infectious diseases, sanitary matters, food, public buildings, parks, cemeteries, provision of entertainment, acquisition, use and development of land.I have no doubt that the people of Whitley Bay voted against the Measure because they felt that too much power was suddenly being given to the local authority. It was a very wide Bill indeed. Again there was not this very microscopic vote which is constantly alleged. About 11.8 per cent. of the electorate voted. I do not think that one can dismiss the whole subject by saying that no notice must be taken of the people because the poll was not nearer 100 per cent.
In the Barnsley Corporation Bill, in 1948–49, there was a Clause 5To relieve the Corporation of the obligation to maintain, set apart and use part of the Harvey Institute as a public hall for public meetings.Why should not the people of Barnsley have the right to the public hall for public meetings? They threw out this Clause. Again it will be noted that they did not throw out the whole Bill. Therefore, this idea that it is a complicated matter to vote in a poll on a Bill promoted by a local authority is not true. People are quite capable of voting against one Clause and accepting the rest of the Bill. I am surprised that anyone should seriously suggest, either in the Association of Municipal Corporations or in Parliament, that electors have not the intelligence to decide how they wish to vote.
In the case of the Crewe Corporation Bill, it was suggested that wireless rediffusion should be controlled by the Corporation which soughtpower to establish a wireless station for reception and transmission of broadcasts, etc.1661 The electorate of Crewe were pretty quick to throw out this suggestion, and there was a substantial majority against it. I think it is quite undesirable that a local authority should have the powers to establish a wireless station and undertake wireless rediffusion.
In the case of the Grimsby Corporation, there was a demand for a Bill which it promoted in the 1948 Session of Parliament, and which received a substantial majority in its favour.
§ Mr. W. T. Proctor (Eccles)
On a point of order. The hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. D. Williams) is obviously reading out what has happened to Bills in the past. Is not that tedious repetition, as far as we are concerned? I submit that if such conduct took place in most of the places we are talking about, the meetings would never end.
§ Sir W. Wakefield
Further to that point of order. Before you came into the Chair, Mr. Speaker, reference had been made by previous speakers who were speaking in favour of this Bill, and, if I may say so, all these points now being raised in detail by my hon. Friend are in answer to the points made by other hon. Members prior to your resumption of the Chair.
§ Mr. Doughty
Further to that point of order. While it is certainly true, as the hon. Member said, that the percentage of people attending polls is a matter which has been very much stressed by those speaking in favour of this Bill, may I suggest that my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter is now submitting that those observations must have been somewhat inaccurate, and, therefore, as this Bill deals entirely with the numbers of people attending town meetings in regard to possible amending legislation, the illustrations quoted by my hon. Friend are relevant?
§ Mr. Williams
This Bill promoted by the Grimsby Corporation did not raise deep feeling. I will not read out the whole Bill, though I would be willing—[Interruption.] Nothing could be further from my mind than the idea that I should occupy the House for the whole afternoon. [Interruption.] Well, I will read the whole Bill, if hon. Members wish.
1662 The Bill regulated the position of the mayor, aldermen and burgesses of the borough, and it was really a technical Bill. There was nothing of tremendous importance to which one could take exception, except that it referred to the acquisition of land, which I understand was held for the benefit of the enrolled freemen of the borough. It was that point, I believe I am right in saying, which caused a certain amount of irritation locally. Is the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) saying that I am not correct? Would he like to rise?
§ Mr. Williams
Hon. Members have the right to give their views in this House. The electors send us here to maintain the rights which they have acquired over many centuries. I am a Member of the House of Commons, and I therefore look upon it as my right to maintain the rights of the electorate. That Bill was allowed to go forward, and there was a majority in favour of the Bill being allowed to go on.
The next Bill promoted was the Urmston Urban District Council Bill, which again got a vote in favour of the Bill being allowed to proceed to Parliament. The next Bill was not a highly contentious Bill promoted by the Leyton Corporation. It gave the corporation power to promote a heating undertaking, to run a window-cleaning service and various other activities, but it was looked upon as a very contentious Bill. There was a lot of feeling locally about it, and eventually there was an adverse vote of 279 against the Bill, some ten per cent. of the electorate voting.
The Aldershot Bill promoted in 1951, which was also supported, was a Bill to extend the borough. The Nottingham Corporation and the Birmingham Corporation Bills are the last two mentioned in the Report. The Nottingham Corporation Bill was turned down, while the Birmingham Corporation Bill, and this is a most significant thing, was the subject of objection on six Clauses. I will not weary the House by reading out all the six Clauses, but some of them were contentious without any doubt. There was 1663 one question of creating a reserve fund for a restaurant, another one concerned an insurance fund, and another was concerned with power to nominate tenants of certain properties, presumably properties not controlled or owned by the Corporation.
There was very strong feeling about it, and I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Selly Oak (Mr. Gurden), who so ably represents part of Birmingham, will confirm that there was considerable opposition locally to this Measure. Again, the people of Birmingham, in their wisdom, did not just cross out the whole Bill, but selected the Clauses which they wanted to eradicate from it. They did this in the case of five out of the six Clauses. In the third Clause, there were restrictions on the use of loudspeakers in the streets, and this they allowed to go through, which is a Clause which I would have supported. Nothing is more irritating than the row or racket that can be created outside one's house by someone who is advocating one policy or another. It is a technique which I do not use myself very largely, except at election time.
§ Mr. Harold Gurden (Birmingham, Selly Oak)
The point to remember here is that in that Bill the right to use loudspeakers in Birmingham was not taken away in the case of elections. One could still use loudspeakers even under the provisions of that proposed Bill for local government and for Parliamentary elections and such polls as those. It was to take away the nuisance value that the promoters had in mind, and my hon. Friend quite rightly said that that was a discerning poll taken in Birmingham.
§ Mr. Williams
I thank my hon. Friend for adding to the point which I made on the question of the use of loudspeakers. I think it is probably right that the power should be retained for election purposes only.
Now, I want to refer again to the pamphlet sent out by the Association of Municipal Corporations. Again, it refers in paragraph 5 to this question of public meetings and, speaking of the local authorities, says:At the most, they only get the approval of those few who attend the public meeting or who take the trouble to vote.1664 Again, we have this strange theory that because only a few go to vote, therefore an election or decision under our democratic system should be invalid. I cannot understand it. Surely, the fact that some people vote and that the majority vote for a certain thing is a clear indication that many people feel strongly about certain Measures. Most of them feel one way or the other, and the fact that a tremendous number abstain because they do not care either way really has nothing to do with the matter at all.
As I have shown from the mention that I have made of the percentages of people attending meetings and voting in the polls on various Bills between the years 1948 and 1954, it is quite obvious that, in many cases when feelings have been strongly aroused, the polls have produced extremely high percentages, in all the circumstances, and in many cases considerably higher than many local councillors at by-elections obtain in order to sit on the council, though perhaps a little bit lower than in the case of by-elections for the House of Commons. In the past, however, people have got into the House of Commons on very low votes.
§ Mr. Williams
The hon. Gentleman makes very wild remarks. The percentage is the same whether only a few vote or a great many. The hon. Gentleman's observation is quite irrelevant.
§ Mr. Proctor
The hon. Gentleman said that people get in on a very low vote. In the days of the Rotten Boroughs very few people had votes, and a number of people got in on the vote of a very small percentage of the population.
§ Mr. Williams
But the percentage question is the same whether twenty people vote or 20,000 and the percentage in this case happened at by-elections in the past when party enthusiasm was not extremely strong.
There are other things in the leaflet sent out by the Association of Municipal Corporations which I do not like. In paragraph 6 they say:What frequently happens at a public meeting is that if any provision of the Bill affects any particular class of persons either to their advantage or to their disadvantage those persons will attend in number …1665 What is wrong with that? I do not myself believe it is right that people who have a grievance, and who take the trouble to turn up at a public meeting, or take part in a public poll and decide that they do not wish to support a particular Measure, should be sneered at.
§ Mr. Julius Silverman (Birmingham, Aston)
The point is not that they turn up but that, where there is only one public meeting, they pack the meeting, and the general ratepayers either do not attend or are excluded.
§ Mr. Williams
If the hon. Gentleman had been attending here diligently during the day he would have heard that point dealt with, but I will go back to the point I was making. I will go through it again so that the hon. Gentleman cannot miss it and then perhaps he will not have to intervene again. The fact is that in the Report, to which I feel I should again refer, and which I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has read, there are criticisms of town meetings. On page 20, under paragraph 77 (a), they say that normally no hall could be found large enough for even a reasonable proportion of the town people, and that only a small proportion turn up.
If feeling is strong, the point I make in reply to the hon. Gentleman's criticism is that there is no need to have the meeting in a hall. It can be held on the local football ground or dog track. That was the point I made earlier, and I am sorry that his other duties could not allow the hon. Gentleman to get here to listen to me.
In paragraph 7 the Association makes the following strange remark:The number of local government electors attending the public meeting must always be a very small percentage of the electorate"—I do not understand that—… and when a poll is taken very few take the trouble to vote.I have already said that 37.8 have voted and anyone knows that 40 per cent. of the electorate voting means that feeling was very strong on this subject, so it is nonsense to say that these matters are settled by a group of people, congregated either in the local trade union headquarters or in the local headquarters of the chamber of commerce, deciding to rig an election. There is no truth in it. I see the hon. Member for Brixton rising. Does he want to intervene?
§ Mr. Williams
Then do not let me detain the hon. Gentleman. My right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) once fought an election on the slogan of "Trust the people." I am certain that the people are capable of exercising their votes in a proper manner on these issues, and it would be wrong for them to be deprived of their rights in the manner suggested in this Bill.
Now I come to the criticism that is sometimes made that if people disapprove of what the council is doing, they can vote against the council at the next municipal election. This is a strange theory. Local politics cannot be compared with the politics of the country. Here in the House of Commons we run the party system. I know that exists also to a great degree now in municipal and local government generally, but we stand as a body.
When Parliament dissolves, the great parties arrange their programmes and go to the public and get a vote on the proposed policies, but that does not happen in local government. One-third of the local government councillors retire every year, so there is a constant change-over, and it is unusual for the local councillor to put forward as part of his platform that he will promote a Bill in Parliament to introduce municipal trading. Indeed, there would be a row if he did so. I have never heard of a local government candidate for a council putting forward such a suggestion, but here we are different. We come in on definite policies. If people do not like the policies, they can vote against us. So I do not think there is a reasonable criticism against the rejection of the Bill on such grounds.
There is only one other matter to which I shall refer, and that is the suggestion made in some quarters that the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure was unanimous in deciding that the public meetings and the polls should be abandoned. It is true that this was one of the recommendations of the Joint Committee, but there was considerable feeling among certain of its members that this should not be done. On 3rd March, 1955, an Amendment to this proposal 1667 was moved by my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and he was supported by the two other Conservative Members of the Committee present on that occasion, namely my hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. G. Wilson), who much regrets that he is unable to be here today, and Colonel Lockwood, who is no longer a Member of this House.
The suggestion of this Amendment was that the town meeting should be abolished but that the right to a poll should be retained. Because that Amendment was defeated, the main recommendation that the polls and meetings should be abolished went through. It is my contention that when there is a strong minority feeling against such a proposal by a Joint Committee, it is undesirable for us in this House to ride over the feelings of those minorities and take away the rights that people have to polls that they have at the moment.
For those reasons, I hope that this House will decide not to give a Second Reading to the Bill.
§ 2.59 p.m.
§ Mr. W. R. Williams (Manchester, Openshaw)
After that marathon speech by the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Dudley Williams), mine will appear a very puny effort, in time at any rate. The basis of the hon. Gentleman's speech was that we must be extremely democratic and do nothing to prevent the views of minorities being expressed and collected in one form or another. But what the hon. Gentleman has been doing seems to me to be the reverse of that, for he has monopolised practically an hour of our time, thereby denying a number of other hon. Members the opportunity to put their points of view. Like charity, democracy and democratic ideas should start at home.
People outside the House look upon it as a very bad thing that so much effort should be made in Parliament to filibuster on one issue in order to make sure that other people do not have a chance to bring forward their Bills. This is a private Members' day—
§ Mr. Dudley Williams
On a point of order. Is it in order, Mr. Speaker, for the hon. Member to accuse another hon. Member of deliberately wasting the time.of the House?
§ Mr. Speaker
I did not hear the hon. Member say that. Hon. Members should not, of course, impute unavowed motives to each other.
§ Mr. W. R. Williams
I accept what you say, Mr. Speaker, but I still think it is the view of most hon. Members present that a large amount of what was said by the hon. Member could have been put more concisely, thus giving other hon. Members more time to speak.
This is a private Members' day, and there are at least three hon. Members present who wish to bring before the House Bills which they think will be of interest to the House, to their constituents and to the country at large. It is very unfair that there should be an attempt deliberately to crowd out Bills which some hon. Members have been waiting a long time to bring before the House. I do not think it is in the interests of Parliament that that should happen, and I wish to protest against it, because it is happening time after time.
I thought that the hon. and gallant Member for Wembley, North (Wing Commander Bullus) moved the Second Reading of the Bill in a very moderate, comprehensive and concise manner. Whether or not one accepts all the views expressed by him, he is to be congratulated upon raising the issue, which is perturbing a large number of people and upon the reasonable and intelligent way in which he did it.
I admit I had some qualms about the Bill when it was first put forward. I am one of those who believe passionately that we should do nothing to hurt anyone in the country or to preclude people from expressing their views on matters of great public importance or on matters of importance to themselves. Throughout my trade union career I have believed that it is right that people belonging to an organisation should have the full rights of their membership to express themselves on all matters coming within the purview of the organisation.
However, we must come to the conclusion that there is a point beyond which it is unreasonable to go, even to safeguard the rights of an individual. In some respects, I might differ from most hon. Members on most things, but I think that it would be forcing the issue of democratic rights to an almost farcical 1669 extent if we had to insist that on every little thing that takes place we must consult each person in either the association or our constituency. We are in danger of making the idea of democratic ways and means an oppressive thing instead of something that matters to society and to the individual.
I have been asked by the Manchester City Council to support the Bill because it is reasonable and practical. It is already clear that the provisions which we are seeking to alter do not apply to all authorities. They do not apply to county councils and rural district councils. People in the areas of those councils act in the usual democratic way by seeing their local councillor and discussing the matter with him. They may try to bring pressure to bear upon him. That is the democratic and open manner. If that is fair and democratic for those people in those areas, why does it become undemocratic in Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, London, or anywhere else? We cannot have two forms of democracy, one for large conurbations and one for rural areas. No public mischief is done in those areas where these provisions do not apply.
There have been many suggestions that matters can be discussed intelligently at public meetings. If there were a public meeting at Highbury, or at Old Trafford, in Manchester, with 48,000 or 50,000 present, there would still be only 10 per cent. of the electors present. What serious consideration could they give to any of the matters in such a Bill? If we are to give people the right of discussion and examination, we must, at the same time, give them an opportunity rationally and reasonably to express their point of view at a well ordered, well arranged meeting. It is physically impossible in any large city to do that at a large public meeting.
What happens at these public meetings is not that there is consideration of a Bill, or of any of its Clauses or aspects. The people who are opposed to any part of the Bill, or to all of it, go to the meeting to record their votes. It can be reasonably assumed that most of the people in favour of the Bill, either in whole or in part, will not go because they believe that no useful purpose will be served by going.
1670 On the grounds of practicability and reasonability, in these modern times, such a procedure has no advantage, whatever might have been the virtues in the old days, when there were no newspapers in daily circulation and when we did not have the radio and opportunities for members of local authorities precisely to indicate to their constituents what they had in mind. In the old days, fewer people were interested and affected and it was easier to deal with the pros and cons of a case at a public meeting. Although I want a completely democratic line to be taken in these matters, I believe that it is quite impracticable to follow the suggestion of the hon. Member for Exeter.
My next point emphasises something which has been said already. It is not as if this were just a whim of a few individuals or associations. This is the considered opinion of a large number of public-spirited people on local authorities who can see no reason for a tremendous waste of good money. For instance, I have been supplied with some statistics about attendances at towns' meetings in Manchester. In 1938, the number of electors was 354,549 and 200 people attended a meeting. In 1950, the electors numbered 490.936 and 600 attended a meeting. As recently as 1954 there were 485,541 electors and 400 attended a meeting.
No one in his senses would say that the practical result of such a meeting was any good at all to Manchester. It cannot be said that if 400 out of 485,000 say that they do not want a certain thing that is representative of the people in that large city.
§ Mr. Gresham Cooke
Is it not true that as a result of that meeting Manchester Corporation dropped the proposal it had made originally?
§ Mr. Williams
if it did, I think it did so on quite unreasonable grounds. I do not see anything sensible in taking the view of 400 out of 485,000 and regarding that as a representative view.
Take the statistics of the polls in Manchester. In 1938, the electorate was about 354,000 and the number of votes about 20,000. The percentage of the electorate was 5.3 per cent. In 1950, the electorate numbered 490,936 and the votes cast numbered 25,000, a percentage of the 1671 electorate of 5.2 per cent. Is it not farcical? To hold that poll the Manchester Corporation had to spend well over £3,500. The cost of each vote was 3s. I do not mind if we pay 10s. for a vote if we get the views of the constituents on any subject, but it is farcical to think that we can reach the right conclusion about the future welfare of any city when only that percentage of the people takes an interest.
If Manchester dropped the Bill, as suggested by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke), it is reasonable to assume that the people of Manchester knew from the Press, from the radio, from journals and pamphlets what the proposition was and, if they did not oppose it, they must be taken as being in favour. It is reasonable to assume that at least they did not feel sufficiently strongly about it to oppose those particular proposals. In the absence of that opposition it is not unreasonable, in these modern times, to accept that there was a measure of agreement, if there was not total agreement.
I do not believe that because a municipal association says something that must be taken as sacrosanct, but when all these municipalities join in saying a thing we ought to take some serious notice of the points they put before us. So far as I know not one body which represents local authorities does not take the view, expressed in this Bill, that we are wasting time by the present practice and getting very little in return for all the money and labour expended upon it.
Further, we have had the Royal Commission's Report. Personally, I had some very unfortunate results from Royal Commissions when I was in the Civil Service. Sometimes I think that they mangle a lot but bring forth very little clean linen: but, despite all that, I think that from such a Report we get a general consensus of opinion of people interested in these important matters. They have considered this and have come to the conclusion that it is no more necessary for this to apply in the boroughs to which I have referred than in the more rural and county authorities.
As far as I can see, there is one advantage, at least, in having the Bill. I do not think that any hon. Member present today would agree that the present situa- 1672 tion is a satisfactory one. Whatever may be our view as to how we should conduct our business in the localities, I do not think that anyone would be satisfied with the figures I have given today and the cost involved in meeting the demands of the few. If, therefore, it is thought that the Bill goes too far, and that total abolition is not the right thing, we are surely still entitled to give it a Second Reading today so that, in Committee, we may go fully into some of these aspects. We can, perhaps, then amend it and make it a better Bill.
Broadly, however, I am in favour of the Bill as it is. It is a step forward towards bringing the conduct of affairs in our local authorities up to the requirements of modern times, and I shall support its Second Reading.
§ 3.17 p.m.
§ Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)
The hon. Member for Openshaw (Mr. W. R. Williams) has put forward some strong arguments in his usual sincere, persuasive and fluent manner, but he has not made me personally enthusiastic for the Bill. In one part of his speech he referred to the present position whereby the public is well-informed by the newspapers and the wireless. Members of the public are not well-informed of the lost Clauses in a long Private Bill of a local corporation, and it is just these town meetings which bring those to the fore, give publicity to them and bring out the cases in which certain sections of the public have a grievance against what their local authority may be doing.
The hon. Member for Openshaw based his argument on the small numbers attending town meetings and who are thus able to obstruct the progress of a Private Bill of a local corporation by protesting against it at such meetings. But is that an argument against the town meeting? Is not the intention behind it that if a section of the public is injured, or feels itself injured by a Clause in a Private Bill which may not have been called to the notice of the general public in that area, that section should be entitled to bring to the attention of the public the way in which it is being injured, and, to that extent, obstruct the progress of the Bill?
I should like to tell the House of an incident which occurred last year in the 1673 borough which has jurisdiction over the major part of my constituency. It was necessary for that borough, in promoting a Private Bill in this House, to hold a town meeting because a certain section of the community objected to a Clause in the Bill whereby the local authority would have acquired quite a large piece of land under a Clause in the Bill instead of by adopting the ordinary course of serving notice to treat, bargaining, and, if necessary, by following up that procedure with a compulsory purchase order.
The town meeting was held. The hall was packed, and the objectors insisted upon the town clerk not taking the Clauses formally, but reading them through from the start of the Bill. There was something of an uproar during the reading and in the midst of it the lights went out. The hall, and, indeed, the whole of the borough, was plunged into darkness. At the time it was thought that this was a deliberate act of sabotage, whether by the local council or by the protesters I do not know, but, in fact, the black out was due to a fatal accident at the main electricity supply building.
The protest was made by the section of the public which thought it wrong for the council to acquire land without going through the proper procedure of bargaining. The protest having been made in this effective manner, the borough council dropped the Clause. The sequel—this story has a happy ending—was that by bargaining with the owner of the land the council came to a satisfactory agreement over its purchase.
The hon. Member for Openshaw asked what purpose was served by town meetings. In this case, it served the proper purpose of drawing the attention of the public to the course the council was taking, with which a considerable portion of the public disagreed, and resulted finally in the council bargaining and negotiating for the purchase of land and coming to a satisfactory agreement. Surely, that was a case where the minority had a right to voice its point of view.
If I may take an extreme example which occurs to me—it is almost a proverbial story and I have never been able to check whether it is true or not —it is said that there was once a Private Bill, promoted by a local corporation, was going through this House. The Bill 1674 consisted of about 500 Clauses and after, say, Clause 343, subsection (5), paragraph 6, sub-paragraph 8, a further Clause was inserted to the effect that the marriage of the town clerk and his wife should be dissolved. It is said that the Clause slipped through the House without anyone noticing.
§ Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett rose—
§ Mr. Page
May I finish the story, or I shall lose the point of it?
Might it not have been a justifiable action on the part of the town clerk's wife to call a town meeting to protest about that Clause in the Bill? She would have been a minority of one. I use that example merely to show that a very small minority may be injured by an unknown Clause in a Private Bill and that town meetings are a protection against that.
§ Mr. D. Jones
Under Section 254 (3) of the Local Government Act, 1933, the town clerk's wife would have been able to write to the Minister of Housing and Local Government, calling his attention to the Clause, when I am sure that in the circumstances the Minister would not have authorised the Bill.
§ Mr. Page
Exactly, but in that case she would have had to pay a large sum of money to appear before the House to petition against the Bill. That is the grave objection, that it leaves the injured party to adopt a procedure which is extremely expensive, as many objectors to local Bills have found.
My objection to the Bill is that it deals with a matter of major policy in our democratic system which has lasted in this form for a long time. I do not think that this sort of thing should be dealt with except with the backing of the Government and in a Government Bill as a matter of major policy. It should not be done by means of a Private Member's Bill.
§ 3.25 p.m.
§ Mr. W. T. Proctor (Eccles)
This is a very important Bill, which indicates a need for a reform in the system of local government procedure. It also indicates the need for a reform in the procedure in the House of Commons. I very much regret that Bills are talked out on Fridays. We ought to come here and decide on the principles put in front of us, and not use the procedure as a means of preventing the opinions of other hon. Members from being expressed. [HON. MEMBERS: "Change the rules of order."] That is precisely what I am suggesting that we should consider.
I do not think that arguments about small meetings are valid when expressed on the Floor of the House today. Six hundred Members are entitled to come here, but this is a fairly small meeting which is being asked to decide on this question—if we are permitted to decide.
The really valid argument against the procedure is that it puts the power of obstruction into the hands of the specialised interests. For instance, I believe that it is correct to say—I use this only as an illustration—that one corporation decided to promote a Bill to introduce parking meters. I happen to believe that parking meters are a nuisance, a loss of capital and a wasteful way of dealing with the problem which they are designed to solve. I do not believe in them; but the people who turned up to stop the introduction of parking meters were the motorists.
If we have a set of democratic machinery which puts the decision in the hands of specialist groups which are merely interested in the question under consideration, there is a lot to be said for the proposed change from the point of view of pure democracy. If our legislation in the House of Commons was dealt with in this way and we had a poll in every constituency before we could proceed any further with the Rent Bill, it would be as dead as a dodo. We should not proceed with it another day. It would be absolutely stopped. No legislation at all would go through the House if we followed this absolute procedure.
I appeal to hon. Members to let the Bill go to Standing Committee for examination. Let us look at the whole procedure and consider whether we can 1676 suggest a way of meeting the valid objection of the borough councils. I represent two boroughs, both of which have written to me asking me to support the Measure. I am loath to interfere with the real democracy which is contained in present procedure, but I think that the power of obstruction which is contained within it should be dealt with. I beg hon. Members opposite to approve the Bill today, so that we may discuss it fully in Committee. That is the way in which to deal with it. Let us make democracy work.
One of the most terrible things facing the civilised world today is the obstruction of democracy. Hon. Gentlemen opposite have suddenly become anti-American. There is in the party opposite a big group of anti-Americans. I beg them to stop imitating the Americans in this filibustering, of which we have seen an example this afternoon.
§ Sir W. Wakefield
Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that there is an important matter of principle in the Bill which we are discussing on Second Reading? If the principle is decided now, and the Bill is sent to Standing Committee, it will be examined in detail there, but it so happens that quite a number of hon. Members object to the Bill in principle.
§ Mr. Proctor
I do not think there is a very great difference between us in principle. We all believe in democracy and want to make it work. The borough councils to whom the Bill applies feel that there is great obstruction at present, but that is a detail which we can remove in Committee.
§ 3.31 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. J. R. Bevins)
It is evident that a number of hon. Members still wish to participate in the debate, and I have no desire to curb their enthusiasm, on whichever side they be. I shall, therefore, make my remarks brief.
I listened to the opening speech of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wembley, North (Wing Commander Bullus) with very great interest, and to the subsequent five or six speeches all in favour of the Bill, followed by a not inconsiderable contribution by my hon. 1677 Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Dudley Williams), who rather redressed the balance.
This is a very small and very simple Bill. Its sponsors feel that the present procedure of town's meetings and polls is out-dated and outmoded. The opponents, found on both sides of the House, feel that the existing procedure is a bulwark of a sort against ill-judged proposals and represents some sort of protection against cavalier treatment of minorities.
This is one of those happy occasions when I am not called upon to take sides, and is very unusual. I want to emphasise that Her Majesty's Government have made no statement of policy on this question as yet. I do not propose to make any statement on behalf of Her Majesty's Government today. We take the view that a matter dealing with legislative processes is essentially a matter for the House of Commons and, therefore, we shall be content to accept the verdict and the Judgment of the House.
§ 3.33 p.m.
§ Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Rossendale)
I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Proctor) said a few minutes ago. Those who were in the House of Commons in the early days of 1945 will remember the struggle we had to get from the Government at that time the full use of private Members' time once again. It is a great pity that Friday should appear to be taking on the guise of an occasion when hon. Members come to block legislation rather than to promote it. I hope that hon. Gentlemen who give the appearance of engaging in that practice today will think again and will allow the Bill to go to a Standing Committee, as my hon. Friend suggested. I hope that we shall be able to proceed to the subsequent Bill. There are other important Bills awaiting our consideration.
I would stress the grounds on which we should give the Bill a Second Reading and let it go to a Standing Committee. In the first place, though we removed this safeguard which may, in the past, have been valuable to the rights of minorities, there are still many safeguards still available under the Acts of 1933 and 1939. Resolutions of councils have to be passed by an absolute majority of all the council, at two separate specially-convened meetings, held after due notice has been 1678 given. The Minister has to satisfy himself that the proceedings have been regular. Our own Standing Orders provide further safeguards for the rights of minorities and against the irresponsible exercise of the rights of local authorities. The dangers that have been mentioned have been exaggerated very much by hon. Members who have spoken against the Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Openshaw (Mr. W. R. Williams) referred to numbers attending a town's meeting. He elicited from hon. Gentlemen on Government benches the comment that the numbers attending do not really matter. I would like to call attention to three Bills which were submitted for our consideration in the 1954–55 Session. The first was the Salford Corporation Bill. Salford has 118,000 local government electors, of which 60 attended the public meeting. Only 20 of the people at that meeting were not members of the Salford City Council. That is to say, only twenty really bona fide electors in the City of Salford were present.
In the case of the Bristol Corporation Bill in the same Session—and Bristol has a local government electorate of 316,000—there were only 17 at the public meeting and only seven electors at the meeting were not members of the council or officials concerned with the Bill. Cardiff, a city with 172,000 population, promoted the Cardiff Corporation Bill in the same session. At the public meeting which was called to discuss the Bill, only 13 people were present and of those only three were not members of the council or officials. I seriously submit that towns meetings of that kind are really a farce and are no safeguard whatever against irresponsible conduct on the part of local authorities.
To turn briefly to the question of town polls, I think there are three objections to them. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Exeter spoke in a rather disparaging way of the efforts of the Joint Committee of both Houses upon this matter. I still maintain that it is difficult for many ratepayers to answer the questions that are put to them on the ballot paper when towns polls of this kind are demanded. It may be simple for the hon. Member for Exeter, but it is not very easy for the average electors in, for example, the City of Birmingham 1679 to answer the second of the six questions posed to them when Birmingham presented its Bill in 1954. The second point that they had to say whether they were for or against was:That the electors of the City of Birmingham hereby approve the promotion by the Council of that City of Clause 15 (as to power to nominate tenants of certain properties) of the Birmingham Corporation Bill, 1954, together with so much of the preamble and of the other parts of the Bill as relates or is ancillary to that Clause.For the average, ordinary elector, it is not easy to be faced with six questions of that kind on which people have to declare their views, and, of course, it is not uncommon for ballot papers of this kind to contain as many as twelve propositions on which a decision has to be given.
In the case of the Birmingham Corporation Bill, had there been a real attempt to obstruct, it would have been possible to have over 60 propositions put upon the ballot paper for the electorate to consider.
§ Mr. Dudley Williams
I speak entirely from memory, but, as I understand the position on the Birmingham Bill, the people were in favour of all the Clauses except one, which concerned the use of loudspeakers in the streets. They selected at least one Clause which they supported.
§ Mr. Greenwood
Yes, there was a majority against five of the Clauses and a majority in favour of one.
§ Mr. J. Silverman
All the other five were matters which concerned one vested interest or another. The position was that the vested interests simply combined to defeat the five Clauses.
§ Mr. Greenwood
One of the most significant things is that the percentage voting on each of those Clauses was less than 4 per cent. of the local government electorate.
Although the hon. Member for Exeter made great play of the fact that in Felixstowe 46.5 per cent. of the electorate voted, he did not sum up at the end by telling us that of the total of 15 cases which he brought before us for our consideration, only three were cases in which more than 20 per cent. of the electorate took the trouble to vote.
1680 When we remember that this is a very expensive procedure, that polling stations have to be set up, staff recruited and appointed and notices and ballot papers printed, and that the cost is in some cases over £3,000, it is ludicrous that we should expect local authorities to go to all this trouble for so small a result.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Glenvil Hall) very properly reminded us of the poll at Leicester, of which the total cost was £1,500, in which 3,000 people voted, at an average cost of 10s. a vote. That sort of thing will antagonise the ratepayers and induce them to rebel against what they regard as a waste of their time and a waste of their money. Hon. Gentlemen who object to the Bill must be unaware of the close scrutiny which Parliament itself gives to Private Bills, which have to go through a far more searching scrutiny than many far more important Measures.
It is because we in this House have a due sense of our responsibility that I ask hon. Gentlemen to give the Bill a Second Reading, and then if they think Amendments ought to be made to it they can move them in Committee, and there make their criticisms of the Bill. Let us now agree to that course, and we can then discuss other important Bills awaiting our consideration.
§ 3.41 p.m.
§ Sir Patrick Spens (Kensington, South)
I want to say a word or two in support of the Bill. I suppose I am one of the oldest Tories in the House now, and represent one of the strongest Tory divisions in the kingdom, but I am convinced that the procedure which has obtained to date is now out of date. It is true that on many occasions it has protected small minorities. There is no doubt about that.
The Bill would do away with one of our oldest democratic protections for minorities. Indeed, I think that this protection probably dates back to the meetings in The Agora, at Athens. This procedure of holding town meetings has been traditional throughout our history. To do away with it is a very serious thing indeed, and there may be a good deal to be said in support of the contention that it is questionable whether this change should be made by means of a Private Member's Bill.
1681 None the less, what we know and what we have heard shows that this is a rather unpredictable type of procedure. I think that it has been abused by pressure groups and, therefore, there is a very great deal to be said against it. On the other hand, if we are to do away with it, as I think we ought, it follows that we have to be absolutely certain that our procedure in this House affords the protection which these town meetings afford. We must consider very carefully what one of my hon. Friends said just now, whether our Private Bill procedure is sufficiently cheap for use by people who may be injured by, say, a proposal in a corporation Bill. If we are to make this change I am quite certain we ought to reconsider our Private Bill procedure.
However, I do not think that on broad principle this town meeting procedure can be defended now. I know that some of my hon. Friends—and quite rightly—think that it is a brake on certain types of local legislation to which they strongly object. It has, indeed, occasionally proved to have been a brake, but it can be a brake only: it can never be a complete stoppage. If the Opposition comes into power again nothing any town meeting can do would be of the slightest use in preventing the Opposition from providing for State trading throughout the country, if it were determined to have it. That procedure can be only a brake upon that sort of thing.
The right thing for us to do is to attend far more to making sure we get the right majorities on our local councils. To rely on anything like a town meeting to prevent a hostile majority on a local council from doing what they do not want it to do is absolute foolishness on the part of the ratepayers. The right thing to do is to make sure we get the right councils in our boroughs. If we do, we shall not have the legislation we object to. I can say that, speaking, as I do, for a borough where the right majority is in office at the present time.
We ought to give the Bill a Second Reading, for I think that the time has come for it, and I am myself prepared to vote in favour of the Second Reading.
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ Sir Wavell Wakefield (St. Marylebone)
I am sure that the whole House is grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wembley, North (Wing Commander Bullus) for introducing the Bill. He has taken the opportunity of a Private Members' day to introduce a Bill that allows hon. Members on both sides to express a variety of views.
That this is a non-party Bill is quite clear from the fact that it was seconded by the hon. Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. David Jones). We have heard on the Government side arguments both for and against the Bill. Just now, on the Opposition side, it was suggested that time had been wasted and there had been filibustering. We have had two and a half hours of discussion on a matter of considerable importance and nobody could allege, from the speeches that we have heard, that there has been any waste of time or filibustering at all.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall
Surely the hon. Member will agree that the mere fact that we have been discussing the Bill today, for only two and a half hours, is not the full story upon which we should base our decision. We know that for the past thirty years three committees have gone into this matter and that all have reported in favour of abolishing town polls, including the last committee, which took considerable evidence two years ago and, by a unanimous recommendation—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—unanimous on this issue—agreed on that recommendation.
§ Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)
May I draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Sir W. Wakefield) to page xxxiii of the Report of the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure, where it is stated that a Division took place on this issue and it is shown that this was plainly a majority decision. Indeed, my hon. Friend will see that the majority of Members of this House on the Committee opposed the recommendation.
§ Sir W. Wakefield
That proves exactly the point that I was trying to make.
We had the case for the Bill deployed very fully by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wembley, North and the hon. Member for The Hartlepools, and 1683 indeed, the right hon. Member for Come Valley (Mr. Glenvil Hall). They base their argument on a circular issued by the Association of Municipal Corporations and the Urban District Councils' Association. When I received that circular I thought that it made a strong case. Indeed hon. Members, in supporting the various arguments set forth in that document, quite rightly gave full weight to the points that it makes.
But, equally, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Dudley Williams) took considerable time and trouble—and none of that was wasted time—in replying in detail to the strong arguments put forward. I thought that my hon. Friend put some very forcible arguments, supported by a great deal of fact. All that he said was worthy of very considerable thought and attention by the House.
The right hon. Member for Colne Valley stated that there was not much interest in this matter, because he had received only one circular—from an association of hotel-keepers, or some such organisation. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wembley, North said he had received a circular from a number of motoring organisations. I have received a number of circulars from national organisations putting forward various points of view. I think it is only right that the points of view of these national organisations should be ventilated here in this House and that that is our duty.
One of the circulars which I have received was from the Theatres National Committee, which, I think, comprises many organisations covering the theatre world. I should like to quote one point which is made in the circular, which says:If these safeguards are abolished, there is no adequate opportunity for local electors to dispose of objectionable proposals in Private Bills promoted by their local authorities.That is really the crux of the whole matter. This and other national organisations feel, and it has been pointed out here, that a local Bill may contain a proposal which may be highly objectionable and unfair to some sections of the ratepayers or to some local trading interest, as well as being undesirable in principle.
Under the existing procedure, there is a real opportunity for the objections to be heard locally, and I cannot see why it 1684 should be necessary to remove these opportunities for sections of the ratepayers, if they so wish, to draw attention to something which they think is undesirable in a Bill. We have had it pointed out, and I suggest that it is of importance, that whole Bills have gone through with the deletion of perhaps only one or two objectionable Clauses. That is exactly the intention in having the kind of procedure which now exists. It is there to enable any group of people who desire to have the opportunity publicly to show why there is objection to a certain Clause, and why they think that it should be withdrawn, but that does not mean that a local Bill, which is desired for the general well-being of the locality, should not go through.
What happens is that the objectionable Clause is removed, and I really cannot see why that kind of procedure should not be allowed to continue. It seems to me to be quite democratic. What we are doing here is taking away a long established right, which, as my hon. Friend suggested in his speech, time and again in recent years has been used properly and effectively. Why not, therefore, continue it?
I have another circular here from the Caterers' Association, which makes three or four points. The points made by these national organisations represent the views of a great many other national organisations as well. To show that this organisation is national and not a small, petty body, I would tell the House that it represents some 7,000 caterers and hoteliers in the country, operating about 25,000 catering establishments of all types and sizes situated throughout Great Britain, so that it is a responsible organisation which does look after the interests of a most important section of our industry.
Here again, this Association says that it is firmly of the opinion that the provisions which now exist are of the utmost importance, providing, as they do, a most necessary form of democratic control over legislative proposals which might otherwise pass unnoticed by the citizens who are ultimately to be affected by them. That is quite an important point, because in a Private Bill of this kind it is so easy to slip in a Clause, a subsection, or a sentence or two, about which nobody knows anything. Unless somebody is on 1685 the watch, and draws public attention to it, something might well slip through which might be most undesirable.
We all know that there are common Clauses for Private Bills, and that local authorities do like Ito put in their Bills Clauses which create new precedents. If a Bill goes through with that Clause creating a precedent in it, then we may say goodbye to turning down any Clause containing similar provisions in the future, because everybody would then say, "That has gone through already. A precedent has been created. What is wrong with it?" So that may well be said to be dangerous, and the provision for towns meetings and polls is the kind of safeguard which draws attention to that kind of Clause and prevents such a thing happening.
Again, I want to refer to what the Caterers' Association has said. What I am about to say shows how the opportunity given under the present procedure works. As an example, the Association quotes a Clause in the Birmingham Corporation Bill and shows how that sought to empower the Corporation to operate civic restaurants.
§ Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Shortly before you occupied the Chair the hon. and gallant Member for Wembley, North (Wing Commander Bullus), who moved the Second Reading of the Bill, moved the Closure, and, of course, Mr. Deputy-Speaker did not accept it. Would you tell me whether the hon. and gallant Member who moved the Closure has to do so again for your ruling, or whether the original moving of the Closure has been considered by yourself?
§ Mr. Speaker
The Closure must be moved when I am in the Chair. Any previous attempt to move it would be ineffectual and null and void, but to save time I may say that I could not accept such a Motion at this time.
§ Sir W. Wakefield
I was giving an example of how, under the present procedure, an association operates, and operates satisfactorily. As I have said, there were proposals in the Birmingham 1686 Corporation Bill for the Corporation to operate civic restaurants and, naturally, the caterers objected. What happened then? The association, in conjunction with local hotel and catering associations, approached the Birmingham Corporation with a view to trying to negotiate Amendments to the Clause or, if possible, its withdrawal from the Bill.
This quite proper means of discussion and negotiation and approach to the Bill was unsuccessful. What happened then? Exactly what is intended in the present procedure, a poll was requisitioned so that the ratepayers could consider this proposal and, in their wisdom, vote for or against it. So there was the opportunity provided exactly—
§ Wing Commander Bullus rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put, but Mr. SPEAKER withheld his assent and declined then to put that Question.
§ Sir W. Wakefield
—as is intended under the present procedure, and if this Bill is given its Second Reading that procedure would be stopped. What happened as a result of having this town meeting? The citizens of Birmingham were circularised. They were given an opportunity to consider the situation. What was the result? The result was that by 17,102 votes to 10,829—
§ Sir W. Wakefield
—this Clause was rejected.
In reply to the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) there was, nevertheless, a substantial majority showing that 17,000 people were against the inclusion of such a Clause in the Bill. Is that undemocratic? Is that immoral? Surely that is a typical example showing that those who wish to support this procedure are doing something which is contrary to the individual rights of citizens. I suggest that it would be wrong—
§ It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.
§ Debate to be resumed upon Friday next.