§ Lords Amendment: No. 104, in page 251, line 16, leave out paragraph 3.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
With this Amendment it will be convenient for the House to deal at the same time with the following Lords Amendments: No. 105, No. 477—new Clause R, Amendment of House of Commons Disqualification Act 1957—and No. 632.
§ Mr. Speed
The effect of these Amendments is to disqualify from membership of the House of Commons of the United Kingdom Parliament the members of the Local Government Boundary Commission 1005 for England, of the Local Government Boundary Commission for Wales, of the Local Government Staff Commission for England and of the Local Government Staff Commission for Wales; and Assistant Commissioners of the Local Government Boundary Commissions for England and Wales and electoral registration officers for parliamentary elections.
Part IV of the Bill provides for the establishment of a permanent Local Government Boundary Commission for England and a separate Boundary Commission for Wales. The English Boundary Commission is to comprise a chairman, deputy chairman and not more than five other members. The Welsh Boundary Commission is to comprise a chairman, deputy chairman and not more than three other members.
Clauses 65 and 66 make provision for the appointment of assistant commissioners by the Secretary of State at the request of a Commission. The third paragraphs of Schedules 7 and 8 already contain provisions to secure the disqualification of these commissioners and assistant commissioners. So far, so good.
The Bill makes no provision, however, for the disqualification of the members of the Local Government Staff Commissions. A Staff Commission for England is to be established under Clause 245 and a separate Staff Commission for Wales is to be appointed under Clause 246. These are not to be permanent bodies. We envisage that they will cease to function in 1975. The London Government Staff Commission had a similarly brief existence. Its members were disqualified by virtue of Section 92(2) of the London Government Act, 1963. But this Bill makes no provision for the disqualification of the new Staff Commissions; we believe that it should do so, and that is part of the purpose of these Amendments.
Part III of Schedule 1 to the House of Commons Disqualification Act, 1957, disqualifies the clerks and deputy clerks of county, urban district and rural district councils in England and Wales, the town clerks and deputy town clerks of county boroughs, London boroughs and non-county boroughs in England and Wales, and the clerk and deputy clerk of the Greater London Council. This 1006 disqualification extends to the House of Commons of the United Kingdom Parliament and the Senate and House of Commons of Northern Ireland.
Clause 110(3) of our Bill will have the effect of relieving the new authorities and the authorities in Greater London of the duties, at present in Part IV of the Local Government Act, 1933, to appoint clerks and town clerks; and we are conferring no express power for the appointment of deputies of any kind. In future the work now done by clerks, town clerks and their deputies will be done by "proper officers". Indeed, after reorganisation the present statutory functions of, say, a town clerk may be performed by more than one "proper officer". Moreover, there will be no requirement on the new councils or the authorities in London to appoint a "first officer" or "chief executive".
It may once have been argued that clerks and town clerks should be disqualified because they often have to advise their councils on matters with a highly political content. But clerks and town clerks are not unique in this; Housing managers, treasurers, planners and other senior officers also advise on controversial questions. So if the object of disqualifying clerks and town clerks is to keep them politically impartial, the disqualification should be extended to all officers who advise councillors.
Bearing all these things in mind, we believe that it is not really practicable or necessary to devise a new formula to replace the present references in the 1957 Act to local government officers of English and Welsh authorities.
On the other hand, we consider that registration officers should be disqualified for membership of the House of Commons of the United Kingdom Parliament. By Clause 43 all but the formal duties of a returning officer at a Parliamentary election are to be discharged by an acting returning officer who is the registration officer. At present the registration officer is ex officio either clerk of a county council or a town clerk of a borough, and thus disqualified from election to Parliament. Clearly the registration officer who may be acting returning officer ought still to be disqualified and the Amendment achieves this.
1007 On reflection, the Government consider that the whole question of House of Commons disqualification under this Bill should be dealt with in a new Clause and should not be tucked away in a Schedule.
To sum up, the Amendments incorporate the material now in the third paragraphs of Schedules 7 and 8 of the Bill: they disqualify the members of the Local Government Staff Commissions for England and Wales; they get rid of the disqualification on English and Welsh clerks, town clerks and their deputies for membership of the House of Commons at Westminster and the Senate and House of Commons of Northern Ireland; and they disqualify registration officers appointed under Clause 39.
I hope that I have not confused the House too much. Essentially these are technical but reasonable Amendments. It is much more efficient and clear to have all these provisions in a new Clause than to have them scattered about the Bill.
§ Mr. Denis Howell (Birmingham, Small Heath)
We follow what the Under-Secretary has said, but we are left a little uneasy. As I understand it, the Government are allowing any local government officer to serve on the Boundary Commission. This may well be a difficult matter to put into practice, and the selection of a local authority officer from any given area may well be invidious. The number of local authority officers who could so serve will be very limited. I should have thought that, even including Wales, not more than one or two could serve. Does the Under-Secretary think that the Government have this right?
On the Boundary Commission which is now sitting it was possible to get a very distinguished former county clerk to serve. He had the confidence of the members of his local authority, but in retirement he is seen to be totally uncommitted to the county council to which he gave such distinguished service over such a long period. I think that is the right solution. The Government might be storing up trouble for themselves or their successors when it comes to choosing a person to appoint.
If the hon. Gentleman is saying that it is important to have on the Boundary 1008 Commission someone with a detailed and working knowledge of local government, we absolutely agree, especially in view of the way in which party politics and local political matters are conducted. However, that experience could be found outside serving officers. I believe that many serving officers will be loth to serve on a Boundary Commission while they are busy performing their normal duties to their employing authorities.
§ Mr. Speed
With the leave of the House, I will seek to reply to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Denis Howell). I do not quite follow the point the hon. Gentleman made. What I was discussing was whether members of the Local Government Boundary Commission should be disqualified for standing for the United Kingdom Parliament. While they are members of the Boundary Commission they do not have to be necessarily local government officers. Whatever their status in life, while they are members of the Boundary Commission or of the Staff Commission or assistant commissioners we believe that it is right, as was argued on the London Government Bill, 1963, that they should not be qualified at that point in time for membership of the United Kingdom Parliament or for the Senate and House of Commons of Northern Ireland. This does not in any way preclude them from subsequently seeking membership of those bodies. I repeat that we are discussing only the question of disqualification.
The Amendments bring together in one Clause rather than scattering throughout the Schedules provisions securing that members of the Local Government Boundary Commissions for England and for Wales and of the Local Government Staff Commissions for England and for Wales, Assistant Commissioners of the Boundary Commissions for England and for Wales, and electoral registration officers should not be qualified for membership of the House of Commons of the United Kingdom or for the Senate and House of Commons of Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. Denis Howell
I am grateful for that explanation. But, that being the case, can the Minister say why this is done in this Bill and not in the Representation of the People Act which is the normal Act to determine the qualifications of people to stand for Parliament?
§ Mr. Speed
With the leave of the House, the Local Government Staff Commissions, we envisage, will have only a short duration of life. I would expect that by 1975 they will have done their work. This is certainly true in the case of the London Government Act.
We are at some disadvantage because the Local Government Staff Commissions are actually not statutory authorities until this Bill is enacted. As to boundary commissions and electoral registration officers, these provisions have been enacted in House of Commons Disqualification Acts rather than in Representation of the People Acts. As we have a number of these different people, we are altering the whole question of town clerks and registration officers and it is better to bring them together in this Clause. Obviously in the fullness of time, amendments will have to be made.
§ Mr. George Thomas
The Minister has put before us a complicated argument on a simple subject. I agree that it requires a complicated argument. However, this shows what a mess the Government have made. After months of deliberation on local government affairs, at this late stage they bring forward a proposal concerning the political freedoms of town clerks. It really is making a nonsense of this House that we are being asked at this late stage to deal with issues which are not small in themselves and which ought to have found their way into separate legislation.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Subsequent Lords Amendments agreed to.