§ 2.35 p.m.
§ THE CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (LORD MERTHYR) had given Notice of his intention to move to resolve, That in the opinion of this House the principle that a County Council Bill should not confer on local authorities or any other authority or person functions in which the county council has no interest should in general be observed in private legislation. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion which stands in my name on the Order Paper. May I say straight away that, with the permission of the House, I should like to move it in a slightly amended form? I would propose, if I have leave to do so, to insert after the word "should" at the end of the third line, the words "pending any further inquiry."
§ Last week, on May 13, I made a statement under the Standing Orders of the House about the Kent County Council Bill. After I had made the statement I was asked to put a Motion on the Order Paper in order to test the opinion of the House on the matter, and it is in fulfilment of that undertaking that I move this Motion this afternoon. I am proposing that the principle which is embodied in this Motion should be observed "in general". The words "in general" are inserted because I am anxious that Committees of the House who will be working in future should not be unduly fettered in this matter and should not be placed under too rigid rules.
§ There are, and are bound to be, exceptions or borderline cases—for example, clauses relating to police powers and, if I may give one more example, clauses which often appear in Private Bills promoted by county councils conferring powers upon district councils to effect greater safety against fire, although the fire authority is the county council and 474 not the district council. In that sort of case, I should take the view that the county council had an interest and that a clause of that kind ought, therefore, to be allowed under the principle. But, of course, this is an example of a case which may be classed as a borderline case. Then there is the case of London, with which I will deal in a moment, which must also be classed, in some senses at least, as an exception to the principle. I would also draw the attention of your Lordships to the words in the Motion "in which the county council has no interest." I submit that in moving this Motion I am not really endeavouring to effect any change; rather I am maintaining an old principle which, until a comparatively recent date, had always been observed, but which admittedly has been repeatedly departed from in several respects in recent years.
§ The immediate occasion of bringing this matter before the House was a report made by the Minister of Housing and Local Government on April 10, copies of which are available to your Lordships, upon the Kent County Council Bill. In fact, there are now before the House three County Council Bills all at present in Committee stage and all containing some clauses which offend the principle contained in this Motion. The number of such clauses it is not easy to ascertain with exactness, but I must emphasise that it is the Kent Bill, much more than the other two, which brings the matter to a head. In these clauses I think it can truthfully be said that the County Council has no interest. As I indicated last week, I do not say that these clauses offend in a manner unprecedented, but I do say that, in the case of the Kent Bill, they do so on a scale unprecedented in the history of this matter.
Perhaps I may suggest to your Lordships that we should consider an administrative county as being, so to speak, a federal state in miniature: within it are the districts, and within them, again, are the parishes. To every class of authorities—to the county, to the districts, to the parishes—there are given by the local government legislation certain powers and certain duties. What is happening here, I suggest, is that one of these authorities, the county, is seeking to promote legislation to confer powers upon another class of authorities within this, so to speak, federal structure.475
§ Next I would invite your Lordships to consider, because I think it is important, the question: what exactly is a Private Bill? I would say, in answer to the question, that a Private Bill is a petition to the Sovereign in Parliament for a dispensation or an exception from the Common or Statute Law to be made—and these are the words I would underline—for the benefit of the petitioner. Also, it should be borne in mind that all Private Bills, unlike most Public Bills to-day, commence with a Preamble. The Preamble sets out the situation which it is desired to remedy; it has to be proved, and always is, by evidence on oath by the petitioner before a Committee of your Lordships' House.
§ That leads me to a consideration of the question of the proof of local need, which really results from the proof of the Preamble. It is an old-established doctrine, in my submission, that a Private Bill should not be granted unless there is proof of local need; that is, the need of the promoter and not the need of someone else. On May 13 I dealt at some length with the extent to which of recent years this principle has admittedly been breached, and I do not propose to repeat those figures to-day. I also dealt with the recent cases in which the breaches of the principle have been allowed. These exceptions admittedly make this question a difficult one; and on that I seek to justify taking up your Lordships' time. I did not then deal, as in fact I had intended to, with an important exception—namely, the question of London. Since 1888 the London County Council has conferred upon the metropolitan boroughs almost, if not certainly, annual powers which fall under this head. In the year 1903 this arrangement was expressly sanctioned by an agreement of the House of Commons; and in the year 1948 it received statutory recognition in the London County Council (General Powers) Act passed in that year.
§ That being so, and London being in many respects a special case, no one, I suggest, would seek to impugn at this stage the authority of the London County Council in that regard; and certainly I have no proposals for altering it or attempting to do so. But I would point out that no other counties, except 476 London, have ever received express sanction to do that, although in fact they have done it. London, I suggest, therefore, is a very special case in the legislative structure of this country. I mentioned last time that in 1921 there began the process of breaching the principle, as I shall call it. Since then, fifteen counties have promoted 26 Bills containing clauses which, as I phrase it, offend the principle. Compared to the Kent County Council Bill, I say again, the extent to which it has been done in any one of these Bills is extremely small. Here I again draw attention to the words in the Motion "in general", because those words will allow, in the future, generosity to be shown in doubtful cases and, where there is a doubt, the giving of the benefit of that doubt to the promoters—and probably for good reason.
§ I want now to draw the attention of the House to one or two other considerations which I think are pertinent this afternoon—I make no attempt to deal with them all. It is hardly too much to say that should there be in a future Session two or three, or more, Bills of the size of the Kent County Council Bill in this Session—and unhappily the tendency is for them all to come to your Lordships' House simultaneously, or nearly so—there is a real danger that, in part at any rate, the machinery may break down. I would justify that remark by asking your Lordships to consider that these Bills have to be examined by a certain number of people almost literally line by line and word by word. For instance, nearly all, if not all, the Government Departments have to do that; and anybody who is intending or inclined to petition against the Bill has to do it. The question arises whether, in the various offices concerned, there is the necessary staff to cope with this problem which, as I have already said, is apt to come all at once in the course of a Session.
§ Next I should like to refer to a question I mentioned last time; that is, the question of town meetings and polls. Section 255 of the Local Government Act, 1933, provides that there should be a right of veto in the hands of the electors when Bills are drafted by county boroughs, municipal boroughs and rural district councils. But no right of veto is given in the case of Bills promoted by 477 a county council. So if the county council promotes a Bill on behalf of those other authorities—that is, the municipal boroughs and urban district councils—the effect is that the right of veto is avoided, and the electors and the citizens of the towns are deprived of the opportunity of voicing their protest against the Bill. I would remind the House that in these three Bills quite a number of authorities are thus deprived—56 in Kent, 28 in Surrey and 33 in Essex. I want to make it clear that I lay no charge against the promoters of doing this for that purpose. I acquit them, if I may say so at once, of any deliberate intention of avoiding the law by this procedure. But the result is there, and we must face the facts. The result is that, whereas in an ordinary Corporation Bill the electors and residents have a voice in the matter, in this case they have none.
§ Nor is this, in my submission, an academic point. In the Birmingham Corporation Bill, which is in the House of Commons this Session, nine clauses have already been struck out by a town poll before the Bill reached Parliament. Clause 44 of the Birmingham Bill is almost exactly similar to Clause 411 of the Kent Bill and Clause 90 of the Surrey Bill. But while in Birmingham the electors had, and exercised, the right to reject the clause, in the Kent and Surrey counties they have no opportunity of doing so, and the clause is substantially the same. I do not want to over-emphasise that point, but I think it is one which should be borne in mind when this matter is considered. Is that situation the intention of Parliament?
§ I might mention one other example. Very often in Local Government Private Bills there is a clause—there is in the Kent Bill—to confer the power to have municipal golf courses. If such a clause appears in a Corporation Bill, the residents, if they do not like it, can defeat it on poll; but in the Kent County Council Bill, which seeks to confer that power on all the boroughs and the urban districts in Kent, they have no such opportunity of saying that they do not want a municipal golf course.
§ I pass to another consideration to which I especially invite the attention of the House. I dealt with it last time, but it is of such importance that I must again do so. We are faced with the 478 possibility that, if this process is continued, we may have a separate code of law in every county in the Kingdom. Let us face it. I would remind the House that these Bills contain clauses which create criminal offences, and I must ask whether it is really desirable that, as you pass from one county to the other, you must beware lest the criminal law should be different on the other side of the border. Even if the crime is the same, the penalty may be different. Is that really the intention of Parliament? At least, I contend, it must cause confusion and doubt in wide places.
§ In an endeavour to be constructive, may I, on that point, make a suggestion? If these powers are desired—and I much sympathise with the suggestion that they are—may I suggest that the great national associations of local authorities, which do such a tremendous amount of work in this sphere, should get together to see whether they cannot bring together these powers, which so many authorities desire, into a Public Bill, the great merit of which would be that it would apply to the whole country. It may be that, as in the case of the Parish Councils Act, which your Lordships passed into law last Session, such a Bill would have to he a Private Member's Bill, but there are ample precedents for that. It has been done very recently, and I suggest that it might be done again.
§ In moving this Motion, I hope that I have said nearly enough to show that it is a matter of some importance and, if I may say so, that it is a timely Motion. Last week I ventured to say that it was a case of now or never, so far as these County Council Bills were concerned, because if these powers were allowed in the Kent Bill it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to prevent them from passing into law in other cases, if it was desired to do so. I would go so far as to say this. I realise that it may be that some change is desirable in this practice, but not, I insist, without the whole House being informed of what is going on. In order to give your Lordships the opportunity, if you so desire to use it, properly to consider this matter and all the many issues involved, I hope I am right in thinking that it is my duty to bring this matter to the notice of the House, so that, if the House says that it is quite all right for these clauses to be allowed, at least 479 it cannot be said that it was done without the House being informed. If again the House desires, after this matter has been dealt with, that the whole subject should be inquired into at leisure and in due time, it will have the chance and opportunity of doing so.
§ May I say that if a suggestion should be made that there should be some form of inquiry, such as a Select Committee or a Joint Select Committee, which might be better still, I, for one, not only should do nothing to oppose that but, indeed, should welcome it gladly and would do everything I could to further it and help it, because I believe that it is merited. I should also like to say that in this matter, as I have done up to now, it is my intention to keep in close touch with the Chairman of Ways and Means in another place so that the two Houses can work on the same lines, which I am sure your Lordships will agree is most desirable.
§ Now I want—because I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, would expect me to do so—to tell the House exactly what will be the effect of the passing of this Motion, if it should be passed, on the Bills which are now before the House. If this Motion is passed and the principle thereby applied to these Bills, in rough figures—and I regret that it is impossible to give exact figures—184 clauses in the Kent Bill, 52 clauses in the Surrey Bill and one clause in the Essex Bill will be disallowed. That will be the effect of the passing of this Motion. I have only to add to that statement that, in my view that would be the right course to pursue.
§ I apologise for detaining the House once again, but I thought it right to bring the matter before your Lordships. I now beg to move this Motion and, because it is not on the Paper, may I say once more what the Amendment is? It is in line 3, after the word "should," to insert the words. "pending any further inquiry." I hope that I have explained why I have put in that Amendment. I had in mind, of course, the possibility that the House might wish to appoint some form of tribunal which would inquire and report to your Lordships upon the whole subject. I beg to move.
§ Moved to resolve, That in the opinion of this House the principle that a County Council Bill should not confer on local 480 authorities or on any other authority or person functions in which the County Council has no interest should, pending any further inquiry, in general be observed in private legislation.—(Lord Merthyr.)
§ 3.0 p.m.
§ THE MINISTER WITHOUT PORTFOLIO (LORD MANCROFT)
My Lords, this is not a Party political matter at all and it is, of course, one for your Lordships to decide; but I thought it might be of convenience to your Lordships if I were to intervene at this stage very briefly to indicate what the Government's view is upon the idea which has been put forward by the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees. I think we ought to be grateful to my noble friend, Lord Merthyr, for bringing this important matter before us. It has been simmering for a long while, but I believe this is the first time it has been brought before Parliament for some years. It is therefore right that he should have done so. It was clearly his duty to do it. I think it is a good thing that the essential principle he has enunciated should be restated, namely, that Private Bills should relate to local needs. That seems to be a principle which has occasionally been lost sight of.
Equally I think that since the noble Lord, the Lord Chairman of Committees, made his speech to us on May 13, it has become apparent to those of us who have looked into the matter that it is a good deal more complex than some of us originally thought. It has equally become clear, to me at any rate, that it is not a matter into which we should be rushed or in which we should be right to take a snap decision. The Government certainly agree that county councils ought not to promote Bills conferring on their district councils a host of powers for which there is no particular local need. One cannot help but be reminded of the apocryphal Local Bill promoted by a borough whose town clerk's marriage was upon the rocks, which included in Clause 171 the provision that "the town clerk's marriage is hereby dissolved." The clause escaped your Lordships' notice and the marriage was thereby dissolved.
On the other hand it may be perfectly proper for county councils to seek certain powers on behalf of their district councils when those powers are justified by local 481 need. Your Lordships may remember the Kent Water Act in which my noble friend, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, whom I see in his place, was particularly active at the time. The Kent Water Act, 1955, by which the county council reorganised the water administration of their county although they had no water supply functions themselves, is a good example of the point I am making. I am told that county councils certainly have power to promote such Bills, unless, of course, a rule is adopted to prevent it. I think, therefore, that there is strong reason for asking for more time for consideration of this new rule, or this re-enforcement of an old rule, which the Lord Chairman of Committees proposes.
The rule (I make no criticism of this fact) has been brought to public attention at rather short notice, and it refers to the practice of many years' standing. It is a course hallowed by many years of practice. This is surely another and more compelling reason for us to ask the Lord Chairman for more time. In the last three days I have received a large number of letters from local authorities, pointing out the difficulties which might arise if this rule were adopted without further consideration. I have not had time to examine these letters, but I know from conversations with your Lordships that you, too, have received similar letters from your local authorities. I feel we cannot disregard those letters without examining them carefully. I feel that out of mere courtesy to the local authority associations and the other bodies concerned there should be time for more consultation before a rule which so vitally affects them and might have far-reaching consequences is rather precipitately adopted.
I should like to suggest that the Amendment which the Lord Chairman of Committees was good enough to put forward verbally is right and proper and one we ought to welcome. This is a matter for the House, of course, and not for the Government, but I am sure that the setting up of a Joint Select Committee, or whatever may be the appropriate and convenient form of consultation, is the right way out of our difficulty. We have a real difficulty. Equally, we have got to tackle it, and I am certain that the Lord Chairman's proposal, as amended, is the right way.
§ 3.5 p.m.
§ LORD SILKIN
My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, last week made his statement, my first reaction—I had no idea he was going to make that statement—was that he was very controversial. I have had no reason to change my views since then. I make no complaint about the fact that he made that statement and that he has brought this matter to the notice of the House. I think this is one of the most important questions that we have had to consider for a long time. It goes to the root of our democratic system of local government, and we have to consider ab initio what are the relationships between local government and national government, what is the position of the county councils vis-à-vis the district councils, and so on.
The noble Lord in putting down this Motion is seeking to make a complete change from what has been the practice for a great many years—to he exact, for the last thirty-seven years. I want to comment first of all on the procedure. At the latest possible stage the noble Lord has informed us that he is proposing an Amendment to what is on the paper. He now recognises the need for an inquiry. But, my Lords, is it the normal thing to state your policy, to act on it, to strike out clauses—large numbers of clauses—from Bills on the assumption that your policy is in operation, and then say, "We do not really ask you to adopt this policy pending further inquiry"? It is a procedure which seems to me most extraordinary. It the noble Lord wants an inquiry on this matter, by all means he is entitled to have it; but he is not entitled to put before the House and ask the House to accept a principle and then have an inquiry on it. Still less is he entitled to act on that principle pending the result of the inquiry.
Last week when we had this question under consideration I was under the impression that the noble Lord was not going to strike out any clauses at all pending these further discussions, and that, in fact, any clause about which he had doubts on the basis of the principle he was laying down would be deferred. I now gather that a considerable number of clauses have already been struck out of the Kent Bill, even before the House has had an opportunity of expressing its views. I must say that this is a topsy-turvy procedure and 483 makes the whole of our consideration of this matter a farce. If the noble Lord is going to be in a position to decide first and then ask the opinion of the House, what is the good of getting the opinion at all?
My Lords, may I interrupt? I apologise to the noble Lord for interrupting, but it might be helpful if I said this. When I said that a certain number of clauses would be disallowed if this Motion was passed, it was subject to the real position, which is this: the Committee stage of all these three Bills is not yet concluded, and the technical constitutional position is that no Amendments are made to the Bills until the conclusion of the Committee stage. Therefore, although it is true that a great deal of consideration has been given to the Bills, clause by clause, technically it is also true that no clauses have yet been irrevocably expunged from the Bills. I ought perhaps to add that the Committee stages of all three Bills have been adjourned until to-morrow morning—that is, of course, purposely until after the debate this afternoon.
§ VISCOUNT STANSGATE
Does that mean that the clauses in the Kent County Council Bill that were struck out the day before yesterday will, in certain circumstances, be reinstated; and, if so, on whose initiative?
My Lords, technically speaking, they have not yet been struck out; but even if they had been—if the noble Viscount would like to phrase it that way—they can be reinstated to-morrow morning, and on my initiative.
§ LORD SILKIN
My Lords, I do not think that I have anything to withdraw. These clauses have been struck out, in pursuance of a principle which the House has not yet accepted, and which we are only now being asked to accept, pending further inquiry. So that it would have been much more proper, had the noble Lord so desired, to defer consideration of these debatable clauses until there had been a decision on the matter. However, the position has been somewhat changed by the suggestion that we might have an inquiry.
I want to say a few words, as the noble Lord has done, about the position of 484 local authorities in relation to Parliament and their private legislation. I should like to advance the principle that unless there is good public reason why clauses in a Private Bill should be disallowed, they should be allowed. After all, county councils render a great service to the community by putting forward ideas which can be tried out in their own locality and which, if found to be successful, can be applied to other parts of the country. I think we owe a great deal to the county councils for giving us the opportunity of trying out these things. It would be rash in the extreme if we jumped into legislation applicable to the whole country before we knew whether or not particular powers were desirable or practicable. A great mass of the law relating to local authorities has been built up as a result of the experiments carried out by individual local authorities, by their being allowed to put clauses in their own Bills which, when they have been tried out, have been found successful and generally extended. I think it is a great pity that we do not have legislation periodically, say every ten years, incorporating all the clauses in local authority Bills which have been found to work. But that is not the fault of the county councils.
When the noble Lord complains of lack of uniformity as between one council and another, he is perfectly right, but that is no argument against a particular local authority getting the powers that it wants and trying them out. My own approach would be that the onus of refusing powers to a county council should be on the Government, on Parliament, and not the reverse. Unless it can be shown that the powers that the county council is seeking are injurious or undesirable, they ought to be granted. The noble Lord referred to every district council in Kent having power to provide a golf course. I see no particular harm in that. Why should they not have such powers? It does not compel them to provide a golf course; it merely enables them to do so should they so desire. Why does the noble Lord think it wrong that such powers should be conferred? Why does he want to stop them? I just do not understand. Would he rather that every district council in Kent, or anywhere else, that wants a golf course should promote separate legislation in order to get it? Surely it is a most 485 convenient way of providing powers for district councils.
This is not the first time that this matter has been considered. It has been considered on a number of previous occasions, the last one as recently as towards the end of 1955 by a Joint Committee of both Houses. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, will remember that, because he was a member of that Committee, and he will remember all the discussions that took place. He will remember that the recommendations were unanimous, and therefore he was a party to them. I want just to remind him of one or two of the recommendations in that Report. May I remind him of paragraph 72, which I will read, as it is fairly short.A practice has grown up in recent years by which county councils promote Private Bills containing adoptive clauses or parts making powers available generally to district councils in their areas.And that, of course, is exactly what the Kent County Council Bill is proposing to do.The practice has definite advantages"—this is what the noble Lord himself said at the end of 1955—although it seems likely that if certain powers are desirable in some counties they might well be made available to district councils over the whole country. The London County Council has a somewhat similar, though wider, power to promote, in effect, clauses on behalf of the Metropolitan Borough Councils. The Committee approve the adoptive method of private legislation as tending to reduce costs and simplify procedure.Why has the noble Lord changed his mind? Is it because of the Kent County Council Bill? There is nothing in his Motion about the Kent County Council Bill; it is quite general. Would he have objected to the Surrey County Council Bill or the Essex County Council Bill which are before him, on the same grounds? Why has he changed his mind? What pressure has been put upon him? Perhaps we can be informed.
If I may interrupt the noble Lord again on that point. I would point out that the clauses on these Bills are not adoptive clauses—at least, generally speaking—and paragraph 72, which I anticipated the noble Lord would comment on, dealt with adoptive clauses. There is there, in my submission, a great difference.
§ LORD SILKIN
Frankly, I fail to understand the distinction. The general 486 principle of the noble Lord's Motion is that county councils all over the country, not only the Kent County Council, should not include in Private Bills which they promote powers applicable to district councils, if the county council has no interest in those powers. Paragraph 72 is definitely against that principle. Paragraph 72 regards it as a good idea that a county council should be able to promote legislation. I really do not understand the significance of the noble Lord's intervention. That being the case, we are in fact discussing the Kent Council Bill. If it were not for the Kent Council Bill it may be that this Motion would not be before the House at all.
The Kent County Council, wisely or unwisely—and I do not argue the merits of the Bill itself—have gone to an enormous amount of trouble to work out the powers they want. They have never before had a Private Bill. They have taken many years to work out the powers they want and have at last incorporated them in one Bill. That may be convenient or inconvenient, and I confess that I have considerable sympathy with what the noble Lord has said about the length of the Bill and about the difficulty of scrutinising a Bill of that length as it should be scrutinised when one has so many other Bills to go through. It is probable that the Kent County Council were ill-advised to promote a Bill of this magnitude, although the noble Lord himself, when he spoke last week, said that he made no point of its length. I was rather surprised that he should say that, for I believe that there is a point to be made about the undue length of the Bill and the difficulty of Parliament properly fulfilling its functions in scrutinising a Bill of that size. Be that as it may, we are not in this Motion judging the Kent County Council Bill; the noble Lord is seeking to lay down a principle which would apply to all county councils throughout the country, whether their Bill is long or short. It is to that principle that I strongly object—or, at least, I object until there has been a proper inquiry, if an inquiry is considered necessary.
There is one other matter to which I want to refer—town meetings. The Joint Committee to which I have referred were not very enthusiastic, as the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, will remember, about town meetings; in fact they recommended that 487 legislation should be introduced to abolish town meetings and polls. We all know that these town meetings have become somewhat farcical. One gets possibly 5 per cent. of the townspeople voting; and even then there is a strong suggestion that they are people with a special interest in the matter or who have been the subject of considerable pressure, and that town meetings are in no sense representative of the views of the town or borough as a whole. I am sure that that is the experience of everyone who has experience of holding a town meeting. Nevertheless, that is the law; and the recommendation of the Joint Committee, which the noble Lord accepted, was that this requirement should be abolished. But is there any reason why, if the noble Lord and his Committee are in any doubt as to whether particular powers in a county council Bill are required or wanted by the electorate, they should not insert in the Bill a provision that there should be a poll, if it is demanded, say, by a certain number of people? The noble Lord was good enough to say that he was not accusing the Kent County Council of seeking to circumvent the provisions requiring a town meeting. That being the case, there is no question here of bad faith. Could there not be a provision introduced, as has been suggested by the County Councils Association, in which, in particular cases, the views of the townspeople should be taken on particular provisions? That would meet the case.
I want to suggest, in conclusion, that this Motion is ill-timed and somewhat arbitrary. After all, the County Councils of Kent, Essex and Surrey, in introducing their Bills and going to the enormous expense involved, have acted in good faith and on the basis of a practice which has now been established without question for thirty-seven years and which has been reaffirmed by Parliament on a number of occasions—the last being as recently as the end of 1955. They have acted in good faith in the belief that what they were doing was justifiable and had the approval of Parliament. Is it not somewhat arbitrary, therefore, suddenly to come down on them and say: "We are going to strike out 184 clauses from your Bill on which you have taken so much trouble, every one of which has a precedent"—because the noble Lord has admitted that that is so. Is it not somewhat arbitrary to say to Surrey: "We 488 are going to strike out 52 of your clauses"? I would submit to your Lordships: is not the right course not to make a decision?
The noble Lord unwittingly misinterpreted me when he thought that I had asked that the House should come to a decision. I thought that this matter ought to be ventilated and that everyone who was interested in the subject should have the right to express a view; and that then possibly the right thing would be to have the matter inquired into by a Joint Committee, such as has been suggested, without a decision of this House at all. I hope that the noble Earl the Leader of the House will advise the House that it would be undesirable to have a vote on this matter and then to have an inquiry, but that, the matter having been ventilated, it should be referred to a Joint Committee of both Houses; and that in the meantime the clauses that offend against the principle should not be struck out but should be merely suspended.
It may well be that such a course would mean delaying the Kent County Council Bill and others. I would suggest that the Kent County Council would rather have the Bill delayed than have 184 clauses struck out of it; and the same applies to Surrey. As I understand it, a Private Bill can be extended from one Session to another; and, that being the case, at least they ought to have the option. But it seems to me to be acting rather harshly if these clauses are struck out without any warning of any kind to the county council. I would appeal to the noble Earl the Leader of the House to advise that this matter should not be forced to a decision to-day; that, having had this discussion, we should make no decision, but that, if necessary, a Committee should be set up to look into the whole question.
My Lords, may I ask this question: if the Kent County Council Bill is in a sense sub judice, is it in order for us to discuss the details of that Bill? I want to do so myself but I do not want to "put my foot in it".
§ 3.29 p.m.
§ THE EARL OF SWINTON
My Lords, I would agree with the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, that the issue which is raised today both in the Motion of the Lord 489 Chairman and in the Kent County Council Bill is one of the greatest importance; but the issue which is before the House, I respectfully submit, is not whether the provisions which have been inserted in the Kent County Council Bill, and by which it is proposed to confer a number of powers on some 240 or 250 parish councils in Kent, are good or bad provisions; but whether it is right to include those provisions in a Kent County Council Private Bill.
The noble Lord said that this question went to the heart of local government and local government legislation. I entirely agree; but equally it goes to the heart of national government and national public legislation. I should have thought that this was a proposition which everybody in this House would accept: that there is a wide field which is the function of Public Acts of Parliament, and there is a much narrower field which falls properly within the scope of Private Bills; and that narrower field relates broadly to local needs which are promoted by the promoter. Of course, there will be borderline cases where the local and the general impinge upon one another. I think it was Robert Louis Stevenson who said that it might be difficult to define precisely where day merged into night, but the ordinary man had not much difficulty in distinguishing day from night. That, broadly, I think, is the common-sense principle which we ought to apply and have, indeed, I believe, always hitherto applied in judging what is the proper scope of general public legislation and what is the scope of private legislation.
Broadly speaking, the conferring of general powers on local authorities is, I would submit without any doubt, the proper function of a Public Act of Parliament. That, surely, has been the practice ever since county councils and all other organs of local government were instituted. A Public Act of Parliament set up county councils. As to this particular instance—the proposal to confer very wide general powers on all the parish councils in a county—we had the principle actually decided, or the principle carried into effect, only a year ago in a Public Act of Parliament. I think it was last year that Parliament passed the Parish Councils Act. That was a General Act of Parliament conferring a number of powers on parish councils.
490 Incidentally, I understand (I shall be corrected if I am wrong) that that Public Act of Parliament conferred seven new powers on parish councils in England and Wales, whereas the Kent County Council Bill proposes to confer no fewer than sixteen new powers on all the 240 parish councils in Kent. I am not going to say whether those are good powers or bad powers; I do not know. I am not concerned with that, nor, I suggest, should the House concern itself with that problem, even if it were accepted that all those powers are perfectly good powers and it is a good thing for parish councils to have them. In that case I say that those powers should be conferred upon parish councils by a Public General Act of Parliament, and they should be conferred upon all the parish councils in the country.
The noble Lord has said that we could find a precedent for almost everything, perhaps for everything, that is in the Kent County Council Bill or in any of these Bills. I think that that is common ground. The Lord Chairman of Committees has frankly stated to the House that you can find a precedent no doubt where a power has been given, in one or two instances; but not for this universal usurpation of the function of public legislation. Of course, it is true that Private Bills vary the general law in particular cases. But surely, as I think has already been said in this debate, the established practice has been that the general law should be varied by private legislation only in the case where there is proof of local need; and that, I take it, is the intention of the noble Lord, the Lord Chairman of Committees: to safeguard that practice by inserting the words "in general" in the Motion which is before us.
I would go a little further and say that if the Motion is adopted (I will come in a moment to whether we should adopt it or the proposal of the noble Lord that all these Bills should stand over), and if that principle, which I submit is a principle which Parliament has hitherto accepted, is endorsed, then I would hope that it would be quite liberally construed. However, it has not even been argued to-day that there has been any proof of local need in support of the general powers which are sought in the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, said he could give the precedents. I am sure that he 491 could, but I would venture to guess—I do not pretend, naturally, to have gone into them all—that in every case a local need for the conferment of the powers by private legislation had really been established; and, indeed, the examples which the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has cited really do not support his very broad thesis but rather support the contention that they are exceptions which prove the rule.
Surely this enormous extension giving these sixteen new powers to all the parish councils in Kent, which I say more properly belongs to general legislation, is not just a difference in degree, but it is a difference so enormous that it clearly becomes a difference in kind. My Lords, if these clauses were allowed to go through, we in Parliament should be creating a precedent to which, as far as I can see, no limit could be set. Any county council could propose an amendment of the general law which the majority on the county council for the time being thought would be agreeable in their county. Indeed, as the noble Lord, the Lord Chairman of Committees, has said, they could even vary the criminal law from county to county. That, really, is a very strange proposition. Lord Silkin said that it is rather a good idea to have these experiments made: that it should be tried out. But where are you going to stop over the whole field of general legislation? There is a great dispute about whether there should be a death penalty. Is the noble Lord going to say that it is practical, if it works, to have it in the County Palatine and not in another county?
§ LORD SILKIN
My Lords, I do not want to follow that example; but, after all, it is for Parliament in the last resort to decide whether it is desirable to confer those powers on local authorities.
§ THE EARL OF SWINTON
My Lords, I am delighted to hear the noble Lord say that. That really presents me with the whole of the case. If it were intended that fresh powers should be given, whether to county councils or to parish councils, they ought to be given all round, and they ought to be, as they have always been in the past, the subject of general legislation.
§ EARL ATTLEE
My Lords, the noble Earl has referred to the law varying from district to district. I understand the law 492 about the opening of public houses varies from district to district.
§ THE EARL OF SWINTON
My Lords, I am not greatly shocked by it, although I have no doubt that the noble Earl has often found it inconvenient. The noble Earl must really get his history right. Parliament, by a general Act and not by a local Act—
§ EARL ATTLEE
My Lords, I agree with the noble Earl on that, but the point is not whether the law was laid down by Parliament or anyone else. The noble Earl is shocked that there should be a variation in this country between localities.
§ THE EARL OF SWINTON
My Lords, the noble Earl must not try to get away with that; it is beneath both his intelligence and his dignity. Of course, Parliament can legislate about anything, but the whole question here is between legislation by Public Act or Private Act of Parliament. The noble Earl said that Parliament in its wisdom gave local option or the right to vary the hours of drinking. The localities decide. But it was a Public Act of Parliament which conferred on the individual local authorities the right to regulate the hours of drinking. The noble Earl is enormously strengthening the case of the Lord Chairman.
If we do not stand by the principle that general powers should be conferred by General Acts of Parliament, what we are really doing is giving local option by Private Bill to contract out of the general law. if that were done, I submit that the county councils would be assuming powers of the national Parliament, and I think that Parliament should be very chary of allowing such a trespass upon its own land. I do not know where it is to stop. I am entirely in favour of an inquiry. I gather that what the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, was proposing was that there should be a Joint Select Committee of both Houses to inquire into the matter. Well, that may be a very useful and convenient way of doing it. I think that probably the whole House would accept it. But what is to 493 happen in the meantime? Obviously, if these Bills are to go through, a decision must be taken; and if they are to go through I submit that we ought unquestionably to support the Lord Chairman and say that these clauses cannot be allowed and ought to be struck out.
§ THE EARL OF SWINTON
That is my view. The noble Lord is entitled to his view but he will not persuade me just by shouting at me. I remember once a friend of mine borrowing a book of sermons from a clergyman, who said that he might find them useful when doing his duty. In the margin he found the letters "A.W.S." over and over again. He could not understand them and so he asked his friend what the letters meant. His friend answered, "Oh, that means, 'Argument weak—shout!'" I think that the argument is strongly in favour of the Lord Chairman.
If it is preferred to pass these Bills with or without these clauses, I would support the Lord Chairman in deciding to strike them out. But if the county councils prefer to have the Bills suspended—which I should have thought might be very inconvenient to them, because I understand that they contain many good local provisions which the county councils would like to have, and it would be much better if they had the benefit of the two Bills, which now become Unopposed Bills—I would support the inquiry. The Joint Select Committee should sit, and if they should make some recommendation which Parliament adopted, then it would be possible, if it varied with the Lord Chairman's proposition, for the Kent County Council or any other council to bring forward the Bill amended in conformity with what the Committee had recommended and the House decided. But I should be happy to leave it to the county councils to decide whether to have their Bills without what I may call, without offence, the peccant clauses in them, or to have the whole Bills left over.
I have only one other thing to say, which I mentioned on the last occasion. It is unfortunate that this important question should come up in this way towards the closing stage of a Private Bill. I am not blaming anybody for it; I think it is the fault of the system. As I said last time, the convenient way to 494 deal with these matters of principle and any matters of wide importance on Private Bills is for them to come before the House on Second Reading and to be discussed then. Your Lordships can then either, in an extreme case, throw out the Bill, which you are very unlikely to do, or do what we often and properly do—that is, give a direction to the Committee that it shall not pass certain clauses or that it should pay particular attention to them and make a report. I think that we should have been in a better position if this debate had taken place on Second Reading.
And if we have not the machinery by which that can be managed, ought we not to have it? We have the machinery for Special Orders of a special Committee who report to the House from time to time on Orders which require affirmation by the House, and draw our attention to anything which they think may be ultra vires or ought to receive the general consideration of the House, I should have thought that some special Select Committee could, with the assistance of Counsel to the Lord Chairman, have before them Private Bills, and then we should know whether there are any points of importance of this kind. But if we have to take a decision to-day on what is to happen to these Bills and they cannot be left over, for the reasons I have given I will most strongly support the Lord Chairman.
§ 3.47 p.m.
My Lords, I should like to support the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, when he said that he hoped that this debate would not become a Party matter. It does not seem to me to be a Party controversy and I am sorry to see that it tends to be leaning in that direction. This is really nothing new. This state of affairs has existed for a long time, but the matter is surrounded by difficulty and by localised potential hardship in respect of the one specific Bill which, more or less fortuitously, has brought to a head a matter of general principle, no merely in regard to Kent or Northumberland or Cornwall, but in regard to the delegation of legislative authority in general.
Delegation is essential in this modern world, but surely there is always a risk in the delegation of future or anticipated legislation, in the same sense, though in 495 the opposite direction, as there is danger in retrospective legislation, which we all deplore. As I see it, the position is that in the past the promoters of Private Bills have, without any impropriety, taken advantage of the opportunity to anticipate the requirement of certain powers by obtaining those powers in advance, in case they should be needed in the future. They have sometimes even sought for third parties powers which they themselves had no intention of exercising. And, by the grace of Parliament, through Select or other Committees (which exercise the delegated authority of Parliament), such powers have frequently been granted, as the noble Lord the Lord Chairman has told us.
The Kent County Council Bill outrages no precedent; it merely magnifies the licence, if I may so call it, which has been given in the past; and it seeks to invest itself with an authority in regard to future possibilities to such an extent that I think some of us feel that it is arrogating to itself powers which properly should lie only with Parliament. In these circumstances, the House is indebted to the Lord Chairman for placing before it so clearly and so objectively the situation as it actually is: a situation without any impropriety, but one which obviously calls for a decision upon whether small and perfectly justifiable indulgences in the past are to be regarded as precedents for almost unlimited extensions in the same field in the future.
This is a matter of personal opinion; and, for my part, I feel it would be improper for the smaller local authorities and for the people who compose them to be given powers (which they do not at present even seek) to expend the money of the ratepayers without any further reference to those who have to find the money; and that covers the matter of the golf courses in Kent. I maintain that there should always be as close a connection as possible, both in time and in context, between the cause for expenditure and the actual expenditure of the ratepayers' money, so that those who pay the piper should at least recognise the tune. For those reasons, I am inclined to support the Motion, particularly as amended by the Lord Chairman, and I hope that some inquiry such as he suggests may be put into being.
§ 3.51 p.m.
§ EARL ATTLEE
My Lords, I hope that the Lord Chairman will not press this Motion, which arises out of a special Bill, the Kent County Council Bill. I do not know whether these provisions are wise or not, but on this Bill the noble Lord is formulating a general principle which goes very far. I suggest, first of all, that it is running counter to practice over a considerable number of years; and secondly, that we ought to consider what would be the effect of agreeing to this Motion. I think one effect would be to put a heavy burden on the ratepayers. One of the burdens on the ratepayers is the promotion of Private Bills. Many people think that promoting a Private Bill is far too expensive. It is generally in the hands of a small group of people, a small group of barristers and a small group of expert witnesses, and they all charge a great deal of money. It is a most expensive thing for a small authority to come to Parliament for powers. On the other hand, county councils do come for powers, and it is a simple thing—we do it in London—for a small local authority to ask a county council to put into an omnibus Bill some provisions which they want, which saves all the trouble and expense of preparing a separate Bill. It does not involve the town clerk going away, or the chairman of the urban district having a few days in London, and the calling in of all kinds of expert witnesses. I think the adoption of this Motion would put thousands of pounds on to the rates and into the pockets of people who, frankly, I think do not deserve it. That is the first point.
The second point is this. I am rather shocked at the centralising views of the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, and the noble Lord who leads the Liberal Party in this House. I believe that we do not want so much centralisation in this country. I do not want every county to look exactly alike. The idea—and I have heard it ventilated in another place—is that we must not give special powers unless they can be made universal—I should not say "universal"; I do not approve of the word. I do not think this country is a universe; and, with respect to the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, I do not think Yorkshire is a universe. Let me say unless they are made general. I think we want to live with plenty of diversity in different counties; and that is the object of Private Bill legislation.
497 It may be that the Kent County Council have gone too far, but I want to see county councils not narrowly restricted and thinking only of the exact thing for the county council. I believe in our counties and in the individuality of our counties; and I think that the counties should take an interest in the other local authorities and help them whenever possible. Therefore, if a county council, having taken a general opinion, think it will be a good thing for their amenities to have more cricket grounds—let us say they want more cricket grounds in Yorkshire to compete with Surrey, for instance—they should be able to take power for the smaller authorities to build cricket grounds and have that included in a Bill. The noble Lord suggested that there was a great difference whether these powers were to be mandatory or adoptive. But this Motion sweeps oat everything. There is no reason why a special provision should not be put in if it is considered necessary to protect the right to hold a poll; but it is an advantage that county councils should think broadly and should be helpful to other local authorities.
This Motion forbids a county council from including in its Bill special provisions for special parts of its district. I have heard the noble Lord refer to the democratic principle of the poll. My experience of these popular polls is that they are almost always occasions for vested interests to defeat something which is for the general use. My experience was in the borough of Stepney, before the First World War. In those days we had a vacant market outside Aldgate blocking the traffic. An overwhelmingly Conservative borough council proceeded to promote a Bill to get rid of the market. But there happened to be certain public-houses there who thrived on the custom of the people in the market, and they decided to oppose the Bill. They rallied al, the public-houses in the neighbourhood; they went around and took care of the polls, and the proposal was overwhelmingly defeated on a very small poll. We had to have a whole world war before we could get rid of that block. That is an example of how polls and plebiscites generally work. Another example occurred with Napoleon III in France. I am against plebiscites, but if provision is to be made for them in a Bill, there is no reason why, on the ground that there 498 must in certain circumstances be a plebiscite, we should reject the general principle, which I believe is a thoroughly sound one: that we should cut down as far as possible the resort to Private Bills by small authorities who cannot afford them, and that such authorities should be able to join with the county council.
Whatever be the merits of this particular Bill, I suggest that this Motion as it stands, even with the Amendment, is far too sweeping. I think you should inquire first and act afterwards. Further, I think it would be advisable to have a full discussion with the local authority organisations, and perhaps with the other place, before we pass such sweeping legislation.
§ 3.58 p.m.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, for having moved this Motion. I think he has done good work, and he has made the position quite clear. I hope that he will stand to his guns, notwithstanding the considerable opposition from the Front Bench of the official Opposition. Allow me to tell your Lordships that on that Front Bench six out of nine are members of the legal profession; and, as your Lordships know, lawyers should always be regarded with the greatest suspicion. As your Lordships have heard, the process by which power is conferred by one authority to another can be traced back to the Bill promoted in 1921 by the Middlesex County Council. In addition to the Kent County Council Bill, I understand that Surrey and Essex County Councils are also promoting Bills on a smaller scale in the present Session.
The Kent County Council Bill must be almost a record in size. It consists of nearly 300 pages, more than 440 clauses and six Schedules. The contents of the Bill cover a wide range. They include compulsory purchase powers, protection of highways, auctions, restrictions on house-boats, boxing and wrestling licences, drains, nuisance from pigeons, hop-pickers, weighing machines, commemorative plaques, robes of office, collection and delivery of washing and prizes for garden and allotment competitions. I should like personally to add one to that, and say that it might confer powers on the district councils to choose beauty queens.
499 There are, however, certain powers in the Bill which may be regarded as too extensive. I use the word "may" advisedly, as clearly one should not be allowed to express any opinion on a matter which is being dealt with at the moment. About half the clauses confer powers on other authorities exclusively. The necessity to hold town meetings to obtain powers would be escaped by thirty-eight district councils. There is no local need by all authorities for all the powers given in the Bill. In my submission, local need should not be proved by one party on behalf of another. I may say that sixteen new powers are conferred by the Bill on the parish councils of Kent. Examples of the new powers are the planting of trees and the provision of life-saving appliances.
In conclusion, may I be permitted, with due deference, to refer to two observations that have been made this afternoon by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee? He said that town polls encourage vested interests to come forward and carry the day. That is an argument as old as the hills. The short answer is, let the non-vested interests come forward and defeat the vested interests. They have a perfect right to do so. Another point raised by the noble Earl was the difference in the closing hours of licensed premises in one district as compared with another. I am glad that we have that elasticity in our legislation. I live on the borders of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. When I am thrown out of the licensed premises at night in Berkshire, all I have to do is to go to Buckinghamshire and carry on until the early hours of the morning when I am put to bed. Therefore, I hope that this elasticity, of which the noble Earl thinks so little, will always continue in our legislation. I wish the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, every success in the matter which he has so bravely raised.
§ 4.4 p.m.
§ LORD LATHAM
My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Silkin said in his impressive speech, the issue dealt with in this Motion is a fundamental one, dealing with the rights and powers of local government. I think this it not an occasion for mincing words. In my own view, this Motion is a grave and serious attack upon local government, and I think that view is shared by the associations representative of local government in this 500 country. With all respect, I cannot feel that the matter has been technically handled in the best and most tidy way. Last week local government was suddenly faced with a cavalier announcement, made in the middle of a Parliamentary Session, in the middle of the passage of the Kent Bill, and with the knowledge that two other Bills of a like character—namely, one promoted by Essex and the other by Surrey—were pending. I understand that no notice at all was given to the Kent County Council of the intention to make this statement, although one county council apparently, curiously enough, had some knowledge of it in advance of the statement made by the Lord Chairman of Committees.
I feel personally that the Kent County Council have a real grievance at the somewhat, shall I say, uncivil way in which they have been treated. The announcement or, shall I say, the pronunciamiento of the Lord Chairman on the 13th May, and joined in by the Chairman of Ways and Means, was to the effect that they had the intention of taking away from county councils powers which they had enjoyed for thirty-seven years, and powers which there is no evidence to show have been abused. They have been used with proper moderation in the pursuit and exercise of the progressive development and expansion of good government in the counties of this country.
It seems to me that this kind of treatment is hardly commendable. After all, local authorities are not infant bodies. County councils have been in operation since 1889, and they ought not to be treated, even by Parliament, in an attitude and climate, as it were, of grace and favour. They are adult bodies. They are responsible for carrying on the bulk of the administration of this country. Without local authorities, society as we know it, with its economic and social aspects, could not function. Moreover, let this be said: that the local authorities did a magnificent job of work during the war, and have done a splendid job of work in the resettlement of affairs since the war. I suggest that no more unpropitious time could have been chosen to consider this matter or to take this intended step.
All those interested in local government have for many years been increasingly concerned as to the functioning of local goverment: as to the distribution of its 501 functions, as to its areas, and as to its finance. The proper tendency has been gradually and reasonably to transfer to local authorities, especially relatively small local authorities, additional powers and responsibilities which it was hoped—and, indeed, there is some evidence that the hope may be in part in course of realisation—would attract good citizens of good will who desire to serve their respective districts, citizens of all Parties and of none. Those who have any experience of local government know that finding people to man local government is becoming an increasingly difficult task, and the way to overcome it, I will not say in whole, but certainly in part, is to increase the powers and responsibilities of the various local government units. So I cannot think that there would he any more unhappy occasion or time to introduce proposals which will in effect substantially diminish the powers of local government.
The local authorities were surprised and they are very anxious. The County Councils' Association, the Urban District Councils' Association the Rural District Councils' Association—all of them are very much concerned at the proposal set forth in the Motion we are considering, and they are all strongly and resolutely opposed to it. It is a peremptory declaration, without any discussion whatsoever with the important local government associations—just a statement that it was intended to impose a curtailment, an important curtailment, of the powers of local government, at a time when, as I have said, a Bill was in the process of consideration. I think that Kent has a very legitimate grievance, especially when one remembers that this Bill was introduced and deposited as far back as December last.
The Lord Chairman, in his statement to your Lordships' House on May 13, used the words "extent and scale of the Kent Bill"; but they were known soon after the deposit of the Bill in December. If it was intended to take a step of this kind, if there were in fact real grounds for taking a step of this kind, surely the proper thing to do was to raise the matter then and not wait until the middle of May. Instead, things were allowed to go forward and very substantial expense to be incurred, expense of money and of manpower; and then, suddenly, there bursts on a startled 502 local government world this quite unexpected declaration of an intention to take away powers they have possessed for the last thirty-seven years. The Kent Bill was promoted at the definite request of the urban and rural district councils and also of the parish councils. There was an express request to the county council to promote this Bill intending to give the powers comprised within it, and the Bill has been drafted, I understand, with the assistance of a committee of eight clerks of local authorities. If that, my Lords, is not an indication of need and desire to have these powers, I should like to know what would be so regarded.
I will now come to the Lord Chairman's statement of May 13 last, and I quote the OFFICIAL REPORT (Vol. 209), at col. 236. The Lord Chairman said:Finally, it is said, among other things, by the Promoters, that the good government of the county is the concern of the County Council. One can understand that sentiment, but I can find nothing in the Local Government Acts to support it. There is nothing which shows that in 1888, when the county councils were formed, it was the intention of Parliament to make that the function of the county councils.My Lords, I regard that as a most extraordinary statement—that the county councils should not be concerned with the good government of their counties. It seems to me to be a most obscurantist view of local government. May I ask the Lord Chairman who are the latter-day schoolmen who have been imbuing him with this idea of a rigid and frigid county government in this country? The noble Lord the Lord Chairman said that it was the Minister of Housing and Local Government who raised this question in a Report submitted in connection with the Kent Bill.
This means, of course, that very largely the policy adumbrated in this Motion is Government policy, which really raises another important issue, as to what is the attitude of mind of the Government towards local government. Are we to regard all the protestations which have been made during the passage of the Local Government Bill through another place, those express statements of interest in the development of local government, really as of naught? And are we to understand at the same time that the Government are proposing to take away from local government this power which, 503 as I have said, they have enjoyed and properly exercised for the last thirty-seven years?
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, I want to ask the noble Lord only this, as I am going to say a word or two later. I do not quite understand what he means when he says that the Government are taking away powers by this Bill. Is that his view?
§ LORD LATHAM
No, what I said was this. As I understand it, this question had been brought to the notice of the Lord Chairman as a result of a report (which is customary) by the Minister of Housing and Local Government on the provisions of the Kent Bill; and, flowing from that, the Lord Chairman looked into the question of the exercise of powers of this order and character by county councils and came forward with a statement on May 13 that he, with the support and concurrence of the Chairman of Ways and Means, proposed to make a new rule.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
But the noble Lord is not saying that the Lord Chairman is acting under the direction of the Government?
§ LORD LATHAM
I meant this. In those circumstances it is fair, I submit, to say that this Motion does reflect the Government's view as to the exercise of powers by local authorities; and, if that be the case, it raises some very fundamental issues.
I want to ask the Lord Chairman of Committees whether county councils are to be prevented, as would he the case under this Motion, from getting powers for the good government of their counties because there is no specific reference in the Local Government Act, 1888? Do we, my Lords, stand still at 1888? Do we disregard the tremendous changes which have taken place in this country since 1888, all of which affect the administration, functions and powers of local government? Are county councils in future to have to say to their districts, "We can do nothing to get you powers, 504 however desirable and necessary, because there is nothing in the Act of 1888"?
§ LORD MANCROFT
I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, but since he is bringing the Government into this matter I must ask him to bear in mind, if he would be so good, the point of view I put forward. I said that in the Government's opinion it was perfectly proper for county councils to seek certain powers on behalf of their district councils if those powers were justified by local need. I am sure the noble Lord is not going to quarrel with that.
§ LORD LATHAM
No, except that I have some reservation as to who is going to determine what is local need. That is the very essence of the thing. The other words are of no significance at all. I submit, from what has been said by the Lord Chairman, that one is entitled to infer that this Motion reflects Government policy. The Lord Chairman went on to say, at Col. 236:So I suggest that, however attractive that view may be in theory, it is not really the national policy that county councils should undertake this work and become, in effect, miniature Parliaments.If I may say so, with every respect, that is really easy nonsense. The practice that has been followed since 1921 has not in any way usurped the functions of Parliament; it has not in any way derogated from the rights and powers of Parliament. The real position is that either the county council promotes a Bill, and is used as the vehicle for getting or seeking powers, or, in default of the county council having powers so to do, the individual local authorities within the county, do the same. It is only, as it were, a question of the channel of communication. Parliament exercises its full rights; the Bills must go before the appropriate Committees; they must be examined and they must pass through both Houses. There is no change whatsoever, except that in the one case, if it is done collectively, an immense amount of costs in money and manpower is saved; Parliamentary time is saved, and congestion from a flood of Private Bills is avoided.
Now I come to the Motion itself. I confess that, notwithstanding the explanation given by the Lord Chairman, I cannot see how local authorities themselves can interpret what is meant by the 505 words "in general". Do they mean as regards authorities? Do they apply only as regards powers? Or do the words "in general" apply to both powers and authorities? I gather that those words were introduced to deal with borderline cases. But how can local authorities intending to promote legislation determine whether they are a borderline case—whether they should include or exclude certain proposals in regard to the Bill which they intend to deposit? If those words remain as a part of the rule to be applied, it seems to me that local authorities are entitled to have the words "in general" defined in regard to their application. That might lead to a promulgation of rules, which perhaps would not be the wisest way of dealing with a matter of this kind.
Similarly, I find some difficulty about the difference between the statement made by the Lord Chairman, and the statement made in writing under Standing Order 85 of another place by the Chairman of Ways and Means. In his statement the Chairman of Ways and Means says this:The Lord Chairman and I have therefore reached the conclusion that the promoters of Private Bills should revert to the old practice whereby a petitioner may petition Parliament only"—and these are the important words—on his own behalf. Accordingly, with my full support, the Lord Chairman has to-day ruled that in future:'A County Council Bill should not confer on local authorities or any other authority or person functions in which the County Council has no interest'.I do not know whether it is intended, in the interpretation of that rule, to apply the words "only on his own behalf". If so, then in many cases, even though the county council may have an interest, they cannot promote a Bill on behalf of an urban district council within the county because it must be promoted by the authority on its own behalf. That seems to me to support what I am bound to say appears to be a much too hurried and hasty consideration of the consequences of this proposal. It means that the Kent County Council could not promote a Bill to give certain highway powers to a subsidiary unit, but the subsidiary unit must do it itself, because then it must be acting on its own behalf. I should like some clarification of that point. It 506 seems to me that in some respects haste has displaced serious thought in arriving at this decision.
Then in his statement the Lord Chairman said, as my noble friend, Lord Silkin, indicated, that nothing was without precedent. He said—and I quote from Column 235 of the OFFICIAL REPORT of May 13:First of all, I confess at once that there is nothing in this Bill which is not precedented. I cannot point, I own, to a single clause in this Bill which has never been in a Bill before.That is confirmed by the Minister in his report. He says, in paragraph 2:From this point of view the Bill does not differ in principle from measures promoted during the last few years by other county councils—Gloucestershire in 1956, for instance, Monmouthshire in the same year, Cheshire in 1953 and Nottinghamshire in 1951.I should like to say here, en passant, that the very passage of those Bills made those counties in many respects different from other counties, which is of course the case through the whole pattern of local government in this country. The report goes on to say, in paragraph 6:Precedents can be quoted for nearly all the clauses in the Bill …Then the Lord Chairman went on, in his remarks, to talk about "an extent" and "a scale". I do not know whether the extent and/or the scale, or the extent and the scale, refer to authorities or to powers, or to both. There would seem to be, in his statement and that of the Chairman of Ways and Means, matters of interpretation that one might find most confusing.
As my noble friend Lord Silkin has said, this is the first general powers Bill promoted by Kent and represents the accumulation of needs and requirements of that county. But is it so unusual, even in regard to size or powers, compared with what has been granted to other counties? For instance, in Middlesex, where there are only twenty-six municipal units—eighteen boroughs and eight urban district councils—the Council promoted and got an Act which, even after it had been, as it were, "pruned", had 482 sections.
§ LORD LATHAM
My Lords, so far as I know it was not a Consolidation Act, but I would not say definitely that it was not. Then in 1956 Middlesex promoted another general powers Act with 101 sections. So there we have 583 sections as compared with the 400-odd of the Kent Bill, now to be reduced to 358. In those two Acts 233 powers were granted, 187 direct to district councils and forty-six as joint powers, to be exercised by both the county council and the county districts.
Then in 1933 Essex had an Act with 211 sections, and in 1952 another with 239 sections, conferring, as I am informed, 239 powers on county district councils. In judging these comparisons one must bear in mind the local government organisation of the county and the differing developments and otherwise in the counties. I therefore submit that there is nothing exceptional in the size of the Kent Bill or in the number of powers that it seeks to confer upon its local units. I should here like to emphasise one point: even supposing that the case was made for a cutting down of the powers to be given to local authorities, the Motion is not designed to cut them down: it is intended to cut them out, except where an interest can be shown; and even then that power will be qualified by the words used by the Chairman of Ways and Means, that the promoter must promote "only on his own behalf".
My noble friend referred to the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure which reported in 1955. The Lord Chairman was a member of that Committee, as I was. The Committee took evidence from the then Lord Chairman of Committees, the late Lord Drogheda. I have checked and, so far as I can see, neither in his written evidence nor in the evidence which he gave orally to the Committee did he raise any questions about this procedure. We also had the benefit of the evidence of Sir Charles MacAndrew, the present Chairman of Ways and Means. So far as I can see, there was in his written statement no criticism of this procedure, nor any suggestion that it was becoming so large as to become dangerous. There was nothing at all, other than a very oblique reference to the matter, in the evidence which he tendered orally when he came before the Committee.
508 The Lord Chairman has said that the question of the size of these Bills and the number of powers conferred was raised by the Minister of Housing and Local Government. Representatives of that Minister appeared before the Select Commitee on Private Bill Procedure. Though I cannot say that I have been able fully and exhaustively to examine all that was said in the evidence tendered by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, I believe I am correct in saying that there were no serious representations by that Minister or Ministry to the Committee against the continuance of this procedure—and this was after the Middlesex Act, which, as I have said, contained more than 400 sections.
§ LORD LATHAM
My Lords, I must accept what the Lord Chairman says. Nevertheless, whether it was a Consolidation Act or not, I am advised that it provided for the grant to county districts of 233 powers—powers which are, of course, merely enabling powers; they are not compulsory. It seems to me therefore a little difficult to understand why, for no apparent reason, the situation regarding this matter, which was satisfactory, or at any rate did not attract criticism or blame in 1955, should suddenly become, in the early months of 1958, a menace and a danger. I cannot really understand how that can be the case. What mischief has recently been disclosed? What dangers have recently emerged which have led the Minister, the Lord Chairman and the Chairman of Ways and Means to be so concerned that they must contemplate taking this power away from the local authorities?
My own view is that this Motion, if carried—which I sincerely hope will not be the case—would, in effect, put a premium on inertia in local government and would penalise the active, forward-looking authorities who want to break new ground. And in the field of local government it has always been the pioneer authorities who first sought, and with difficulty gained, new powers, to be followed by others, until the situation was such that, in the past, at all events, the Government of the day took the view that these powers, which became so widely distributed among the various 509 local government units, ought to be given to all local government units and a Public General Bill introduced for that purpose. Unhappily, of course, we have not had such a Bill, apart from the Parish Councils Act, since the war; and the expectations of getting one are not, even now, I understand, too rosy. Immediately one local authority got powers which other local authorities did not have, there arose the situation that one county was different from another. And that is the case. I believe that there are twenty-six counties which have had general powers, of a varying order and extent, granted to them. The twenty-six county councils concerned may well differ in quite material degrees and elements from the other county councils which have not the general powers. Like my noble friend Lord Attlee, I see no disadvantage in having this variation of pattern. Certainly there is a great advantage in heaving pioneer local authorities blaze the trail, by experience and otherwise, for the benefit of local government generally.
Then the noble Lord, the Lord Chairman of Committees, referred to town meetings. Town meetings are an expensive and stupid farce, as everyone knows. Let me be perfectly frank—and I am speaking from experience: they are usually used, or the technique is used, by a small number of people who are not interested as citizens, and not interested as ratepayers, but are interested for their own personal considerations. Usually with quite adequate resources at their disposal, they whip up a few people to attend a town meeting, and then very often for those quite discreditable reasons, they defeat the good local government of the particular corporation or urban district council or whatever the authority may be.
The Committee of 1955 reported that town meetings and polls should be abolished. They were not new in expressing that view. The Royal Commission on Local Government appointed in 1923 did the same; and they were supported by the Local Government and Public Health Consolidation Committee, presided over by Lord Chelmsford, in 1932. Every independent inquiry into the utility and efficacy and, if I might say so, the decency of these town polls or town meetings has come down on the side of abolition. In connection with the Kent Bill it is fair to Kent to say that 510 arrangements have been made, in Clause 179 of the Bill, by which there will be provision for a town poll under approved conditions.
§ LORD LATHAM
On one Part of the Bill. That just shows that the local authorities are co-operative: they wish to assist and are not obstructive. And the County Councils Association, I well recall, recommended to the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure that there should be worked out, so long as the town meeting requirement remained the law, a reasonable basis of ascertaining whether, in fact, it was necessary and appropriate to hold a town meeting. I think it was to be on the basis of a request by one hundred ratepayers.
I would point out that the Committee's recommendation for the abolition of town meetings and polls was unanimous. The Lord Chairman of Committees was a member of the Committee, and I noticed that he displayed some interest in this question, for I find that on page 53 of the Report the Lord Chairman of Committees said this:Might I ask Sir Charles"—that was Sir Charles MacAndrew—if he has any opinion as to whether any safeguards would be lost if the town meeting were abolished?Then Lord Belstead interposed with the question:And the poll retained.Lord Merthyr then said:And the poll retained, or if they were both abolished?And here is the answer of Sir Charles:I really have no views on it. It is just a question as to whether it is worth the expense. I think the meeting is very impracticable. I do not know how they scrutinise the attenders, and if people are keen on one thing they can bring in bus-loads of people from somewhere else who have no qualifications. I do not think you can possibly check the attenders anyhow, and there would not be a hall big enough to hold them, anyway, I think, if you had the lot.When we are dealing with this important matter of local government rights, need we be concerned with the continuance of or the compliance with this farce of holding town meetings?
We come to the question of whether the arrangement envisaged in the Motion should become operative before the 511 inquiry. I suggest that it would be mighty unfair to Kent, to Essex and to Surrey to visit this truncation of powers on them, having regard to the situation. It seems to me that if there is to be an inquiry, as my noble friend Lord Silkin said, any action changing the present practice, which is supported by thirty-seven years of experience, ought to be deferred until the Committee, or whatever body it is, has reported; and, in any case, if that be not so, that the new procedure and the new practice should not apply until the next Session of Parliament at the earliest. I should like to conclude by saying this. The Lord Chairman of Committees, in his statement on May 13, made some reference to the Private Bill promoted to deal with the use, I think, of a churchyard. I honestly feel, as one who has spent a pretty active life in local government, that if this Motion is carried, and these powers are taken away from local government, the Lord Chairman of Committees will have been one of the assistants in providing a large graveyard for an imaginative, developing and expanding local government.
My Lords, I did not want to interrupt the noble Lord, but may I ask him one question? He suggested that I was wrong in saying that in the Local Government Act of 1888 there was nothing which conveyed a power or a duty on to a county council to take a general interest in the good government of the county. If I was wrong will he quote the section of the Act concerned?
§ LORD LATHAM
My Lords, I am sorry if the noble Lord understood it in that way. I do not think that generally there is any declaration of intention in an Act of Parliament. What I said was that because there was no reference in that Act or in any other to the desirability of good government, that is no reason why we should not take steps to secure good government.
§ 4.50 p.m.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, it is not my intention to take up the time of your Lordships for more than a few minutes, for I know that we have other matters to discuss, and, of course, the ground has been fully covered already by the noble Lord, Lord Latham. I intervene only to try to 512 bring the House back to what I understand, rightly or wrongly; to be the realities of the position. As I listened to the noble Lords, Lord Silkin and Lord Attlee, and even more to the noble Lord, Lord Latham, I could not help feeling that the noble Lords opposite are making a mountain out of a molehill. I would agree entirely with them as regards the issues in question, which are very great and wide, but not with regard to the wording of the Motion of the noble Lord the Lord Chairman of Committees.
After all that has been said—and I have listened to every word of it—I cannot see that there is anything very wrong with the Lord Chairman's Motion. I have heard what the opponents of the Motion have to say. There is the extremist view, which I take to be that given by the noble Lord, Lord Latham, in the speech that he has just delivered to your Lordships. The impression he made on me and I am sure on others in the House, though I know he would disagree, was that he thought it deplorable that Parliament should interfere at all in local administration.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
That is the impression that the noble Lord made on me and, I believe, on other noble Lords: that local government should be autocratic and autonomous. I felt that we were getting back to the days of the Heptarchy when I listened to him. Then there were the moderates, the noble Lords, Lord Silkin and Lord Attlee. Their main complaint, as I understood it, was that the Lord Chairman's principle, which is enunciated in the Motion, raised something entirely new. I do not agree at all. With the best will in the world, I cannot see that the noble Lord, the Lord Chairman, has sought to introduce any new principle. What, after all, has been the guiding principle in this country for many years? It has been, so far as I know, that Private Bills should not confer upon local authorities functions beyond what has been approved by Parliament. That is the broad principle which I imagine to be absolutely necessary if we are to ensure a balance of responsibility between national government and local government. It is absolutely essential that that principle should be maintained.
§ EARL ATTLEE
My Lords, may I ask the noble Marquess this question? Surely there are instances to the contrary—for instance, the Birmingham Bank, which was introduced by Mr. Neville Chamberlain. No other local authority has such a bank. Such Bills have been passed to meet exceptional cases.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
If the noble Earl would only wait until I have finished my argument, he would find the position as I see it made clear, and not so illogical as he thinks. I thought that this was universally accepted and I am astonished to find it questioned in any part of the House. I should have thought it to be absolutely necessary to have some broad general principle of this kind to maintain throughout the country the broad general uniformity of administration which is so greatly required in a modern and highly integrated State. It is true—and here I come to the point which the noble Earl quite naturally mentioned—that, as so often happens in this country, and I think wisely, a broad general principle of that kind is interpreted extremely liberally, and I think properly so. There has always been in Parliament a great readiness to make relaxations of principle, modifications of principle, to take account of special local considerations, and I would entirely agree that that is the really sensible thing.
§ EARL ATTLEE
My Lords, may I ask the noble Marquess a question on that point? Surely the object of Private Bill legislation is to make exceptions from the general rule—exactly contrary to the position he is taking.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
The noble Earl must allow me to finish my argument. I listened to his argument: I did not agree with it, but I listened to it. There have to be very special exceptions to justify it and those exceptions have to be caused by very special conditions in the localities concerned. The reason for the present difficulties that have arisen in this case is that these relaxations which have been asked for by the Kent County Council are so extensive as almost to drive a cart and horses through the general principle. The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, himself admitted that he thought that very likely they had gone too far. That is the difficulty. We can work an elastic system like this with a certain amount of concession to meet local con- 514 siderations if it is not carried too far, but if it is carried too far, then we get a situation of this kind.
The object of the noble Lord, the Lord Chairman, who is faced with the very difficult situation that if the matter were allowed to go by default it would alter the whole basis of government in this country, is to reaffirm the general principle which has hitherto obtained. I recognise that the noble Lords opposite sincerely feel what they argue, but I cannot see any intention on the part of the noble Lord, the Lord Chairman, to go beyond that and impart a rigidity into the interpretation of the principle which it has never had before. I should have thought that that, which has already been mentioned by other speakers, was made clear by the words "in general" which were deliberately put into the Motion by the noble Lord, the Lord Chairman, to safeguard that point. When a man says to me, and I am sure to any other noble Lord, that a law should be applied "in general," I take him to mean that there should be exceptions, otherwise he does not use these words; he merely says that the law should be applied.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
That is a matter which has to be decided when it comes before Parliament. I do not think that we can lay down beforehand an absolute rule.
§ LORD LATHAM
That means that a local authority goes to the expense of promoting a Bill, uncertain whether it will be caught by the words "in general" or not?
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
But a local authority has also the obligation of seeing that it does not go too far. That is an obligation on the local authority as well as on Parliament. The noble Lord is a great representative of local government, but there is a national Government as well, and the rights of Parliament must be maintained. As I said, the purpose of the Lord Chairman's Motion is to reaffirm the principle and yet allow for exceptions to meet local conditions. I should have thought that that was exactly the right balance—at least to my mind it should be—and personally I hope that the House will support the noble Lord in the step that 515 he has taken in clearly regularising a situation which was getting out of hand.
Of course, it may be that we ought to recognise that in the light of changing circumstances—and we are living in extremely changing circumstances—the whole position needs re-examination; and I would agree with any noble Lord, in whatever part of the House he sits, that that is a task which Parliament ought not to shirk. In that case, I think that the right course is to put the whole of this matter before a Joint Select Committee of both Houses—I think that the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, suggested that and I am in the fullest agreement with him—to examine the position which has developed and to report to Parliament.
On this point, I think, with all deference to the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, that he was a little unfair to the noble Lord, the Lord Chairman. He said that the noble Lord recognised the need for an inquiry. I do not think that the noble Lord the Lord Chairman recognised the need for inquiry. As I understand his position, he was perfectly clear in his own mind about the subject and believed that he was maintaining the existing principle. But he does recognise—as of course he ought to do—that there are a number of noble Lords here who do not share that view but who think that some modification is necessary. Therefore he has suggested in the Amendment he has put into the Motion that Parliament should take the necessary steps and find out whether further legislation on this aspect of national affairs is necessary. I should have thought that that was perfectly proper, and that it would be to the advantage of the county councils themselves, or those councils which I understand are anxious to formulate similar legislation, to know where they stand. That would equally prevent the increased burden on the rates about which the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, is so worried.
§ EARL ATTLEE indicated dissent.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
If he does not think that, then the noble Earl cannot be in favour of the Select Committee, because the whole purpose of a Select Committee is to regularise the position. What I do not think is legitimate or justifiable is to try to make an alteration in the present position by 516 means of invasions of the principle in the course of a single Private Bill. Therefore I hope that the House, whatever its ultimate feelings may be, will not resist this Motion of the Lord Chairman, which I believe is intended to maintain the present position pending an inquiry, of which I am sure we should all be in favour.
§ 5.2 p.m.
§ LORD MILNER OF LEEDS
My Lords, we have had a lengthy debate and I do not propose to detain your Lordships for long, but having had supervision of Private Bill legislation in another place for some years I venture to offer some observations to your Lordships. I would say, in reply to the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, that I think he is in error. At the end of his speech he said that the Lord Chairman's proposal would retain the present position. In point of fact, the Lord Chairman's Motion, if it were carried, would change the present position, because for thirty-odd years, local authorities have introduced Bills into both Houses and have obtained powers for other authorities within their region.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
I think I said that relaxation of the principle was always open, possibly to meet local conditions. I think that is right. But I do not think the principle should be relaxed further than that. If there have been undue relaxations of that principle in the past, it is that fact that has led to the present position with which we are faced.
§ LORD MILNER OF LEEDS
That may well be. But it is not true to say, as the noble Marquess said, that the practice hitherto has been not to confer on local authorities powers which have not previously been approved by Parliament. In point of fact, Private Bills have in many instances set the example or the pace for Public Acts of Parliament.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
I do not wish to interrupt the noble Lord again, but I could say something further.
§ LORD MILNER OF LEEDS
The noble Marquess also said that the Lord Chairman's proposal would reaffirm the present principles. But that is not the case. The Lord Chairman's Motion would change the principles on which Private Bill legislation has been carried on in both Houses 517 for thirty-seven years, in a general sense, and for a hundred years, I think, in the case of the London County Council.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
It is not for me to answer for the Lord Chairman, but I clearly understood from his speech that it would not alter the position and would still allow the same relaxations, if they were justified.
§ LORD MILNER OF LEEDS
If that is so, the Lord Chairman is saying, in effect (and this is something we should like to hear), that he will continue with the Kent County Council Bill the principles that have been adopted in the last thirty-odd years, and he does not propose to change them, as his Motion would seem to indicate he wishes to do. He cannot have it both ways. Then the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, spoke about the exceptions to the general rule which were indicated by the use of the words "in general" in the Motion. But, as was asked by one of my noble friends behind me, who has to decide on what principles those exceptions are to be made? That, as I understand it, is one of the purposes that could be fulfilled by a Select Committee that was appointed.
However, I think I should say, in the first instance, that in my view—and I hope I may say this without impertinence—the Lord Chairman, who had a duty under Standing Order 91 to direct the attention of the House to what he considers a special circumstance, has acted perfectly properly and constitutionally in so directing the attention of the House. The Lord Chairman has, however, gone a little further, possibly quite properly, in asking the House to give him guidance on the course he should adopt, and for that purpose he has put down a specific Motion on the Order Paper. If I may say so with respect, I think that course might perhaps have been better adopted at an earlier stage. The normal course would have been to introduce such a Motion, or to have brought the matter to the attention of the House, at the time of the Second Reading of the Bill. In that I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Swinton. It appears, however, that in this House 518 perhaps ninety-nine out of a hundred Private Bills have their Second Reading "on the nod" and without comment. It is rarely that we have a Second Reading debate on them, although under Standing Orders that is possible; and I should have thought that, in more instances than is at present the case, it might be desirable. However that may be, I think the Lord Chairman has adopted a perfectly proper course in asking for your Lordships' guidance.
In this House, contrary to the position in the other place, the Lord Chairman is himself a one-man Committee in the case of unopposed Private Bills. That, I assume, though the Lord Chairman has not said so, is really why he thinks it to be his special function to bring these matters to the attention of your Lordships. Again differing from another place, it must be a very onerous duty for a Lord Chairman in this House to have to go through and decide upon a long and complex Bill such as this particular Bill. That duty in another place is carried out by a Committee; and your Lordships might like to consider at some other time whether there ought not to be an Unopposed Bills Committee in this House in order to relieve the Lord Chairman, to some extent, of his present arduous duties.
The question before the House is simply whether the practice which has been carried on to an increasing degree since the introduction of the Middlesex County Council Bill in 1921 should be continued; and, if so, on what principles and to what extent. This question, to go back to fundamentals, arises for two reasons. First, in this country the law is that local authorities can carry out only those duties that are conferred upon them by Act of Parliament. In the United States and in some Continental countries the contrary is the case: local authorities can do all those things which the supreme authority in the country, whatever it may be, has not forbidden them to do. The contrary is the case here and that is one of the reasons why local authorities and others in this country have to come to your Lordships' House and to the other place for powers.
The second reason is that the existing local government law in this country is, in many instances, deficient and behind the times. Your Lordships may know 519 that at least twice in the last twenty-five years, in 1930 and in 1955, Committees have recommended that Governments should periodically promote Public Bills to extend the powers of local authorities in well-precedented and generally acceptable matters. But since 1925 every Government so far has said that they are unable to find time for such legislation; and there has been no such legislation, of course, for a great many years. The noble Earl, Lord Swinton, who has left the House, made practically the same point. He has been a member of many Governments, and I do not think any of them have thought fit to bring forward the general powers Bill which is undoubtedly necessary.
If a Government of this country, whether the present Government or a future Government, would take the trouble to bring forward at regular intervals a general powers Bill, then, in my opinion, once the initial back-log had been overcome a great deal of Parliamentary time would not be required to keep matters up to date. The difficulty is to deal with the back-log, which is gradually getting larger and more complicated and, in some respects, more controversial with every year that passes, when nothing is done in the meantime. I understand that the present Government have such a Bill in preparation. The Prime Minister in, I think, 1956, said that that was the case, and I hope that the present Government will promote such a Bill without further delay. If they would do that, it would relieve local authorities of a great deal of the difficulty under which they now labour. Theoretically and, if I may use the term, politically, many of us—and I certainly—would favour the obtaining of powers by local authorities if and when, as in the present case, the Central Government does not take such action as I have indicated. I entirely agree with a great deal of what has been said by my noble friends and others on this point. But there are practical difficulties which I know from experience.
In his statement on May 13, the Lord Chairman was at pains to point out that he was not objecting to the Kent County Council Bill on account of its length. Whilst he may not have been objecting to it for that reason alone, it must be 520 clear to the House that he is, in fact, objecting to it because of the multitudinous and far-ranging nature of the clauses of the Bill. From a practical point of view, of course, that does create great difficulty. All Private Bills have to be considered by every single Ministry; a great many precedents have to be considered by all those Ministries, and their lawyers have to be fully employed on that work. Then, of course, the officials of both Houses have to go through the Bill with a tooth-comb and point out to the Chairman of Ways and Means or the Lord Chairman matters which they think should be brought to his attention; it is all a tremendous job. And, of course, the more complex the Bill, the greater the work that has to be done.
Furthermore, there is no doubt whatever that an increasing number of local authorities do seek the occasion of promoting a Bill to include powers which, though not necessary, might conceivably be useful at one time or another. Previous Acts are combed by Parliamentary agents, town clerks and others, for precedents, without regard to the fact that provisions are often inserted in Private Bills to meet special circumstances and that powers so conferred do not necessarily have any application to every authority. If some action was not taken, it is quite possible, in my view, that a flood of Bills of the character of the Kent County Council Bill might fall upon this and the other House. It is difficult to say where the line should be drawn: that is one of the difficulties in this matter. My own view—and I state my own view alone—is that the present practice should be modified. Then, of course, the question arises of how that can best be done. Quite frankly, I am not happy about the Lord Chairman's proposal. If it were insisted upon, and if it were not administered—as it probably would be, as the Lord Chairman said—with tolerance and taking a broad view, then it might hamper and impede progress in this country.
Then there are great difficulties in interpreting the Motion which the Lord Chairman has put before the House. What is meant by "an interest"? Has a county council, for example, an interest in roads which are the property of rural 521 or urban authorities and which, under the law, the county council have an obligation to repair and maintain? I should have thought that the county council had such an interest, though I know that there are opinions to the contrary. There are many difficult questions of that sort. The Lord Chairman has told us that he would interpret the question of interest broadly and liberally. Nevertheless, on his own showing, if he will permit me to say so, the Motion which he has brought forward to-day would, if carried into effect, mean that a fair number of clauses—I do not know how many—would not pass his scrutiny in the present Bill.
Then the Motion uses the words, "in general". Those words, incidentally, do not appear in the Report of the Chairman of Ways and Means in another place. I, of course, express no opinion as to the course adopted there. Presumably, however, they mean that the Lord Chairman reserves power to make exceptions to the general rule he desires to be laid down. In any event, is it not clear that either the insistence of "interest," or the reservation indicated by the words, "in general", would mean that the Lord Chairman would still have to consider every single clause in a Bill; that he would have to decide on its merits and how far it came within either of those two provisos? If that be so, there may be some value in the proposal, but it is not clear how much.
Undoubtedly, in my view, this is a case when something ought to be done. But it is difficult, on the short notice your Lordships have had, to lay down a principle which would be consistent, and which could be applied to every case. There are many possible alternative courses. For example, the present practice might be continued with some safeguards. If I may respectfully say so, the Lord Chairman might insist more on proof of need than I gather is at present the case. I gather that, where there are precedents, they are more or less accepted, and that proof of need is not insisted upon. If that be so, that is one course that might be adopted.
There is another: possibly also power should be permissive. As has been said, there are clauses in this present Bill which are in fact permissive and which have to be adopted, in that particular case, by, I think, the rural councils.
522 That principle could be extended. There might be some limit, for example, on the length or the size of the Bills. That could be done, presumably, by Standing Order, and it would avoid monopolising Parliamentary time, as might happen with a very long Bill such as the one before the House at present, by one or more long and complicated Bills. All these and other suggestions occur to one. The question is, what course should the House adopt?
In my submission, it is not fair to alter the rules in the middle of the game, and if the Lord Chairman's proposal was carried in its present form that would be the effect. In my submission, this is eminently a matter that ought to be referred either to a Select Committee of this House or, preferably, to a Joint Committee of both Houses to consider and advise Parliament upon. It seems to me that if the Government would undertake that that should be done, the Lord Chairman might, with perfect propriety, withdraw his present proposals, and we could agree that no further steps should be taken on the present Bills before the House until that Committee had reported. They have been, no doubt, many years in preparation—in fact we have been told so. No great harm would be done, and the resources of this House are surely sufficient to enable some procedural step to be taken for that to be done. I would therefore respectfully suggest to your Lordships that the reasonable and proper course to-day is for the Government to give an undertaking to set up a Select Committee to consider this matter, and for the Lord Chairman, having regard to that proposal, to agree to withdraw his Motion and allow the Bills to stand in the present position until such time as the Select Committee has reported.
§ 5.23 p.m.
§ LORD KILLEARN
My Lords, I apologise for intervening at this late hour; I promise to be a very short time indeed. Having recently been resident in Kent, until about a year ago, I was appealed to in connection with this matter over the past week-end. As your Lordships may remember, I was able to help them once before over the Water Bill, and so I was consulted. I expressed straight away the view that my sympathies were entirely with the Lord Chairman of Committees. I think any diminution of 523 the liberty of the subject or delegated legislation is abominable; I hate it. But in this particular case that is not so much the point as the fact that the ruling on these clauses came at a very late hour, at the very end of the proceedings, and undoubtedly this has placed the county council in an extremely embarrassing position.
I am not authorised to speak for the county council, though I have been in touch with them. I received the very strong impression that if there were some method by which this matter could be pondered over and considered, they would be only too delighted to find it. In connection with that point, there was something which the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, mentioned and to which I have no doubt the Lord Chairman of Committees will refer—namely, the question of ruling out these clauses. I do not quite know how that can be covered. He was talking of the possibility of a Joint Committee of both Houses, which I thought was an admirable suggestion. The question arose as to what happens in the meanwhile about these clauses. So far as I can remember, I think the noble Earl suggested that they should be discussed with the council; I was not quite sure. If the Lord Chairman of Committees could cover that point in his winding up, I think it would be helpful. It would certainly help me a good deal and I believe it would help the county council also. It was not very clear how that matter was left.
I repeat that I am for the principle of the retention of Parliament's control of these things; I could not be more strongly so. But I think that in this particular case the county council has been left, through no fault of its own, in a most embarrassing position. Alarm and distress is very great in those circles, I can assure the noble Lord, the Lord Chairman, of that—he probably knows it already. I think we should, if we can, find a way out of this impasse. I come back to what the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, proposed. I cannot remember the exact terms, but it seemed to me a way out. The question is, what about these clauses which have been ruled out and which are very essential? If the noble Lord the Lord Chairman of Committees could cover that point in his final summary, I think it would help the House.
§ 5.26 p.m.
§ LORD CONESFORD
My Lords, when I first saw this Motion on the Order Paper, and still more when I heard the Amendment that was proposed by my noble friend, the Lord Chairman of Committees, in moving it, I had great hopes that there might be agreement between all sides of the House. If there were such agreement I think it would be generally welcomed. It is clear that there is no such agreement, but, in view of the statements made by sonic noble Lords on the Front Bench opposite, I think it ought to be made quite clear by some of us who support the Motion of the Lord Chairman of Committees that we do not support it out of any hostility of any kind to local government. That ought to be made absolutely clear. Some speeches have been made suggesting that there was something in this Motion that sought to limit the powers of local authorities. The question is not so much a question between local authorities and Her Majesty's Government as a question of what should be done by private legislation and what should be done by public legislation. That is the really important question before the House.
Let me agree with something said by my noble friend, Lord Swinton, and I think by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, and certainly by the noble Lord, Lord Milner of Leeds. I confess to a good deal of sympathy with the Kent County Council on account of the late stage at which this question has come to public notice and been debated in this House. I do not wish to examine the cause of the delay or whether it could have been avoided, but it cannot really affect the fact that we have a very important question to decide, namely, what can properly be done by private legislation, and what should be done by public legislation. I strongly support one of the very few conclusions generally agreed by all sides of the House, that this matter should now be examined by a Joint Select Committee of both Houses. That is quite clearly the best machinery that we can devise, and it is also extremely desirable that the practice, whatever it is to be, should be one that is common to the two Houses of Parliament. That is convenient, of course, to the local authorities themselves.
525 The question, therefore, that remains, if we are all agreed on that, is what is to be done in the interval. If such a Joint Select Committee is to be set up, it is quite clear that it ought to consider the matter at its leisure and report. There must be some principle to be adopted in the meantime. For that reason I think that my noble friend the Lord Chairman of Committees was not only justified in bringing this matter before the House but was almost bound to do so to enable him to carry out the wishes of the House. I should have thought that what he was proposing was right.
I know that there is a genuine difference among noble Lords who have spoken as to what it would involve if the existing practice continued to be carried on. If I understood him correctly. I think the noble Lord, Lord Milner of Leeds, suggested that it would mean that any county council should be able to promote a Private Bill in which anything could be inserted that had ever been done before, no matter what were the new scale on which it were done. That is one view. Another view is that taken in the temperate and considered report of the Minister of Housing and Local Government which, in accordance with the general practice, was made by the Government Department concerned. That points out the serious precedent which would, in effect, be set if this Bill went through without objection. Whichever view is adopted, it is quite clear that we should be setting a quite definite precedent if this Bill were allowed.
I listened most carefully to the proposal made by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, in his opening speech. As an alternative to adopting such a principle as is laid down in the Motion, he suggested that, in the interval before a Joint Select Committee had reported, these Bills should be held up. That might be a possible alternative, if that were the wish of the Promoters of the particular Bill. I quite agree, subject to what may be said later, that that is a possible alternative. But it would not really meet the case, because non constat there are not other local authorities which may wish to bring forward measures in the meantime. Surely they ought to know what is the principle on which Parliament is likely to act. I suggest that the principle upon which Parliament is likely to act, pending the report of a new Joint 526 Select Committee, is more or less the principle laid down in this Motion, which for that reason I support.
I hope I have not been unduly provocative. The question before the House presents some difficulties. As I say, I have some sympathy with the county council, on the ground mentioned earlier in the debate by my noble friend Lord Swinton regarding the lateness of the time at which the objection was brought forward. On the other hand, I agree entirely with my noble friend the Lord Chairman of Committees on the important principle that is raised by this Bill, on which I think this House is under a duty to declare itself. I should like to say, in reply to the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, and I think to the noble Lord, Lord Latham, who made strong attacks on town polls, that I thought that was a curious argument to advance in this debate. I am not for one moment saying that the town poll procedure is a good one or a bad one, but it is at the moment laid down by a General Statute, and the right way to get rid of it would be to pass a General Statute to that effect. Really, the stronger the case against town polls in general made by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, the stronger seems to me to be the case for abolishing them, if his case is a sound one, by appropriate public legislation. It is not a ground on which, under private legislation, you should allow, for certain authorities, an exception to be made to the general law of the land. That is my submission to the House.
For these reasons, I hope I have made it clear that those of us who support the Motion now before the House do so from no lack of sympathy with local authorities, or with the Kent County Council in particular. I think it is quite clear that there should be a Joint Select Committee of both Houses to consider the problem and that, meanwhile, there must be some rule which shall he operative; and I do not think anything better has been suggested than what is embodied in the Motion.
§ 5.35 p.m.
§ THE EARL OF CRANBROOK
My Lords, I had not intended to intervene in this debate, but the fundamental matter at issue, which is the good of local government in this country, has been so befogged by the opposition of some 527 noble Lords opposite to town polls—because I gather that they invariably go the wrong way—and by one or two Members on this side of the House on the constitutional aspect, that it has tended to be forgotten. It has been mentioned only by the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft. I have been engaged for over thirty years in local government. 1 seldom attend your Lordships' House, but it so happened that to-day, fortuitously, I happened to be here for another reason. I am one of the few country backwoods Peers here to-day, and I am pretty certain that I speak for almost all of them who are not here in saying that, by and large, members of local authorities, whether county councils or county districts, attach great importance to the power of county councils to include in their Bills provision for powers for the county districts, although I must confess that I greatly doubt the propriety of the Kent County Council's action in including in the Bill, only a year after a Parish Councils Act was passed by Parliament, powers for parish councils.
The reason we welcome this power of the county councils is that, by and large, we work under laws passed a great many years ago. Conditions change generally and we have to try to get our powers and duties up to date. Both the Select Committee of 1930 and, if I recollect aright, that of 1953 recommended that the Central Government should, at periodic and reasonably close intervals, introduce legislation bringing up to date the powers of local authorities. Successive Governments have failed completely in their duty to do that. We all admit that the powers of local government should be laid down by the Central Government, but when we are faced with the fact—we have to face up to it—that successive Governments have neglected their duty, it is bound to fall on the local authorities to take such powers as they can by means of Private Bills to bring their powers and duties up to date. For that reason, I would most earnestly ask the Lord Chairman not to press his Motion in its present form. Even with the Amendment which he suggests, it will put the local authorities in a quite impossible position.
I do not hold much brief for the local authority associations, because, by and 528 large, they exist only to build greater empires for people whose empires are quite big enough already. Yet they do represent the local authorities, and therefore (I say this very strongly indeed) they should be consulted before any action like this is taken. I think it would be a thousand pities if the Lord Chairman were to press this Motion to-day. If he does, although I must confess that one or two of the remarks made by noble Lords opposite very nearly drove me into the Lord Chairman's arms bitterly though I am opposed to this Motion. I shall be bound to find myself in the Lobby against him.
§ 5.40 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT STANSGATE
My Lords, I should like to join the very small group of noble Lords who have spoken up for their own counties, and say a word to the Lord Chairman about Clause 19 of the Essex Bill, which is a very simple clause. It asks merely that five small, subsidiary authorities, should have power to go to the Minister to ask permission to organise their superannuation funds in a way approved by the Essex County Council. That is all that is asked. That is the power which the Lord Chairman has said they are not to be allowed.
Very briefly, and even at the risk of appearing controversial, that drives me to speak quite plainly about what people outside think of the attitude of your Lordships towards local government. I have been a London citizen since I was born, a great many years ago. For many years the London County Council fought and fought for powers with which it did something to make the London which we have; and they were always resisted by your Lordships. Generally speaking, the House of Lords is regarded as the enemy of progressive, domestic, civic local government, because in general noble Lords, with their wise, statesmanlike and Olympian point of view, say, "We do not want to encourage this Socialist legislation", and that applies not only to bodies which may happen to have a Socialist majority but to many others. I hope I am not driving the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, into the wrong Lobby.
§ VISCOUNT STANSGATE
My Lords, I mention that because it is only right to do so. What has been done? The Lord Chairman says: "They have been going too far. Let us rivet the thing down. Close the door and screw it up". And he introduces a rule which would limit the scope of local authorities in bringing forward these things. I do not know what that rule is, whether it is a Standing Order or an aspiration passed on to the Lord Chairman. It is a Motion of the House and naturally there is nothing in Standing Orders about it, because Standing Orders do not deal with Dowers.
The Lord Chairman is asking that "for keeps" this House is to take power to restrict the local authorities in their endeavours. I will tell your Lordships why, for it is a point that has not yet been mentioned. Such terms as "in general" or "the local needs"—whatever may be the governing words—are wonderful terms, but it depends on who decides. The Lord Chairman and this House are to decide whether they consider something is a local need, and therefore local authorities who may be desiring to do these things are clearly discouraged.
The point which has not been mentioned is that the Bills which we are discussing have not got the protection of the Parliament Act. With an ordinary Bill, if we have—as we shall have before very long—a strong and riotous majority of Labour men in the House of Commons, they have always the Parliament Act at their disposal if they want something done; but the Parliament Act does not cover Private Bills. So what the Lord Chairman is asking now is that not only should we define in a restricted way—and he will give details where required—the powers of local authorities but that we in this House should take power always to restrict their activities. I believe that that is a very serious consideration which I submit respectfully to your Lordships' attention.
§ 5.44 p.m.
§ LORD DOUGLAS OF BARLOCH
My Lords, I do not want to make a speech but to ask the Lord Chairman of Committees a question. If his Motion should be carried, would facilities be given to the county councils in question to carry forward their Bills until some Joint Committee or other body has reported upon 530 this question? Otherwise they will have lost their position completely and it might be that the decision was in favour of what they have asked. They will then be put to double expense in order to achieve it. If the answer to that question is "Yes", then I would put to the Lord Chairman this point: would it not be better to withdraw his Motion and let a Motion be put down for a Joint Select Committee or such other machinery as is required, and, at the same time, arrange for these Bills to be postponed?
§ 5.46 p.m.
THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR COMMONWEALTH RELATIONS (THE EARL OF HOME)
My Lords, the Lord Chairman, for whom I have a good deal of sympathy, has treated the rights of this House with the most scrupulous care and will himself answer this debate, as it is not at all a Party matter—unless it is made so. I might warn the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, that it will be a very topsy-turvey result if all the Labour Party go into one Lobby and all the Conservatives into the other, because, by and large, the noble Lords opposite are the champions of "Whitehall knows best" arid Conservatives are always said to be the champions of the backwoods and parish pumps and denationalisation.
I am not going to give a Government view or lead, but will say how the situation appears to me, as a Member of your Lordships' House with some experience in both Houses of Parliament—as a great many of your Lordships have had. The Chairman of Ways and Means and the Lord Chairman, who are both men of long Parliamentary experience, after very long and close study and advice from their advisers, have concluded that the Kent County Council Bill seeks to give to parish councils powers which, in the opinion of the Chairmen, seriously encroach upon a field which should be the field of Parliamentary legislation. This is really the fundamental point.
§ LORD DOUGLAS OF BARLOCH
My Lords, is there not only one small clause in this Bill that affects parish councils?
THE EARL OF HOME
My Lords, the fundamental point is: what is to be the field of private legislation and what is to be the field of public legislation? In 531 the opinion of these two very distinguished and experienced gentlemen the Kent County Council Bill makes an encroachment upon the field of Parliamentary legislation on a scale which has never before been attempted. I may say at once that the Chairman of Ways and Means and the Lord Chairman have reached these conclusions completely independently of the views of Her Majesty's Government. I believe that they did not know at any time the views of Ministers upon this question. The only view held by Her Majesty's Government is that read earlier to the House by my noble friend Lord Mancroft which I will repeat. He said:Her Majesty's Government certainly agree that county councils ought not to promote Bills conferring on their district councils a host of powers for which there is no particular local need. But I believe it may be perfectly proper for them"—and this was the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook—to seek certain powers on behalf of their district councils justified by local need.In so far as Her Majesty's Government have a position, that is their position.
I have tried to look at this matter impartially and I do not myself believe that the Lord Chairman is doing any more than interpret a broad principle which is perfectly familiar to your Lordships in this field, to meet a particular situation. I am not going to rehearse the arguments for or against this Motion which we have heard from both sides of the House in great detail, but only to respond to the appeal made by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, to know whether we might take no decision to-day but postpone it to a future occasion. I always like to take refuge in these easy ways out if I possibly can. But I must tell the House, in the situation before it now, that it has to instruct its Committees how to act on the Kent Bill and other Bills before the end of the Session.
As I see it, the Lord Chairman and the Chairman of Ways and Means are perfectly clear that they are right in the proposal that they are making. Therefore, for myself, I do not feel inclined to ask the Lord Chairman to withdraw this proposal for dealing with these Bills in the present Session. But I believe I am right in saying—the Lord Chairman will correct me if I am wrong—that he 532 is not asking us to take this action as laying down the law for all time, but only as a guidance to the Committee for Bills in this present Session. It seems an eminently reasonable way which the House can support for dealing with these Bills in this Session.
If the Lord Chairman sees fit to be more definite about an inquiry in the future by means of a Select Committee, or whatever way may be thought most appropriate, then I would certainly support that myself, and I would ask the Minister of Housing and Local Government, who is concerned in these matters, whether he would not support it too, because I think it is probably needed. At such an inquiry the formula proposed by the Lord Chairman could be applied, modified or adjusted. So, for myself, I should have no hesitation in supporting the Lord Chairman's proposal this afternoon, as a means for dealing with these Bills in the present Session, and supporting an inquiry so that the long-term policy may be worked out.
§ 5.53 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUGH
My Lords, I have sat right through this debate and heard every speech that has been made. I should resent the idea that, because we have not agreed with the views expressed by the Lord Chairman of Committees, we regard the real principle in this debate as being a Party issue. It does, of course, arise sometimes that issues of this kind tend to have different receptions in different Parties, but I do not wish the procedure of the House to be regarded as a Party question. Nevertheless, I think we should be quite untrue to ourselves if we did not challenge the line which seems likely to be taken in your Lordships' House tonight.
I have never had the great privilege of the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, and many of the other noble Lords on the other side, of giving, as so many have voluntarily done, long years of public service in county councils. But I had the great advantage of being trained in the office of a Conservative county council in Somerset and of watching the procedure and general attitude to public affairs—on the one hand, national affairs, and, on the other, the affairs of wide administrative areas like a county area—under such tutelage as that of the 533 right honourable Henry Hobhouse, Howard Fox, Joseph Cooke-Hurle, and people of that type, in Conservative centres. I am bound to say that I never found among any of them anything lacking in the finest, open, public spirit they displayed in dealing with such questions as we are dealing with to-day.
Moreover, in my experience of them and under their training, they faced the same kind of problem that we have in the case of Kent. There is the same mixture of authority: the county authority; the borough authority, which is no more than a "Part III authority", as we used to call it in the old days; the urban district council, and the parish council. In all the matters covered, it seems to me, looking at it quite impartially, that in the Kent Bill, which has brought this matter to a head, there is ample provision for the proper democratic control of the matter by the very system which operates every year. You have an urban district council which has some members elected every year, and those not agreeing with the policy in regard to their own district can instruct the new-found members. But what is more, all those urban districts have themselves to elect, triennially, members of the county council; and therefore they may express, through those triennial elections, a view as to what the action of a county council should be. And, finally, when a Bill itself comes to be presented under the well-known practice to the House of Parliament, it is subject to the whole of the democratic measures for passing it through until it becomes a Statute of the Realm. That seems to me to be the only basis upon which we can judge the matter.
It is perfectly clear, too—and I was glad that the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, took up this point—that this bombshell, as it were, into local government has come suddenly, mainly on account of two Bills, although three have been mentioned. So far from its being a Party issue from our side of the House, all the county councils involved are Tory councils. Kent is a Tory county council; Surrey is a Tory county council; and, at the time of the promotion of the Essex Bill, Essex County Council also was Tory, although in the last few weeks it has lost its actual Conservative ruling power. Therefore, we shall not be voting—as we shall most certainly have to vote on this matter, unless there is some adjustment 534 —from a Party point of view, but on the way best to promote progressive development of local government.
You have a case like that cited by the County Councils Association, the Berkshire Bill of 1952, where powers were sought for the small town of Newbury to deal with its need of a public cemetery. By the very kind of procedure proposed under this Motion to-day Newbury Council were told that they could not join with the county council and use the promotion of the County Council Bill in order to promote their cause with the county council. That little town, which could by that simple process have covered the cost involved with £200, had to promote its own Bill through Parliament all over again; and instead of £200, the cost was £800. The County Councils Association have cases like that in their archives which they put to us again and again when these matters come up. I do not want to weary your Lordships with all the illustrations I could give, but, surely, it is a matter not of Party but of principle on this question. Parliament, instead of trying to over-centralise itself now, ought to be willing to go in for that measure of devolution which is requisite for a growing, expanding population, and for a growing industrialisation, with the growing diversity in these general practices and sets of social legislation.
For those reasons it seems to me to be absolutely essential that the reasonable view put to us this evening by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, should be adopted. If that is not done, and if the Lord Chairman is going to tell us that he will not depart from the attitude he took today about the Kent County Council Bill, I shall be bound to feel that the Kent County Council Bill has been made just a jumping-off point for something much bigger that people have in mind.
When the Leader of the House says that there is no doubt at all that these things have been quite impartially examined, I am bound to say that it seems queer to me (I have been in hospital for ten weeks and have got out of touch) that I can pick up the Memorandum of the Minister of Housing and Local Government, dated April 10, on the points of these powers which are now sought under the Kent County Council Bill, yet it is not until May 13 that this matter is raised at all in this House. It seems to me that this 535 Motion is the jumping-off point. If the House does what it is asked to do and agrees to the Motion—though we should welcome an inquiry by a Committee or a Joint Select Committee—it means that Kent, and Kent alone, is going deliberately to be penalised in this Session, months and months after this Bill was first promoted, with all the expense entailed and in reliance on a practice which had been maintained unbrokenly for thirty-seven years. That is entirely unfair and completely unjustified. I hope that the noble Lord the Lord Chairman will take note of what I am saying, because it is certain to have created, not only in the minds of those who govern the county of Kent but also in the minds of other local authorities of a similar kind, the idea of a grave Parliamentary injustice.
§ 6.0 p.m.
My Lords, I hope that the House will forgive me if I make no attempt to deal with all the points that have been raised in the debate this afternoon, but, if I may, I will try to group under a few headings some of the questions that I have been asked and attempt to deal with them. My first group comes under the heading, "Timing". Much has been said this afternoon, and very understandably, about the timing of this procedure. It is always a matter of dispute as to what is exactly the right time to do a great many things, and I should certainly include this one. The Committee stage of this Bill began on May 13 and I think that I can justly claim that the Promoters themselves were not ready for that stage to begin until that day. It is perfectly true, and I do not want to hide it, that the Minister's Report was received some weeks before that; but I would say this and I hope that I shall not be blamed for it: that during that interval I was giving this matter careful consideration. I feel that if I had jumped to a hasty conclusion, I might equally have been criticised for that. It is not an easy matter to get the timing exactly right.
Factually, I would say one or two things about timing. The noble Lord, Lord Douglas of Barloch, asked me a question and I am very ready to try to answer it. The Kent, Surrey and Essex County Councils, if they so choose, can withdraw their Bills and present them 536 again next Session, and the same thing applies to the clauses. Or, if they so choose—and if they ask for it I am certain that I would agree—consideration of the clauses (in other words, the Committee stage) could be postponed even for a long period, though I think that that would be an unusual course and personally I do not think that it would be the best course, even in the interests of the Promoters themselves. But your Lordships will see that the Promoters have considerable width of choice in this matter.
The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, urged that we should inquire first and act afterwards, but I think that if the House considers the machinery for dealing with Private Bills it will hardly agree with that suggestion. I still ask the House to pass the Motion to-day, but I say, with great emphasis, that if it is passed, that in no way prejudices the most full consideration of all these questions by a Select Committee in due course. If this Motion is not decided to-day, I must put this difficulty to the House: what is to happen to these three Bills? I think that that is enough to dispose of the question. In the interests of the Promoters and of the House and of the general question, the problem of the clauses in these Bills ought to be dealt with now. I repeat that that will be without prejudice to the general and wide consideration at a later stage of all the issues involved.
§ EARL ATTLEE
My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord this question? Does that mean that the noble Lord is asking us to condemn these clauses?
My Lords, I was going on to say that if that course is adopted, in my opinion, that would be the right course. I take full responsibility for it, realising always that I am not infallible.
The next point I want to deal with was raised by several speakers. In the course of the debate there has emerged a sharp cleavage of opinion on whether what I am proposing to do constitutes a change. I say that it does not constitute a change in the established procedure of the House, but in saying that I readily admit, as I 537 have done several times already, that since 1921 there have been a large number of exceptions to this established procedure. The question is: which is the rule and which is the exception?—that is the point. I say that the rule is that county councils should not promote clauses in which they have themselves no interest. I say that that is the rule and that the other is the exception. Noble Lords opposite say exactly the reverse. They say that what has been done since 1921 is the rule and that what I am proposing is an exception. I must leave it to your Lordships to decide who is right. I cannot take the matter further than that, but I do not withdraw an inch from my contention that what I am doing is continuing the established, ancient tradition of the House. whilst admitting that a great many holes have already been made in it.
I want to say the next point with great emphasis. The noble Earl the Leader of the House has informed your Lordships that this is not only not a Party matter but also not a matter in which the Government, as the Government, are interested—perhaps I am wrong in saying that they are not interested, but this is not Government business. I want to say emphatically that in what I am doing or have done, be it right or be it wrong, I take responsibility. I have not been in the slightest degree urged to do it by Her Majesty's Government or by any member of the Government in this House or outside. I hope that your Lordships will accept that categorical statement, which I have no doubt is absolutely true. I will be frank with the House. What I did was that before I made up my mind finally on this question, I informed the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor and the noble Earl the Leader of the House. I did not ask their agreement and did not obtain their agreement. But a short time before I spoke in your Lordships' House, a matter of two or three days, I did inform them of what was in my mind. I did not either expect or receive their agreement or otherwise.
§ VISCOUNT ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUGH
My Lords, did the noble Lord inform the Leaders of the two Opposition Parties?
Not at that time, but I did before I made my statement.
538 I want now to deal shortly with the question of polls, which has been raised by myself and other noble Lords. I want to say now what I did not say earlier, because I thought that my own opinion on this was irrelevant. But since the noble Lord, Lord Latham, has spoken so much about it, I want to say, on the narrow point of whether town polls and town meetings are good or bad, that I entirely agree with him that they are bad. I have always been of that opinion, both before and since the Committee to which he referred. But I think my opinion is irrelevant. The point is: Is Parliament satisfied with the position that a clause in a Private Bill which can be thrown out of the Bill by a town poll in Birmingham, can be submitted to and passed by Parliament in a Private Bill for Kent or Surrey, without the poll being available to the urban districts and the boroughs?
The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, if I understood him aright, contended that on the matter of proof of private need the onus was upon the Committee of the House and not upon the Promoters. I cannot accept that contention for a moment. On the contrary, I shall contend until I am corrected that always, by tradition and up to this very moment, it has been for the Promoters to prove affirmatively their local need for the clause, and not for a Committee, or the House, or a petitioner to prove to the contrary. I rather expect that the noble Lord, Lord Milner of Leeds, who, if I may say so, made such an extremely helpful speech, with his great experience in these matters would agree with my contention.
The noble Earl, Lord Home, said that I was not asking the House to agree to this principle for all time, and the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, putting it in slightly different language, used the phrase "for keeps"; but I think the two noble Lords meant the same. I would say emphatically that I agree entirely with the noble Earl. I am asking the House to pass this Motion to-day for the purpose of enabling me to deal with these three Bills, but I am leaving it completely open for the House to inquire by any means it wishes after that has been done.
§ VISCOUNT STANSGATE
My Lords, does the noble Lord really say that if this Motion is passed and if the Kent County Council Bill is killed we shall 539 not have created a precedent that will be insurmountable for the future?
I say, on the contrary—I may be right or wrong, but I say it with great sincerity; and I was going to conclude with this statement—that I am of the opinion that if I had
§ Resolved in the affirmative, and Motion agreed to accordingly.