HL Deb 15 May 1963 vol 249 cc1306-16

3.5 p.m.

Order of the Day for the House to be again in Committee read.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(The Lord Chancellor.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD AILWYN in the Chair.]

Schedule 4 [Modifications of Local Government Act, 1933]:

8. After section 23(2) there shall be inserted— (2A) Subsection (2) of this section shall not apply to a London borough, but the term of office of councillors of such a borough shall be three years, and they shall retire together in the year 1967 and every third year thereafter on the ordinary day of retirement of borough councillors in England and Wales.

LORD CHELMER moved to add to the proposed new subsection (2A): Provided that before the 'relevant year of election' following the Report of the Boundary Commission on the Parliamentary constituencies situated wholly or partly in Greater London, there shall be a review of the provisions governing the procedure for local government elections in Greater London".

The noble Lord said: In moving this Amendment I have to ask for the indulgence of the Committee on a number of counts, not least for moving an Amendment which is on its face obscure and archaic but in fact related simply to the question of triennial elections of the London borough councillors. The Committee will see that paragraph 8 of Schedule 4 refers to Section 23(2) of the Local Government Act, 1933. This was the section to which the noble Lord, Lord Morrison of Lambeth, referred in the debate yesterday and it sets out the method of electing the councillors of boroughs in England and Wales. It provides that one-third of the members of the Council should be elected on November 1 each year. That provision has remained the practical method of electing borough councils in England and Wales up to this day.

When the Royal Commission considered the question of Greater London government they provided for the corresponding London boroughs a recommendation that there should be a similar constitution—namely, that one-third of the councillors should be elected annually. The Government White Paper made similar provisions. But when the Bill was published it contained in Schedule 4 an amendment, in the form of a new subsection to Section 23 of the Local Government Act providing for triennial elections of councillors in the London boroughs. That is to say, all the councillors in each borough will be elected every three years. This is a substantial change in many ways, and it will no doubt be argued that this saves money, in the sense that the ratepayers pay for elections only every third year. There is also some saving of manpower on the part of returning officers and others. It may be said that it removes local government from an electioneering atmosphere in two out of three years. It might be substantially argued that there are many reasons, and more powerful reasons, on the other side for retaining annual elections in local government.

The first, perhaps parochial, reason is that out of the 32 new London boroughs 20 will have been used to annual elections Two-thirds of all the boroughs in the new Greater London area will have been used for 30 years to annual elections; only 12, comprising the metropolitan boroughs, will have had triennial. But there is a much more powerful reason than that. This is that the whole life of local government—and noble Lords were often urged in the course of the Committee stage to take steps to revive interest in local government—and the great strength of local government is the salutary effect annually of the contact of local councillors with the ballot box. All the great political Parties in turn have suffered the effect of their policies in local government; and this, I am sure, is a great way of enabling the public to express their views each year. All local government—as opposed to Parliamentary government—is largely a matter of administration, and the issues which arise are not those of long-term permanence but issues arising day by day. The ratepayers are given the opportunity of expressing their opinion on those issues.

But there are other reasons which I would advance for adopting the annual system of election. The noble Lord, Lord Morrison of Lambeth, referred yesterday to the ballot papers he had seen in some elections in the United States of America. It is not right of me to criticise someone as experienced in London government as the noble Lord is, but those of us who have from time to time had to vote in elections for metropolitan boroughs will often recall some 16 or 17 names appearing on the ballot papers from which an elector has to select three. It seems to me to place a very high strain on the intelligence of the average electors—among whom I like to count myself—to select the right three from the 16 or 17. There is another disadvantage that in our system of government one cross on a ballot paper is so much more effective in choice than having three in the manner which would be necessary for triennial elections. But that is quite a small point. What is much more important is that if you tie the elections to every third year of the life of the local authority it tends to make the results of the elections dependent on some local or national event or issue of great importance. This leads, or has led in the past, to violent changes in those authorities which have had triennial elections. By means of annual elections we obtain much greater continuity.

Without making any sort of Party political point about this, I think it would be fair to say that a triennial election also leads to a certain amount of election year budgeting and policies, which again must clearly be undesirable. The triennial election certainly has not led to any greater interest in local government. For example, in the last year for which any comparable figures are available, 1959, in the metropolitan boroughs some 32 per cent. of rate-paying electors voted; and in the boroughs in the remainder of England and Wales the proportion was 42 per cent., or one-third more. That does not suggest that a triennial election creates any greater support.

I think that it is fair to say that the arguments which I have advanced would justify the removal of this new subsection (2A) from Schedule 4 of the Bill, but I am not suggesting that this is a course which could wisely be taken. Your Lordships will see, on referring to the Amendment which I propose, that it refers to a number of technical matters, such as the relevant year of election. I do not propose to take your Lordships along what is no doubt the seductive path into the definition of the "relevant year of election". I hope that you will accept from me that what this Amendment proposes is that, after the Parliamentary Boundaries Commission's Report upon the Greater London area, which, as your Lordships will be aware, must be made some lime between 1964 and 1969—and I assume that it would be earlier, rather than later in that period—and after the subsequent election in the London boroughs, the Minister should have power to review the system which has prevailed up to that time under the triennial elections in the London boroughs to see if they have worked in practice.

This is a very small proposal in relation to what your Lordships will concede is a much wider issue, and I put it on the basis of a wider issue because this is the first great measure of local government reform which has been undertaken for many years. Many of your Lordships interested in local government will feel concerned that, in framing this measure of local government reform, the system of triennial elections is introduced to apply to all these new boroughs, and it seems to me not unreasonable to apprehend that in future proposals for local government reform, which must follow, whatever Government may be in power at the time, this triennial election may again be enshrined. For all the reasons I have advanced, it seems to me that the system of triennial elections is disadvantageous from the point of view of local government, and for the reasons I have given I beg to move this Amendment.

Amendment moved— Page 128, line 7, at end insert the said proviso.—(Lord Chelmer.)


I should like to support the noble Lord, Lord Chelmer. My own experience in a London borough is entirely in accord with what the noble Lord said. The triennial system is cumbersome. I do not know why it was ever introduced, but it does not act for the welfare and convenience of the people in the London boroughs. A three-year gap between elections is far too long. People are given long lists of names and they do not know who many of the candidates are. Therefore, it is highly inconvenient to the voting public. I have never yet heard any rational explanation of why this system was ever introduced or why it should continue. All the rest of the country has annual elections, and I think there is every reason to suppose that they would be satisfactory in London. It is often difficult to keep a Party machine going with these long gaps. I strongly support the noble Lord, and hope that this excellent Amendment, which, as he says, is on a rather narrow point, will be approved and that the principle which he has enunciated will be carried into effect in London local government.


I, too, should like to support the noble Lord, for the reasons he advanced and also for another. There is always liable to be waves of emotion sweeping through the country, which can change the whole of the local councils, and then a whole lot of inexperienced people come in. An annual system ensures that there will be "old hands" ready to steer the ship. We do not want violent changes in local Government; we want continuity.


I should like to give an exactly opposite view to that put forward by the three noble Lords who have spoken. I do it with all humility. It is hard enough to get people to vote in local government elections once every three years, in my experience, and if we have annual elections, we shall find that the voting figures will fall further.


Is not the reason why people do not vote at three-yearly elections that they have got out of the habit of voting, and it is very difficult to revive it?


That may be so, though I do not agree with it. One thing of which we shall make absolutely certain if we have annual elections is that every fifth year the local election will coincide with the General Election, and it will be found extremely difficult to get people to come to the poll on local issues immediately before or after a General Election. Unfortunately, local government is now run on political lines. It was all right in the days when it was not. I think that we should be well advised to Support the suggestion in this Bill that we should have triennial elections, at any rate in London.

3.19 p.m.


I think that my noble friend Lord Chelmer was making his maiden contribution to the debates in your Lordships' House. I think he did it as a disguised maiden, and although he was modest about his virginity in these matters, he could not disguise the experience which he brought to bear on this matter. I am quite certain that this is not the only matter—there will be many more—upon which my noble friend can bring his experience and wisdom to bear in your Lordships' House. I am sure that your Lordships will wish to hear him speak again, soon and often.

My noble friend has argued the case for rejecting the procedure in the Bill exclusively on whether we should have annual or triennial elections in local government. I shall try, therefore, to meet his argument on the ground which he has chosen. The present position is this. I think I heard the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, say that this is the only case where there is provision for triennial elections. I may have been wrong about that, but in any case that is not, of course, the position. All county councils, including the London County Council, have triennial elections, and so do the metropolitan borough councils. Other borough councils are, of course, on the annual basis; that is to say, they elect one-third of their councillors each year; but urban district councils have the possibility of choice. There is therefore, even within the Greater London area, or what will be the Greater London area, a very wide mixture in this matter. In logic, although perhaps not in history, there seems little rhyme or reason behind that wide mixture.

As your Lordships know, we have written a provision for triennial elections into this Ball, both for the Greater London Council and for the new London boroughs, and our reasons, if I may briefly summarise them, have been threefold. In the first place, the views expressed to my right honourable friend the Minister in this matter have been overwhelmingly in favour of the triennial system. Secondly, there is the practical consideration of council business. Triennial elections give three clear years for a council to prepare a programme of action and, if necessary, to take unpopular decisions without too much fear of immediate electoral repercussions. I do not wish to press this particular argument too far, because I know that county boroughs get on perfectly well. Nevertheless, I am inclined to think that there may well be some advantage in a system—and this applies across the Atlantic in Congress as well—where the elected representatives are not looking over their shoulders all the time to an election which is coming up within the next month or so, and without the electioneering atmosphere of which my noble friend spoke.

The third advantage—and I think this is quite a material one—is the purely practical advantage that triennial elections give us much greater flexibility in determining ward boundaries and apportioning the number of councillors to wards. With triennial elections, wards can return one, two, three, four or more councillors, and two purely practical advantages flow from this: recognised communities can be kept within the same ward, and ward boundaries can follow natural and obvious frontiers without being tied down to the purely mathematical needs of three-member constituencies. Again, associations between wards can be achieved ad hoc without having repercussions involving rewarding throughout the whole borough. With the triennial system an adjustment can be made between neighbouring wards without affecting the whole of a borough. With an annual system it is virtually impossible, for purely mathematical reasons, to do so. For these three reasons, therefore, I have little doubt that we are right to opt for triennial elections for the Greater London Council and for the new London boroughs, perpetuating in this respect the present practice which obtains both within the London County Council and the metropolitan boroughs.

What are the disadvantages which have been claimed for the triennial system? I think, in the first place, my noble friend suggested that this means a change of system for the electorate of the 20 outer boroughs which lie outside the present Greater London area. That may be true, but I would remind your Lordships that the new boroughs will include urban districts, again some 20 or so outside the present London County Council area, which have the possibility of choice at the present time. Of course, to opt for the annual system would mean a completely new pattern for the present electorate of the inner area, the London County Council area. The noble Lord has claimed that it is more difficult for the elector to put three crosses on his ballot paper than one. That may be so, but I think the electorate is fairly sophisticated these days and is capable of making the necessary three stigmata. The noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, said that having a triennial election system was very difficult for the Party machines. The Party machines—at least the two major Party machines—seem to cope with this reasonably well within the present London County Council area, and within county councils. I really do not think that there is great force in that particular argument.

Finally, there is the argument that if we opt for the triennial system, then we are laying local authorities more open to violent changes in public opinion, and that we shall have violent upsets of representation within local authorities. Here again, there may be something in this argument, but if there is, I am inclined to believe there cannot be very much, because the local authorities which have the triennial system—the county councils, the metropolitan boroughs in London, and those urban district councils which have opted for it—seem to be able to absorb the shocks with relative equanimity.

All in all, I hope that your Lordships can agree with me and with my noble friend Lord Mersey that it is sensible to opt for the triennial system in Greater London. I really do not think that there would therefore be any great advantage in popping my noble friend's review procedure into the Bill. I trust that my noble friend, if not entirely persuaded by my arguments, may nevertheless agree not to press this Amendment.


I am grateful for the support your Lordships have given to this proposed Amendment. The noble Earl has referred to the effect upon the Greater London boroughs. I am perhaps more apprehensive of the implications for the boroughs in England and Wales—and the urban districts, for that matter—who may be affected by other local government reform, and who will have had the pattern set for them by this proposal we are discussing to-day. Therefore, as this is a matter of great controversy in the country, reluctant though I am to do this, I feel that I shall have to divide the House on the issue to see whether we can establish, one way or another, the views on this matter, which, as I have said, leads to a good deal of doubt in people's minds at the present time.


I should like in this instance to support what the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, has said on this matter. I have had something to do with local government elections in London since 1913, and the system has worked satisfactorily. It is perfectly true that the number of electors voting is only a minority of the total number who are registered, and that is a deplorable fact. But I doubt very much whether having annual elections will improve that position in the least. We have to recognise that for a long time past local government elections have been conducted upon an organised basis, largely by means of the established political Parties, and practical experience has shown that it is easier to awaken interest in an election in which the whole of the members of the council have to be returned than one in which only one-third have to be returned.

It is said that to have annual elections works very well elsewhere; and I suppose it does. But I think that the interest in local government tends to be dissipated by having an annual election, whereas if you have a triennial election it is more intense and concentrated. I should also say, from a practical point of view, that it affords all political Parties a considerable advantage, because it is far more expensive to have to fight elections every year than to have to fight them every three years. The cost of election addresses is trebled, as are other expenses, because, although you have only one-third as many candidates in the annual election, as a general rule, you have about three members for each ward and, therefore, in the triennial election you have exactly as many election addresses to print but the expense is divided among three candidates. These considerations are of great practical importance. The amount of money available for this matter is not unlimited, and it is far better, in my judgment, that elections should be well and decisively fought, as they can be when they are held every three years, than indecisively and indifferently fought, as they tend to be on the annual system.


I find myself basically in sympathy with the triennial election, but I would point out to my colleague the noble Viscount, Lord Mersey, that in actual fact the evidence is against him. It appears that where you have annual elections greater interest is taken in them than in those areas where there are triennial elections. You have only to compare the figures in Scotland, for example in Glasgow, with those of the English county councils. In England it is extremely difficult to get people to come and vote, whereas in Scotland—and I have Glasgow immediately in mind—I am told that as much as 65 per cent. of the population votes. This seems to me to show a remarkable interest, sustained annually by the electors. This curious and important fact is of interest.


I do not know whether it is more convenient than to take the alternative course open to me, but this would be the moment when I should normally wish to make my statement, and I am free to do so. I understand that my noble friend Lord Jellicoe will be replying to the Amendment, and that my noble friend who moved it wishes to divide. I do not know which would be the convenient moment for the Committee to hear the statement.




The noble Earl the Leader of the Opposition says "Now", and I therefore beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved, That the House do now resume.—(Viscount Hailsham.)

On Question, Motion agreed to, and House resumed accordingly.