HC Deb 17 July 1972 vol 841 cc110-7


Mr. Graham Page

I beg to move Amendment No. 153, in page 5, line 26, after 'but', insert 'subject to subsection (2) below'. I hope it will be convenient to deal also with Government Amendments Nos. 154 to 156, No. 158, Nos. 160 to 163, and Nos. 165 and 166; and Amendment No. 822, in the name of the hon. Member for Kensington, South (Sir Brandon Rhys Williams), in page 208, line 33, leave out 'one councillor' and insert: 'two councillors until and including the general election of councillors in 1976; and for subsequent elections, Greater London shall be divided by the English Commission into new electoral divisions, with two such new divisions replacing each division existing before that time'. The main purpose of this group of Amendments is to abolish the post of alderman on the Greater London Council and London borough councils. This is not in any way to belittle the service which so many individuals have rendered to local government as aldermen over the years. We retain some recognition of that service by giving the power to appoint honourary aldermen in future, but there is now general agreement that the system of indirect election to local authority councils should be brought to an end and that the ultimate responsibility should be clearly placed on the shoulders of directly elected councillors.

The present Bill was not intended to envisage second thoughts on London since London government was reformed quite recently, but since we have made no provision for aldermen on any of the authorities outside Greater London, we consider that we could not justify the indefinite retention of the aldermanic system in the Greater London Council and in the London boroughs.

Abolition of aldermen in the Greater can be conveniently made when the authorities concerned are being wholly re-elected. The next normal dates for the Greater London Council elections would be 1973 and 1976 and for the London boroughs 1974 and 1977. In order to allow the councils affected and the political organisations to make the necessary arrangements, the date for abolition has been set at 1976 for the Greater London Council and at 1977 for the London borough councils.

Abolition of aldermen in the Greater London Council and in the London boroughs will reduce the size of those councils by one seventh. Most of the London borough councils have 60 councillors each. That is the limit which by Statute they are allowed, plus the one-sixth, the 10 aldermen. We intend by these Amendments to remove that limitation of 60 in order to give the London boroughs flexibility in re-warding, and it may be that, to make up for the loss of the services of aldermen, they will wish to arrange some re-warding so as to bring their councils up by a few members.

The GLC will be reduced for two reasons, first by the removal of the aldermen from the present 116 councillors on the Greater London Council, and secondly by operation of the London Government Act, which carried out the principle of the old London County Council of councillors being elected for parliamentary constituencies. It was not possible to carry that out at once under the London Government Act, 1963, but it was always intended that that should be so, and it is now being brought into operation—not under this Bill but otherwises—sothat at the next GLC election it will be an election for 92 councillors. So there is a substantial reduction from 116 councillors and aldermen on the Greater London Council to 92, but that will make the GLC comparable in size to the county councils in the rest of the country, and the range of functions is, broadly, comparable.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kensington, South (Sir B. Rhys Williams), by his Amendment—if I may mention it even before he does—does not think that the resulting 92 for the Greater London Council will be sufficient. It provides for an increase to 200 coun- cillors now, and to 184 in 1976. I cannot think that a large council of that size could be a wieldy or effective unit of local government. I should have thought that the 92 is sufficient, and certainly that the doubling of this to 184, or, for a period, having as many as 200, would make the council an ineffective unit of local government.

There may be need to think again about the number of councillors for a London borough, and also to decide whether a London borough or the GLC wish to adopt the same election pattern as most of the rest of the country, and so Amendments Nos. 153 and 154 make provision for that to be introduced by order of the Secretary of State.

The abolition of the aldermen in London does, I think, make it necessary for the London borough councils to consider re-warding. There is no compulsion; it is merely permissive for them so to do, if they themselves wish to ask the Secretary of State to make an order to deal with that.

As to the timing, in all these provisions and the orders which, under them, may be made by the Secretary of State, the intention is that orders under this new subsection should take effect so as to coincide with the disappearance of the aldermen; that is to say, in time for the elections to the GLC in 1976 and to the London boroughs in 1977.

Mr. John Silkin

On behalf of this side of the House I very much welcome, of course, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the phased abolition of aldermen in London. We did argue the point—eloquently in the case of my right hon. Friend, briefly in my case—in Committee, and we are glad to see that the Government have listened to us.

There are one or two minor points which I have in general on this. I quite follow that there must be certain consequentials if one is to reduce the number of those who sit in County Hall, and, of course, that is right; but there are some things which mildly trouble me. For example, in the group of Amendments of which we have just very narrowly disposed in the vote on No. 960, non-metropolitan districts may opt for annual or quadrennial elections while metropolitan districts will have annual elections. Paragraph (b) in Amendment No. 154—I cannot find it here, but I remember the point—talks of elections taking place in the same year as district council elections. "District council elections" can mean either metropolitan or non-metropolitan. If we are to allow non-metropolitan councils to opt for which particular year they are going to have elections this minor but interesting drafting point ought to be cleared up. That is the first point which I wanted to make.

There is, however, another point of greater substance, and it is this. The Amendment, I think rightly, delays the implementation of annual elections in Greater London till after there has been an affirmative order of both Houses of Parliament, and this is right. There seems to be something like a major difference of opinion in London as to whether it wants to go for annual elections or for quadrennial elections. I take it, and I am sure the Minister can reassure me on this, that part of the reason why this has not been brought out at the moment and is being left to an affirmative order in due course is that it is a question which can be sorted out, as far as London is concerned, through discussions through what, for local government, are the usual channels

It may seem a little strange that I should appear to be arguing rather the other way as far as London is concerned, but the reason is that London, as the Minister is aware, is touched only peripherally in this Bill. Indeed, I can remember his stern young hon. Friend the then Under-secretary of State reproving me once or twice in Committee for my frivolity in discussing London at all. I deem it a great privilege and pleasure to be allowed just by a side-wind to discuss my native city.

So there is a difference here. I am sure the Minister has taken into consideration the necessity for having consultations on when and if these new systems of elections in London should take place.

7.30 p.m.

Sir Brandon Rhys Williams (Kensington, South)

In considering this group of Amendments there are two points which concern me with which I can deal briefly. In Amendment No. 154, by affirmative Resolution, the Minister seeks to take power to secure that elections of coun- cillors to the Greater London Council take place in the same years as ordinary elections of county councillors—that is unexceptionable—and paragraph (b) correspondingly may require changes in the arrangement for the election of London borough councillors.

The point on which I should like the Minister's guidance is the implication of paragraph (c) which refers to Clause 7(4). Clause 7(4) provides that one-third of the councillors in each ward shall retire in every ordinary year of election. The implication is that those London boroughs which have wards with numbers of councillors which are not divisible by three will be required to undertake a process of re-warding. This requires a major upheaval which is perhaps not necessary just for the sake of bringing London into conformity with the rest of the country, or at any rate not necessary as a matter of haste.

My borough, after the amalgamation of Chelsea and Kensington, decided that the system of warding was so anomalous that it needed to be brought into line. It has taken a surprisingly long time to produce a scheme which is fully acceptable to everyone. The amount of work required, the degree of negotiation and the potential for ill-feeling and misunderstanding must not be under-estimated. I therefore express the hope that the powers which the Secretary of State is seeking to take in Amendment No. 154 will not be used too soon so that London is plunged back into the upheaval which accompanied the reorganisation of London boroughs.

Much the most important issue arises in Amendment No. 165. My hon. Friend has dealt with why it has been decided that the aldermen have to go, and I do not want to go over all that again. But it is worthy of a moment's consideration whether we are not asking councillors of the GLC in future to take on more than is reasonable. We are not only reducing their numbers by the number of aldermen, namely from 116 to 100, but, by the constituency reorganisation, bringing them down to 92. I have not had the privilege of serving as a member of the Greater London Council, but those members of the Council whom I know—and that includes several hon. Members—stress the special nature and responsibilities of councillors in the GLC. I have several times heard the view expressed that there is too much work for the councillors to be able to fulfil their responsibilities, particularly as committee members, in the way they would like. The amount of work in local government is likely to increase, rather than the reverse, and I feel anxiety that we may be making provisions which will place too great burdens on the GLC councillors and which will result in a decline in democratic representation in London.

The Minister implied that representation in London did not need to be different from representation in any other major authority. Speaking not just as a Londoner but, I hope, as a man of common sense, I think it is reasonable to suggest that the responsibilities of councillors in London are of a special character and that we should give consideration to increasing the number.

The idea that the wards for the election of Greater London councillors should correspond to the parliamentary constituencies is so good that we do not want to lose it. Therefore, my Amendment suggests that there should be two GLC representatives for each parliamentary constituency. Any other suggestion would result in the boundaries again being blurred. A suggestion to double the number of course means a fairly sharp increase in representation, namely, from the present 116 to 184. While I can see that my hon. Friend is not disposed to think that number would make a wieldy or convenient unit, I hope that he will find ways of alleviating the burden on Greater London councillors. With the passage of time we may well find that we have to return to the idea of increasing the numbers.

Mr. Christopher Tugendhat (Cities of London and Westminster)

I have not so far intervened in debates on the Bill, so it would be an impertinence for me to keep the House for more than a moment. In my capacity not as Member of Parliament for my constituency but as GLC nominated Member and therefore the Member who sponsors GLC Bills in the House, I believe that the Minister is making a mistake in abolishing the aldermen in London. His arguments bear no relation to the merits of London, but are designed simply to bring London into line with the rest of the country, in itself a somewhat strange constitutional doctrine for a country whose boast has always been that we do not have a written constitution and we do not have a very harmonious pattern, but it works. On the whole, that has been true of the nation, and it is a pity in the interests of orderliness to depart from it in local government.

In central government the government of the day, whether Conservative or Labour, frequently rely on the House of Lords, not because of any great merit of the hereditary peerage, but because the House of Lords enables Governments of both parties to bring into Government people whose expertise and skills are necessary. The GLC requires this same facility to bring in to its government and its administration people who are not necessarily elected.

It would obviously be undesirable for more than a handful of people to be brought in in this way, but the aldermen have provided a great boon, a great asset, to the GLC. I believe, and many other people connected with the GLC believe, that the Government are making a mistake in this Measure, and I wish at least to put that on record before the Minister passes to the rest of the Bill.

Mr. Graham Page

I will deal briefly with the points that have been raised. The last point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminister (Mr. Tugendhat) we have argued fully in Committee, and I do not think the House would wish me again to go into those arguments. I appreciate the view of my hon. Friend and a number of other people that aldermen have done such service to the country already that we should not abolish them, but I think that the principles of democracy now demand that we should rely entirely in local government on the elected member.

The right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. John Silkin) raised a drafting point. If he will be good enough—as he always is—to let me have the Amendment, I will undertake to look at the drafting point. I think that he has something there.

On the issue of annual or quadrennial elections, we have taken powers to proceed by order, after consultation with all those concerned. The last thing I wanted to do was to rush it into the Bill. That is why we have taken those powers for the Secretary of State. In using the phrase "taking powers" I am repeating what my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington, South (Sir B. Rhys Williams) said. We are taking those powers for the benefit of the Greater London Council and the London boroughs to enable us to do what they want us to do. I assure my hon. Friend that there is no question of the Secretary of State ordering something which is not wanted by those local authorities.

I will look into the point about London boroughs which have wards with more than three members. I have no doubt that they would not wish to reward so soon after they had gone into the wards so fully.

I do not wish to be dogmatic about the number of councillors on the GLC, and we shall receive further representations. It has been accepted, both before the London Government Act, 1963, and since, that the right course is to base the wards of the GLC on the parliamentary constituencies. Faced with that conclusion, I have not found a mathematical solution. I am sure my hon. Friends solution of doubling the parliamentary constituencies and producing a council of 184 is wrong. However, I do not want to be dogmatic about the number of 92, and if the GLC put forward any suggestions on this we will do all we can to help.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 154, in page 5, line 28, at end add—

(2) The Secretary of State may by order make such modifications of sub-paragraphs (2) and (3) of paragraph 8 of Schedule 2 to this Act as appears to him to be appropriate for all or any of the following purposes—

  1. (a) to secure that ordinary elections of councillors of the Greater London Council take place in the same years as ordinary elections of county councillors,
  2. (b) to secure that ordinary elections of London borough councillors are held in years in which ordinary elections of district councillors are held, and
  3. (c) to secure that provisions corresponding to section 7(4) above apply to the retirement of London borough councillors.

(3) No order shall be made under this section unless a draft of the order has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliaments—[Mr. Carlisle.]

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