§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 11.10 a.m.
§ Wing Commander Eric Bullus (Wembley, North)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The House will forgive me, I hope, if I recall that this is the second occasion on which I have been what is termed fortunate in the Ballot. Four years ago my ill-fated Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill, which sought to restore to judges the power to inflict sentences of corporal punishment, came before the House and was defeated on Second Reading. One of my most vehement critics on that occasion was the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede). He is not in his place today——
§ Wing Commander Bullus
I beg the right hon. Gentleman's pardon. He is in another place. That is why I did not see him. I hope that on this occasion he will support my Bill. This time I have decided to undertake a modest Bill, of which there may be some hope that it will get upon the Statute Book, and it is my hope that the right hon. Gentleman will this time accord me his support.
Although this is the second time that I have been fortunate in the Ballot, it is the third occasion on which I have moved the Second Reading of a Bill, because circumstances ordained that exactly a month ago I should move the Second Reading of the Local Government (Promotion of Bills) Bill, which did not get a Second Reading on that day, but a week later, by virtue of the fact that the objectors were not present, it slipped through, and is now on its way to a Standing Committee upstairs. On that occasion I observed that the emphasis of much recent legislation has been on local government. Now, once again, a Bill which concerns local government comes before the House.
1461 This Bill is not a controversial one. Indeed, I believe that it is supported in all parts of the House, and I know of no single objector as yet. Recently, the Minister of Housing and Local Government said that he desired that local government should become more local, and I hope that this Bill will help to attain that ideal. It seeks to give a little more power to our smallest local authorities.
The parish is the most ancient type of local government unit in Europe. In England, it has been used in some cases for civil purposes since the eighth century. This type of government has stood the test of hundreds of years, and today it is still serving a very useful purpose. Indeed, I think it is true to say that our own Parliament has its roots in the humble parish meeting.
I am encouraged by the words of the Prime Minister who, when Minister of Housing and Local Government, in 1953 wrote in a foreword to a parish council publication:Parish councils, with their long and ancient tradition, have an important part to play in the local government of this country.He continued:To play that part effectively it is important that those concerned with parish affairs should know how their councils fit into the pattern of local government and what powers and functions they have.I hope that today's debate and the proposals of this Bill will assist in giving some information about the important work and services of the parish councils.
It was under Queen Elizabeth I that the parish became the basic area for Poor Law administration and I hope that this Bill will receive the Royal Assent of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. This is the first Bill ever to be introduced to deal exclusively with the affairs of parish councils, though the Local Government Act, 1894, was popularly called the "Parish Councils Bill" at that time because the provisions relating to parish councils were then considered to be controversial.
I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I refer to certain parish councils, because I think that they are of general interest, though, obviously, they are of special interest to some because of their geographical circumstances. In England and Wales there are about 10,900 rural parishes, of which about 7,500 have 1462 parish councils and 3,400 have only parish meetings. The populations of the parishes without parish councils range from under 300 to nil, and the populations of those with parish councils range from 98 to 27,000.
By population the largest parish, I understand, is Watford rural parish, in Hertfordshire, with 27,000 population, and the smallest—and this will interest the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields—is thought to be Claverton, in Cheshire: its population fluctuates between none and four. In area the largest is Stanhope, in Durham, with 99 square miles, and among the smallest is Chester Castle, in the centre of the City of Chester, with 11 acres. Incidentally, it has not been established whether the Eddystone Lighthouse is or is not a parish.
In financial resources the richest parish is probably Watford rural parish, but the Isle of Grain, in Kent, Whitchurch, in Glamorgan, Fawley, Hampshire, and some others all exceed in rateable value the County Council of Rutland, that rateable value being £213,000. The poorest parish is probably Strixton, in Leicestershire, where, until recently, the product of 1d. rate produced minus 1d. Perchance, I shall be asked why it produces minus 11d. It is, I believe, because the cost of collecting the rate would amount to more than that which should be garnered into the bag. Since revaluation there are a few parish councils with 1d. rate product of £5.
The enactment of this Bill is especially desired by the National Association of Parish Councils, which has existed for only nine years, and which is a purely voluntary organisation but, nevertheless, represents the great majority of parish councils. I understand that the present membership is about 5,500 parish councils. I would pay tribute to the officers of that Association for the very great help they have given me in drafting the Bill.
The national associations of all other types of local authority affected by the Bill and every Government Department concerned have been consulted directly or through an intermediary in the drafting. The national associations consulted are the County Councils Association, the Association of Municipal Corporations 1463 and the Rural District Councils Association; and the Government Departments include the Ministry of Housing and Local Government—I am grateful for the presence here today of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, who, I understand, is to intervene in the debate—the Home Office, the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, the Lord Chancellor's Department, the Law Officers' Department and the Charity Commission.
The parish council is, in general, the least professional type of local authority. Only half a dozen or so employ even one full-time official. At least 1,000 pay their clerks nothing at all. Nevertheless, they may be called upon to manage or maintain substantial properties and installations such as village halls, playing fields, open spaces, allotments, burial grounds, and public lighting, and also to solve difficult legal or administrative problems such as those connected with public rights of way and bus shelters. All parish councils precept for a total of about £1¼ million only on the rates, because much of their work is done voluntarily or charged to parochial charities, which number tens of thousands.
In general terms, the principle behind the Bill is that unnecessary obstacles to parochial administration should be removed. It is proposed to simplify certain aspects of the law by repealing and reenacting, with modern improvements, the law contained in certain old prolix or unworkable Statutes. The provisions relate to seats, shelters, lighting, recreation grounds and public walks.
It is proposed to fill in a number of inconvenient gaps in the law, particularly again in regard to seats and shelters, and also in regard to clocks, churchyards, burial grounds, parking places, charity accounts and insurance. It is proposed also to reduce formalities, which experience has shown to be unnecessary, in regard to open spaces, war memorials and loans.
Finally, it is proposed to give wider latitude in the permissible size of membership of the parish council. It will be seen, therefore, that there is very little which is really new in the Bill. Its object is to adapt the law to modern conditions.
1464 I hope that the House will bear with me if I go, very briefly and rapidly, through the Clauses of the Bill, so that they can be on the record. I undertake that, if the Bill gets a Second Reading and goes upstairs, I will, if necessary, enlarge upon the information which I am now giving in respect of the individual Clauses.
Clause 1 replaces the archaic and nowadays unworkable provisions of the Public Improvements Act, 1860, and, in addition, fills in a number of inconvenient gaps in that law relating to the provision of public seats and shelters in rural areas. Under the present law, seats may be provided in various places, especially for old people, by gift or by different authorities, but the parish councils have no power to maintain them. This Clause seeks that power. The subsections of this Clause repeal the Public Improvements Act, 1860, and finally lay the ghost of the Baths and Wash Houses Act, 1846. Incidentally, both these Acts are out of print and are obtainable only in photographic copies.
Clause 2, dealing with clocks, and Clause 10, dealing with contributions towards churchyards and other burial grounds, make it possible to support two conspicuous village landmarks which are widely falling into disrepair because the body which usually owns them cannot afford their proper upkeep. Parish councils are responsible also for the maintenance of closed churchyards. They can provide burial grounds, but they cannot yet provide any sort of village clock.
Nowadays, village clocks are often wrong and churchyards are often overgrown and untidy because the body which owns them cannot afford to maintain them. Both institutions are public, but very local, and there is little prospect of improvement unless the parish council, representing the only really interested public, is empowered to help.
Clause 3 replaces the numerous long, wordy and obsolete sections of the Lighting and Watching Act, 1833, with a modern code and places responsibility for lighting, after adoption of the Clause, squarely upon the parish council. It will greatly benefit the 1,780 parish councils concerned by introducing certainty and simplicity into the law and finance of this rural service.
Clause 4 enables parish councils to protect their greens, playing fields, open 1465 spaces and public walks by providing parks for bicycles and motor cycles.
Clause 5 contains certain safeguards relating to the placing of seats and lamps on lands belonging to other people. Clause 6 contains provision for power of mutual contribution and combination. Clause 7 deals with interpretations under those Clauses.
Clause 8 abolishes the need to make certain applications to the county council connected with war memorials, open spaces and loans. It has been found over the years that no useful purpose has been served by these requirements. Indeed, this particular Clause is especially supported by the County Councils Association, which regards such applications very often as a waste of time.
Clause 9 enables parish councils, like other local authorities, to insure their members against accidents on duty. In large parishes, members may have to go several miles to meetings, and very often—indeed, more often than not—this is done by bicycle.
I have dealt with Clause 10. Clause 11 entitles the parish council as such to see the annual accounts of parochial charities. At present, the chairman, in his capacity as chairman of parish meeting, is alone entitled to call for them. Clause 12 makes it possible to raise the maximum number of parish councillors to 21, which is considered desirable in the case of some of the larger but indivisible parishes.
Clause 14 is definition. Clause 15 is a codifying Clause, and Clause 16 contains the short title and gives the extent of the Bill as applying to England and Wales, because there are no parish councils in Scotland and Ireland.
There are two Schedules, the first dealing with expenses to be left out of account, the second giving a list of enactments repealed by these proposals. Perhaps I should point out that in page 12, the final page of the Bill as printed, there appears to be a printer's error. In line 25, it should refer to subsection (2) of section eleven and not subsection (1). I can put down an Amendment, if need be, in Committee.
I apologise to the House for any shortcomings in the information I have endeavoured to give so very briefly, and I commend the Bill to the House.
§ 11.27 a.m.
§ Mr. Ede (South Shields)
I have much pleasure in seconding the Motion.
I should like to congratulate the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Wembley, North (Wing Commander Bullus) on the clarity and brevity with which he has explained the very complicated provisions of the Bill. It is clear that Clause 3 at least will probably require some careful consideration in Committee, because it deals with alterations in the law which it is desirable to make quite plain to the people who will have to administer the Bill when passed.
I well recall the first election to parish councils. They enabled me to discover for the first time that a certain word of seven letters can mean two entirely different things, according to the way in which it is pronounced. In the parish adjoining the town in which I lived, a number of gentlemen who sought election had been unable to fill in their nomination papers properly and, in the list of nominations, their names were all set out and after them was added the word "invalid."
Up to that time, my pronunciation of that word had always been the other one which denotes some form of sickness, and when I looked at three or four of the names I could not understand why sickness should have prevented them from standing for election.
Since that time, although some of the early enthusiasm for parish councils which dominated that first election has passed away, a very great many citizens desiring to serve their immediate neighbourhood have given long and faithful service to the community of which they are a part. In the light of the limitations imposed upon them by the Act of 1894, it is a tribute to the public spirit of people in villages and small towns that this record should have been established.
A Member of another place, when the Bill was before it, said that as far as he could see the only thing that a parish council could do was to buy a parish map and look at it. Parish councillors have discovered that other things than that are within their capacity. The care of village greens and the maintenance of footpaths, including the recent survey, which is still incomplete in some parts of the country, bear tribute to the way 1467 in which they have watched over some of the most ancient rights of the inhabitants in the parishes which they serve.
I share the view of the hon. and gallant Member for Wembley. North that they should be released from the obligation of having to obtain permission from county councils to raise loans for such things as recreation grounds and playing fields. I have presided over such inquiries on behalf of a county council, and I am certain that it is far better that these small local authorities should be treated as adult bodies, capable of having their own relationships with the Government Departments which usually settle these matters.
I welcome the Bill, because it recognises the most local of all forms of local government. We must bear in mind that the parish council has the safeguard of the annual parish meeting, which can generally be accommodated in one of the buildings in the locality, unlike the obligation—which the hon. and gallant Member is trying to remove by means of another Bill—for great cities, with more than 1 million inhabitants to hold a town's meeting and collect the voices at that meeting when, for at least half a century, there has been no building in the place capable of accommodating a meeting attended by only 5 per cent. of the local inhabitants.
The village Hampdens, through the parish councils, have been able to acquire a voice and a capacity for self-expression which has enabled some of the oldest media for the expression of public opinion—the old manorial courts—to be resurrected in a way which enables local life to have an expression, where people desire to follow it keenly, and where matters can be discussed between people all of whom have a local knowledge of the problems which have to be faced and of the most suitable and acceptable ways of dealing with them.
Inasmuch as the Bill is really an enabling charter to these authorities to carry out the duties which they have so ably performed in the past, I hope that the hon. and gallant Member will realise his ambition to see the Bill on the Statute Book—but I have profound misgivings about that, which I think it would not be out of place for me to state.
1468 The hon. and gallant Member was lucky enough to be No. 5 in the Ballot, which is a form of gambling—a lottery—carried on in this House. It is protected, before it takes place, by means of a Resolution of the House forbidding people to introduce Bills until the Ballot has taken place. In spite of having been No. 5 on the list for the Committee upstairs in theory, however, he will, if successful today, actually be No. 12, and as only three Bills have been disposed of he is now No. 9. That seems to me to indicate that among the favourites for Private Members' legislation this year the hon. and gallant Member has fallen very considerably in the betting list. He himself has introduced another Bill, to which he alluded, and which was passed on the nod, and that takes precedence over this Bill in Committee proceedings upstairs.
I do not want to say more upon the matter than that I think that some steps should be taken in relation to the Standing Orders of the House to preserve the order of precedence given by the Ballot throughout the later proceedings of a Bill. There are enough pitfalls without there being ways in which hon. Members can enter this fold other than through the door. I have much pleasure in seconding the Bill, and I hope that in spite of all the odds which are now against him the hon. and gallant Member will be able to get it on to the Statute Book during the current Session.
§ 11.36 a.m.
§ Sir Lancelot Joynson-Hicks (Chichester)
I do not propose to pursue the line with which the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) concluded his remarks, save to say that with his support and that of the House and, I hope, of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, we ought to be able to find a way of overcoming the problem of the barrier to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.
I now want to say something about his earlier remarks. He and I have not always been entirely complimentary to each other, but I want to take this opportunity to point out that whenever he speaks upon the history of old England, there is no one to whom it is a greater pleasure to listen. I enjoyed what he 1469 was saying and the way in which he said it, and I wish that he had gone further back into the history of our countryside, as shown and demonstrated through the life of the parish councils.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wembley, North (Wing Commander Bullus) referred to the Bill as a rather small and modest Measure. I agree that its effects are modest, but I want to stress that its subject matter is very important. With him, and the right hon. Member for South Shields, I feel that we cannot over-emphasise the importance of parish councils, having regard to the opinion of them which is held by so many people who are ignorant of the work they do. If we consider the county council as the backbone of our local authority system, the parish council is undoubtedly the hands and feet of the body, for they are the small entities upon which the whole structure is dependent.
If there are any questions to be asked by way of criticism of the Bill, the first is. "Why has it not been brought in sooner?" It is a long time since 1893, and what the Bill seeks to achieve could certainly have been achieved a long time ago if the Measure had been brought in earlier. The next question is, "Why should it be necessary for the Bill to contain all the provisions that it does? Surely parish councils can already do many of the things which are provided for in the Bill?
It is true that parish councils may be entitled to do some of those things, but their powers are so tied up, strangled and subject to necessary consents that virtually entitlement does not result in the ability to achieve the object. What the Bill seeks to do to a great extent is to give to the parish councils a greater freedom from control, greater decentralisation of power from the centre.
That is necessary at the present time for two reasons. There has been decentralisation from the centre to local authorities in the higher ranges until we have reached the point where county councils themselves now have so much responsibility and so much work to do that they are overburdened and the machinery of the county councils themselves is beginning to creak. Therefore, the more we can decentralise from the county councils and the more we can throw off their responsibilities in appropriate 1470 circumstances to the smaller units of local government, the greater will be the success of the general scheme of decentralisation.
Indeed, the second ground upon which the Bill is to my mind welcome is because it is, in a sense, a step towards what the right hon. Member for South Shields was advocating—a greater local autonomy in local affairs. I have no doubt whatsoever that a greater degree of local autonomy in local affairs is long overdue. Parish councils are fit for greater power than they have.
If one takes even a bird's eye glance at the progress which has been made in this country since 1893, one is staggered that greater progress has not been made in the development of the parochial council system. In 1893, the idea of having women's suffrage, let alone women in Parliament, was not contemplated. There has been tremendous development in the whole question of suffrage and in education. I am not for one moment suggesting that we are any wiser than were our forebears in 1893 or that we are any more knowledgeable than our forebears at that time. I certainly would not claim that we have any more common sense than they had, but we have a much higher standard of education, whatever that may mean—at least, so I am assured by my hon. Friends who are education enthusiasts. What we do have, however, is a much greater individual responsibility than in those days.
I was reading only last night an extract from one of our local Sussex newspapers of what it printed one hundred years ago. It was commenting how at that time, which was just about the moment when a general election was to take place, nine of the ten constituencies in the county each depended solely upon the individual responsibility of one person who decided who was to be the Member for the particular constituency. That, I think, is a fair representation of the facts. The tenth, the constituency represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Gough), was, perhaps, not so fortunate in having one nominee for its Member of Parliament, with the result that there were three candidates who fought the election. The first, who was successful, was, unfortunately, unwelcome to this House and did not sit because he was convicted of bribery and 1471 corruption. The same fate, unfortunately, fell upon the second candidate, and so the third, the one whom the people did not want, was the one who was elected to sit in this House.
All that is now changed and in our villages, in our parishes and on our councils we find that the sense of responsibility of the people who sit upon those councils has grown out of all recognition in the last 50 years. They are now competent to manage their own affairs and the councils substantially have upon them people who not only know the local affairs, but who know the circumstances into which they fit.
I always regret that their views are not given greater heed. There was a case in my constituency only recently concerning a village which has been there a very long time and which has one street, which runs from one end of the village to the other. During the course of its travel, it has two right-angle bends and it carries quite a lot of local traffic. In the result, this village street is so dangerous that it has never had an accident and there has never been a casualty upon it.
The planners who live outside the village thought that it was very untidy. They thought that the street which goes through the village should go through it in a straight line. So they decided that that should be done, that the old street should be done away with in the central portion and that a nice new straight speedway should go from one end of the village to the other. The fact that the village did not want it and that substantially it would largely be the village which would have to pay for it was immaterial to those who wanted a nice tidy plan.
One of the remarkable things about this arrangement would have been that at one end of the race track there was a school and at the other end a playground. It so happens that the village was the home of one who is very well known to all of us and, I think, greatly respected by all of us—my noble Friend Lord Woolton. In a speech which he was making in the village the other day about this very subject he pointed out that if the local knowledge of these local affairs was overridden by the man in the central office right away from where the circumstances would affect the local people, 1472 what was really being done was to make an arrangement whereby those who wanted to drive their cars fast had the opportunity of catching the village children at one end of the speed track, and if they missed them there they would have another opportunity to catch them at the other end, and that it was substantially the local people who would have to pay for that privilege of creating a death trap for the village children.
That is one instance only in which, had the local views and knowledge as represented in the parish council been listened to in the first instance, a tremendous amount of administrative time and effort would have been saved and the local rates would have suffered much less cost than has had to be added to them or for all the schemes which have been got out to establish that it was no good to try to make a race track there.
There is one other instance to which I would briefly refer, because I know it is one which particularly interests my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. I refer to the village of Middleton-on-Sea. Seven years ago, the parish council of that village started to urge upon its greater brethren, the rural district council, the county council and ultimately the Ministry, the need for immediate action in connection with coast protection.
It so happens that only last night I received a long report from the council concerning all the steps it had taken over the last seven years. It is quite amazing how no attention was paid to the views which it had repeatedly expressed and how right it had been. In the upshot, it is now clear that had what the council been urging been done even seven years ago the country would have saved tens of thousands of pounds as compared with the amount which has got to be spent in the very near future largely at the cost of taxpayers as a whole.
One could go on indefinitely urging the case for greater attention being paid to the views of local people as expressed through parish councils. I think that the time has come when it would be a good thing to transfer more power to them. For one thing, they are more economic than the larger councils, and, for another, less bureaucratic. Those are two great advantages.
1473 Another thing about parish councils to which the right hon. Member for South Shields referred is the great good will which local residents have in connection with service on them. Many people nowadays are unable to devote the time necessary to serve on a rural district council or a county council, but they can generally devote some time to serve on a parish council. Therefore, we are apt to get a very high standard of qualification and representation on parish councils.
If we can give to parish councils more work which it is worth while their doing, then we shall attract to them still more the quality of representative who can really be effective in the administration of local authority work in the country. I believe that the Bill is an encouragement to people of that sort, to those who voluntarily sacrifice their time without reward for the welfare of the community as a whole. Therefore, I very much hope that we shall see the Bill pass into law during this Session.
§ 11.53 a.m.
§ Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)
You, Mr. Speaker, will no doubt have listened with some nostalgic memories to the debate so far because, until your appointment to your present distinguished office, you were yourself a parish councillor. I am sure that you, Sir, will have listened with equal satisfaction to the tribute paid to the sterling qualities of parish councillors by the hon. Member for Chichester (Sir L. Joynson-Hicks).
I was very pleased to hear what the hon. Member for Chichester said about parish councils and about the very fine work which they do for the reason that I happen to be a parish councillor myself. I believe that I am probably the only Member of this House who is also a parish councillor. I listened with great pleasure to the speech of the hon. and gallant Member for Wembley, North (Wing Commander Bullus) who introduced this very useful Measure. I think it is generally agreed that, of all the elected units of administration in the country, the parish council is in closer touch with the electorate than any of them.
The hon. Member for Chichester stressed the need for devolving some of the work which at present has to be 1474 carried out by county councils. It has been my personal view for a long time that of all the elected bodies in the country the county council is the most remote from the people on whose behalf it acts. In almost every respect even this House is in much closer touch with the electorate than is the majority of county councils.
The parish council has, at any rate since 1894, filled a gap which was caused by the disappearance of the squire who in olden times was, so to speak, the civil leader of the countryside. As has been said, the parish council has substituted democracy for paternalism, and, to that extent, has done an excellent job. What could be more democratic than a local authority which has to meet whenever required not only by order of the chairman, but at the request of any two of its members? Any two members of the parish council can require a meeting to be held. That, of course, is just one further indication of the way in which a parish council can very quickly and without unnecessary formalities respond to a local need which may be expressed by even a very small number of people.
Another very useful job which has been done by parish councils is the preservation of footpaths in the countryside that might otherwise have disappeared completely. No one body can be better qualified than a parish council, with its contacts and its detailed knowledge of every inch of the countryside, to deal with the very important task of the preservation of footpaths.
I welcome, in particular, the Clause which protects members of parish councils against accidents when on duty. I can assure hon. Members that in the discharge of their duties parish councilors sometimes have to go to places Within the parish to reach which requires a considerable amount of agility. There may not be a very simple or easy mode of access to them. Therefore, it is some relief to me, at any rate, to know that if I am unfortunate enough to have an accident while on duty as a member of my parish council some provision is being made for that contingency.
The Bill will serve a very useful purpose. I hope that the pessimistic forecasts of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) will not be realised, but if they are, then I think 1475 that we have every right to expect the Parliamentary Secretary to give an assurance that the Government will adopt the Bill and make quite sure that it reaches the Statute Book.
§ 11.59 a.m.
§ Mr. Charles Doughty (Surrey, East)
My hon. and gallant Friend for Wembley, North (Wing Commander Bullus) who introduced the Bill referred to his past activities. I do not recollect the Bill of four or five years ago to which he referred, but I do know that only a few weeks ago my hon. and gallant Friend failed to get a Second Reading for another Bill which, in fact, got through "on the nod." as we term it, a week or two later.
The right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) referred to the difficulties which the Bill might have upstairs owing to the promoter's activities on a previous occasion. The remedy for that, of course, lies entirely in the hands of my hon. and gallant Friend. The procedure is such that he could easily get the Bill through its Committee stage upstairs if he took the necessary action, and I strongly recommend him to do so because then, no doubt, the Bill will go through its remaining stages and become the law of the land.
Speaking entirely for myself, I hope very much that it will. It is certainly far better than the previous Bill of which my hon. and gallant Friend moved the Second Reading, but I was interested to see that this Bill, providing as it does the necessity for parish meetings and giving as my hon. and gallant Friend said a blessing to such meetings, should have been moved by an hon. and gallant Member who a few weeks ago was so critical of larger organisations of exactly the same kind. It only shows that one can sometimes blow hot and blow cold and look cheerful about it at the same time.
This Bill goes back into history quite a long way. The hon. and gallant Member who introduced it said that the parish council was probably the oldest body of its kind in the countryside of this land. I am not sure that I entirely agree with him. Before the parish council we had the hundreds. Whether the parish council evolved from the hundreds is a matter that I will leave to the historians to argue upon another and perhaps equally interesting occasion.
1476 Then again, until modern times, the parish council had far more powers in fact, whatever its legal powers were, and far more power and influence locally than very often this House had. That was entirely due to the reason that communications were so chaotic until a short time ago. Our predecessors in this House, of course, passed many Acts, nearly as many as we pass today, the effects of which very seldom drifted through to the remoter parts of the countryside because there were no railways. There were certainly no aeroplanes and the roads were such that communication between London and the outlying villages, and, indeed, between the county towns and the villages, was very difficult, if not impossible.
When communications improved, this House of course took upon itself and also county councils took upon themselves many tasks of detail which really could have been much better left to local bodies, and I hope that this Bill will in a small and, as the promoter said, a modest way, restore to the local bodies some of the powers which have been taken away from them.
When one looks at the Bill one sees how modest it is. The provision and maintenance of seats and shelters at convenient places is of course very important for those who travel and those who walk. I consider that the maintenance of these seats and shelters is almost as important as their provision, because one very often sees in the country villages nowadays seats and shelters that are falling into decay. Under the powers of this Bill the parish councils will be able to keep them in repair, even if they had the power before, which seems extremely doubtful.
Then, why should not a village have a clock? Very few villages have a clock at present, and when they do it is generally the gift of some local person. If that person happens to become ill or forgets about the clock, then often the time given out by the clock bears no relation to the time given out by the B.B.C.
§ Mr. Doughty
As the hon. Member reminds me, it often does not get wound up and, if it does, the person who winds it up very often gets ill and next week it 1477 stops. These idiosyncrasies take place and, for that reason, this has my support.
When we give people more powers and duties, there are expenses which have to be considered, and I have looked at the financial Clauses of the Bill and I see that we in this House have to make provision for them. I should like the right hon. Gentleman who is to intervene later to give us some idea of the machinery which will be arrived at for deciding how much we have to give and on what basis that is worked out. Whenever we pass beneficent Acts, and this is a beneficent Bill, we have to consider what we are landing ourselves in for financially. Although I am sure no one will begrudge any reasonable sum for this purpose, it is only right that we should know what we are doing, and therefore I ask the right hon. Gentleman to deal with that particular point.
In conclusion, I should like to put in a word for the county councillor who has, perhaps, not been given quite his due, The parish councillor is an important person who does much local work unpaid and always at the immediate possibility of the criticism of his electors who live next door to him and know exactly what he is doing. The county councillor also does very useful work indeed. All of them come from the local places that elected them and know what is going on. Of course, the county councillors have to deal with their problems in a much wider and more impersonal manner than the parish councillors. Let us give them both our thanks and this Bill our blessing for a speedy journey upstairs.
§ 12.5 p.m.
§ Mr. Cledwyn Hughes (Anglesey)
I should also like to congratulate the hon. and gallant Member for Wembley, North (Wing Commander Bullus) on introducing this Bill. I welcome it very warmly because it increases the powers and, therefore, the importance of parish councils. There has been, as hon. Members have said, a tendency for many years to treat parish councils as if they were unimportant and insignificant bodies and such are the powers of the county council and the district council that the parish council has been completely overshadowed. This, in my view, is not entirely to the advantage of democracy in this country. Of all our democratic institutions, the parish council and the parish meeting are surely the most fundamental.
1478 They are, as it were, the raw material of our democracy. They are the elected bodies closest to the people and the councillors know one another well and know the parishioners. They have an intimate knowledge of the needs of their district. From time to time, in common with the other hon. Members, I have a good deal to do with parish councils in my division and I always find them lively, well-informed and very useful bodies. They perform an extremely useful duty, apart from their limited statutory function, in drawing the attention of county councils and latterly of the nationalised industries to the needs for electricity, gas, piped water, roads, and sewerage schemes for their particular areas.
I have always felt that they could well be charged with wider statutory powers in relation to the more immediate local needs and the powers which this Bill proposes to confer on them are, I think, reasonable and practical. Indeed, I would increase them and give the parish council further limited powers, for example, in relation to unclassified and unadopted roads. I find that when I meet parish councillors, this is one of the burning problems which they are constantly discussing and drawing to the notice of the highway authorities. These roads present a special problem in the rural areas and parish councils are in a much better position than is any other authority to appreciate the relative importance of these roads to the rural community and to the agricultural industry.
I realise that this has much wider implications than the matters provided for in the Bill. Nevertheless, I think that it would be a practical and useful step forward. In 1949, the Local Government Boundary Commission suggested that county councils might delegate their powers in relation to highways to district councils and I think that a further limited delegation of powers to parish councils, in the way I have mentioned, would be an effective way of strengthening and stimulating parish councils. The tendency will be to create larger and more powerful local government units and there are very good reasons for this. If, at the same time, the powers of parish councils can be increased in a modest and constructive way it will help, to safeguard democracy in this complex age.
§ 12.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)
May I. also, congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wembley, North (Wing Commander Bullus) on introducing this Bill, which increases the degree of local autonomy enjoyed by parish councils?
I wish to concentrate on Clause 3, which is concerned with street or road lighting. It will be no surprise to hon. Members to know that my mind goes at once to the question of road safety in connection with street lighting, and I wonder whether it is right to perpetuate an antiquated procedure of responsibility for lighting our roads. Clause 3 continues the power of parish councils over the lighting of roads, which was given as long ago as 1833; sixty-three years before the first recorded road accident which involved an unfortunate lady knocked down and killed at the Crystal Palace by a motor car travelling at four miles an hour. A system of responsibility for road lighting was fixed by Statute sixty-three years before that first recorded accident and has remained so ever since. To my regret that power is perpetuated in Clause 3 of this Bill.
May I call the attention of the House to the presidential address by Mr. L. A. Doxey to the Association of Public Lighting Engineers in September, 1954? Mr. Doxey said:… in comparison with the assistance extended to other services of value to the community, the financial assistance given to the lighting of our highways appears to be stretching parsimony to the extreme.He went on to say that in the last century the only real contribution made from national funds has been in respect of trunk roads, which represent 5 per cent. of the total mileage of this country.
Referring to this responsibility for lighting, Mr. Doxey said:Many of these authorities are small, but are responsible for the lighting of roads within their area which, although perhaps not trunk roads, are important and busy traffic routes, and the provision of a standard of lighting which they know to be essential to safety is, in many cases, beyond their financial resources. It will surely be agreed that the lighting of traffic routes such as these, forming part of the national highway system, should no longer be regarded as parochial problems but as a national responsibility, and financial assistance should be given to those local authorities to enable them to provide lighting to the standard so urgently required.1480 He then went on to say that this was not an original suggestion and that it was referred to by the Ministry of Transport Departmental Committee on Street Lighting as long ago as 1935. I am sorry that there is not a representative of the Ministry of Transport on the Government Front Bench today, but I am sure that the effect of what I am saying will be conveyed to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport Should we continue this system whereby parish councils are responsible for the lighting of roads which, in many cases, have become traffic routes? In the evidence given before that Departmental Committee, in 1935, some fantastic examples were quoted of the number of different authorities—perhaps 15 to 20—responsible for the lighting of even short stretches of 20 or 30 miles of road. In this Bill, we are continuing that procedure.
The great importance of the question of the lighting of our roads from the point of view of road safety has been indicated on many occasions by lighting engineers and others. I have here a pamphlet issued by the British Electrical Development Association, entitled "A Matter of Light or Death," in which it states:An analysis of road casualties since 1945 shows that the proportion of road accidents which involve fatality is almost twice as high after dark as during the day. The proportion of accidents involving serious injury is 30 per cent. higher at night than during the day.The pamphlet contains this rather frightening statement:In 1952, almost twice as many adult pedestrians were seriously injured per dark hour as per daylight hour. Almost twice as many motor drivers were killed per dark hour as per daylight hour.This is a trend which is increasing. For example, the number of pedestrians killed in the dark hours as compared with the number killed in daylight hours has increased considerably over the past few years. I believe that we shall reduce this accident rate only by having uniformity in street lighting at a proper standard which I do not believe that parish councils can provide. It is my hope that we may develop a system whereby local authorities in an area group together to produce a reasonable and uniform standard of lighting. Were 1481 that done, I am sure that a great reduction in the number of accidents occuring at night would follow.
In this Bill, we are continuing the old procedure of the 1833 Act. I hope that this Measure will eventually find its way on to the Statute Book, but if it includes Clause 3 it will have the effect of delaying the full consideration of this problem, which does not apply only to built-up areas, but also to the country districts, with which parish councils are particularly concerned. I should like to quote from a paper read by Mr. A. J. Harris to the Association of Public Lighting Engineers. Mr. Harris gave some very informative statistics, and said:These figures show that for all casualties combined there appears to be little difference between built-up and non built-up areas, but that for pedestrian casualties the effect of darkness is much more marked and appears to be larger in the non built-up areas than in the built-up.That shows that it is of great importance, in the villages and for the type of roads over which parish councils have responsibility, that there should be proper lighting. I do not believe that parish councils can supply an adequate standard of lighting. I consider that the responsibility should be taken over by a larger authority. Where there are traffic roads running through the areas controlled by parish councils, there should be a uniformly good standard of lighting which only a larger authority can provide.
Apart from the criticisms that I have made of Clause 3, I welcome this Measure, because it will provide greater autonomy regarding proper subjects for which parish councils are responsible.
§ 12.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)
First, I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) on his ingenuity in discussing on a parish councils Bill the question of street lighting and yet managing to stay within the bounds of order. If he can do that I may be permitted to follow.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the powers which parish councils ought to have in respect of street lighting are necessary not to enable them to light the important arteries of transport through their districts but to provide the minimum lighting which, in minor roads in the country and not in the 1482 towns, is that which is of vital concern to the inhabitants of the parish.
There are many country roads which need some lighting to indicate the path which the road is taking and not to illuminate the surface. That is the type of light which, in general, country folk need to enable them to get about, and not the monstrosities of fluorescent lighting which are necessary for modern traffic. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that that type of lighting is quite beyond the capabilities of parish councils. I hope that this question will be considered, perhaps when we have the reorganisation of local government which, we know, is being considered.
Like other hon. Members, I welcome very much the principle, and indeed the details, of the Bill. I was very interested to hear the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) recall nostalgically, if I may respectfully say so, the tremendous enthusiasm for local government which obtained in 1894, when the Local Government Act was passed. It is perhaps true to say, without belittling the efforts of the many hon. Members of this House, including myself, who have taken part in it, that local government has somewhat declined in status since those early days of enthusiasm at the turn of the century.
I believe that the reason is that we have not decentralised enough up to now. The main arm of local government is the county council, and I believe that there is a tendency in county councils also to retain in their hands powers which could better be exercised by parish councils or by people in the more localised areas. I hope that the increase of powers which will be given if the Bill is passed will have the effect of increasing the prestige of parish councillors and increasing the interest in parish council work which, as the hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. C. Hughes) said, is one of the most important foundations of our democracy. I hope that the Bill will be approved.
I go so far as to say, also, that perhaps the Bill does not give enough powers to the parish councillors. It does not touch on the financial powers of the parish council. As the House knows, the possibility of raising more than a 8d. rate has to be deferred until the Minister's consent has been obtained. I believe that it would be slightly ridiculous if 1483 the parish council which my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wembley, North (Wing Commander Bullus) told us about, which produces a 1d. rate of minus 11d., wanted to raise more than an 8d. rate, which, I suppose, would produce about plus 1s. 2d., and had to get the permission of my right hon. Friend before it could do so. Surely the limit, now that the value of money is what it is compared with what it was when the Act was first passed, ought to be slightly increased and the councils should be able to raise a little more money without the consent of higher authority.
I also wish to refer to the Clause dealing with the possibility of reclaiming up to £20 for damage to lamp posts and seats, which the parish council is entitled to maintain. A lamp post would be very cheap at £20. In the old days, £20 would buy quite a nice lamp post, but now I am sure that one could not get one so cheaply. I think that that rate should be increased. One has to consider that if the parish council has to go to any court other than a magistrates' court—has, in fact, to go to the county court in order to recover damages in excess of £20—it is faced with rather a difficult position. It will be likely that the damage has been caused by a motorist who is insured and cares not whether he wins or loses the action. It is likely, also, that it may have been caused by someone who cannot pay the costs himself and is legally aided. The parish council cannot be legally aided.
Even if the parish council wins the action it will have to pay its own costs which, as a member of the Bar, I cannot hope will be unreasonably low. Therefore, the parish council will have to consider that, if it is to go to the county court for a debt of £30, its costs will hardly be less than £15 and it will be worse off than if it had gone to the magistrates' court to get the £20 to which it is entitled. I wonder whether that possibility could be considered in Committee. I notice that nothing is said in the Bill about appeal beyond a magistrates' court. I take it that the Bill is silent only because the normal procedure will be adopted, but it might be possible to make that clear in Committee.
Finally, I note that Clause 3, which is a difficult provision to read very quickly 1484 and to understand, will have to be looked at closely, but I welcome one feature of it, which is that the parish council is entitled to appeal to the Minister, in certain circumstances, if it feels that it has not got the consideration from the rural district council which it should have in the matter of lighting. That is a good provision. Appeals to the Minister will be extremely few in number, but the fact that there can be an appeal is, so to speak, a lever which the parish council can have in its hand which will probably ensure agreement before any such action is necessary.
I welcome the Bill and I hope that it has a fortunate existence.
§ 12.26 p.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Moyle (Oldbury and Halesowen)
First, I wish to congratulate the hon. and gallant Member for Wembley, North (Wing Commander Bullus) on his good fortune in the Ballot and on submitting such a useful Bill. I hope that he will not fall to the overtures of the hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) in relation to what is happening to other Private Members' Bills upstairs in Committee and I hope that he will have sufficient faith in the merits of this Bill and see it through the Committee rather than rely upon a procedural trick that may not work out to his advantage in respect of another Measure that he has sponsored.
I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) in what he said about public lighting, but there are other urgent parish needs. For example, I should have liked to see in the Bill a Clause giving parish councils power to provide their own local libraries. Why not? It is true that county councils and other agencies have mobile library services which feed the various parishes, but frankly, I do not think that they are satisfactory.
I cannot understand why, in this age of enlightenment when the rural community is equally literary minded as the urban community, a parish council has not the responsibility and power to provide a library, especially in view of the development of the women's institutes and the young farmers' clubs in our village communities. I should like the hon. and gallant Member to consider whether something can be done about that in Committee.
1485 The second comment I wish to make is about recreation. A most remarkable feature about our villages is that they lack recreational facilities for youth. It is very rarely that we find any playing-field facilities unless they have been provided through the generosity of a local landowner or a voluntary club which organises particular recreational facilities for football or cricket. I speak as a product of a village. In most villages one has to depend on the generosity of a landowner as to the extent to which young people can enjoy recreational facilities which are better provided for in the towns. Having regard to the sporting proclivities of the hon. and gallant Member who has promoted the Bill, I should think that he would look at that question again to see whether something cannot be done to enable parish councils to provide at least a playingfield.
I see that the Bill provides for an extension of membership of parish councils. I agree with that, but because parish councils have so little power to do anything at all it is almost impossible, because of this, to get a sufficiently representative meeting to make good the obligations now imposed by law on the parish to produce a parish council. I therefore hope the Bill will make an additional contribution to the powers of the parish council which will match the responsibilities that are proposed in such a way that they may re-enliven and reinvigorate local government in the villages, because I consider that the parish council is a vital part of our system of local government and should not be allowed to languish.
I am quite prepared at any time to sacrifice the county council if I can secure an improvement in the powers and responsibilities of both rural district and parish councils.
§ 12.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)
While I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wembley, North (Wing Commander Bullus) on introducing this Bill, and give it general support, I cannot support the additions proposed by the hon. Member for Oldbury and Halesowen (Mr. Moyle). I think that we must be a little careful about splitting up local authority expenditure among three instruments of local government. However enthusiastic one 1486 may be about the parish council and its contact with village life, I do not think that one should try to divert to it a considerable part of local authority expenditure.
I have one reservation about the Bill, the same as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page). Every organisation which is concerned with safety on the roads has emphasised the importance of uniformity of road lighting. Anyone who drives a motor car regularly will know how important that is. A fully and well-lit road is as safe as a road can be. A completely unlit road is also safe. There is nothing more dangerous than a badly lit road, either because the lighting is itself weak. or because the lamps are so widely spaced that there are well-lit pools of road with spaces of darkness between. There was great force in what my hon. Friend said in that respect. That is a matter to which the Government and, subsequently, this House should give attention some time in the future.
I appreciate, as one of my hon. Friends has pointed out, that the Bill is not only concerned with the lighting of thoroughfares but also of side roads, where the traffic consideration is less important. On that aspect I have this further reservation. I may have misunderstood the Bill and, if so, I apologise, but I have the impression that it would remove the brake or check of the parish meeting on the lighting activities of the parish council. I know well from experience that in almost every village a few people want the village lit——
§ Mr. Bell
—or lit up, no doubt—but the great majority do not, as a rule, want it lit. They have gone to the country to live or remain in the country because they want to get away from that sort of thing.
It is not a peculiarity of parish councils that they like to be active and to exercise their powers. That is a characteristic of any body which enjoys powers. I sometimes think that Parliament passes more laws than it ought to, possibly, on 'Fridays. Parish councils are not immune from that general disease. If a few people in a village start an agitation for street lighting there is a real risk, as I know because I represent a rural constituency, 1487 that the parish council might say, "Yes we will have a fund to provide lighting" and decide to have it.
I know that parish councils are democratically elected, but at present a parish meeting is called to approve or disapprove of expenditure on lighting. Quite often the parish meeting turns down the project by an overwhelming majority because the vast body of people in the village do not want the extension of lighting which is proposed.
A vast amount of money is being wasted in the countryside today in lighting village streets where no lighting whatever is needed, and even stretches of roads, because someone has to walk along them and feels a little insecure without street lighting. It is not only a question of the initial capital expenditure, but that once that has been incurred there is a regular, continual expenditure of actually lighting the street, paying for current and maintaining lamps. All that represents a mounting overhead expenditure which the community has to bear. This is a time when we must all be rather worried about the burden on the community of local authority spending.
Therefore, if this Bill is in any way to encourage the lighting up of the countryside, I am opposed to that provision. I hope I may be mistaken, but, if I am not, when the Bill goes upstairs—as I hope it will—for the reasons I have given I shall oppose any provision in it which has that effect.
§ 12.38 p.m.
§ Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)
I, too, should like to congratulate the hon. and gallant Member for Wembley, North (Wing Commander Bullus), not only on his good fortune in the Ballot, but on the excellent use he has made of it on this and previous occasions. I should like at the same time to offer respectful tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), whose speech was as entertaining, as felicitous and as wise as his speeches on such matters so often are.
This Bill is supported on both sides of the House, and I am sure we all wish it well. I hope we are not going to exaggerate the infinite wisdom of parish councils. Occasionally they may be right in maintaining a crooked road for good 1488 local reasons, but no doubt it was equally for good local reasons that a village was once reputed to have voted that the earth was flat; it so appeared to them within the confines of the village.
That, I think, goes also for the matter of lighting. I have had in mind a village in my constituency. To get to it one has to walk up four miles from a main road, and to get away from it one has to walk down four miles. It is on top of a hill, there is nothing, as it were, behind it and there is nothing nearer to it than a railway line without a station and a main road with tolerable—but no more than tolerable—communications.
For many years, the earnest wish of the people of the village was to get a light. I am sure that no one would grudge it to them. I am sure, too, that in a case of that sort there would be no interference with the proper lighting of roads. Traffic up there hardly ever occurs, and even pedestrians are few and far between. I hope that the lighting activities of parish councils will be a useful supplement to the lighting activities of other larger bodies and not an interference with them in any way.
Parish councils are now to take power to put up a parish clock. Who would grudge it to them? I hope, however, that they will not be tempted to excess, for, as has already been pointed out, parish clocks occasionally have an idiosyncratic view of time. If two clocks are put up—indeed, there are two clocks in this Chamber now—there are occasions, which I have noticed, when they show such an indication of time that both cannot be right, if, indeed, time is an objective matter, upon which the philosophers have much doubt. Therefore, let us hope that it will be one clock and not two.
On the question of the clocks in this Chamber, I have had to wrestle with my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South-West (Mr. Bowden), who keeps habitual silence in this place, for he says that they are made in Leicester and that it is impossible that a clock made in Leicester should ever be wrong. None the less, I have noticed them to differ.
There remains the question of the seats. In 1860, Parliament in its great wisdom provided that parish councils should be enabled to put up seats and shelters, not bus shelters, because there was no such need for them in those days—and I had 1489 something to do with providing them in a recent Act—but shelters against rain. The wisdom did not go far enough, however, and that which the parish council was empowered to put up no one was empowered to maintain. Consequently, the hole in the village seat or in the village shelter, which we all deplore, may occur from time to time. I am very glad indeed that the hon. and gallant Member for Wembley, North will take steps to prevent that.
More seriously, parish councils represent a really valuable amount of voluntary effort in small places in public matters. They represent a contribution towards the community life of the countryside which we all of us value and should all of us do our best to encourage.
I trust that this Bill will get through quickly upstairs. I am bound to say that since we are throwing light in crooked places, it seems to be singularly unfortunate if the Bill can only get through at the expense of some other Measure to which other Members object. That kind of bargain does not commend itself, I believe, to the public. It certainly does not commend itself to me. If the procedure of our House necessarily entails that sort of thing, I hope it will be amended to allow Measures to succeed or fail on their merits and not on any arrangement—"combination", I think, is the word that the Italians have for it—of that kind.
That is all I have to say, except to express thanks to one body that nobody has happened to mention. The National Council of Social Service has done a very great deal to help parish councils. It is an entirely non-political body of a very useful character, and I believe that those who are concerned with parish council activities are really grateful to it for what it has done.
§ 12.46 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. J. R. Bevins)
I rise only to indicate the Government's support for the Bill. I should like to join with the many right hon. and hon. Members who have offered their congratulations to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wembley, North (Wing Commander Bullus) on the admirable fashion in which he introduced the Bill to the House. We have had a most interesting series 1490 of speeches from both sides of the House. As I sat here, I was filled with feelings of nostalgia for the countryside. Indeed, when the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) was speaking earlier, I almost mistook the chimes of Big Ben for a country clock whose chimes I know in a certain rural village of England.
I do not propose to deal with the detailed provisions of the Bill—that would be quite inappropriate this morning. There are, however, one or two points which hon. Members have raised to which I should refer. I was interested to hear the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) on the question of uniform street lighting and its relationship to road accidents, and, of course, the rather contrary views of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. R. Bell) on the same subject.
§ Mr. R. Bell
I was entirely in agreement with my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) on this point.
§ Mr. Bevins
I thought so at first, but in the later stages of his speech I felt that my hon. Friend rather veered the other way. I shall certainly take an early opportunity of conveying the views of my hon. Friends to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation.
I was also interested in what my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Sir L. Joynson-Hicks) had to say on the importance of the small units of local government having their views and opinions on various matters of importance heeded by the larger authorities and, indeed, by Ministries of Her Majesty's Government. I shall be communicating this weekend with my hon. Friend on this question affecting the local authority at Middleton in regard to coast protection.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) asked one or two questions about the financial implications of the Bill. As, I think, the House knows, the expenditure allowable to the different parish councils throughout the country is prescribed by law. It depends on various factors, such as whether a parish council exists and what the county council is prepared to authorise. In certain circumstances, it is, of course, possible for a parish council to 1491 go above a certain limit with the authority of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government.
The main point to which my hon. and learned Friend was directing himself was whether these provisions would lead to any substantial increase in expenditure by these small local authorities. It is not possible for me to make any estimate, but I should have thought that the probable increase in expenditure would not be of a substantial character. It is, however, necessary that Clause 13 of the Bill should be italicised, because the rate-borne expenditure of the parish authorities is, of course, taken into account in the computation of equalisation grants paid to county councils. I think that that meets the point raised by my hon. Friend. As has been said, the Bill deals essentially with local matters, like street lighting, the provision of shelters and clocks——
Do we understand that there is a likelihood of a Money Resolution being introduced in support of the Bill? If so, I believe that it would meet with universal approval.
§ Mr. Bevins
I can assure the hon. and learned Member at once that a Money Resolution will be introduced at an early date to facilitate the passage of the Bill.
As I was about to say, most of the matters contained in the Bill are essentially matters of local interest and there is not a single word in the Bill of a controversial character. There is nothing in it about housing subsidies, rents, or rates of interest or anything that by any stretch of the imagination could prejudice either the reform of local government finance or what we hope to do in local government reorganisation.
Parishes are among the most ancient of local institutions in the country. During the nineteenth century a number of statutes were passed dealing with the organisation of parishes and vestries. They culminated in the Local Government Act, 1894, which established rural parishes as we know them today. However, the passing of that Act is now remembered, if indeed it is remembered at all, for quite a different reason. Its 1492 return to this House, having been amended in another place, was the occasion of a very solemn warning by Mr. Gladstone, who took the opportunity to deliver a lengthy oration in which he addressed himself to the constitutional dangers of conflict between the two Houses of Parliament.
I think that it was Erskine May who once said that every parish is the image and reflection of the State. He was writing about 100 years ago, but I think that his words are largely true even today, because all of us who have had experience of local government either in big cities or in our small rural communities are conscious of the fact that local government is the nursery of what is best in British democracy. I have always been convinced that any weakening in the local government process is bound inevitably to weaken our democratic way of life as a country.
In the rural parishes, local people decide local matters through democratic processes, which they share not only with local government units but with Parliament itself. I am sure that we all hope that local government in the parishes will continue to thrive, but if it is to do so the organisation and powers of parish councils must be periodically adapted to the times in which we live. This is just as necessary in the parish councils as it is in the county boroughs and larger units of local government.
I believe, therefore, that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wembley, North has introduced a Bill which, although modest, is likely to have a good effect on local government as a whole. I congratulate him on his fortune and on his presentation of the Measure, and I am obliged to him on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, as indeed I am to the National Council of Social Service, and to the National Association of Parish Councils who have been very prominently associated in the making up of this Measure.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 38 (Committal of Bills).