HC Deb 07 May 1958 vol 587 cc1340-58
Mr. George Chetwynd (Stockton-on-Tees)

I beg to move, in page 26, line 17, to leave out "one hundred" and to insert "seventy-five".

It may be convenient to discuss at the same time the two Amendments to Clause 34, in page 26, line 22, leave out "fifteen" and insert "ten". And in line 27 leave out "one hundred" and insert "seventy-five".

The principle is the same, although the application is slightly different in each case.

Clause 33 lays down some guiding principles to the Boundary Commission for carrying out its work and for when the Commission and the Minister are considering the creation of new county boroughs. The Clause gives guidance on the population to be taken into account in making that decision, and it is presumed that a population of 100,000 is sufficient for the carrying out of the functions of a county borough council. The object of my Amendments is to return to the present position in that respect, substituting 75,000 for 100,000 population. The main purpose of the Boundary Commission, as laid down in Clause 17, is to bring about units of effective and convenient local government. The main purpose of my argument is to try to persuade the House that a county borough can undertake effective and convenient local government services with a population of 75,000.

There was no Amendment on these lines in the Standing Committee and there was very little discussion about the matter. I can only assume that that was because there was no representative of a non-county borough in the Standing Committee. [HON. MEMBERS: "There was."] In that case, there could not have been a representative of a non-county borough with a population of less than 75,000, or this matter would certainly have been raised.

The Minister's reference to this matter in Standing Committee did not make it clear whether before a non-county borough could be upgraded it was essential that the population should be 100,000. He said: The population of 100,000 referred to is not an indispensable minimum for the creation of a new county borough; nor is it an automatic qualification such as would ensure that any area with a population of over 100,000 could unquestionably become a new county borough. There is some doubt about what he meant by that statement. He went on: What is needed is some sort of presumption whereby one can limit the scope for argument as to whether a local authority of a certain size is or is not strong enough and large enough to fulfil county borough responsibilities.… 100,000 should be taken as being broadly the figure."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee D, 18th March, 1958; c. 949.] That seems to indicate that although the Minister does not preclude consideration being given to an area with a population of less than 100,000, that is nevertheless a fairly strong indication that 100,000 is the figure and that any non-county borough with a population less than that will not receive consideration. It obviously prejudices the view of certain non-county boroughs which are covered by the existing legislation provided in the Local Government Boundary Commission (Dissolution) Act, 1949. I come to that point as my strongest support in moving the Amendment.

On the Committee stage of that Measure in 1949, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) accepted an Amendment to restore 75,000 as the right figure for a non-county borough to seek to get county-borough status. In the original Bill, 100,000 had been put in, but it met with opposition on Second Reading. A delegation went to see my right hon. Friend, and as a result he introduced the Amendment which had the effect of putting back the figure 75,000. My right hon. Friend made it clear on that occasion that that was done to remove any misapprehension by non-county boroughs. Speaking for the Conservative Opposition, the late Mr. Walter Elliot accepted that Amendment for his party and also said that it was an improvement upon the previous figure of 100,000. The Committee accepted the Amendment without any Division, and with very little debate. As a result, the figure 75,000 was embodied in the legislation as being the figure at which a non-county borough could promote a Bill seeking county-borough status. I hope that what happened on that occasion will be looked upon as a favourable precedent for what I am trying to do tonight.

Nothing has happened since 1949 to make non-county boroughs with a population of 75,000 less capable of carrying out the functions of a county borough than they were at that time. Over the past ten years, a number of non-county boroughs, including the one which I have the honour to represent, have presented Bills for county-borough status. Each one has been defeated in this House, but not on grounds of size or of capacity to carry out effectively local government functions. They were defeated mainly because of the impact they would have had on the surrounding county. In the case of Luton and of Stockton-on-Tees, the Bills were defeated because the Government opposed piecemeal legislation in advance of a general reorganisation of local government. In not one of these cases was the Bill rejected because it was considered that the population was too small.

With the coming of this comprehensive Bill for local government reform, the non-county boroughs thought that their period of waiting would soon be at an end, that their patience would be rewarded and that the Local Government Boundary Commission would be able to consider their cases. By the alteration of the figure from 75,000 to 100,000 their hopes have been very rudely dashed. It now looks as though many of them will have to go on waiting for a number of years for their populations to reach 100,000, or for some amalgamation to take place with neighbouring districts. By the alteration of this presumptive figure, the Minister has struck a heavy blow at a number of non-county boroughs.

At this stage I do not wish to argue the case for any particular county borough, because that would not be proper, but I would quote again in my support the Report of the 1947 Boundary Commission which made it quite clear that in the view of the Commission—a most authoritative body of local government experts, etc.—there were ten non-county boroughs worthy of attaining county borough status and that they were, in capacity to carry out the duty, indistinguishable from the other county boroughs who already had these powers. The Report said that they were just as capable of carrying out these local government services as were most of the fifty-two county boroughs, which it named.

There are twenty county boroughs in existence with a population of 75,000 or below, and nine county councils with a population of 75,000 or below. My contention is that if it is right for them to carry on the functions of county boroughs and counties, in equity it is right that the existing non-county boroughs of 75,000 population should be considered.

I can see no valid reason why the Minister should seek to alter the number to 100,000 and thereby prejudice from the beginning the case of the non-county boroughs. By agreeing to accept the Amendment he would not automatically guarantee that these boroughs would become county boroughs, but at least he would give them the chance of having their case heard by the Local Government Boundary Commission. He would enable all the processes under this Bill to be gone through.

9.45 p.m.

My view, which is backed forcibly by my local authority, is that it is wrong for the Government to rule out of court the aspirations of these vigorous, independent local government units. We have waited a long time for this opportunity. We thought we would get it under this Bill, but we find that it is put off again to the future. I hope that on this major Amendment the right hon. Gentleman will see fit to act as his predecessor in the Labour Government acted and reverse his policy and accept the number of 75,000.

I admit that I do not attach so much importance to the next Amendment in my name. It would reduce the 15-year standstill to 10 years. The object is to reduce by five years the period during which no further approach can be made by an affected borough. In rapidly developing areas where the population is coming in because of industrial usage and so on, it is quite wrong to expect the borough to wait 15 years from the passing of this Measure before it can introduce a Bill to alter its status. The area I represent is a rapidly developing one. It has had to allow its local government to wait on this Bill for so long that we are in some danger of stagnating in our approach to local government.

What provision is there to meet exceptional circumstances brought about by movements of population, development of industries and perhaps voluntary amalgamations? I believe that 10 years is long enough for any general standstill. I hope that the Minister will also accept that Amendment. Non-county boroughs have had sufficient disappointment without having to wait another 15 years to bring forward a local government Bill.

The third Amendment seeks to substitute 75,000 for 100,000 in Clause 34.

This is a final attempt to get some measure of justice and improvement in the position of non-county boroughs. As it stands, the Clause places a further obstacle in the way of non-county boroughs. If they have to wait for 15 years, they have still to reach a population of 100,000 before they can promote a Bill to obtain county borough status. That would rule out a number of non-county boroughs from making application for a long time ahead. It will frustrate the chances of these local authorities and lead to further friction between non-county boroughs and county boroughs. The longer that goes on the more difficult the situation will be.

I do not want to repeat arguments in favour of non-county boroughs of certain size becoming county boroughs. I submit that they fulfil the test laid down in Cmd. 9831: The test of any system of local government in this country should be whether it provides a stable structure, capable of discharging efficiently the functions entrusted to it. while at the same time maintaining its local democratic character. I ask the House to accept that these non-county boroughs, thriving, vigorous towns, are quite capable of carrying out all the functions which in many cases are carried out by neighbouring county councils of a similar size. There has been too much delay already in coming to a decision about their future. It is unreasonable, in my view, to expect them to go on waiting year after year. Indeed, after 15 years, or the time which it takes them to develop a population of 100,000, they would all be weary of waiting and would give up all hope of ever becoming independent local government units. Therefore, I ask the Minister, in the interests of good local government in these areas, to accept the Amendment.

Mr. Francis Noel-Baker (Swindon)

I beg to second the Amendment.

I wish to speak briefly in support of the case which has been so ably and lucidly put by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd). He has put all the arguments, which apply to my own constituency and to the other towns in this situation just as much as they do to his own borough of Stockton-on-Tees. I would beg the Minister to remember that, if he decides to resist the Amendment, he will plunge the local authorities which have been in this position for many years now into a mood of utter despair. We have been hoping, and our hopes have been deferred over and over again, that when this Bill was introduced our difficulties would be met, and now we see that the position is made worse than it was before, and we are in very considerable difficulty.

I cannot understand what justification there can possibly be for increasing this arbitrary upper limit if the figure of 75,000 was adequate thirteen years ago, and we would be much obliged if the Minister would tell us what was in the mind of the Government when the decision was taken. Many local authorities in the position of towns like Swindon, Stockton-on-Tees, The Hartlepools and the rest, had come to assume that it was to be a matter of only very few years before they attained county borough status. The authorities responsible for the neighbouring areas, which were carrying out some of the functions which would be taken over if the wishes of the non-county boroughs had been met and they had been given county borough status, had come to accept the inevitability of the change and had prepared themselves for handing over. Now their calculations, as well as the calculations of the non-county boroughs concerned, will have been very gravely upset.

The Minister has said that this new upper limit does not necessarily preclude proper consideration being given to the problem of these non-county boroughs with populations below 100,000. We would be very grateful if, when replying, he would tell us what he had in mind when he gave that assurance. We had a series of assurances, both public and private, to the local authorities concerned and the people connected with them, that something was to be done for them. All we see is our hopes receding as the Government change their mind and delay over and over again. I would therefore beg the Minister to give the most sympathetic consideration he can to this Amendment, and to go into some detail in explaining to us what he has in mind about the future of these places.

There is one further point touched on by my hon. Friend which I should like to emphasise, and it is the point covered by the second Amendment on the question of reducing the waiting period from fifteen years to ten. No doubt the right hon. Gentleman, and his Parliamentary Secretary as well, like his officials, have considerable familiarity with the progress which the constituency that I have the honour to represent has been making in recent years, and will know that the whole aspect of the town, and perhaps its character, has been transformed since large numbers of new citizens have settled down there.

These changes have taken place at a rate which has surprised many people who have been thinking about these developments and studying them carefully for a long time. They have taken place rapidly in spite of the difficulties which we have encountered lately as a result of Government economic policies. It therefore seems unrealistic to raise the waiting period, which will create a serious difficulty for towns such as those which we are discussing.

I do not want to add to the opening speech on the subject, because I believe that a number of my hon. Friends who are similarly affected may wish to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker.

Captain Richard Pilkington (Poole)

I have considerable sympathy with the two speeches which we have heard, but, having said that, I must add that it seems to me that the Amendment is unnecessary in view of what the Minister has already said. Hon. Members have referred to his words, and I should like to quote them to the House. In Standing Committee on 18th March he said: … the population of 100,000 … is not an indispensable minimum for the creation of a new county borough;".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee D, 18th March, 1958; c. 949.] There were various other statements to the same effect, but that was the most succinct of them and I hope that in his reply tonight the Minister will give this reassurance once again in words as plain as possible. This, it seems to me, ought to satisfy those boroughs who believe that they should aspire to the status of county boroughs.

I have in mind my own constituency of Poole, which has a population of over 86,000, and which is rapidly growing. But it is not only a question of population on which the Town and County of the Borough of Poole, to give it its full title, relies for its hopes of getting a speedy implementation of its ambition to become a county borough. There are other important factors which presumably the Commission will take into account, such as its situation vis-à-vis the rest of the county—Poole is in one corner of the county; its history, which is long and distinguished; its efficiency, which is outstanding; its reputation, which is excellent; its individuality, which is pronounced and finally its patience, which it shares with other similar boroughs, which have also waited a very long time. I know that the Minister is aware of all these facts and of the very strong arguments which could be deployed in support of them, and I hope that he will once again give a decided and decisive reassurance on this matter.

I ask for two further assurances, which I think the Minister could give in his answer. The first is that the Commission should get to work as quickly as possible once it is set up. I am sure that I shall have the support of both sides of the House in seeking that assurance. The second assurance for which I ask—and I see no reason why he should not accede to it and why it should not also have support from both sides of the House—is that he will suggest to the Commission that the Town and County of the Borough of Poole should come at the very top of the list to be considered by the Commission.

10.0 p.m.

Mr. H. Brooke

Even though I cannot advise the House to accept any of the Amendments, I hope that my explanation and assurance will go some way to allay the fears which have been expressed by hon. Members so conscientious in representing the causes and the aspirations of non-county boroughs and urban districts with populations between 75,000 and 100,000. Althogether there are fifteen of these; ten are within the Greater London area or within one of the conurbations specified in the Bill, and only five are outside them.

The only point to which I must demur is the suggestion of the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd) that the Government have been vacillating over this. The figure of 100,000 in Clause 33—a Clause which is, of course, entirely distinct from Clause 34—was arrived at originally in the course of discussions which took place two or three years ago between the local authority associations. The associations then agreed to recommend that 100,000 should be the figure beyond which a local authority should not have to give special proof to any reviewing commission that it was capable of discharging the functions of a county borough. The Government, having been notified of that agreement between local authority associations, considered it and endorsed it.

That is the origin of this figure of 100,000, but I want again to repeat and, if necessary explain further, what I said in Committee. The figure of 100,000 in Clause 33 in no way prejudges the case that may be put up by some local authorities with a population below that figure for attaining county borough status. It simply means, and I think that hon. Members on both sides will recognise this as reasonable, that we should draw some line beyond which it is not necessary to put the onus on the claiming authority of convincing a Commission that the authority's population is large enough for county borough functions to be discharged. Because of that agreement, and because it seemed right to the Government, we have drawn the line at 100,000.

The last thing that I would wish is that, because 100,000 appears in the Clause, existing county boroughs—and there are many of them—which have populations below 100,000 should imagine that Clause 33 in some way threatens them. Not at all—it does not prejudge the matter in any way. All it says is that if a borough or urban district with a population of below 100,000 seeks to claim from the Commission a recommendation that it should become a county borough, the onus would be on the claimant to prove that its population is sufficient. That is all.

I want to emphasise as powerfully as I can that that figure of 100,000 is not intended in any way to prejudice the consideration of the claim on its merits. The hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees expressed some fear lest such authorities as his might be debarred from the chance of being heard before the Commission. I can give him an absolute assurance on that point.

When we come to Clause 34, the figure of 100,000 fulfils a somewhat different purpose. In that Clause we are looking beyond the period when the Commission is doing its work—beyond, indeed, the standstill of 15 years to which I shall revert in a moment—and casting our minds to the time when it will be possible for authorities that wish to claim county borough status to promote a Private Bill for that purpose.

After very careful consideration, the Government have come to the conclusion that the right figure to insert is that which was accepted in the 1945 Act, an Act promoted by the Coalition Government of that time; that is to say, the figure of 100,000. It is perfectly true that when the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) abolished the Boundary Commission, and when legislation to that effect was before the House in 1949, the figure was allowed to revert from 100,000 to 75,000. I have, however, been studying precisely what happened on that occasion, and I can assure the House that that change was made to avoid any implication that towns of between 75,000 and 100,000 population—towns like Stockton-on-Tees—should be denied the chance of seeking promotion to county borough status during the course of the general review that was then promised. Indeed, I think the hon. Member will confirm that when that deputation came to see the Minister of the day the deputation gave an assurance that towns with populations between 75.000 and 100,000 would not seek to promote Bills for county borough status provided that they could be assured of the chance of seeking that status through the general review.

That is the history of the matter, and the Government suggest that when the general review by this Local Government Commission has taken place and when the standstill period is over—bearing in mind all the responsibilities which local government has to carry now and which are likely to increase rather than decrease in the future—it would be right that an authority should not approach Parliament with a Private Bill seeking county borough status unless it has a population of 100,000.

I now want to come to the interim period, and I want to explain why the Government think it would be a mistake to cut down the period from fifteen to ten years. The period runs from the passing of the Act. I can assure my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Poole (Captain Pilkington) that I am extremely anxious that both the Commissions—the one for England and the one for Wales—shall get to work as quickly as possible, and when the Bill reaches the Statute Book I shall regard it as my business to try to secure suitable members for the Commission so that they can start on their arduous and responsible job without delay.

But I must say frankly that considering the duties that we are putting on the Local Government Commission for England, it is unlikely that the whole of its work throughout the length and breadth of the land will be finished in less than four or five years. It has five conurbations to examine. It has got all the county boroughs, all the counties and all the claimants for county borough status, and if it is to do its work conscientiously and carefully it certainly strikes me that a period of that order will be required.

That would mean that if we were to accept the Amendment, the gap before new Private Bills could be promoted would in effect be only five years or so, because, of the period of ten years which the Amendment seeks to insert, the first five years or so would be occupied with the work of the Commission, and then there would be a five-year standstill and then private Bills might come along.

As far as I am aware, it is widely accepted in local government circles that after this general review by the Commission, it is desirable that things should be regarded as stable for a substantial period. The work of the Commission might throw up far-reaching changes—nobody can forecast just what changes—but it really makes it extremely difficult either for elected councils or for their officers to settle down to their important administrative duties if we had as short a period as five years. There may possibly be another equally great upheaval within the county area.

The reason why the Government have specified this period of fifteen years before private Bills may be promoted was simply that it seemed fit to us that there should be a period of stability of something like ten years between the time when the Commission had finished its work and the time when new private Bills should be promoted.

But, here again, I want to remind the House that that will be a standstill only on promotions to county borough status. If there is a growing area and it seems that there is a strong case for the extension of a county borough, the standstill will not apply to that. It will be quite possible for an order to be made under the provisions of the 1933 Act that would provide for the extension of a county borough.

Mr. Chetwynd

Will the Minister -deal with the voluntary amalgamation of two, shall we say, non-county boroughs or a non-county borough and an urban district in the standstill period?

Mr. Brooke

There, the initiative must come from the Government to lay an order. The Government are certainly not going to forget the powers which exist under the 1933 Act. But I do not want to raise the hon. Gentleman's hopes and suggest that we would here, there, and everywhere upset the period of stability we are seeking, though we should not interpret the standstill in such a way as to debar the presentation and laying of orders under the 1933 Act.

I am not sure whether I have dealt with each of the points which hon. Members have raised. I am extremely anxious that there should be no misunderstanding about these matters at all. I hope that, so far as possible, we can go forward in common accord in this respect. We certainly want the Local Government Commissions to do a thorough job and to do it with no prejudice put into their minds by anything any of us may have said beforehand in Parliament. I know that, if the Bill reaches the Statute Book, the House would wish that the strongest possible Commissions should be set up, ones which will hold the balance absolutely fairly between boroughs great and small, between the county on the one hand and the smallest district or parish on the other That is definitely the desire of the Government, and I trust that we may go forward in that spirit.

Mr. David Jones (The Hartlepools)

The right hon. Gentleman's speech will go a little distance towards allaying the fears which many people entertain, but I do not think that it will remove them altogether—at any rate, not those of that group of boroughs which have a population of about 75,000. Nor do I think that it will allay the suspicion in the minds of those existing county boroughs with populations of about 75,000 that they are not to be debarred.

While I do not wish to question what the Minister says, I cannot read into Clause 33 exactly what he is saying. Clause 33 provides: In so far as the question of the constitution of a new county borough is affected by considerations of population, the Commission and the Minister shall presume that a population of one hundred thousand is sufficient to support the discharge of the functions of a county borough council. The Minister tells us tonight that, if the population is not 100,000, that does not debar them. I should have thought, with those words before the Commission, that it is not very probable that many authorities with populations of 100,000 will be accorded county borough status.

There is the other point which has been made from time to time by responsible Ministers of both parties from the Dispatch Box, that, when Private Bills are brought forward to confer county borough status on authorities, the question of their effect upon the surrounding areas has to be taken into account. Is it to be presumed that, after a lapse of 15 years, if a borough with a population of about 75,000 promotes a Parliamentary Bill, any kind of undertaking can be given that, if it is given county borough status, the county in which it finds itself and the consequences of its being given county borough status are to be disregarded altogether? If this is the moment when the Commission is entitled and enabled to redraw the boundaries of existing counties, now is the time when boroughs with a population of about 75,000 ought to be given their chance to have county borough status. An opportunity of this kind will not present itself again.

10.15 p.m.

It is also true that the figure of 75,000 has been regarded as reasonable ever since 1926 with the exception of a short period of four years, when the Local Government Boundary Commission was previously established, when a figure of 100,000 was inserted. As the right hon. Gentleman has said, that figure of 100,000 was reinserted in the Bill which sought to abolish the previous Local Government Boundary Commission, but as a result of pressure from both sides of the House on that occasion—and the sides were then reversed—the then Minister of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan), agreed to delete the figure of 100,000 and insert 75,000.

The right hon. Gentleman has attached considerable importance to the fact that he achieved a measure of agreement between the local authority associations. It is a great pity that he has not inserted more of the agreements arrived at with the local authority associations. It is no good merely to argue that, because a compromise was arrived at on the figure of 100,000, he should now fasten on to that and suggest that because a compromise was reached it should be retained. If an authority with a population of 75,000 can adequately manage the powers conferred on a county borough, it seems to me that the figure of 75,000 ought to be inserted in the Bill.

The existing authorities—and I understand that there are more than fifty with a population of less than 100,000—by and large do the job reasonably satisfactorily. For example, if we take Tees-side, what reason is there to assume that Stockton-on-Tees, which has a population of roughly 75,000, will be any less efficient than the County Borough of West Hartlepool, which has approximately the same population? Does the Minister believe that it will lead to satisfaction on the part of either authority that one should have county borough status and the other should not? If it is his intention that authorities with a population of between 75,000 and 100,000 should have county borough status conferred upon them, he ought to take 100,000 out of the Bill and insert the figure of 75,000.

Mr. G. A. Pargiter (Southall)

It has been said that the figure of 100,000 was a compromise figure, but 125,000 was also a compromise figure for county borough status. If we are to argue about what was a compromise figure and what was not and that the figure ought to be 75,000, we might equally argue that the figure ought not to be 125,000, although it was generally agreed to take the 125,000 out in order that there could be uniformity. I thought that the Minister might have used this argument, because a good deal has been said about the figure of 75,000, but a number of arguments have been adduced, of which the Minister is well aware, that the figure could be considerably higher than 100,000.

It is also to be borne in mind that the question of the figure is in relation to population only. It is important that hon. Members should be under no misapprehension about this. Any borough seeking county borough powers must establish on other grounds, quite apart from population, that it should be given county borough status. That is acceptable and sensible. It is equally important to establish that in the granting of county borough powers from the viewpoint of producing the greater good for the greater number, evil will not be done to a greater number in so far as their powers are affected also. There are, therefore, many other factors than population.

If we consider all the other factors plus population, and if we consider the distribution of population throughout England, the 100,000 figure appears to be a reasonable one for the House to adopt. It is a sizeable figure. When one considers that we are aiming at greater functions for local government and when we consider the need for greater resources to be available for local authorities in connection with the functions they are exercising, a figure of 100,000 is a reasonable presumption and one which should be supported.

I shall not argue the case for 125,000, which was included for conurbations, but there were good reasons why the figure of 125,000 was used in the first place. The Minister was to some extent committed to it. It was only after consideration, to arrive at some degree of uniformity, that 100,000 was inserted and generally accepted by the associations instead of 125,000. If figures are coming into the melting pot again, something will have to be heard about the figure being increased rather than reduced.

Sir George Benson (Chesterfield)

I am not sure whether the word "disingenuous" is a Parliamentary expression. If it is, I must say that I have never heard a more disingenuous speech from the Dispatch Box than the speech we have just heard from the Minister. He tried to make the point that there was nothing in the Bill to prevent the Commission from granting county borough status where there was a population of 75,000. Does he really expect the House to believe that, in view of Clauses 33 and 34, the Commission will grant county borough status to any borough with 75,000 population?

Let the Minister consider his own phraseology. It practically precludes any such action, whether it be strictly legal or not. In view of the wording of the Bill, to pretend as the Minister did that it is possible to obtain county borough status for a population of 75,000 is quite ridiculous. Why does the Minister try to bind the future for fifteen years? That is thoroughly bad legislative policy. There is no reason why he should try to bind the future. I hope that the House will divide against his proposal.

Mr. H. Brooke

The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Sir G. Benson) is under a misapprehension. He was speaking about the Commission giving claimants county borough status. All that the Commission can do is to produce a report and recommendations. It is the Minister who then has to act and decide whether to lay an Order before the House. The Commission is a purely advisory body. I repeat, with all the emphasis I can command, that there is nothing in the Bill which prejudices the Commission against recommending an authority with less than 100,000 population for county borough status if, having heard all the pros and cons, it so decides to make a recommendation.

There is one point which perhaps the hon. Member for the Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones) did not appreciate. It may be my fault for not having made it clear. The Commission will certainly be expected to look ahead. We do not want a Commission just to take the position precisely as it is, to take what is the present population as the stable population. The Commission must take into account Clause 34 of the Bill and bear in mind that there will be a 15-year standstill after 1958. It therefore has to cast its own mind 10 or 15 years ahead and reach its own decisions as to whether the probable expansion or development of a certain locality is likely to be such as to justify it in recommending that council for county borough status.

I have tried to make this as clear as I can. I resent the word "disingenuous." Until now no one has made any suggestion from any quarter that there is anything sinister or doubtful or ambiguous here, and certainly neither the hon. Member for Chesterfield nor anybody else would wish charges of that kind to be thrown about the House to prejudice what is an extremely important and semi-judicial function which we now want the Commission to perform.

Sir G. Benson

May I ask the Minister if he is really suggesting to the House that the Commission would, in view of this phraseology, be prepared to recommend 75,000? He is playing with words.

Mr. Ede

As I understand Clause 33, it says that if a non-county borough has a population of over 100,000 the Commission would then recommend against its being given county borough status on grounds of population. If they do, the Minister would ignore it because he would say, "This is beyond its powers." The Commission is perfectly entitled to consider any non-county borough that applies for county borough status, and if it comes to the conclusion that all the factors which have to be taken into consideration warrant it being given that status, then although it has a population of less than 100,000, it can so recommend, and if the Minister agrees with its recommendation, he will then put it into an Order and lay it before the House.

I regret to have to say anything that appears to support the Minister on this Bill. This is the only Clause in it that I really understand, and I am glad to know that the right hon. Gentleman's understanding of the meaning agrees with my own. But when we come to the question of the 15 years, I think his argument is quite uncontrovertible——

Mr. Gerald Nabarro (Kidderminster)


Mr. Ede

If the hon. Gentleman prefers it that way——

Mr. Nabarro

I am sorry, it was meant to be sotto voce.

Mr. Ede

We have now reached a statement of impossibility, namely, the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) making a sotto voce remark.

I think we may safely assume that it will be at least five years from now before the reports are made. In fact, I think the Commissions set up under this Bill will work much faster than most of us expect, having regard to the immensity of the task committed to them, if they get the reports in that time. The recommendations then have to be embodied in Orders and placed before the House. This will mean that five years will certainly elapse before we see anything very practical. Surely, the new authorities then established should be given at least until 1963 before the whole of this is again thrown into the melting pot. Short of that, I do not see how the new counties, which will have been deprived of the areas of any new county boroughs that are formed, can get the administrative machine working. If my hon. Friends decide to divide on this, I regret to say that, much against my wishes, I shall have to go into the same Lobby with the Minister.

Mr. Chetwynd

I rise simply to remove the fear of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) that he may have to cohabit with the Government over this Bill. I am grateful to the Minister for the careful way in which he has replied. I am extremely disappointed, as are my hon. Friends, that he has not accepted the Amendment. I should have regarded it as more in keeping with his intention had he accepted the figure of 75,000 instead of 100,000. As the right hon. Gentleman says, this is not a preclusion. We must accept what he says, that no county borough with a 75,000 population will be excluded from the consideration of the Commissions.

I hope the Minister will acquit my hon. Friends of seeking to make personal capital out of this matter. We try to do our best by our constituents who have had to wait a long time to get what we think are their deserts. My hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. F. Noel-Baker) and myself will feel less disappointed if a Commission starts work at Stockton-on-Tees and then proceeds to Swindon and recommends that both those excellent boroughs should receive county status.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.