HL Deb 22 March 1906 vol 154 cc532-44


Order of the day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the matters that affect the consideration of this Measure are but few, and I will state them very briefly to your Lordships. The object generally of the Bill is to extend the operation of the Acts known as the Public Libraries Acts, and I assume that your Lordships feel that public libraries, so far as they exist in this country, are of benefit to the community and deserve encouragement. As the Acts that control the existence of these libraries have received the support and assent of your Lordships, I assume also that the legislation, so far as it has gone, equally meets with your Lordships' consent.

As the matter stands now, the operation of these Acts is confined to limited areas. By the principal Act of 1892 and the Amending Act, public libraries can only be established in urban districts or in a parish. Reasons have lately been brought forward of a practical character to cause some to think that the benefit of these libraries should be extended to counties, and if these institutions are of advantage and utility in urban districts one cannot see why they should be other than beneficial in other districts. I am aware that there are practical difficulties, but I hope they may be overcome, in the way of applying these Acts to counties. At the same time I do not think your Lordships will contend that there is any reason why counties should be deprived of institutions which have been found of great benefit in urban districts.

The question is, If you apply these Acts to counties, how can you carry them into effect in relation to those counties? You must have a governing body. In an urban district you have, of course, the local council, and if you have a governing body at all in the case of counties, it must be, I presume, the county council. Since this Bill has been printed I have received a great many communications from noble Lords, but though I have been very much struck with the courtesy of the letters I cannot say that I have received much encouragement from them. The objection put to me by the noble Earl the President of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries was that it was not thought well to give the power of approval of the application of the Acts to a representative body. The noble Earl thinks the power ought to remain with the ratepayers as a whole to vote on this question. There is no doubt a great deal to be said in favour of that view, and I hope it will meet with your Lordships' approval that it should not be left to the county council alone, but that a plebiscite should be taken of the ratepayers as a whole. That is a provision that I am willing to see inserted in the Bill, and I hope it will remove the objection to the present clause on the part of the Local Government Board.

A general objection exists to any increase in the local rate, and I find that those who for particular reasons take an interest in this measure think the rate could be reduced by one-half, and that instead of being one penny, as it is in the principal Act, a half-penny rate would be sufficient in the larger areas. In a Welsh county recently a beneficent gentleman offered a certain sum for the provision of a public library, but, much to the regret of everyone, the offer could not be accepted and the county was denied the benefits of this grant because there is at present no power of creating a body to enable the sum to be received and applied for the purposes intended.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord James of Hereford.)


rose to move "That the Bill be read 2a this day six months." The noble Earl said: My Lords, I am sure there is no Member of your Lordships' House who wishes to be in any way lacking in courtesy to my noble and learned friend who has just spoken, and I am very glad he recognises that all those to whom he has spoken with regard to this Bill have not been deficient in kind expressions towards himself, although they may not have been equally favourable to this Bill

The state of the law at the present time is as has been stated by my noble and learned friend. The Act of 1892 confers upon parishes and urban districts the power, by a vote of the ratepayers, of obtaining a public library, and, of course, any parish in a county which desires to have a public library may, by a vote of its ratepayers, obtain one. Therefore, in this sense, the benefits of the Libraries Acts can at present be obtained by any parish or any urban district within a county. This Bill proposes to go further, and to say that there may be a county library as distinct from parish or urban district libraries. I think it is unnecessary to point out to your Lordships that a county is a very unfit district for a library. What centre can my noble friend or anyone of your Lordships name which would be convenient for the ratepayers generally of the county?

Not only that, but who would use this library? I presume that in most cases the centre adopted would be the county town. To an enormous majority of the rural parishes a library in a county town would be absolutely useless, and it would certainly be so to the ratepayers generally. I can conceive that there may be members of a county council who may go to the county town half an hour too soon, and who may wish to have some convenient sort of club in which to read French novels and otherwise amuse themselves until the time of their business arrives. As your Lordships know, there are always a certain number of persons who live in the vicinity of county towns to whom a library of this kind might be a very convenient lounge. But, apart from them, I do not see how to the county ratepayers generally a library could be of any use. My noble friend said, and he was rather hesitating on that point I thought, that there had been some demand for this Bill. I would ask him, was that demand made by the County Councils Association, or was it made by any county council in particular, because if it was made by one county council in particular, which, for the purposes of its own members, wishes to have a library, let it bring in a Private Bill, but do not let it, simply because it wishes to have a public library for itself, obtain that library by a general Bill of this kind.

My noble and learned friend goes further. He admits himself that a county is not a suitable area, because he proposes to alter entirely the procedure laid down by the Act of 1892. That Act says that a vote of the ratepayers is to be taken, but my noble and learned friend proposes that the library shall be an accomplished fact by a vote of the county council itself. I think there might be in a county council five or six people who desired a library of this sort, and we know that if half a-dozen people in an assembly set their minds upon attaining some object, they will find occasions when members are not attending for carrying their object out, and the ratepayers of the county, without knowing much about it, would suddenly find themselves saddled with a library which it would be impossible for the majority of them to use, but which they would have the satisfaction of paying for.

Clause 8 of the Bill deals with exemption. It provides that— Where the Public Libraries Acts, 1892 to 1901, have been adopted by any urban authority or parish within the county council district, such urban district or parish shall be exempted from payment of the Public Libraries Acts Rate levied by the county council authority. What will the result be? Every district in a county which wishes for a library will have got it, and it will be paying for it. The parishes which have not adopted the Act will alone remain as contributors to the cost of the library in the county town or in the centre of the county. I cannot help thinking that those who drafted this Bill are not very well acquainted with county administration. For instance, it says in Clause 2— For the purposes of this Act, and subject to the provisions thereof, every county council district in England and Wales shall be a library district. I am not aware that there is such a thing in existence as a county council district. The administrative area of a county council is the county. When I first read that clause I thought this was a proposal to establish district libraries and. not county libraries. That, at all events, is one instance which I think shows that those who have drawn up this Bill have not studied the question very deeply.

I do not think that I need detain your Lordships longer. I must say that it seems to me that a county is not at all a proper area for a library. As to the assessment, the county rate is an unfortunate fund into which everybody thinks he has a right to dip his hand, and of late years the additional burdens which have been laid on the county rates have been enormous, and they are constantly increasing. The much-burdened ratepayer has expressed his disgust in a variety of ways. I am not at all sure that he did not do it very largely in the ballot box not long ago, and I submit to your Lordships that we ought to be very careful indeed in this House in scrutinising Bills which propose to impose additional burdens on the county rates. For these reasons I beg to move the Amendment standing in my name.

Amendment moved— To omit the word 'now' in order to insert at the end of the Motion these words 'this day six months.'"—(The Earl of Camperdown.)


My Lords, I am bound to confess that, on the Bill as it stands, I think most of your Lordships will be disposed to agree with my noble friend who has just sat down; but there are special circumstances in this case which have induced my noble and learned friend to bring in this measure, and I am empowered to make a suggestion to him. If he will agree that a rural council should have the same power to adopt the Acts as an urban council has now under the Act of 1893, the charge to be on the local rate, but that the county council should have the power to contribute to the library out of the county rate if it so chooses, I am empowered to say that His Majesty's Government will offer no objection to the Second Reading.


My Lords, I should like to say one word in response to the remarks which have just been made by my noble friend the President of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries. I understand his proposal is to bring before the House a totally new Bill. This Bill is to extend to county councils powers which are at present given to urban districts and parishes. The county is already completely covered by powers to every parish and urban council to have libraries in their own district. I can quite understand that it may be desirable, and I do not see any objection to extending that power to rural district councils. But I think that would be a complete redrafting of the Bill, and if it is only proposed to extend to rural district councils the same power that is given to urban councils, it would be much better to withdraw this Bill and bring in a Bill for that purpose. In fact, if that is all that is intended, all the machinery in this Bill would fall to the ground, and there would be very little left of the present drafting except the title.

The principle of the Bill, that is to say, that local authorities should have powers with regard to libraries, has been over and over again admitted. I am surprised at my noble friend bringing forward this Bill without giving the House any reasons, the area being already covered in the way I have described, why a county council should be made the authority for exercising the powers under the Libraries Act. It is an unsuitable area. It would be impossible to choose any place or places in a county which would be convenient for a building of which county ratepayers could make use. As a matter of fact, as has been stated, the county town would probably be the only suitable centre, and in many county towns there already exist very adequate libraries. Not only do they exist for the use of the town itself, or the parish in which it is situated, but there are powers under the existing Acts for the authorities allowing the people outside that area to use the library, either on payment or without payment. It seems to me that that would be a much more convenient way of meeting the case of the neighbouring parishes than by putting a rate on the ratepayers who are living very likely at a great distance, and who would probably never use the powers under the Act at all.

I join with Lord Camperdown in what he said about rateable powers being continually put on county councils. There is never a meeting of the County Councils Association where there is not some complaint of Acts passed by Parliament giving powers to county councils and putting the whole expense of administering those Acts on the county ratepayers. While we acknowledge that the rating of agricultural districts is not in a satisfactory condition, and while it has been recognised by the Local Taxation Committee that there ought to be material changes with regard to the taxation of the country, nothing has been done, but the ratepayers of the county are continually having fresh obligations thrown upon them, some of them of a very serious nature. Parliament passes these Acts and gives the administration of them to county councils, but makes no contribution out of the Consolidated Fund towards their cost. After what my noble friend the President of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries has said, I hope my noble and learned friend will consider that it would hardly be his Bill if amended in the way suggested, and personally I would hesitate to vote for the Second Reading of this Bill unless it was proved that there is a greater demand for it than has been shown to the House to day.


My Lords, in addressing your Lordships for the first time I desire to ask for that indulgence which is always asked for, and rightly asked for, by those who rise under such circumstances. The Bill before your Lordships' House is one which, I think, in substance, in regard to its object, probably all of us would sympathise with, but the question which His Majesty's Government have to consider is as to how far the machinery proposed by the Bill is adequate to carry out the objects which the Bill proposes, and how far in these days, when questions of rating exercise such great influence and excite such great interest, the burdens which would arise under this Bill would be distributed in a manner likely to be generally approved.

I think there is hardly one of us—especially those, and they are very numerous in your Lordships' House, who are concerned with county administration—who is not aware that from time to time public libraries that had been set up by private effort, after living a more or less flourishing existence for a while, fall on troubled days and gradually disappear. There is no power in our rural districts, such as exists in our towns, of giving institutions of that kind that guarantee of permanence which is the consequence of their having the support behind them of a public body. It was believed, no doubt, by those who framed the original Public Libraries Act that the powers given would be largely adopted, but that was not so. They were adopted in boroughs and in urban districts, and gradually Parliament substituted in our boroughs and urban districts the action of the public local authority for the action of the ratepayers themselves, voting either by ballot or voting paper.

Now, the idea which underlies this Bill is that we should extend in some way or another to the county districts of England the same power which has been applied under the Acts of 1892 and 1893 to the boroughs and urban councils. But it does not follow, for the reasons just stated by my noble friend, if we approve of the object that necessarily we approve of the machinery of the Bill. I think everybody who has had to do with county administration knows that one of the difficulties is the cry that is very often raised against what is called centralisation in the. county town, and what I am afraid of is that under the machinery of the Bill as it stands it will be exceedingly difficult for a county council to put the very machinery into operation which the Bill proposes to entrust to it, because it would be said that the county council was legislating for an area consisting of part of the county in regard to which it could not have such adequate information or such knowledge as would be possessed by the actual representatives of the locality. Under these circumstances my noble friend who represents this Department in your Lordships' House has made a suggestion which I cannot help hoping will go very far to meet both the views of my noble friend who has introduced this Bill and also the objections which have been urged.

Under the Act of 1892, as the House is aware, the vote of the ratepayers in a district, whether a borough or an urban district or a parish, was the final and determining factor, but it is very curious that immediately following the passage of that Act a most important Amendment was made by another Act; the vote of the urban council sitting as a representative assembly was substituted for the vote of the ratepayers, and that vote is practically final and determines the matter. What my noble friend has suggested is this, that the same power which Parliament gave a number of years ago to urban councils, and which I say, speaking from my own knowledge, has been exercised more and more as time goes on with excellent results, should be given to rural councils. If that were done it would meet one of the injustices of the present situation which was alluded to by my noble friend who preceded me in this debate—I mean that you have a library now set up in an urban district which is charged on the borough or urban rate, and the ratepayers of the surrounding districts get the benefit of that library without paying for it. If this arrangement were adopted, the borough and urban council would be able to say, "If we are to be asked to set up a library in our district, we must know what the rural council immediately surrounding us is going to do." In that manner I am inclined to think the suggestion made by my noble friend would be an exceedingly valuable one, because it would enable and encourage districts to combine together, and we should have this great and inestimable advantage, that we should be legislating on uniform lines.

As being connected myself with a rural district more than with any town, I ask why is the rural district council not to be treated with as much respect as the council of a small town. I think rural councils ought to be encouraged to come into line. I am quite willing to grant, however, that although I hold that view I think there is a sphere for the county council in this matter. Here again I would submit that the suggestions made by my noble friend the President of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries are perfectly in keeping with the general lines of our recent legislation on those matters. We cannot be too careful in trying to legislate upon recognisable lines, and not to increase that confusion from which local government in times past has so greatly suffered, and from which we are only slowly emerging.

Your Lordships are acquainted with the machinery and working of county councils, and are quite aware that gradually Parliament has enabled county councils to exercise a certain amount of control, and in certain cases also to contribute out of the county rate in aid of the expenses of the local authority. I believe there is no clause in the Local Government Act of 1888, which was passed by the Party opposite, which has been more useful or which has done more to improve our roads than the section which gives power to county councils to contribute to the improvements made by local authorities, not on main roads, but on their own local roads. In that way a county council has very often been able to say, "If you will do certain things which will cost so much, we will give you a proportion." In my own county we always contribute one-sixth to the cost of any approved improvement. I am inclined to think that it would be a great advantage if county councils were able to say to the smaller local authorities in their counties, "If you will act in a certain way in regard to these institutions We will come forward and help you in a moderate and reasonable manner." In this way, while throwing the main responsibility and chief cost on the locality benefiting, the county council might play a very useful part in encouraging a movement which I am bound to say I think is a very useful one.

I know myself how very frequently schoolmasters complain of the difficulty in keeping up their own education and in keeping their minds fresh, if I may use the expression, because when they go to out-of-the-way places it is impossible to get at any books, and I cannot help thinking that, especially in a year when in all probability the education question is going to occupy a large portion of the attention of Parliament, it is well that we should bear in mind that education often is greatly handicapped in our rural districts because of the difficulty referred to. The position of His Majesty's Government is this, that we sympathise with the object of my noble and learned friend, but we do not think the machinery of his Bill is very satisfactory. We cannot help hoping that he will consent to the whole question going to a Committee and these different alternatives being considered. I know from communications which have reached me and from my own experience that there is a real and genuine desire that something of this kind should be done.


My Lords, I very gladly accept the proposal of my noble friend the President of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries. In fact, I do not feel myself in a position to refuse any reasonable offer of assistance. The suggestion of my noble friend merely carries out, as far as I can judge, the view I have before me. I would suggest that this debate should now be adjourned, and I will put upon the Paper a clause that I think can be carried. I will place it on the Paper before the debate on the Second Reading is resumed, and if it is agreed to it can be grafted on the Bill. Perhaps it would not be in order for me to move the adjournment of the debate, but I should be very glad if some noble Lord would do so for me.


I beg to move that the debate be adjourned.

Moved, "That the debate stand adjourned."—(Lord Burghclere.)


My Lords, with regard to procedure, I may perhaps be allowed to say one or two words. If the noble and learned Lord in charge of the Bill proposes to adjourn this debate in order that he may put new clauses into the Bill—


Only one clause.


One clause would not enable the suggestions made by the noble Earl the President of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries to be carried out. Then there were the further suggestions made by the noble Lord the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. At any rate, if it is attempted to deal with the matter in one clause, I hope sufficient time will be given for the consideration of that clause. My own view is that there ought to be a new Bill. The suggestions made on behalf of the Government can hardly be grafted on this Bill. Whatever is done, I hope that ample time will be given for the consideration of any fresh proposal by the County Councils Association.


both rose, the latter giving way for the Lord Privy Seal.


My Lords, I am afraid my noble and learned friend cannot do exactly what he proposes. He cannot give notice of an Amendment until the Bill has been read a second time. According to the rules and practice of the House, notice of all Amendments must be given, and can only be given after the Bill has been read a second time.


The noble Marquess has stated what I rose to say, and, therefore, there is no need for me to do more than endorse what he has said.


I cannot help thinking that the noble and learned Lord would be better advised if he withdrew this Bill and introduced a fresh one. There are plenty of opportunities in this House of getting a day for dealing with a Bill, and I certainly think that course would be the best one.


I gather that it is the feeling of the House that I should adopt the course suggested of withdrawing this Bill and introducing a new one. I therefore beg to withdraw the Bill, and I hope that every consideration will be extended to the new one which I shall introduce.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Original Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill (by leave of the House) withdrawn.