HL Deb 08 June 1920 vol 40 cc478-89

THE PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY OF THE MINISTRY OF HEALTH (VISCOUNT ASTOR) rose to move to resolve— That it is desirable that the Bill be referred to a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament, and that a Committee of four Lords be appointed to join with a Committee of the House of Commons, and that the said Committee be named by the Committee of Selection. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I beg to move the Resolution which stands in my name on the Paper, and as I notice that my noble friend Lord Galway has an Amendment, it might, perhaps, facilitate and expedite matters if I were to explain to your Lordships why we suggest the procedure of sending this Bill to a Joint Committee of the two Houses instead of letting it go, as normally it would go, first to a Committee of your Lordships' House and then to a Committee of the House of Commons.

May I begin by emphasising the points which are at issue. It is not a question of the principle of the Bill. Your Lordships passed the Second Reading some little time ago. The point at issue now is merely as to the nature of the tribunal before which the measure should go. There is no question as to whether there should be an extension of the boundaries of Birkenhead or not; it is simply a question whether there should be three inquiries or the matter thrashed out twice. In each case considerable expenditure is incurred in engaging counsel, obtaining witnesses, and all the other formalities, and our experience is that it only leads to a repetition of the arguments against the extension of the borough concerned and that very seldom new facts are brought up. We want to avoid having a mere repetition of arguments and a doubling of, or at any rate a large increase, in the expenditure involved by sending this Bill before a Committee of each House.

There has already been a local inquiry on the matter, of a lengthy and very full nature. In order to save time, and to save the ratepayers' money, we suggest now that the Bill should go to a Joint Committee of the two Houses. I do not know what arguments Lord Galway may bring forward, but, it is possible he may say that the local inquiry was held in 1914 and that, therefore, there ought to be another inquiry, or that the normal procedure should be followed of sending the Bill before a Committee of each House of Parliament. It is quite true that the original inquiry was held before the war, but, so far as we know—and I think I can speak with confidence—there has been no difference or change in the circumstances since then. In April, 1919, we had an informal inquiry into the boundaries and wards, and the question of differential rating winch had been left open; and in October, 1919, we had a further conference. That being the case, I do not see that anything would be gained by having another local inquiry or by having the whole matter gone into by two Committees.

It may be difficult to get precise information as to the amount of money involved, but I think I should be justified in putting the expenditure of engaging counsel and hearing witnesses at from £7,000 to £10,000. I submit that at the present moment it is unwise to double or largely increase that expenditure, particularly as full justice will be done if the matter is considered by a Joint Committee of both Houses. In this way we shall save both time and the ratepayers' money. Those, briefly, are the reasons why we suggest this alteration in procedure. My right hon. friend the Minister of Health went into it very carefully with the officials of this House and of the House of Commons and this is the conclusion he arrived at. I hope your Lordships will agree to the proposal.

Moved to resolve, That it is desirable that the Bill be referred to a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament, and that a Committee of four Lords be appointed to join with a Committee of the House of Commons, and that the said Committee be named by the Committee of Selection.—(Viscount Astor.)

VISCOUNT GALWAY moved an Amendment to omit from the Motion all words after "referred" and to insert "to a Select Committee of this House, in accordance with the regular procedure."

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, the noble Viscount is perfectly correct in saying that my Amendment in no way proposes the rejection of the Bill. On the contrary, I wish the Bill to be fully considered in all its details by a Committee of each House of Parliament. The noble Viscount has also mentioned what is, I think, a peculiar fact, namely, that the local inquiry was held before the war. It is six years ago since that inquiry was held and the County Councils' Association think it would be most unfair and unjust to the county council and districts who oppose the Bill if any opportunity of putting their case was taken away. If the measure, instead of going through the ordinary course of procedure—first to a Committee of the House of Lords and, if still opposed, to a Committee of the House of Commons—was considered by one Committee only, an opportunity of the objectors to this measure would be taken away. I hope your Lordships will carefully consider that fact.

I think the proposal of a Joint Committee ought to be opposed on much broader grounds than that of expense. At the present moment there is a great demand for the extension of boroughs, and various proposals have been brought before us. Sometimes it is with a view of enhancing the importance of the municipality, but I am much afraid it is too often with the wish of getting into their power a large fresh rateable area, possibly to pay off some old debts or to encourage some new extravagance. I should like to refer to two cases which indicate the great demands municipalities are making for extension. In one case two large municipalities in a northern county have agreed between themselves what is to be the division between them, and they have decided to absorb the whole of the intervening area without any consideration of the wishes of the inhabitants. This proposal is, I believe, under the consideration of the Minister of Health and I will not, therefore, allude to it further.

In another case a borough, whose present extent is about 10,000 acres, wished to increase it to 50,000 acres. A local inquiry was held and it was proved that the sewage works were defective, that 10,000 working men's houses were unfit for habitation, and that the town council was the owner of a great many of these houses. It was also proved that 4,000 acres available for building purposes were still not built upon. Under these circumstances the Ministry of Health quite properly refused to consider the matter further and declined to grant a Provisional Order. These are two cases which show the extreme demands now being made by boroughs who desire to enlarge their boundaries. Surely, in these days of self-determination, some consideration ought to be paid to the wishes of the inhabitants of the districts it is proposed to absorb.

I should imagine, my Lords, that even the League of Nations would not act without considering the wishes of the inhabitants; and I have not heard yet that any of these districts are complaining of the manner in which their affairs are managed by the county councils. That is, to my mind, a very strong point, which ought to be carefully considered by any Committee—that these various districts are being governed in a manner which is satisfactory to themselves and that they do not demand to be absorbed into the boroughs. Certainly, if these large borough extensions are freely granted, I think we must admit that there is an end to county government, and that the whole scheme of local administration will be ended. Until we get an assurance from the Government it seems to me most unfair that the opportunity of putting their points before a Committee of both Houses of Parliament should he taken away from these local authorities, and I sincerely hope, therefore, that your Lordships will assist me, at the wish of the County Councils' Association, in keeping matters as they are at present, so that municipal measures and measures of borough extension should go before a Committee of both Houses, instead of adopting this new idea which is proposed by the noble Lord. I therefore beg to move.

Amendment moved— Leave out all words after ("referred") and insert ("to a Select Committee of this House, in accordance with the regular procedure").—(Viscount Galway.)


I think it would be convenient if I stated at once how I view this question. I am prepared to support the Government, and have agreed to support them, in moving that this Bill should go to a Joint Committee; and if this discussion results in a Division I shall vote with the Government. I think, however, that I ought to explain one or two points as to why I desire to take this course. Firstly, my Lords, both the noble Lords are agreed, and I agree, that you are not discussing the merits of the Bill, but are discussing the tribunal. But it is not only the tribunal on this Bill. There are three or four Provisional Order Bills on the Paper for Second Reading to-day, and it is, I understand, the intention of the Government to refer them to the same Committee as that to which this Bill will go if the Government Motion is carried this afternoon.

I admit at once that this is not the usual procedure. Lord Galway asks you to maintain the regular procedure, but I am sure that he does not mean that if the Government Motion is carried the procedure will be irregular. It will be unusual, but it is not unprecedented. I have looked at the precedents during the last twenty years, and I find ten cases since 1906 in which it has been proposed that Bills of this character—not all of them Provisional Order Bills, but some of them Private Bills—have been referred to Joint Committees of the two Houses, and in one of those your Lordships' proposal was disagreed to by the House of Commons. Therefore, there have been nine Joint Committees which actually sat. I suggest to your Lordships that it is really difficult to lay down general principles. We must decide each case on its own merits. In some cases I think that Joint Committee procedure would be inconvenient, but in this case I think it would be convenient and it would certainly be economical.

For that reason, when certain informadiscussions took place, at which the Minister responsible was good enough to invite the Chairman of Ways and Means and myself to meet him, I thought it was not unreasonable, in the anxiety that the Government feel in these days to avoid Waste of money on long fights such as the noble Lord has described, where nothing new is forthcoming and where money is merely spent in reproducing the old arguments before a new tribunal—it was not unreasonable in those cases where there has already been, I am assured, long fights before the Local Government Board Inspector, as he was then called, that we should allow these Bills, of which I think there are about twenty on the tapis, to go to a Joint Committee of the two Houses. At the same time, I keep my mind quite open, and if the procedure is found to be a failure, which I do not think it will be, I shall be prepared to re-argue the case on a future occasion.

It must be remembered that this question of borough extension is one of the most difficult questions which have confronted Parliament for many years. I see many of your Lordships here who have heard cases upstairs in which the claim of the borough was that it should contain the area which includes its own inhabitants, and in which the answer of the county has been "You are taking away our best rateable value, and leaving us expensive roads, and areas which are of little rateable value." It is a very difficult question to decide, and I am always in the hope—it is a hope which many others have shared—that some formula or some working arrangement may be reached which would avoid these fights, and which would be satisfactory to all parties, and fair to all parties; and I am bound to say that one of the reasons which make me support the Government proposal this afternoon is that I think such a formula, if I may use that phrase, is more likely to come from a big inquiry held before an important Joint Committee than from a small isolated inquiry concerning a single Bill. For that reason I intend to vote for the Government.


I desire to make one or two observations on this matter, and I ought to say that although the county in which I live is concerned yet I do not speak from that point of view. The part of the county which is affected happens to be precisely at the opposite end of the county of Chester from that in which I live, and I am not a member of the Cheshire County Council. Therefore, although I know the circumstances and the district well, I am quite free from any temptation to argue the merits of the particular case, greatly complicated as it is by the fact that the district involved is suburban not merely to Birkenhead, but also to Liverpool, just across the water. These, however, are considerations which clearly will be considered by the tribunal before which the Bill goes.

The noble Earl, the Lord Chairman, has stated his preference for a joint inquiry in this case. I cannot help feeling that if a system of joint inquiries is instituted in the case of a measure of this scope and importance, it will tend to abolish the two-House procedure for private Bill legislation altogether. It is not easy, it seems to me, to name a case which ought to be considered twice over, if cases of this scope and importance are not; and I am afraid the noble Earl is somewhat sanguine in thinking that an inquiry of this kind by a Joint Committee of five Lords and five Members of the other House is likely to lead to the establishment of a principle on the general question of borough extension. I do not see how it conceivably can. This Committee will only be appointed to consider the particular case of Birkenhead and the urban district of Bromboro and the immediate neighbourhood. It has neither the authority nor the power—I do not know who will compose it—and it may not have the capacity, to lay down a general principle on this exceedingly difficult matter, which the noble Earl has freely admitted that it is.

I should have thought that it would have been wise, as this matter is being raised on a large scale, for the Government to have instituted some form of independent inquiry into the whole question. It is quite true, of course, that no two cases are precisely alike, but it might be possible, I think, to lay down some principle to avoid what one sees looming in the future, when a county will be left only with land which is either down or marsh or moor. I hope, therefore, that His Majesty's Government will consider the question of some independent inquiry. What I take it those who sympathise with my noble friend opposite are afraid of is, that however this particular case may turn out it will be regarded as a precedent, although no real principle can be laid down. That being so, I should have thought that, for the present, until some principle can be authoritatively laid down, it would have been wise, even at the risk of certain expense which we should all like to avoid, to stick to the normal procedure of the past.


My Lords, I did not understand my noble friend the Lord Chairman to speak quite in the sense which the noble Marquess has just indicated. I thought the noble Earl, the Lord Chairman, pointed to a general inquiry and indicated that this matter should not be settled merely upon the expe- rience of an inquiry in respect of Birkenhead, but should be settled upon some general reference covering the complete case.


What I desired to say was this. I understand that it is the intention of the Government, if this Joint Committee is set up, to refer to it, every Bill awaiting Second Reading in your Lordships' House.


The suggestion is that this Committee should act so as to decide the general principle upon which all these Provisional Orders should be dealt with in the future?


No. Perhaps I am too optimistic. I am hoping that an inquiry of this kind will have a greater result than the many inquiries that have taken place in the past on single Bills.


I should have been better satisfied, speaking purely for myself, if there bad been some sort of general inquiry to settle this matter rather than that the issue should have been faced merely in the light of the special circumstances of the particular cities which require extension, and which are to come under this procedure if the Government are successful in their Motion. I noticed one rather remarkable omission from the speech made by my noble friend who represents the Ministry of Health here. He did not tell us what were the wishes of the parties concerned. I have no doubt that he knows them. I gather that the Cheshire County Council is opposed to the Government proposal. Are we to understand that the Birkenhead Borough Council is in favour of the proposal which the Government submit?


The principle of the extension or the machinery?


Does Birkenhead only want the single inquiry, and does it not want, the double inquiry before the. two Houses of Parliament? It is curious that we do not know what the parties want. The established procedure, of course, is that matters of this kind come forward in two separate inquiries before the two Houses of Parliament. No doubt there have been, as my noble friend the Lord Chairman has told us—and he is an authority who is absolutely indisputable in a matter of this kind—many exceptions, but the broad general principle is that there should be a double inquiry. One would have thought that the first question to be considered, if that procedure is to be varied, is, What are the wishes of the parties concerned?


I assure the noble Marquess that the Cheshire County Council is opposed to it.


We know now that the Cheshire County Council object to the change, but we do not know whether the other party to the controversy is in favour of it. That is certainly a somewhat remarkable circumstance. One would have thought, as these two great authorities, the Cheshire County Council and the Birkenhead Borough Council, are responsible to the ratepayers for payment of the expenditure which is to be incurred, that their views would have been consulted, for they will have to answer to their own rate-payers if they have been extravagant in promoting Parliamentary Bills. Primarily, therefore, it is for them to decide, and one would expect, when your Lordships are asked to vary the ordinary procedure, that the first thing you would be told would be that either one party or both parties desired the change. I am now satisfied from my noble friend Lord Galway that one of the parties, the County Council of Cheshire, is against the change, and I imagine, if Birkenhead had been in favour of it, that my noble friend Lord Astor would have been able to tell us so. I think we may almost assume that both parties are against the change.

I would like to say only one other thing. My noble friend Lord Galway is a very experienced member of your Lordships' House, and we should listen to anything he says with great respect. But he does not speak in his own name only on this occasion; he speaks, as I understand, for the County Councils' Association. That is a very important circumstance, because he voices the opinion of the great body of the county councils who have, as your Lordships are aware, an association to guide their policy. I understand that if your Lordships decide to accept the Motion of the Government we shall be deciding against the view of the County Councils' Association, against the view of the County Council of Cheshire, and possibly against the view of the County Borough Council of Birkenhead.

I should have thought that this was hardly a very suitable opportunity on which to make a change that is expressly intended to be a precedent for other changes in this procedure. At the same time I should very much hesitate to vote in a matter of this kind against my noble friend the Lord Chairman, whom we look upon as our great adviser and oracle on a matter of this kind. I should have been very much happier if Lord Astor had been able to tell us that he was only interpreting the strong wish of the ratepayers concerned in asking your Lordships to make this change.


My Lords, I did not like to interrupt the noble Marquess when he was speaking. We propose this procedure to-day not merely for application to Birkenhead. There are several Bills coming along for the extension of boroughs, and it was with a view to saving time and the ratepayers' money that we suggested this machinery not for this special case, but for all cases. It would have been impossible to consult all the authorities individually. So far as we know Birkenhead are in favour of this, but I am not in a position to say so officially. Unofficially, so far as I know, they would be in favour of it but there are various other Bills coming forward for the extension of borough

boundaries, and it was with a view of saving Parliamentary time, and everybody's time, and also the ratepayers' money, that we have suggested this machinery. It has been suggested that this procedure may enable us to settle certain general principles for the alteration of municipal boundaries.

The noble Viscount, Lord Galway, hinted at the possibility of a Royal Commission to go into the whole question. We are opposed to that at the Ministry of Health because we hope to introduce this Session a Bill for the reform of the Poor Law. That will involve a survey of all local machinery, including the nature of local bodies, their duties, their inter-dependence, their areas, and the changes in boundaries; and, if we were to wait for a report from a Royal Commission on the principles which should guide us in extending borough boundaries, we should be still more delayed in introducing an already overdue proposal. It is because of this that I cannot hold out any hope that we shall be able to adopt the procedure suggested. I still hope that your Lordships, with a view to economy of time and money, will allow us to have the procedure that we propose.

On Question, whether the words proposed to be left out shall stand part of the Motion?—

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 54; Not-contents, 49.

Birkenhead, L. (L. Chancellor.) Haldane, V. Newton, L.
Hutchinson, V. (E. Donoughmore.) Phillimore, L.
Wellington, D. Playfair, L.
Ancaster, E. Knollys, V. Pontypridd, L.
Bradford, E. Knutsford, V. Ranksborough, L.
Howe, E. Rathcreedan, L.
Kimberley, E. Chichester, L. Bp. Ravensworth, L.
Lucan, E. Rotherham, L.
Lytton, E. Annesley, L. (V. Valentia.) Roundway, L.
Malmesbury, E. Balfour, L. Ruthven of Gowrie, L.
Mayo, E. Chaworth, L> (E. Meath.) Shandon, L.
Onslow, E. Clwyd, L. Somerleyton, L. [Teller.]
Pembroke and Montgomery, E. Colebrooke, L. Stanley of Alderley, L. (L. Sheffield.)
Reading, E. Dewar, L.
Russell, E. Forteviot, L. Stanmore, L. [Teller.]
Greville, L. Stuart of Wortley, L.
Sandhurst, V. (L. Chamberlain.) Hylton, L. Sudeley, L.
Astor, V. Lambourne, L. Wigan, L. (E. Crawford.)
Cave, V. Lawrence, L. Wittenham, L.
Finlay, V. Mendip, L. (V. Clifden.) Wyfold, L.
Newcastle, D. Midleton, E. de Mauley, L.
Northumberland, D. Selborne, E. Denham, L.
Somerset, D. Spencer, E. Desborough, L.
Sutherland, D. Stafford, E. Dynevor, L.
Waldegrave, E. Glenarthur, L.
Bath, M. Yarborough, E. Hastings, L.
Camden, M. Hemphill, L.
Crewe, M. Allendale, V. Ludlow, L.
Exeter, M. Bertie of Thame, V. Monckton, L. (V. Galway.) [Teller.]
Lincolnshire, M. (Lord Great Chamberlain.) Falkland, V.
Goschen, V. Muir Mackenzie, L.
Normanby, M. Muskerry, L.
Zetland, M. Addington, L. O'Hagan, L.
Denbigh, E. Askwith, L. Parmoor, L.
Doncaster, E. (D. Raceleach and Queensberry.) Braye, L. Strachie, L. [Teller.]
Channing of Wellingborough, L. Swaythhing, L.
Fortescue, E Charnwood, L. Teynham, L.
Grey, E. Cottesloe, L. Willoughby de Broke, L.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Resolved in the affirmative, and Amendment disagreed to accordingly.