§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ 4.34 p.m.
§ THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR INDIA (THE MARQUESS OF ZETLAND)
My Lords, this Bill seeks to effect an amendment of the law in Scotland relating to the disqualification of councillors either for membership of local authorities or in some cases for voting, and is a matter of some urgency owing to difficulties which have arisen in an acute form in a number of areas in relation to the conduct of housing business and to the placing of contracts with co-operative societies. Under the Housing Acts a member of a local authority is precluded from voting upon any housing question if it relates to any house, building or land in which he is beneficially interested. In a number of burghs in Scotland the administration of housing business, particularly in regard to such matters as the fixing of rents, has thereby been impeded owing to the large proportion of councillors who are occupants of council houses. The difficulty with regard to contracts placed by local authorities with co-operative societies arises out of the terms of the existing law which disqualifies a person from being or continuing a councillor if and while he has, directly or indirectly by himself or his partner, any share or interest in any contract with, by or on behalf of the council. The effect, therefore, of the present law is to disqualify for membership of a council any member of a co-operative society with which the council enters into a contract. In a number of areas where such con- 557 tracts are in existence many councillors are affected by this disqualification and they are liable to vacate office.
The Bill is based on the recommendations of the Local Government and Public Health Consolidation (Scotland) Committee. This Committee, which is under the Chairmanship of Sir John Jeffrey and includes representatives of the local authorities in Scotland and of the different Parliamentary Parties, was appointed by the Secretary of State some eighteen months ago with a view to the consolidation of the law in Scotland relating to local government and public health. The effect of Clauses 1 and 3 of this Bill is to repeal the provisions of the law relating to disqualification on account of an interest in a contract and the provisions of the Housing Acts to which I have already referred. Clause 2 substitutes a provision that if a member of a local authority has any pecuniary interest in any contract, proposed contract or other matter, he shall disclose the fact and shall be precluded from taking part in any discussion or vote upon that matter. Provision is also made for the removal of any disability by the Secretary of State where it is in the interests of the inhabitants of the area for him to do so or where the transaction of any particular item of business would be seriously impeded.
The principle of disqualification for voting in place of disqualification for membership of an authority has been followed, as regards housing business, in the various Housing Acts since 1890 and provisions similar to those to which I have referred were extended to local authority business generally in England by Section 76 of the Local Government Act of 1933. This was done on the recommendations of a Departmental Committee appointed by the Minister of Health. Clause 2 also provides that the Secretary of State may, with the consent of the council, himself transact any particular item of business on their behalf. This provision has been framed with those cases in view in which the whole or practically the whole of the members of a council might be disqualified from discussion or voting upon a matter under the Bill, particularly in relation to such matters as the fixing of rents for council houses. The provisions of the Bill have been universally accepted, I think, as desirable for placing Scotland in this matter on the same footing as England. I beg to 558 move that the Bill be now read a second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Marquess of Zetland.)
§ 4.41 p.m.
My Lords, amongst my noble friends on this side of the House I have the closest connection with Scottish matters although in regard to most other matters I qualify as an English resident. As, however, the noble Marquess the Secretary of State for India is in charge of all Scottish matters in your Lordships' House, I think I can claim nearer relationship with the people of Scotland than he can with any of the inhabitants of India for whom he is responsible. Therefore I think your Lordships will not object to my saying a few words on this Bill. As the noble Marquess said, this Bill is urgently needed to meet a ridiculous state of affairs on certain Scottish councils. Not only, I understand, was anyone living in a council house precluded from taking any part in housing business, but any member of a co-operative society—and, as your Lordships know, co-operative societies are very strong north of the border—was precluded from taking any part in proceedings relating to contracts which co-operative societies might hold and might not even be allowed to sit as a member of the council. Obviously that was never the intention of the Acts of Parliament. This Bill was accepted, and indeed supported, by my right honourable and honourable friends in another place, and therefore we on these Benches have no desire to do other than accept it. At the same time we realise that in bringing in this Bill the Government have no intention in any way of weakening the safeguards against possible corruption in local government, any more than they have, I understand, any intention of turning a blind eye to possible breaches of contracts in national government where special interests may arise. Therefore we desire to support the Bill.
§ 4.43 p.m.
§ LORD JESSEL
My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Marquess the Secretary of State a question on this Bill. The provisions of the Bill have now been put into the London Consolidation Bill and made applicable to the borough councils in London. These provisions, though part of the general law in England, did not 559 apply to borough councils in London. That is my excuse for intervening in this debate. I should like to ask the noble Marquess a question with reference to the latter part of subsection (8) of Clause 2. It says:… the Secretary of State may also on any such application or otherwise and subject to such conditions as he may think fit to impose remove the disability in any other case in which it appears to him that it is in the interests of the inhabitants of the area that he should do so.The first part relates to the members of co-operative societies, but it is the latter part about which I am in doubt.
§ THE MARQUESS OF ZETLAND
My Lords, that would cover the case of housing business. As the noble Lord himself pointed out, the first part refers to contracts with societies, but provision is also made to enable the Secretary of State to take action in the case of difficulties arising in the administration of the Housing Acts.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.