§ 3.6 p.m.
§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ THE JOINT PARLIAMENTARY UNDER-SECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE HOME DEPARTMENT (LORD MANCROFT)
My Lords, the Local Government Elections Bill is a modest but useful measure and one to which I hope your Lordships will be able to give approval. I hope also that I shall not occupy too much of your Lordships' time in explaining this rather complicated measure. Its main purpose is to secure that rural district and parish council elections are held together throughout the 652 country in the interests of convenience and economy.
Before 1933, the only method of election of parish councillors for which the law provided was by show of hands at a parish meeting, except that a poll could be demanded at the meeting after the vote had been taken. The defects of this method were obvious, and, as a partial remedy, the Local Government Act, 1933, empowered the county council, at the request of a parish council or parish meeting, to order that the parish councillors should be elected by nomination and, if necessary, a poll—that is, in the same way as members of any other local authority. Many such orders were made, but the widespread survival of the old system remained a cause of dissatisfaction, until it was finally abolished by the Representation of the People Act, 1948. This reform was widely supported and welcomed, and no-one, so far as I know, now wants to return to the old system. Indeed, the National Association of Parish Councils have said that they are firmly opposed to any radical alteration in the present method of election of parish councillors.
Since 1948, however, parish council elections have been held throughout the country on three occasions; and, as a result of this experience, the National Association of Parish Councils and many individual parish councils have expressed their concern about the high cost in relation to their rateable value of elections in many of the smaller parishes. The Association have said that cases where the cost of the elections exceeded the product of a 3d. rate were fairly common, and in a number of instances the cost was equal to an 8d. rate, or even more. Many of your Lordships probably have personal experience of the bewildering complexity of electoral arrangements in rural districts.
During the past few years, discussions in which the Home Office has taken some part, have been held between the National Association of Parish Councils and other local authority associations concerned. A number of useful suggestions have been made for administrative economies, and these are being followed up locally. In addition, other proposals, involving legislation, were agreed on. These were embodied in a Private Member's Bill, introduced in another place in March of last year. Unhappily, the Bill made no 653 progress; but, believing that the proposals contained in it should be given effect and that the parish councils should know where they stood without undue delay, the Government have now adopted the Bill.
The principal proposal is that rural district and parish council elections should be combined in all cases. The law already provides that, where elections of rural district and parish councillors are held on the same day for the same area, they shall be combined and the cost shall be equally divided between the two councils. This, I think your Lordships will agree, is a most economical arrangement, and the principal object of the Bill is to provide for its operation in every parish.
There are three kinds of election in a rural district: county council elections, which happen every third year; parish council elections, which do the same; and rural district council elections which happen every third year in about half the rural districts, but in the other half take place every year. Where rural district council elections are held each year, one third of the council is elected. For example, if the rural district council area contains three parishes, A, B and C, each returning three councillors, then in one year there is at present an election of the three councilors from parish A, in the next year an election of the three councillors from parish B, and in the third year an election of three councillors from parish C. But parish council elections are only held once in three years. Therefore the parish elections in two of the three parishes cannot be held in the same year as the rural council elections for these parishes and the parishes cannot share the cost with the rural district and must therefore pay the full cost themselves.
To get over this difficulty Clauses 1 and 2 of the Bill provide for the next parish council elections to be postponed in these instances to the year in which the rural district councillors will be elected; and from then on the rule of synchronisation will be permanently established. I am sure that everyone will welcome this change. I think it is pretty generally thought, though not universally agreed, that county council elections should be kept separate from district and parish council elections. But between rural district and parish councils there is an intimate relation, and there is clearly 654 everything to be said for combining their elections universally.
My Lords, the other main provision of the Bill—Clause 4—deals with the payment of the expenses of parish council elections. These fall on the parish. Many of your Lordships will no doubt recall the debate some three years ago when my noble friend Lord Merthyr spoke so eloquently about the heavy burden imposed on parishes by the cost of their elections. He suggested, among other things, that some at least of the expense should be spread a little more widely by charging it either to the rural district council or to the county council or to both. But as my noble friend and predecessor, Lord Lloyd, said at the time, this would be contrary to the long-established principle that each local government area should bear the cost of its own elections; and the Government see no reason to dissent now from the views then expressed.
The Bill therefore leaves each parish to pay for its own elections. It makes improvements, however, in the method of paying for them. At present the parish council has to pay. The Local Govern-merit Act, 1933, provides that the amount to he raised in any year to meet the expenses of a parish council shall not exceed a rate of 4d. on the parish without the consent of the parish meeting, or of 8d. without the approval of the Minister of Housing and Local Government. Your Lordships will remember the celebrated case of an East Anglian parish council which was unable to take any" action during the whole of its three years of office because it had expended on its election the whole of the sum which it was entitled to expend.
There is another point. As your Lordships probably know, the present method of payment is extremely cumbersome. The cost is met initially by the rural district council, who have to recover it from the parish council. To get the money to pay the bill the parish council include the amount in their precept to the district council, who raise the money by levying a rate on the parish. All this involves complicated book-keeping transactions between the two councils. Clause 4 of this Bill therefore provides that the cost is to he paid by the rural district council out of a rate levied on the parish concerned. This, of itself, will not reduce the cost to the parish, but it will simplify 655 the procedure, and it will mean that the cost of elections does not figure in the parish council's own budget. The rest of the Bill is of comparatively minor importance and there is nothing to which I need specifically draw your Lordships' attention.
I apologise for having taken rather a long time to explain the details of a fairly simple Bill, but the details are complicated and I think important. I think your Lordships will agree with me that an active parish council has a value in rural life far exceeding its statutory powers, and I am sure that noble Lords on both sides of the House are glad to take any opportunity to remove obstacles to the success of these local bodies. I therefore confidently commend this Bill to the House as a useful and practical measure of reform, and I beg to move that the Bill he now read a second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Mancroft.)
§ 3.18 p.m.
§ LORD SILKIN
My Lords, I am sure the House is exceedingly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, for the careful way in which he has explained the complicated clauses in this Bill. I do not know whether every noble Lord will agree that every parish council in this country performs a valuable service. I know of a number of parish councils which come to life only at election time and thereafter go to sleep for the three years of their life. I also know a number of parish councils which are not even justified on the ground of their geographical convenience—cases where the headquarters of the rural district are much more conveniently located than those of the parish council. Therefore, there would not be complete unanimity about the last few sentences of the noble Lord's speech. For that reason I think that anything we can do to bring down the cost of these doubtful authorities is to the good.
I believe that it will be a convenience to have the elections for parish councils at the same time as those for the rural districts. I think it will probably be found that the parish councillors will tend to become the same individuals as the rural district councillors for the same parish, and that people will merely fill up two ballot papers, putting crosses 656 against the same names in each case. I was a little surprised that the noble Lord should say that the same considerations would not apply to county councils as well. What a good thing it would be if we could have one election three times a year held at the same time for all local authorities! If it is good for rural districts and parishes to synchronise their elections, why is it not good for county councils as well? That might help to add a little interest and to get a bigger poll than we are getting at the present time. However, I suppose we might say: "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof!", and this is at any rate a step in that direction. For those reasons I support the Second Reading of this Bill. I believe that it has already passed through all its stages in another place without any Amendment, or at least without any substantial Amendment, and I am sure the noble Earl will be delighted to hear that this Bill is not likely to arouse very great controversy in its later stages.
§ On Question, Bill read 2ª, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.