HL Deb 07 August 1890 vol 348 cc79-87

, in rising to ask the Secretary for Scotland whether County Councils, having in view the economical administration of the Local Government (Scotland) Act, may, under Sub-section 2, of Section 52, consistently with the spirit and intention of the said Act, appoint, by arrangement with the District Committees, medical officers and sanitary inspectors, who shall act as the officers and Inspectors alike of the Council and of the districts, said: I have a question on the Paper which I wish to put to my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. It is a question which affects Scotland in particular; but it is a question which affects all your Lordships more or less, as it refers to the administration by County Councils of Local Government as between the County Councils and the District Committees. There are not yet, I believe, District Committees in England, but there is a prospect of there being a District Local Government in the form of District Committees in England at no distant period. Now, my object is, if possible, to ascertain whether the course which I think might be pursued under the Act, is one which is in accordance with the spirit and intention of that Act, and with a view to economy. There is no doubt that popular feeling as to rates is becoming very strong, both as regards rates in the country and rates in towns. This morning I was for a considerable time attending my duties as a Vestryman in St. James', and the question which came up there was the question of rates and their rapid and very great increase. In the parish of St. James's rates have risen to 4s. in £1—that is, a fifth of a man's income. So strong is the feeling that some limit ought to be put to rating, that I have given notice of a question which I shall not put until Parliament meets again. I have merely put it down in order that Her Majesty's Government may take it into consideration. It is to this effect: To ask Her Majesty's Government if they will bring in a Bill for the purpose of fixing the amount of rating by the London County Council, the London School Board, and other Metropolitan Municipal Authorities. So much for the feeling in London. In my own county this is the sort of thing with regard to rates that we have to deal with, and I think nothing gives a worse picture of the position of affairs throughout the agricultural districts than the figures which I have to submit to your Lordships. County Councils may not give us better government, or less expensive government; but I think they have done this, they have forced the members of those Councils to go more narrowly into this question of expenditure and rates than they would have done had not this system of Local Government been established. We have had to do that in my county, and I find that this is the state of affairs there. As regards the county in general the valuation, in 1845, was £246,000; in 1880, it was £354,000; and in 1889, it had fallen to £244,000. That is the county valuation in what is generally supposed to be a prosperous county, the County of Haddington. That is, in 1889–90, it is £2,000 less than it was in the year 1845. But how, as to the rates and assessment? Why the assessment which was in the year 1845 £8,000 is £17,000 on the reduced valuation of 1889. Let me take the case of an estate in that county; the rents of that estate are down 25 per cent., while the taxation or rates are up 50 per cent. Now, I think, under those circumstances, it is desirable that this new Local Government Act in Scotland, and everywhere else, should be administered with due regard, of course, to efficiency, but also with the utmost regard to all possible economy. As regards the sanitary provisions under that Act, there is a provision by Sub-section 2 of Section 52 by which, by an arrangement between the District Committees and the County Council, the medical officers of the districts or of the County Councils may be made to do double duty—that the officers of the district shall be officers of the Council. On the other hand, it is possible to appoint a head officer, who may or may not be resident, as a sort of hierarch, with sanitary officers under him. That means the displacement of existing medical officers and Sanitary Inspectors; it means a great deal of heart-burning and a great deal of friction; and I cannot but think that this provision was introduced by the noble Lord into his Bill with a view to the more full, and, at the same time, more economical, administration of the Public Health Acts, without raising questions which are invidious as regards the merits of the different local Medical and Sanitary Authorities, and creating, as I have said, much friction, heart-burning, and jealousy. On the other hand, I have heard it said that such a provision would not be in accordance with the intention of the Act. I ask, why, then, is there such a provision in it? My firm belief is that it is in accordance alike with the spirit and the intention of the Act, and that it will tend, as I believe, to the good working of the Act in the different counties of Scotland. There is, moreover, in case of any difficulty arising, an appeal to the Board of Supervision, and, besides that, it would be competent for the County Council to take the opinion of some medical authority upon sanitary matters, if any special occasion arises, as they can now take a legal opinion upon ordinary law and other matters. I think, then, it was intended under this Act that County Councils should, if they think fit, act in the way I have ventured to suggest, and it is with a view of getting this matter cleared up that I now put the question which stands in my name.


Before the noble Marquess replies to my noble Friend's question, which I have no doubt in my own mind will be in the affirmative, I should like to allude to the subject under discussion, as it is one of great importance in Scotland, and I do so also as Chairman of the Public Health Committee in my own county. I do not apprehend the very great difficulties which the noble Earl does. I think the matter will depend entirely upon the management of the County Council as between it and the District Committee. In our own case what we have done is this: we have resolved at once, in accordance with the Act, to appoint a head Sanitary Inspector; we have proceeded to appoint a Sanitary Inspector for the County of Aberdeen; we have then suggested to the District Committees that his services should be at their disposal, and that he should have the supervision of the local Sanitary Inspectors. We were, of course, alarmed at the extraordinary volume of expenditure we might have had to rush into if we appointed Sanitary Inspectors all over the districts, and we have approached this question prudently. Hitherto the Public Health Acts in Scotland have been administered at a very low cost indeed. I can tell your Lordships that the Public Health Acts for the whole county of Aberdeen, comprising 87 parishes, have been administered by medical officers and inspectors, at yearly salaries of £267 altogether. There is a medical officer for each parish, and a Sanitary Inspector for each parish, and it is very easy to see that the salaries of those men would be about from £3 to £4 only. It was absurd to suppose that you could carry out the provisions of this new Act at that low rate, but we believed that we ought not to rush into expenditure, and therefore we have informed the District Committees that the services of our Sanitary Inspector were at their disposal for the purpose of supervising their local men. Before the noble Marquess replies I would remind the noble Earl that there is a great difficulty in laying down hard and fast rules on the matter, because the districts vary so in size. For instance, there may be a district lying close to a town where the County Sanitary Inspector can easily supervise the District Committee's men, locally in each parish, but if you take the case of some far away district in the Highlands it would be impossible for the County Sanitary Inspector to overtake the whole of the duties over that district. So that we have suggested that the parishes should group their districts, but always bearing in mind that the County Sanitary Inspector should be their head. I do not apprehend that Scottish prudence will very readily lead these bodies into reckless expenditure in this matter. I do not think County Government has been extravagantly managed in the past, and therefore I do not believe that in the future the County Councils are going to be extravagant.


I do not think there is any doubt as to the answer which will be given by the noble Marquess, because there is a clause in the Act which states that such an arrangement as the noble Earl proposes may be made between the County Councils and the District Committees. It is evidently the intention of the Act that such arrangements should be made, where possible, for the purpose of economy and good management. But I do not desire to go at any length into the matter, I have only risen because this question of Medical Inspectors has now, for the first time, been mentioned to this House, which is, I think, a most important question with regard to the administration of Local Government in Scotland. At the present time, in the county which I have to deal with, the county of Forfar, it is generally felt that the good management of the County Ad- ministration will greatly turn on the manner in which these appointments of medical officers and Sanitary Inspectors are made. We feel that there is a great risk that if we make appointments of medical officers at high salaries, and of Sanitary Inspectors also, we shall find ourselves in this position, that we shall not be able to change our arrangements, we shall not be able to get rid of these Inspectors after we have once appointed them, without the approval of the Board of Supervision, and that naturally makes us careful and cautious as to what we do. The County Council with which I am connected will meet next week to consider this matter, and I wish to say one thing to the noble Marquess the Secretary of State for Scotland which I think he may, perhaps, deem worthy of attention. It is this: That many of us feel we should be in a much better position to deal with this difficult question if we had some means of consultation or conference with the Board of Supervision in Edinburgh, at which the various Councils were represented. Of course, I do not mean, for a moment, that the Board of Supervision should attempt (and I am sure they would not wish in any way to do so), to force their authority on the County Councils. On the other hand, I am convinced that the County Councils, or, at least, all the sensible County Councils, would be very much obliged to the Central Authority if they would invite a Conference at which all these questions might be considered and discussed. It is obvious, as has already been stated by the noble Marquess the Marquess of Huntley, that these matters must be thoroughly considered and discussed if we are to arrange our local business in an economical and prudent manner, and it is for that purpose that I am sure—I, at all events, as Chairman of a County Council, may say that I should be very much obliged for any suggestions or hints that I may receive as to the manner in which these appointments may best be made for such a county as that which I represent.


The noble Earl has asked me a question to which I have great pleasure in replying, but I should like to remind him before I proceed to give my reply that he must understand that any opinion which I give is simply an opinion of my own, because it is impossible for me or anyone else to give a legal interpretation of an Act of Parliament. That can only be done by a Judicial Tribunal. I should like to make one more observation before I reply to the noble Earl's question. I have gathered from his speech that there is an impression in his mind that there has been some extravagance on the part of the County Councils, or some tendency on the part of the County Councils to extravagance in the management of the county business. I do not know whether I am mistaken in that or not, but as far as I am concerned, I think the County Councils have entered upon their new duties with every desire to carry them out with efficiency and economy combined. With regard to the question put by the noble Earl, I think the remarks which fell from the noble Marquess opposite have pretty nearly answered that question. Much depends upon what the object of the noble Earl is in asking the question. He refers to Section 52 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act. He states very truly that the County Councils are bound to appoint medical officers and Sanitary Inspectors for the county, but Sub-section 2 modifies that to this extent, that the County Councils, by consent, and by mutual arrangement with the District Committees, may appoint the County Sanitary Inspectors and medical officers as officials for the different districts. I think that sub-section was inserted in the Act with the obvious intention of economy, because it tends rather to discourage, as far as might be desirable, the appointment of separate medical officers, and separate Sanitary Inspectors in every district in the county. Of course, if the county officers are appointed district officers also, no doubt great economy will be effected. But, as far as I gathered from the speech of the noble Earl, his object is to get an opinion from me that it is desirable, and that it would be within the scope and intention of the Act that all the district officers, as such, should be appointed county officers. I am bound to tell him that I do not think that that is within the intention of the Act, and I think it is pretty obvious it, cannot be so, because from the clause, if looked at, it is evident the whole object of the arrangement is that the county officials shall supervise and inspect the work of the district officials. If you appoint the latter to be county officials, they would simply be revising and inspecting their own work. Under those circumstances it would not be a very desirable arrangement, even if it were within the scope of the Act that such an arrangement should be carried into effect. I fail to see where the question of economy comes in. Take the case of the county in which the noble Earl is interested. There are 10 medical officers in that county with districts of larger or smaller size. Some of those Inspectors receive £5, and one of them receives not more than 30s. salary. If those officers, are discharged they will be entitled now to some sort of superannuation. Still the amount which would come to them under salaries of that amount would not be very rninous. On the other hand, I think a large saving would be effected to the county if such arrangements under Clause 52 could be carried into effect, and if the county officers were made, where desirable, district officials as well. I am bound to say that I think the wording of the section would give that interpretation which the noble Earl puts upon it, but that as far as the intention of it goes, in reference to the noble Earl's last question, I do not think that is within the intention of the clause. With regard to what fell from the noble Earl opposite (Lord Camperdown) there is but one point which I need refer to, and that is the question of the Conference he suggests between the Chairmen of Committees, or conveners of the different County Councils. I entirely agree with what has fallen from the noble Earl, and I think nothing could be more desirable than that there should be some general idea arrived at in regard to carrying out the work of the County Councils. I think that should be brought about by some such means as he has suggested, and I do not think any difficulty whatever would be raised by the Board of Supervision in carrying out such an idea. All I can say is, that if I can do anything in the matter I shall be most happy to do so. I think that answers the question which has been put, and I do not think I need trouble your Lordships with any farther remarks upon this matter.


Then, as I gather from the noble Marquess, he admits my interpretation, and that what I have proposed is legal according to the wording of the Act, but that the Act does not really carry out the intentions of its framers.


No. What I say is that the language of the section might bear that interpretation, but it is not the intention of the Act that such an interpretation should be put upon it.


Then that is exactly what I have said.

House adjourned at half-past Five o'clock, till To-morrow, a quarter-past Four o'clock.