HL Deb 23 June 1953 vol 182 cc1153-63

2.47 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. May I, in the first place, explain that I am in no way responsible for the fact that this Bill, brought to us on June 16, is before your Lordships this afternoon for Second Reading. I am, however, most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, for adding this Bill to the many important duties he is called upon to undertake. This Bill was introduced in another place by an honourable Member in a speech which was rightly described as witty, lucid, and cogent. I believe, however, that it is true to say that the Bill has received a detailed and exhaustive examination. Some troublesome clauses have been dropped, attempts to widen the scope of the Bill have been resisted, and it is now what I may in all fairness describe as an agreed measure with, I understand, in addition, the benevolent blessing of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government as well as the blessing of the Ministry of Transport. I do not for one moment imply that the Bill should not receive full consideration from your Lordships, but I feel that my task is not so heavy as it certainly would have been if a determined and successful effort had not been made to ensure that the Bid did not contain any controversial questions, and in fact that it should represent the greatest common measure of agreement.

I do not wish to weary your Lordships with a laboured explanation of all the clauses. This is primarily a Bill dealing with the machinery of local government, a fascinating, if complex, question. The Bill seeks to tie up some loose ends. The first three clauses have reference to the financial powers of local authorities. Briefly, they will help local authorities to save for certain capital expenditure and to put into a fund the proceeds from capital sales, and to keep the capital fund available for an emergency. Clause 3 provides for the building up of a renewal and repairs fund. May I illustrate the importance of a fund of that kind by mentioning that to-day a first-class refuse-collecting vehicle costs a considerable sum of money, and it is, I venture to think, sound policy to provide for the maintenance and the renewal of vehicles, machinery and plant used by local authorities. Perhaps your Lordships will allow me to make two further observations on this clause. First, many local authorities by means of local Acts already possess the powers; and secondly, the clause ensures a fairly strict Ministerial control.

I pass now to Clauses 4 to 7. These relate to the powers of local authorities to provide omnibus shelters, and, in connection with these clauses, I am glad that parish councils have been included. I have watched with deep interest, as I am sure have many others of your Lordships, the increased activities of parish councils—in many instances inspired by the National Association of Parish Councils. After all, perhaps a townsman may be allowed to say that agriculture is still our largest industry, and it is an industry upon which more and more in the future the happiness and prosperity of this country will depend. The clauses in regard to omnibus shelters have been carefully examined, and I feel confident that all the necessary safeguards have been inserted in the Bill. As to the desirability of omnibus shelters in many of the rural areas, I am sure there can be no dispute.

I pass now to the miscellaneous powers and provisions in the Bill, and the first calling for a brief word is a small problem in connection with the responsibility for providing dustbins. It is no doubt true that dustbins and drains are not subjects of profound interest. Probably, interest is only aroused when drains are blocked or when garbage accumulates and begins to smell. Anyone who has seen the debris collected in a large urban community and brought into a dust destructor works will marvel, but, at the same time, agree with the statement that "sanitation is sanity." In this cleansing work, dustbins are a necessity, but disputes sometimes arise as to who is responsible for the provision of the dustbins. This Bill does not alter in any way the law on this point. Where a Local authorities have the power, but, in eludes the cost in the general rate, no difficulty arises. Personally, I am of the opinion that this is the best solution. Local authorities have the power, but in the Bill now before your Lordships, obviously one could not ask for powers to compel them to do so. All this Bill seeks to do is, when there is a disputed liability, to ensure that the owner and the occupier are brought together at the same time, leaving the court to decide as to the liability. Again, the existing law is not altered as to the right of appeal. There is just one further point in regard to dustbins The present maximum charge is now 5s., but the sanction for this is in a Defence of the Realm regulation. This Bill makes statutory provision for the maximum charge of 5s. and power is taken, at the same time, for the Minister, by order, to vary the charge. I apologise to your Lordships for speaking for so long on these somewhat dull subjects.

I would now refer briefly to some of the remaining clauses. Clause 11 is put into the Bill because of a recent legal decision. May I summarise it in this way? Under the Public Health Act, 1936, a local authority may issue an order for the demolition of a house, but in some instances if an order of this kind were issued and carried out damage would be caused to adjoining houses. This clause will enable a local authority, in such circumstances, where a house is unfit for human habitation, to issue a closing order, but, as I understand the matter, this would not preclude the premises from being used for purposes other than for housing. Power is also sought to apply this variation to some outstanding demolition orders. Clause 12 looks somewhat complicated but, quite shortly, it will enable local authorities who supply water under powers conferred by local Acts, to undertake emergency repairs to prevent the waste and misuse of water—powers enjoyed by local authorities who now supply water as authorised by the Public Health Act and the Water Act, 1945. I can only suggest that, probably by accident, these provisions were not included in some of the local Acts of Parliament. May I now say a word or two in regard to subsection (4). This will enable local authorities to contribute the whole or part of the initial cost of connecting premises to the mains, and this power is very desirable. Rural district councils are laying some thousands of miles of water mains, and there is always the difficulty of negotiating with occupiers of premises on the route, and, unless this power is taken, when the mains are laid further large cost may be incurred in connecting, and so on.

Clause 13 authorises local authorities in certain circumstances to waive sewerage charges. Clause 14 seeks to eliminate the dreary recital of the names, addresses and descriptions of the persons to whom votes are given, and the names of the persons by whom these votes are cast, at a meeting of a county or borough council, when the election of Alderman takes place. Clause 15 is included to meet the position, in the main, of members of a local authority who have money saved in a co-operative society, and raises the maximum sum from £200 to £500, the new limit to an investment in a co-operative society by any one person. Clause 16 repeals the fixed amount of financial loss prescribed in the Local Government Act, 1948,and authorises the Minister to issue regulations dealing with this question. Without in any way elaborating the matter, I may say that it is generally recognised that while service on a local authority is, and ought to be, voluntary, it is somewhat unfair that public-spirited people who are willing to give their time should be put to heavy financial loss. It is, of course, quite impossible to meet the loss of earnings in very high salaries or wages, but, at any rate, I submit that it is not unreasonable to cover normal losses incurred in giving service on a local authority.

My Lords, I submit that this Bill contains provisions which will be extremely useful both to local authorities and to the central administration. It is, I venture to think, a Bill which will be welcomed by everyone with a knowledge of local government and concern as to its future. I need hardly say that local government has its roots very deep in our national life. With all its faults, it is a precious heritage of which we have every reason to be proud, and it is in that spirit, and with all humility, that I commend the Bill to your Lordships.

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

3.0 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Burden, for the clear explanation he has given of this rather miscellaneous set of provisions. As he said in the course of his winding-up remarks, local government in this country is virile and dynamic. Its functions are constantly changing, and so it is natural that a Bill of this kind should become necessary from time to time. I do not think that any apology is needed for the so-called dullness of the matters with which it deals. I suppose that drains and dustbins can be regarded as dull, but a great many people in this country are engaged in local government, and so are concerned with these dull subjects, and we are grateful to them. They give of their time and energy freely, and they are the backbone of our democratic system of Government. I think it is a good thing that we should have a Bill of this kind before the House from time to time.

I have no particular criticism of any of the provisions of this Bill; I would rather refer to matters which have been omitted from it. I would express some disappointment that, if a Bill of this kind is necessary, it is not being presented by the Government. I imagine this is a Bill which has been agreed by the various local authority associations and, therefore, constitutes the lowest common measure of agreement. If changes were necessary, as I believe they are, I think that the Government themselves might have introduced a measure and incorporated some of the more ambitious changes which are required but which possibly could not be agreed upon unanimously by the local authorities themselves. But to-day we are dealing not with a Government measure but with the Bill before us, and on that I have only one or two comments to make.

First, on the interesting subject of capital funds, dealt with in Clauses 2 and 3, I think the provisions are vague. It is right that the local authorities should be empowered to set up capital funds for the purpose of their normal functions, and particularly for renewals and repairs. I was under the impression that nearly all local authorities already had a repairs and renewals fund. If they have not, then it would be an extraordinary thing, because at a time when all local authorities are engaged in building large numbers of houses it must be obvious that the cost of repairs in the earlier years will be much less than it will be later on. It would be most improvident not to provide for the higher cost of repairs at the end of twenty or thirty years out of the smaller need for repairs in the early years. I am therefore surprised that a provision of this kind is necessary.

I should have liked to see a provision to do the reverse of this—that is, to enable local authorities to pay for capital expenditure out of revenue. Calculations have been made in the past of what would have been the result if local authorities had set aside a certain sum every year out of the rates towards the cost of housing. I am not in the position to give your Lordships the exact details, but it is calculated that if that had been done in the days when housing was in its relative infancy, the local authorities would have been able to provide out of that fund for the whole cost of housing to-day without the necessity of raising money by loan at all, and we should have saved an enormous sum by way of interest. I regret that there is no provision of that kind in the Bill. I believe that if the Government had introduced a measure of this kind, they might well have provided for die reverse course, not only of setting up a capital fund but of using revenue for the purpose of capital expenditure.

The only other provision I wish to refer to is that contained in Clause 16, which deals with the financial allowances to members of local authorities. This is a provision that was first made in the Local Government Act, 1948, and it was intended that members of local authorities, particularly those self-employed, who sustain loss by reason of their attendance at meetings of the local authorities, should be compensated. The provisions of the 1948 Act have not worked well as regards self-employed persons. I do not know whether my noble friend Lord Burden is under the impression that Clause 16 of this Bill puts the matter right, but I can assure him that it does not. The fact is that self-employed persons are in considerable difficulty under the Local Government Act of 1948. The provisions are vague and ambiguous. Persons who have made claims in good faith for payment of expenses incurred by them for attendance at local authority meetings have subsequently found themselves surcharged by the district auditor, have had to refund the money and, in a number of cases, have actually been prosecuted. So far as know, few prosecutions have succeeded, but the fact remains that there is a cloud of obscurity about the whole matter. In my view, this is a matter which ought to be put right at the earliest possible moment. People who give their services freely for the benefit of the public, and who claim only the loss which they have sustained, and, generally speaking, not the full amount of that loss, should not be imperilled either by the stigma of the district auditor's surcharge to repay the money which they had claimed in good faith over the years or by the possibility of prosecution. Clause 16 of this Bill does not put that right, as my noble friend seemed to suggest. On the contrary, it enables local authorities to restrict still further claims by self-employed persons. I hope that my noble friend will have another look at Clause 16, to see whether he cannot put right the various anomalies which experience has shown exist as a result of the 1948 Act.

Subject to these relatively small points, I think this is a good Bill. It is not an exciting or a thrilling Bill, but it is good so far as it goes, and I commend it for the favourable consideration of the House.

3.10 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to give my blessing to the Second Reading of this Bill. I have been interested in its passage through another place, and I find that it has been considerably amended since it was first introduced there. I am particularly interested in Clauses 4 to 7, which concern bus shelters. Until now, a local authority have not been able to put up a bus shelter until an order had been obtained from the Ministry of Transport, and that Ministry would empower the erection only of what is called a covered queue shelter. A covered queue shelter may be all right on the pavement outside Her Majesty's Treasury but it is not good enough in a pretty country village. So I am pleased to see that under this Bill local authorities will now be able to erect a bus shelter which will be in keeping with the amenities of the district. I am also glad to see that, as the noble Lord, Lord Burden, has mentioned, the Bill includes, among the authorities who are given power to erect such a shelter, the council of a rural parish. I should like to ask him whether he can go one step further and include the parish meeting. I say this, because I know of one village meeting which is anxious to put up a bus shelter.

I welcome this Bill because, under it, local authorities are to be allowed to do certain things without having to ask permission from one Ministry, or to get an order from another: they are now to be allowed to carry out progressive and positive acts for themselves. This is most welcome. Most legislation which comes before your Lordships' House generally contains too many restrictions or too many directions. This Bill does not. Therefore, I wish the Bill a happy passage through the rest of its stages in your Lordships' House.

3.11 p.m.


My Lords, as this is a Private Member's Bill, your Lordships will naturally look rather to the sponsor of the Bill than to the Government for advice and explanation upon the meaning of the proposed measure. Nevertheless, I think it might be for the help of the House if I were to intervene at this moment to indicate in some way what is the attitude of Her Majesty's Government towards this Bill. I can do that in a few words. The Government think that this is a good Bill and one which can safely be commended for your Lordships' approval. I cannot say, as one does usually in a Second Reading speech, that the Bill is one which can be approved in principle, because there is very little principle in the Bill; it concerns itself, as noble Lords have pointed out, with many topics rather than with many aspects of a single theme. It springs, so far as I can see, as much from private as from public legislation. Your Lordships will probably have seen the forbears of many of its clauses in the Private Bills promoted by local authorities from year to year.

I think that clearly the Bill will do good. It will do it, as the noble Lord, Lord Burden, pointed out, not by enacting some large change in the law, or in the powers of central or local government, or in the rights and privileges of citizens; it will do it, on the contrary, by small improvements in many ways. None of these changes by themselves is of great public moment. Indeed, some of the provisions of the Bill, such as the financial clauses, to which the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has referred, mean only the extension to all counties, boroughs and district councils of opportunities and powers which many of them have sought and obtained from Parliament already. Others, such as the clauses relating to bus shelters, to which the noble Lord, Lord Hindlip, referred, are improvements of powers which are available only in an imperfect form.

The noble Lord, Lord Burden, apologised for the dullness and unexciting nature of this Bill. I do not think there was any need for him to do that. To those of us who are interested, or have in the past been interested, in local government—and that includes nearly everybody in your Lordships' House—many of these individual clauses will revive memories of old battles fought in the council chamber, and of difficult problems of local government which occupy greatly the attention of local councillors. Those of your Lordships, who like myself, have served on a metropolitan borough council, approach with particular interest Clause 10, to which the noble Lord, Lord Burden, referred. That is the clause which now gives a local authority the right to make a closing order for the whole house, rather than an order for the demolition which hitherto has had to be made. Had that provision been made ten years ago it would have given great benefit to many citizens, including myself (and here I must disclose an interest) because many of us suffered through having a bombed site next door, or a house that had fallen into disuse, and suddenly found the local council pulling down the house, leaving the two side houses open to the four winds, as mine has been for something like eight years. The existing law gave the owner of the bombed site the right to appeal; but usually the owner (if I may use such a terrible expression) could not care less—it was the people on either side who cared. But they had no right of appeal. Now, although it is rather locking the stable door after the horse has got well away, all the many people in London and in other large cities who suffered from the blitz, and who regarded this state of affairs as an unjustified and unjustifiable hardship, will note wits satisfaction that this matter is being put right.

I will not go into the other clauses. The noble Lord, Lord Hindlip, suggested that there is room for improvement on one or two aspects. The mere fact that this is an uncontroversial measure, and largely an agreed one, which has been carefully examined in another place, will not, of course, prevent your Lordships from examining it with equal care; and certainly the noble Lord, Lord Burden, would welcome such examination. Provided it goes no further than the agreed nature of the Bill, as it now stands, I can, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, repeat the assurance that I gave a few moments ago: that we feel it is a measure which should meet with the approval of your Lordships' House.

3.17 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps I may add a few words in regard to Clause 4—namely, the provision of omnibus shelters. I happen to live in an area where the bulk of the property belongs to the Crown, and the majority of the people who use the buses are either employees of the Crown or of the lessees of the Crown. I happen to live near the little town where most of the commercial business is carried on. I have seen, to my distress, people standing in the pouring rain, waiting for possibly overcrowded buses, many of them old people, suffering obviously extreme discomfort and risk to their health. The local feeling is sufficiently strong about it for a local fund to be started in order to help to provide, out of the private purse, these much-needed bus shelters. Incidentally, if these bus shelters are provided, I entirely agree with my noble friend Lord Hindlip as to the desirability of seeing that they are of a pattern which will not conflict unduly with the attractiveness of the local scenery. I say that, more particularly, having been in the past for many years president of the county branch of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England. But I am interested to wonder how soon these bus shelters have a reasonable prospect of being established. If money is being raised by private contribution for this purpose, it seems desirable, if the cost is going to be thrown on the local authority, that such collections out of private means should be discontinued. At any rate, on account of this provision, if no other, I give my hearty support to this Bill.

3.18 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful for the kindly and considerate welcome that has been given to this Bill, particularly as it is the first time that I have had the temerity to introduce a Private Member's Bill for your Lordships' consideration. I am grateful, too, for the points which have been raised. I am well aware of the extremely difficult question raised by my noble friend Lord Silkin in regard to self-employed persons. With regard to the points, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hindlip, and other noble Lords, all I can say, and all your Lordships will expect me to say, is that I will have these points carefully considered by those who are responsible for the promotion of the Bill to see what can be done at a later stage. I should again like to thank your Lordships for the kind and friendly welcome to the Bill.

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