HL Deb 03 July 1919 vol 35 cc188-94

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this Bill does not raise any question as regards the principle of proportional representation, nor would it be necessary to discuss the general principle in your Lordships' House because on more than one occasion at no distant date this House has shown by a large majority its acceptance of that principle. Indeed, this House has made it clear that in their own view if you are to have democratic representation in the true sense, if it is to be real representation and not a sham or distorted representation, no other principle except that of proportional representation can bring about the desired result.

The present Bill is a permissive Bill. I want to make this point quite clear, because I think it deals with some of the objections that I have heard against the form of the Bill. The Bill cannot be applied in any locality, either county or borough, except by a resolution of a three-fifths majority of the governing body who desire to substitute for their existing system of election the method of proportional representation by the single transferable vote. A permissive Bill substantially in the same form—although I will point out one or two distinctions in detail—has on more than one previous occasion been passed in your Lordships' House. Unfortunately it has not proceeded any farther because on the question of proportional representation there appears to be some difference between the views of this House and the views of the other House.

There is another point upon which I think I ought to say a word or two. So far as borough localities and urban district localities are concerned, no redistribution will be necessary, although, if in some instances redistribution may be required, it is proposed that it should be dealt with by the Local Government Board, and that the Local Government Board can make Orders after consultation with the local authority, which Orders will have the operation of an Act of Parliament. Bat as regards county councils and county districts redistribution would be required, and I know that in some portions of the House an objection is felt against the extension even of the permissive principle to county districts. I myself do not feel that this objection is in any way strong or really applies to the principle of the Bill at all; but if there were any strong feeling that the Bill should be limited to urban districts and municipal boroughs I should raise no objection. What we want is the application of the permissive principle to areas which have expressed a desire that proportional representation may be applied in their local elections in order that they may get a fairer system of real representation.

It has often been said with regard to proportional representation that there is a difficulty in connection with occasional vacancies. I know that the noble Lord opposite, who I think will reply for the Government on this occasion, has called the attention of your Lordships to this so-called difficulty more than once. I think the real answer, at any rate as regards local elections, is this. In the first place, the Dumber of contested elections, as statistics show, is extremely small. There are, of course, numerous vacancies because of the large number of local authorities. In the second place, I do not propose in this Bill the illusion which is suggested in the Local Government Bill for Ireland, for I am not laying down in any dogmatic way what is the best system as regards casual elections. But in the Local Election Bill for Ireland, the old system of election—not the proportional representation system, but the old system of election—has been adopted in the ease of casual vacancies as regards local authorities; and in other cases as regards Ireland you have the co-optive principle which, of course, does away with any difficulty. But I am not aware that as regards any of our local authorities in this country we have the co-optive principle at all. Therefore although the co-optive principle was applicable to a number of the Irish local authorities, it is not applicable to the local authorities in this country. At the same time, of course, if the principle was introduced or could be introduced, that would be another way of solving what is called the difficulty of casual vacancies. But I do not think the difficulty exists in the true sense; and what is proposed in this Bill is that election in the case of casual vacancies should be on just the same principle as in the case of one of the general triangular elections. The noble Lord, I dare say, has studied the Bill, but he will find that the method of election as regards casual vacancies is proposed to be carried out in the same way as where you have what I may call a general election as regards local matters.


Which clause is that?


It is in the second clause, I believe. I think it is covered by the words that "all elections"—that is to say, what I call the general election or the casual election—"are to be conducted on the same principle." There is no distinction, in other words, between what is done on general election and what is done as regards a casual vacancy—and I do not think there should be. If you have elections where perhaps two or three members stand as regards a casual vacancy, then I think the ordinary principle of proportional representation ought to be applied. Although I desire to say that, I believe the number of contested elections as regards local matters will be exceedingly small.

There is one other matter which came to the front in the great experiment as regards proportional representation made in the Scottish Education Bill. I want to say one or two words about that experiment by and by, but I desire to make this particular point at the present moment. It was found that postage over a wider area might be a question of expense. When I say "of expense," I mean expense which might possibly be avoided. And so there is a principle proposed in this Bill—rather, I think, a matter for the Committee stage than for the present moment—that there should be one free postage. I forget the practice as regards Parliamentary elections. I believe there is one free postage as regards Parliamentary election. At any rate, it was felt that to avoid the possibility of any hardship as regards expenditure one free postage might be allowed in the elections for local governing bodies.

Your Lordships may notice—I only call attention to it in order that it may not be overlooked—that this Bill is not to extend to Ireland. The reason is that Ireland as regards its local elections already has the advantage of the principle of proportional representation. Your Lordships may know that the principle was first introduced into Ireland in the case of the Borough of Sligo. Sligo was practically in a bankrupt condition as regards its finances, and its government was in the hands of the extreme contending parties. The effect of the election in Sligo under the principle of proportional representation was found to be altogether satisfactory. So far practically the two extreme parties were the only parties represented on the governing authority. I think that no fewer than six representatives of the ratepayers who stood as such were elected under the principle of proportional representation; and it was acknowledged on every hand that the experiment had been entirely satisfactory; and it was having regard to the satisfactory character of that experiment that the principle was generally adopted, as it has been, as regards all local elections in Ireland.

The other great experiment which has been carried out recently is in the Scottish Education Act, in which there were elections carried out throughout the length and breadth of Scotland. Before that election took place it was prophesied by those who take a pessimistic view of forms of this character that whatever the theoretical merits of proportional representation might be, there would be a difficulty in its practical application. Well, that suggestion has been entirely displaced. There was not a single instance of difficulty in carrying out the proportional representation system for the first time throughout the whole of Scotland; and in some of the constituencies as regards the Scottish Education Act, and particularly in the Glasgow district, it was carried out over wide areas.

I may mention one other matter to your Lordships as regards the Scottish experiment. Your Lordships know that the Scottish Education Act introduced for the first time a general system of national schools in Scotland. Before that Act was passed, negotiations were entered into which fortunately led to a settlement as regards particularly the Roman Catholic and the denominational schools in Scotland; and the result of the elections under the proportional representation system has been that those interests (such, for instance, as the Roman Catholics) have been carefully safeguarded; and they have obtained a representation practically in proportion to their numerical status. Of course, under the old system it is hardly possible to conceive that they could have had any representation at all.

I do not propose to detain your Lordships further. I say that the principle of proportional representation has been recognised. A permissive Bill has already passed this House on at least two previous occasions, and as regards any alterations introduced into the present Bill as the result of experience, they are matters which can be adequately dealt with on the Committee stage. I ought, perhaps, to add that when we had a discussion a short time ago on the question of Proportional representation, it was suggested that a Bill of this kind might be introduced, and that at any rate on the Committee stage, if not on the Second Reading, an opportunity would be given for discussion and consideration of any difficulties that might be suggested. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Parmoor.)


My Lords, I ought to say two or three words upon this Bill, if your Lordships will allow me. I will be as brief as I can, as the House is rather small. The noble Lord who introduced this measure has pointed out that the system is a purely adoptive one; he does not force it upon any district, and it has to be adopted by a three-fifths majority of those present voting after ample notice, so that any authority is free not to adopt it if it likes; and after between six and nine months it can be rejected if necessary by subsequent resolution. The noble Lord, I think, offered to omit the counties if it was necessary, and only apply it to urban districts and towns. But on the general principle, I do not propose to offer any opposition on the part of the Government to the Second Reading. I have only to make two or three very short observations upon it. If the noble Lord takes the Bill to Committee I shall certainly, on behalf of the Government, have to oppose the proposal about the free postage. It was suggested in another Bill of the same kind, as the noble Lord may know, and was objected to quite apart from the point whether it would be proper to bring it in here on the question of privilege. The other point is about the deposit, which has been very much criticised, as to whether that is not at once too large and too small—too large rather in the case of the small authorities, and possibly not large enough in the case of the larger ones. Moreover, I think the noble Lord has introduced no provision as to how the money is to be forfeited, whether to the local authority or to whom.

Another point I should like to mention is this. There may be some difficulty also in applying this to the rural districts. The noble Lord knows the method of election and the way in which district councillors sit as members of Boards of Guardians. There may be some difficulties there, but I will not go into them now. As regards aldermen, I am not quite sure whether he proposes that they should all be elected at one time by a system of proportional representation, or separately. Perhaps he will make that clear later. With regard to the filling of vacancies I am not clew from the Bill whether they are to be filled by the system of proportional representation or not, or whether they are to be filled by some sort of co-option. Before the Bill goes into Committee I dare say the noble Lord will consider that carefully. He knows very well the objections to applying proportional representation to by-elections, although I think he wants to excuse it on the ground that very few will take place. The only other point is with regard to holding local inquiries. I believe it is generally the custom, when local areas are re-divided, that a local inquiry should be held. Certainly some provision of that kind ought to be inserted in the Bill. These are substantially Committee points and I do not wish at this stage, on behalf of the Government, to offer any opposition to the Bill.


My Lords, when the Committee stage takes place, no doubt, there will be present a larger number of members of your Lordships' House, and we shall be able to discuss further how the Bill applies to county councils. I do not propose to say more on the Second Reading, except to call attention to the fact that the real object of county councils is to have various localities and various interests separately represented on them. Whether or not that can be brought about better by proportional representation is, to my mind, a very doubtful matter.

On Question, Bi11 read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.