HC Deb 18 June 1973 vol 858 cc281-7
Mr. Robert Hughes

I beg to move Amendment No. 325, in page 3, line 3, after 'practicable', insert: 'but not more than three months from the date of the vacancy'. It seems perfectly reasonable that any casual vacancy in the office of chairman should not last longer than three months. That is a reasonable amendment and I await the Government's views with interest.

Mr. Younger

The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that no more than three months can elapse between the time that a casual vacancy in the office of chairman occurs and the holding of a meeting to elect a new chairman.

It seems that the amendment is not strictly necessary because the words "as soon as practicable" should be an adequate safeguard against a council leaving the chairman's office vacant for an unduly long period, which it is not in their interest to do in any event. I should have thought that that was perfectly reasonable safeguard to put in.

Although three months seems a considerable time, it is not at all impossible that in the normal arrangement of running a local authority it will be found, with the best will in the world, that the necessary meeting cannot be held in that time.

There might be some illness, there might be a holiday period, there might be elections intervening. All sort of problems could arise. I think that three months will be adequate in normal circumstances but if we wrote in a specific period it could make things awkward in a small number of cases. I believe that "as soon as practicable" covers the point. I trust that with the assurance I have given the hon. Member will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Hughes

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for that reply. It seems that a period longer than three months would be unusual and undesirable. I hope that the Government will reconsider this because it may be necessary to insert some time limit in another place. In view of what has been said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Younger

I beg to move Amendment No. 43, in page 3, line 9, at end insert 'and the chairman of each regional or islands council shall be known as the convenor of that council'. During the debate on clause 3 in Committee, a considerable amount of support was given from both sides to an amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon) which proposed that the tile of convenor should attach to the chairman of each regional council and islands area council. The local authority associations, at the time that they were consulted before the Bill was drafted, expressed no strong preference for any special title for the chairman of regions or islands areas; however, the strength of support for "convenor" in the Committee was such that there was no objection when the Secretary of State summed up in favour of it, and indicated that he would be prepared to consider putting forward an appropriate amendment at Report stage. I hope that the House will accept that this is a desirable amendment in view of the opinion expressed in Committee.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. David Steel

I beg to move Amendment No. 246, in page 3, line 9, at end insert: 'and the title of "Provost" shall attach to the chairman of any community council which is based on any existing burgh'. Since it appears, from an earlier amendment, that the Government's flexibility increases in proportion to the number of earls that can be produced in support of an amendment let me say that a quick opinion poll among various dukes, marquesses and so on in my constituency—which abounds in large numbers with such persons—showed great support for this amendment.

This amendment was moved briefly, and I hope the hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Hugh D. Brown) will forgive me if I say not convincingly, in Committee, again in our absence. It was slightly misunderstood then because although I cannot claim to have got the drafting right it was not intended that any community council which might be formed in any part of a burgh should be able to grab the title of provost for its chairman.

The wording was intended to be clearly to the effect that a community council based on an existing burgh could be a community council which conformed more or less to the boundaries of an existing borough. It is obvious that in some of the smaller burghs in Scotland there are natural areas for a community council. Reference has already been made to the traditions, such as the common ridings, in the Border areas. In these the provost plays a particular part, quite apart from his functions as chairman of the local authority, which is common throughout Scotland.

In these celebrations he has an historic rôle. It is important that community councils should be entitled, and that it should be recognised in statute, to have the tradition of provost continued. This point has been made with varying degrees of enthusiasm according to the traditions of different burghs. The Government will know that the burgh of Jedburgh in particular has felt strongly on this. It raises the question whether we should not in statute carry forward a title which appears, for example, in the Royal Charters of those burghs to whom such charters were granted.

This is a serious amendment and if it is not correctly drafted I believe that the Government should accept it in principle and be willing to alter the drafting in another place. I do not think it should receive the brush-off it received in Committee.

Mr. Younger

I am sorry that, in spite of the advanced nature of the hour, my flexibility, which I felt coming on earlier, seems momentarily to have departed from me.

We have considered carefully the suggestion that community councils should be able to call their chairmen provosts. We have considered it on previous occasions and have thought about it very carefully because this is a matter about which some people feel strongly. The reason for rejecting it can be fairly simply stated. At present the titles of provost or lord provost are logically related as part of the Scottish administration of local government. A lord provost or a provost is the senior magistrate of his burgh, and although the lord provosts of the four counties of cities have in certain respects wider powers than provosts in other burghs, their rôles are on the whole similar. There will be little or no analogy between, say, the Lord Provosts of Dundee and Glasgow, on the one hand, and the chairmen of community councils in, say, Dumfries or Lanarkshire or anywhere else on the other. They have quite different rôles and functions.

To use for a community council chairman the title of provost might be regarded as confusing, in conjunction with the fact that lord provosts will still continue in the cities, and, indeed, there may be districts councils which decide for one reason or another to call their chairman provosts.

The general argument for using the term "provost" for a community council chairman is that the title may be continued to be associated with a prominent leader or the leading citizen in an existing burgh, but there is no guarantee that in any area a community council will be formed at reorganisation or at any specific time thereafter. Indeed, it is rather unlikely that on the date of reorganisation there will be any, for the reasons stated yesterday in response to the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh). It is probable that existing provostships will terminate at the end of the existing system in May 1975.

Any locally based successors to them will be able to continue to have this title, but there is no evidence to suggest that there is any public demand for the continuance except in areas such as those of which the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles spoke and which he knows much better than I do. The Convention of Royal Burghs at a meeting this year decisively rejected the suggestion that the term "provost" might be used to denote the position of chairman of a community council.

I feel, therefore, that I must ask the House not to accept the amendment, and to say it is not a good idea. It may well be that when community councils come into being their chairmen may wish to call themselves "provosts". This could happen in areas which have present burghs in them, or in areas which are not coterminous with burghs. There will be no bar whatever to their doing so if they wish to do so or if the local people wish them to do so. But that is not something which should be laid down statutorily in the Bill.

Mr. Grimond

I agree that it is not the case that there is a public outcry about this, but it is an important and regrettable thing that burghs, in my own constituency, for instance, will never see a provost again, unless—did I understand the hon. Gentleman to say this?—a community council chairman calls himself one. Did I understand the hon. Gentleman to say the chairmen can call themselves what they like? Is that what he was saying? That they could use the title provost—or, probably, lord provost?

Mr. Younger

Nobody can stop the community council or, indeed, any other body, from calling its leader "provost". There are some non-statutory bodies now which have provosts who are chosen every year, I think. Nobody can stop them from doing that. What we are asked by the amendment to do is lay down in statute that they may do so. That is a very different thing for allowing community councils to decide to regard their leaders as provosts. There are non-statutory examples of this. What I am against is laying it down in the Bill that the chairmen of community councils will be provosts. This is a matter which we should leave to them, and not make part of the Bill. I hope that the House will not accept the amendment.

3.45 a.m.

Mr. David Steel

Did I understand the hon. Gentleman to say that some district councils might choose to call their chairmen "provosts"? If that is so, is there not real danger of confusion? If a district council may call its chairman "provost" and a community council may do so as well, that is more likely to lead to confusion than my proposal is.

Mr. Younger

I rather agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I hope I have made it clear that we are not in a position to prevent a body from calling its chairman what it wants. My hon. Friend the Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. MacArthur) hopes that the new district of Perth may call its chairman "Lord Provost". That is up to the council and not to me. We are not in a position to prevent it from happening. We have to live with it. We do not want to lay down in the Bill that any of these people should be called "provost" because that would not be appropriate.

Mr. Ross

The Government have made an amendment that the chairman of each region or island council should be known as "convenor". Whatever option may be open to the district or community councils, it is not open to the regions. The hon. Gentleman should take the same attitude towards the district councils. He should put down a title for their chairmen, and that title should not be "provost". Whatever else is doubtful, it is certain that the title of "provost" attaches to a burgh. The districts will not be burghs. If the hon. Gentleman cannot stop a district council from calling its chairman "provost", could he stop it calling him "lord provost"? I am sure he could not.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that there could be confusion in certain aspects. If he allows a district council to call its chairman "provost", it will be both confusing and misleading. I take the view that, just as "dean of guild" and "deacon convenor" and the rest are passing into history, so should "provost" from the statutory point of view.

I think there is more justification for a community council based on a burgh to have a provost. But one could not have a provost without bailies. Are we to have bailies as well in the community councils? We are deceiving ourselves if we think we can carry on the term "provost" into a community council. It is better to make a clean break. We should decide to call the chairman of the district council the "chairman". The same applies to community councils.

I do not see why there should not be a provost for a day. People are often given courtesy titles for a day. We could perhaps get round it that way.

We should not use in an administrative sense a title that is of considerable importance and dignity in the history of burghs. We should not degrade the title by using it in a general way that has nothing to do with burghs or the administration of the town.

We know little about community councils, yet this title will be conferred as of right. It does not follow that there will be only one community council in, for example, Paisley Burgh. Very old burghs will be denied the opportunity of continuing to use the title. It is far better to make a clean break and, if necessary, create the provost for the day. I forbear to ask whether the chains of office will be handed over to the chairman of the community council.

Mr. David Steel

I know that the right hon. Gentleman is particularly sensitive about historical associations in Scotland. His case might not be met by a provost of the day because in the Border burghs when a common riding takes place the provost on behalf of the people of the town charges the standard bearer to carry the burgh flag on horseback round the boundaries of the town and to report back whether the boundaries have been encroached during the year. This is purely a ceremonial occasion, not of statutory origin. It has a value which cannot be replaced unless the ceremony is perfomed by the chairman of the community council. The regalia is important to burghs with a long history. Let us have efficiency, but why sweep away all the tradition?

Mr. Ross

I see the difficulty, but until I know how community councils will be formed and how the chairman will be selected and I do not know what is the answer.

I am concerned that an honoured title shall not be degraded. It has a place in Scottish history and has been in existence since before local government. I cannot support the amendment.

Amendment negatived.

Back to
Forward to