HL Deb 24 November 1949 vol 165 cc987-1002

4.28 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time. The purpose of the Bill is to dissolve the Local Government Boundary Commission, to repeal the Local Government Boundary Commission Act, 1945, and to make consequential provisions as respects certain enactments of the Local Government Act, 1933, which were amended or repealed by the Act of 1945. The Commission, who were appointed under the Act of 1945, have been reviewing their own work and their work in relation to other local government problems. The purpose for which they were appointed was to review local government areas in England and Wales outside London, and the Commission were given powers to alter boundaries.

In the light of experience it has been felt that the powers given to this Commission were not large enough, although at the beginning it was thought that the powers were rather large and important and might give rise to important changes subsequently. The Commission could, for instance, alter the area of any local government unit, unite counties into larger units or divide counties, grant or take away county borough status, or create new county districts. It has been said that even those powers were of little consequence, but I think your Lordships will agree, on examination, that although perhaps the powers do not go so far as they might have done they are none the less of considerable importance.

As I have already indicated, the Commission now believe that their powers are inadequate, and they have asked for new legislation to increase these powers, new legislation which would be far-reaching in its effects. The Commission concluded in 1947 that effective and convenient units of local government administration cannot everywhere be procured without a fresh allocation of functions. The Commission recognised that they had no mandate, and in their call for legislation they asked that a mandate should be given to them for that purpose. In view of the controversy which has arisen, both in Parliament and in the country, it would be as well for me to say that the Minister took a somewhat similar view. He therefore encouraged the Commission to state certain broad conclusions about powers, in order that public opinion could be tested. And the Commission responded.

First, they propose that there should be three main units of authority—(a) counties, (b) county boroughs, old and new, and (c) county districts. Secondly, they suggest the division of England and Wales into one and two-tier counties. One-tier counties were to be the largest county boroughs with populations of more than 250,000, and two-tier counties were to be the usual counties that we know, having other local authorities within their areas. Thirdly, it was suggested that there should be creation and allocation of functions to new county boroughs with populations of from 60,000 to 200,000, not having the status of county boroughs but having effective status to meet the requirements of their populations. Fourthly, it was proposed that the new county districts should be the new names applied to what we now know as urban district council and rural district council areas. The present names would be dropped, and in view of the re-allocation of duties the change in name in that respect appeared desirable. They would, of course, be authorities with second-tier allocation. Fifthly, the Commission proposed the preparation of schemes of delegation of functions in the two-tier counties.

It was thought that there was a good deal of sound opinion in the country which would support proposals of that kind, and that there would be some measure of support for subsequent legislation. Unfortunately, from discussions which directly followed the publication of the proposals it became evident that that was not the case. The receptions given to the proposals have been very mixed indeed. They have been mixed not only as between individuals but also as between authorities. For instance, numbers of local authorities have formed their opinions largely on the basis of their loyalties to the authorities of which they are members. That, I presume, was to be expected in the circumstances, but it would mean that any attempt to reach a settlement at this time between various types of authorities would have to meet with objections from all sides. Strange to say, within the authorities themselves there were mixed views. Many local authorities found themselves drawn almost to pieces by the discussions that ensued. One further difficulty arose over this matter. It was clear that if the Government adopted the views of the Commission, and proposed legislation to carry them out, there would not be time in the present Parliament to do that. Therefore, it would be necessary to wait for a new Parliament before legislation could he introduced. In view of these circumstances, the Government came to the conclusion which is embodied in the present Bill.

We ought to acknowledge our indebtedness to the Commission for, notwithstanding the disappointment they may have felt that the Government were unable to take action, they decided to go back to their normal functions, as laid down in their terms of appointment, and to deal with such cases as came before them. The Commission, I think, took a proper view in relation to their duties, their feeling being that, having regard to the need for greater powers, the powers they now possess could be reckoned as only of secondary character. The Government agree now that the boundaries must be altered, but that boundaries cannot be altered unless new powers are considered and approved for them. Moreover, the Government are of opinion that the incidental changes which have taken place in local government work since 1945 complicate the issues. Therefore, the Government have decided to have their own review of the whole local government situation and, in due course, to take full responsibility themselves for the introduction of new legislation.

The Bill is not lengthy. It is, on the whole, a very simple document; so, I need not go into great detail in respect of it. First of all, as I said at the commencement of my speech, it dissolves the Boundary Commission, it repeals the Act of 1945 and it restores provisions, suitably amended, of the Local Government Act, 1933, which had been repealed by the Act of 1945. Amendments which are proposed to the 1933 provisions will be found in the Schedule. I had perhaps better mention one or two of them so that they can go on the record. Instead of using the census returns of 1931 for the purpose of estimating population, it is proposed that the estimates of population made from time to time, by the Registrar-General, shall be taken to enable decisions to be reached on particular cases. It is proposed that orders issued by the Minister in connection with these matters should come under the Special Parliamentary Procedure Act. That will simplify matters greatly when changes have to be considered. It is proposed to restore to the Minister the authority which he formerly had to make minor changes, but I am authorised to say that it is not the present intention of the Minister, pending Government examination and the introduction of a Government Bill, to encourage large developments or changes in local government organisation. As early as possible, but not in this Parliament, the Government will submit their own proposals. They recognise that local government is not static, and I would add that within the Labour Party which supports the Government there is a body of men, than which no sounder is to be found, who have been for long engaged in local government and who are anxious to see it reformed so far as it needs reform.

Temporarily, the Government have taken no retrograde step, though it will sometimes be necessary, when alterations of boundaries are sought, that this should be done by means of a Private Parliamentary Bill. The Government believe that if a large measure of approval can be given to such changes when the Bill comes before the House, and if the opposition is not great, the operation need not be very extensive or expensive. In conclusion, I desire to pay a tribute to the Commission for the skill and ability with which they and their staff have tackled a difficult job. They can be assured that though their task, through no fault of their own, has to be left unfinished, they have rendered very valuable service and have played a considerable part in assisting the final pattern of local government in this country. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

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

4.40 p.m.


My Lords, we have listened with great interest and attention to Lord Shepherd's explanation of this short Bill. He gave the House some of the background, but I do not think he gave it all. Though I do not intend to detain the House long, I think I should, in my own way, fill in some of the gaps I believe he has left. May I go back to the White Paper produced by the Coalition Government in 1945, called Local Government in England and Wales during the Period of Reconstruction? In it were proposals for amending the Local Government Act of 1933 relating to the adjustments of status, boundaries, and areas. But the proposals in the White Paper were admittedly of an interim character. Some two years before the issue of the White Paper, the reform of local government was raised in another place in the form of a Question. The White Paper referred to the letter written in September, 1943, to representatives of the Association of Municipal Corporations and the County Council Association by the then Minister without Portfolio, who was none other than the noble and learned Viscount who now sits on the Woolsack. The then Minister resisted the demand for a comprehensive inquiry into local government and said in the course of his letter: …it is not too much to say that the delays involved in a comprehensive inquiry of this character are likely to be highly prejudicial to the success of our post-war plans. That was the attitude adopted by the Minister of Health when he propounded this White Paper in 1945. It was considered at that time, however, that the process of adjustment started by the Local Government Act of 1933—that is, the process of periodic county reviews—which was interrupted by the war, should be resumed, and that the question of the creation and extension of county boroughs should also be reviewed and co-ordinated by means of a Local Government Boundary Commission.

The White Paper was debated in another place in February, 1945. It was propounded by the then Minister of Health, Mr. Willink, and Mr. Herbert Morrison wound up for the Government. In the course of his speech he said: …the Government thought that the local authorities were entitled to know how the Government's mind was moving, and what our broad intentions were, in order that they should have some reasonable degree of security for the future in the commitments into which they are entering. In due course the Act which we are now asked to repeal was passed by Parliament. The discussions which took place both on the White Paper and on the Bill revealed no serious differences of opinion between the Parties then supporting the Coalition Government. It was agreed that although it was an interim measure, it was a proper and logical scheme, and it was approved. May I here note in passing that the present Minister of Health did not intervene in the discussion.

The White Paper did not ignore the difficulties which might arise in the course of the Commission's inquiry. It recognised that the adjustment of boundaries might not be the complete remedy for financial and administrative weakness and made the suggestion that a partial solution might be found by a combination of authorities for specific purposes. It was proposed that the Commission should be empowered to bring such difficulties to the notice of the Minister and, in the words of the White Paper: if necessary defer making any final decision on the area until some conclusion on the question of combination for special purposes has been reached. That was the situation when the present Government assumed office and the present Minister of Health issued his statutory rule and order for the guidance of the Commission, as he was empowered to do under the Act. He laid down that the governing principal was to: ensure, individually and collectively, effective and convenient units of local government administration. I think the Commission clearly took this as an encouragement to consider aspects rather wider than the restricted question of the alteration of boundaries. I know the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, will agree with me. The first Report of this work, for the year 1946, was issued in March, 1947. This report gave an indication of the direction in which the minds of the Commission were moving. The Commission particularly asked the Minister for guidance on three specific points—namely, the partial review of an area, the restriction on alterations to non-county boroughs, and the distinction between different types of county districts. No answer was received by the Commission. Nevertheless, no discouragement to pursue their inquiries into functions was apparent. Obviously to pursue this wider inquiry would mean delay in the main purpose for which the Commission had been set up by Parliament. Whether or not it was wise for the Commission to do so, they undoubtedly had strong grounds for presuming that the Minister favoured changes in local government administration far wider than those foreshadowed by the White Paper. Otherwise it is scarcely conceivable that the Minister should permit the Commission to spend 1947 exploring into these wider questions of functions. That expectation must have given way to certainty when the Minister used these words in another place: everyone who knows about local government feels that it is nonsense to talk about functions and boundaries separately. In passing, I must say it is a pity that the Minister did not intervene to tell Mr. Morrison of this in 1945.

The Commission's Report for 1947, published in January, 1948, made recommendations for dealing largely with functions, to which the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd has referred, not in detail but in outline. I think the Commission must have found themselves throughout the year 1948 in a state of considerable anxiety and suspense. They must have been like "Tippy Tiptoes," who waited for the messenger who "didn't come and didn't come" from the Ministry of Health. I can imagine them sitting in Devonshire House "listening and listening" for a knock at the door. At last Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve wrote to the Minister. Perhaps the House will bear with me while I read the letter. It is dated, November 24, 1948, and is as follows: My dear Minister, The Local Government Boundary Commission will shortly complete its third year's work. As you may recollect, during 1946 and 1947 we investigated the problems of the counties and county boroughs in England and Wales. This year we have started to investigate the county districts in a number of English counties, and since April some 650 conferences with district councils in those counties have been held, either by members of the Commission or by assistant commissioners. Five important questions raised in our First and Second Reports now remain outstanding. They relate to the following matters:"— I have already referred to the first of them earlier in my speech. The other two are the functions of counties and county boroughs, and the Greater London area.

The letter continues: We have now reached the stage when we must consider both the terms of our Report for the year 1948 and our programme of work for 1949. A meeting of the Commission is being held for this purpose in December. It becomes important therefore that we should, if possible, have some idea of the Government's intentions in the matter of local government legislation. We have of course observed that the King's Speech had no reference to the reform of local government, but presumably that does not rule it out of the picture altogether. It would be most helpful if you could give some indication (in a form we could publish) whether the Government are likely either in the present Session or in the present Parliament to put proposals before Parliament with regard to all or any of the five points which I have mentioned above. That letter was sieved by Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve. The Report continues: At the request of the Minister we have held back this Report, pending his consideration of these questions. That was on November 24, 1948. On March 29, 1949, some four months later, the Chairman received the following letter: Dear Chairman, With reference to your letter to Mr. Bevan of the 24th November, 1948, in which you ask for an indication of whether the Government are likely to put proposals before Parliament with regard to any of the points mentioned in that letter, I am now asked by him to send you the enclosed copy of a Question and Answer in the House of Commons dated the 25th March, which sets out the position. That is signed by William S. Douglas, presumably a Permanent Secretary of the Minister of Health.

The Report continues: The Question and Answer referred to are as follows: Q.—To ask the Minister of Health whether he is yet in a position to make any statement with regard to legislation on local government in the light of the recommendations made in the Reports of the Local Government Boundary Commission of 1946 and 1947? A.—This question has been under consideration by the Government who have decided that it will not be practicable to introduce comprehensive legislation on local government reconstruction in the near future. I must say that had I been Chairman of that Commission I would have considered such a reply a "dusty answer." Nevertheless, as Lord Shepherd has said, they braced themselves and came back to reality with a jerk. The Report says further: Accordingly, we now intend to select those cases in which the Order would be both appropriate under the existing statute law and General Principles and also, so far as we can judge, appropriate if either the law or the General Principles were amended on the lines recommended in our Reports or in some similar manner. But there was reserved for the Commission the fate which King Henry VIII so often reserved for over-weaning favourites: it was doomed, and it was beheaded. We are now taking part in the severance of the last vertebra. Worse than this, it has now been made clear that we can expect very little change within boundaries or in functions before the end of the year 1951. Meanwhile, this investigation into an important matter affecting the lives of many citizens is to be conducted in camera. Ten years of accumulated needs since 1939 for change in boundaries is to continue for another two years. That reasonable degree of security for the future to which local authorities were entitled, according to Mr. Morrison, has now disappeared. What is more, in four years something like £140,000 of the taxpayers' money has been spent on this investigation, much valuable time of skilled and highly preoccupied persons has been taken up, and at the end we are to have the continuance of the administrative tangle which might have been at least partially unravelled during the past four years. Despite the tributes which the noble Lord has paid to the Commission, there has been what I consider to be a snubbing of a Commission composed of able, capable and public-spirited men. I should like from these Benches to offer my tribute to the work which they have carried out, as I think, in mistaken view of the intention of the Minister. That is the wreath which I lay on their grave. But to His Majesty's Government, and in particular to the Minister of Health, we can offer no orchids but only an offering of sour and desiccated desert fruit.

4.56 p.m.


My Lords, if ever there was a Bill which put the clock back, I should have thought it was this Bill. To say that it is reactionary is a mild statement. Naturally, we have listened this afternoon to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, in anticipation of being told what the Government are going to do about putting something in the place of the Commission which they are now abolishing. I must be allowed to express my disappointment on hearing that, apparently, nothing is to be done in the foreseeable or measurable future. As the noble Lord has said, the expenses of the Boundary Commission were appreciable. But the money that was spent on that Commission was nothing compared to the cost of the machinery which is going to be substituted for it—I refer to the machinery of Private Bill legislation. I have always regarded that as a wasteful and archaic form of Government. Another fault of Private Bill legislation is that it considers only the narrow problems of the authorities involved, either in favour or against a particular Bill. It takes no account of the wider and more general surrounding problems, which are always left out, but which must be taken into account before a proper solution can be arrived at. The inquiry in Private Bill legislation is altogether too narrow.

We are entitled to ask the Government what they are going to do. As has been pointed out, as long ago as the spring of 1947, at least two-and-a-half years ago, the difficulty which the Commission propounded was brought to the notice of the Government. In that period of two-and-a-half years nothing, so so far as I can see, has been done to solve the difficulty. Moreover, it is indicated—and it is almost the only thing that has been clearly indicated—that nothing will be done until after the end of this Parliament. One question I would like to ask about this Bill is: Why is it necessary to state in this Bill that the very meagre county review system is not to be allowed to operate until the end of 1951? We must ask, if the Commission are to be abolished and if it be accepted that there is urgent need for action, what is to take their place. So far as I can make out, we are to go back to where we were before 1945 and have the machinery which was then so rightly criticised as being inadequate and out of date. The county review machinery, under the Local Government Act, 1933, was put into operation for a period of years. In my submission, it was totally ineffective to bring about the necessary or desirable changes in the areas and boundaries of local government. It is true that in some enlightened counties the change worked moderately well, but in many counties it was entirely inadequate and produced almost no results at all. To that machinery we are now to revert.

I ask His Majesty's Government to show that they appreciate the urgency of this problem. There are far too many small authorities in this country to-day; and the county review cannot, and has not, reduced the number. Something must still be done to effect such a reduction. In my submission, nothing but a national body, with its headquarters in London and with its field of operations covering the whole country, can solve the problem. Being a local body, the county review cannot do so. In any event, it cannot take into account county boundaries, which it is essential to take into account. I appreciate the difficulties, or some of them. One is that when you begin to review the area of the county it is difficult to know where to stop. But that only accentuates the truth of the statement that such a narrow piece of machinery as the county review is quite inadequate.

After the passage of this Bill we have a large vacuum, and the Government have proposed nothing with which to fill the vacuum in the immediate future. It is true that they have indicated on more than one occasion that at some time in the future they will produce proposals for the solution of the problem, but, as I said before, the lapse of time since attention was first called to the difficulty does not encourage us to hope that the result of these big deliberations will be forthcoming in anything like the time in which it ought to be. The merits of this Bill will be judged by the speed with which the Government fill this vacuum. I hope and pray that they will give us some encouragement in order that local authorities may not continue to labour under the great disadvantage of the uncertainty of the future course of events.

5.5 p.m.


My Lords, all men who are practically and not politically interested in local government are profoundly depressed by this Bill. Its motives are suspect and, in spite of the remarkable qualities of clear exposition of the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, remain unintelligible. The fact which so much depresses the practical man is that that which we all know to be necessary if we are to rationalise our proceedings—namely, some easier method of rationalising units—is being denied. We had a machine which was working well, but which was diverted from its natural path; and for that single error it suffered the excessive punishment of decapitation. Why is it necessary to wait until the Government devise some more perfect method for reorganising the whole of local government before we are allowed to have a machine for rationalising the units of the system which we have to work?

I will not delay your Lordships with a repetition of the depressing influences which are so well known in the whole local government world. There are, however, one or two particular points which I urge my noble friend to call to the attention of the Minister of Health, who is responsible for getting us out of the imbroglio of delay and confusion in which this measure has landed us. I have particular means for acquainting myself with the opinions upon this; matter of the Association of Municipal Corporations which, as my noble friend knows, covers a very wide sphere of activity and interest in the world of local government. From the point of view of the corporations of the towns, what this Association particularly regret, in the first place, is the refusal of our request (so temperately urged in another place) that at any rate some activity or some function might be left to the Commission for dealing with county districts. I may say that we are acting in close agreement with the county districts in the rationalising of the units of the county districts under the Act of 1945. More particularly, speaking from the point of view of the municipal corporation, we do urge that we should be given some more effective means, in substitution for those of which we have been deprived by the abolition of the Commission, of putting into force statutory orders and other proceedings requiring official and Parliamentary confirmation and relating to the rationalisation of the districts of county boroughs. My noble friend will tell me that that battle has been fought in another place, but let me once more beg him to impress upon the Minister of Health the importance of this particular point of view of practical administration, unaffected by any shadow or shade of political influence.

May I make one last point? It is a small matter but one of great importance to us, and it is one which has been overlooked in the drafting of this rather obscure legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, knows that it is now within the power of a borough to promote a Bill to receive county borough status only if it has a certain minimum population—the figure, I am glad to say, has been reduced from 100,000 to 75,000. Now this is the small point I wish to make. Suppose that there are two, three or more boroughs—and we know of cases—each of them having less than 75,000 population but, taken together, having a great deal more. In the happy circumstances of their agreeing that they want to get together to become a single county borough, surely it is not intended to prevent their doing so. I commend those points to the attention of my noble friend.

5.8 p.m.


My Lords, may I intervene on a subject upon which I have addressed your Lordships before, and say how much I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord De L'Isle and Dudley, and the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, have said about this Bill? It is true that in the 1947 Report the Commission, as they admitted, exceeded their powers under the Act. But having chosen that course, the Commission did recognise that they had done so. If their recommendations did not commend themselves, the Com- mission realised that it would be their duty to carry out their task on the basis of their present instructions. The fact that at one point the Commission had gone beyond the powers with which they were endowed, and that it so happened that those recommendations were not acceptable to the Minister of Health, seems to me to provide little excuse for decapitating the Commission. That is all the more so because, as the noble Lord, Lord De L'Isle and Dudley, has shown in making these recommendations the Commission were (to use a colloquialism) quite obviously led "up the garden path" by the Minister of Health. Having made these recommendations, the Commission were then promptly pushed down a well.

As one who, for purely geographical reasons, found himself in profound disagreement with many of the recommendations of the 1947 Report, I would add my tribute to what has already been said about the Commission. I think everybody will feel that the Commission has been very badly and shabbily treated. If the Commission made a mistake—and it is not suggested that that is the reason why the Act is being repealed—surely some explanation should be given. That given by the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, certainly does not indicate why condign punishment should be meted out to the Commission, who have done their best. When the Commission were formed, great legal reforms could have been introduced but we are now thrown back to a procedure which is Byzantine, expensive and peculiar, and which makes the position of local authorities quite impossible. The sympathy of noble Lords on these Benches—and I know I am speaking here for the noble Marquess, Lord Reading, who has had to leave the Chamber—goes out to the Commission. We have great sympathy for them in the way they have been treated, and we regret very much that His Majesty's Government should have seen fit so to act.

5.12 p.m.


My Lords, I cannot complain about the tone of the remarks made by the noble Lords in all quarters of the House, even if they seemed critical in their nature. They are criticisms that make it rather difficult for a Minister in this House to answer, because he is in the position of having to defend someone else who is not here and who therefore cannot defend himself. I think I had better reply first to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Rennell, because they are fresher in our memory. The Commission are not being punished because they went too far or had made proposals which were not acceptable. The Government are rot trying to mete out punishment; my right honourable friend the Minister would be the last person to suggest that it was punishment which he was administering. The real fact is, of course, that arising out of the discussions on the Report of 1947 the country, speaking from the local government point of view, has been "caught by the ears." Great debates are taking place; there is very little or no agreement; and it is possible that if this Commission had continued in office they could have done no really great work until the passions had died down.

The Minister and the Government took the view that the best solution would be for the Government themselves to accept the responsibility, which meant that they would make a new start and, therefore, gain a better position for the reception of new proposals in due course. The Government are not going to delay this matter. The inquiry is already taking place. All noble Lords will agree, I am sure, that this Government will not be able to produce a good scheme unless there are wide consultations in which local authorities or representatives thereof can express their views. By some means or other, we must get to the bottom of the difficulties that exist at the moment.

I do not wish to say much about the most critical part of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord De L'Isle and Dudley, which had reference to the Minister himself. It is, I think, quite clear that he did not respond in writing to the letters that had been sent; but it would he wrong if for that reason we were to impute motives to the Minister, or to suggest that he is lukewarm about the interests of local government. Indeed, I should think there is no other Minister of the Crown to-day who has a greater interest in local government than the present Minister of Health. The noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, raised the question of the county review which has been taking place; he thought it a pity that this Bill should bring that review to an end. I hope the noble Lord will accept from me that the only reason that that is so is that if the Government are to tackle this question as a whole they will have a much better opportunity of doing so if, running beside it, there is not another review taking place. I hope that the work generally will be expedited.

I was interested to hear the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Kennet. I will undertake to bring to the Minister's notice the points mentioned by him. He will, of course, realise that there are difficulties even concerning such a matter as that which he raised: the case of three adjacent boroughs which have not a population of sufficient size to enable them individually to apply for county status and who might wish to amalgamate in order to claim that status. I am sure the noble Lord will agree with me that even in cases of that description, inquiries must take place about the attitude of the county council concerned and also about the views of the local authorities bordering on the area of those boroughs. I suggest that although the Minister may not be able immediately to give concrete replies to the questions raised, their importance will not be lost upon him. The noble Lord can assure the Association of Municipal Corporations that the Minister will at all times take the long view and, I hope, the right view of the future development of local government.

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