HL Deb 25 October 1939 vol 114 cc1540-5

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.

6.7 p.m.


My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend Lord De La Warr owing to indisposition, I beg to move the Second Reading of this Bill. The object of it is to suspend elections to local governing bodies till the end of 1940. I understand that the main political Parties have already agreed to the general principle of this Bill, and that, in accordance with the view of His Majesty's Government, they agree that it is advisable that no elections should be held so long as the war is in progress. I understand also that Northern Ireland takes a similar view of the situation. A similar Act to this was passed in 1915, and was renewed annually after that date in 1916, 1917 and 1918. It is proposed to take a similar procedure in this case, supposing the war should last over next year. This Bill itself lapses on December 31, 1940, and it is provided under Clause 1 that no elections shall be held until six months after this Bill comes to an end. Borough elections are normally held in England and Wales on November I and town council elections in Scotland on November 7. Your Lordships will see, therefore, that we have very little time, if we agree that it is necessary to continue the services of councillors and aldermen who are already holding office.

I think all your Lordships will agree that there are many disadvantages in holding elections of any kind at this time. They would throw considerable burdens on local officials, and, of course, also on those who stand as candidates, and both local officials and candidates in many cases are doing valuable work for the nation of a war character. For that reason alone I think your Lordships will agree that it would be unwise in the national interest to throw this burden upon them. Incidentally, by postponing these elections we shall also save a certain amount of expenditure which, in view of what was said in the debate which has just ended, will be welcome to your Lordships. A further reason for the Bill is that there is, of course, the possibility of air raids, which might make the holding of public meetings inadvisable, and that many of the buildings which are used for election purposes and as polling stations are being used now for other purposes, such as casualty clearing stations and the like. For all these reasons, I hope that your Lordships will agree to the Second Reading of the Bill.

Perhaps I might very briefly go through it. Clause 1 postpones elections, as I have said. Clause 2 postpones the publication of the register of electors, which normally has to be prepared by the middle of October, till November 15. Subsection (3) enacts that the register will continue in force until October 15, 1941, after this Act expires. Clause 3 exempts those who should have prepared this register by the middle of this month from doing so. Clause 4 applies the Bill to the Common Council of the City of London. Clause 5 enacts that the boundaries of local areas shall not be changed while the Act is in force. Clause 6 makes a similar provision in regard to alterations in boundaries which may become necessary, and enacts that they shall not come into operation. Clause 8 applies the measure to Scotland, and Clause 9 enables it to be applied also to Northern Ireland. I need not say any more about the Bill, but if your Lordships have any questions to ask I shall do my best to answer them.

Moved, That the Bill he now read 2a.—(Earl Stanhope.)

6.12 p.m.


My Lords, I will not presume to detain your Lordships for more than a few minutes. This Bill is in itself of small importance compared with many we have been passing lately, but it is the first step on a road which may carry us far, and I should like to ask if the Government are taking into careful consideration the further consequences which must follow. Of course, if the war is over as quickly as we all hope, it may be possible to take the next election on the register contemplated under this Bill, but we must consider the alternative that the war may last long enough to make it necessary to prolong the life of Parliament and to postpone the election. In either case the election is likely to be of the most vital importance, far beyond any we have hitherto experienced, for the Parliament it will elect and the Government it puts into power will have the responsibility of settling the peace terms and therefore of deciding the conditions under which we, and indeed Europe, are to live for a generation to come.

That is why I have risen to ask that the Government should begin to consider the conditions under which that Parliament is to be elected. It may be said that, at this stage of the war, I am trying to look too far ahead, but I remember that even during the period of greatest pressure during the last war in 1917 and 1918 it became necessary to tackle this problem, and both franchise and redistribution were dealt with in the endeavour to give everyone concerned, including the soldiers at the front, his—and her—fair say in the settlement. I am bound to confess that the result was not entirely happy. Some of us have rather bitter recollections of the "Coupon Election" of 1918 and of the way only one point of view, and that none too lofty, found representation in the Parliament then elected. Indeed that Parliament exercised an influence on the Treaty of Versailles which some of its members who now hold positions of even greater responsibility must regret to-day. But these are the mistakes we hope to avoid next time, and we can do so if we tackle the problem in good time and clear our minds beforehand. This House has an honourable record in this respect, for it put forward proposals for Proportional Representation which would have avoided many of our subsequent troubles if the other House had not very foolishly rejected them. I am bound to admit I had my share in that most ill-advised rejection.

I see Mr. Greenwood demands that there shall be an election as soon as possible after the Armistice, and I am inclined to agree, but we must make sure that it is not rushed through at a time when passions are inflamed, and without it being possible to put the real issues before the electorate. That perhaps is a matter for the consideration—and for the conscience—of whatever Government may then be in office, but we must also lay our plans well in advance to ensure that the decision then given is in truth the voice of the country. My submission then is that it is not sufficient to put the compiling of a new register into cold storage which, as regards Parliamentary elections, is all the present Bill proposes, but we must look ahead and make the necessary arrangements beforehand. I am not prepared, at this moment, to dogmatize as to what those arrangements should be, if redistribution is required, and how to ensure that substantial minorities are not left completely unrepresented as they almost are even to-day, but the precedent of 1917 seems to suggest a solution.

At this moment all our thoughts and efforts must be devoted in the first instance to the winning of the war, but so far, at any rate, the calls upon us have been less urgent than in 1917, and many of us would gladly take our share in trying to work out an equitable solution. I have of course no intention of raising any objection to the small but necessary measure now before us, but I am anxious that the Government should appreciate the larger questions that are involved in the passage of this Bill, and consider whether the time has not arrived to set up some body on the lines of the Speaker's Conference of 1916–17 to see whether it is not possible to work out some better solution than was arrived at at that time.

6.17 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure we have listened with interest to the speech of the noble Lord opposite, but the point he has raised does not seem to arise on this particular Bill, which only refers to local government elections.


It refers to the postponement of the register.


It only refers really to local government elections, although I quite agree with what the noble Lord said that, if happily the war ends before 1941, the question of the register should be attended to. The point I was going to raise is that in 1914 there was another Bill passed called the Local Authorities (Disqualification Relief) Bill. That particular measure was to preserve the rights of those serving in the armed forces of the Crown who were elected to municipal bodies. Since I came down to your Lordships' House I have been informed that a similar Bill is not necessary now because, although the Territorial Forces are now embodied in the Army, and are part and parcel of it, the position is governed by the Local Government Act of 1933, which provides for a contingency of that kind. I am not going to read the whole of the clause, because it is a long one, but it lays down that any member of His Majesty's Forces is entitled to relief from disqualification on account of absence. That does not, unfortunately, apply to London, and therefore there has been a certain alarm on the part of local bodies in London because the Act of 1933 applies to the rest of the country only. As regards London, however, the same provision is embodied in the Local Government Act which the Lordships passed in the summer of this year and which will come into force on January 1. I only wish to draw your Lordships' attention to this for the benefit of those in London who are unaware of this provision. As the war broke out in September, they can still have the relief afforded to them for six months, and then after that, on January 1, they will be put in the same position as the rest of the country.

As regards the rest of the Bill, I may say, with the exception of some few details, it was passed as a non-controversial measure after considerable debate in another place. The Bill has been greatly improved in its passage through another place, and there has been one notable action by the City of London. They were given certain privileges in the original Bill and they thought it right—and I think this is most generous of them—not to take advantage of them, and in the clause relating to the City of London they have not taken any special powers to distinguish themselves from other municipalities. I think this Bill is very necessary and timely and no doubt will pass into law without further delay.


My Lords, I will say only one word in reply to the noble Lord opposite. My noble friend Lord Jessel is quite right in saying this Bill does not apply to Parliamentary Elections except in so far as the register of electors applies to both. When the time comes to consider the question of extending the life of the present Parliament, if that should become necessary, that will require a separate Bill from this one, or from any continuation of this one. That will be the time when the suggestions made by my noble friend opposite will come up for consideration by the Government.

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