§ 3.26 p.m.
§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ BARONESS PHILLIPS
My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Shepherd, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. In moving the Second Reading, which I count a great privilege, I am conscious of the fact that we have many Members on all sides of your Lordships' House who have served with distinction in the Government of London, both at county and local levels, and the list of speakers on the Bill leads us to believe that we shall have a lively and an informative discussion.
When the Bill which became the London Government Act, 1963, was before the House, we on this side urged the Government of the day to make provision for the two sets of elections in Greater London to be held in different years—after the initial elections of 1964—instead of in the same year, and eventually on the same day, as provided for in the Bill then under consideration. Our arguments did not prevail, and the 1963 Act provides for the elections to the 221 Greater London Council and to the London borough councils to take place in the same year, and ultimately to be held as combined elections on the same day. If the Bill we are to consider to-day is passed, it will achieve what we had in mind in 1963, in that the two sets of elections will be held in consecutive years. There will be no change in the year of Greater London Council elections: the next Greater London Council election will be held on April 13, 1967, the date already announced, and Greater London Council elections will continue to be held triennially thereafter. Ordinary elections to London borough councils will, however, be held in 1968 and each third year thereafter. Obviously as a result of this arrangement, the long-term provision for combined elections on the same day will go.
The scheme of the 1963 Act was that the combination of the two sets of elections would take place once Greater London had been divided for the purposes of Greater London Council elections into single Member electoral areas based on new Parliamentary constituencies. It was not known in 1963 whether this division would have taken place by this year, when the second set of Greater London Council and London borough council elections was due to be held. As will be appreciated, the division has not taken place, and cannot take place yet, because the new Parliamentary constituencies for the Greater London area have not been settled. Accordingly, for 1967 the short term arrangements for the two sets of elections to be held on different days in the same year will again operate as it did in 1964, unless there is amending legislation. It should be emphasised that the two sets of elections would not be combined in 1967, even without this Bill. Some confusion is understood to have arisen as to what would be the position this year under the London Government Act 1963, as it stands at present, and it should be made clear from the outset that we still have not reached a time when the long term arrangements envisaged under that Act would come into force.
Noble Lords will recall that these long term provisions for combined elections followed a recommendation made by the Royal Commission on Local Government 222 in Greater London. In paragraph 856 of their Report the Commission said:We believe it would be possible, and if so we think it very desirable, that elections for the Council and elections for the Greater London borough councils should be held simultaneously, so that at one and the same polling booth at one and the same time an elector votes on a Parliamentary constituency basis for one member of the council for Greater London, and on a ward basis for his own borough, councillors as at present. It seems to us that this would bring about a very desirable measure of simplification and would help Londoners to understand better the type of council for which they are voting and the functions of the councils to which the candidates are seeking election.The Government of the day made provision accordingly in the London Government Bill, which we considered in 1963. It should, however, be remembered that the Royal Commission had also recommended annual elections for the London borough councils and that this was a recommendation of the Royal Commission which the then Government found unacceptable. We did not quarrel with their decision on this point.
We on this side raised the question of the timing of elections on more than one occasion during our consideration of the London Government Bill in 1963. We pointed out that there were two distinct local government organisations with different functions. Some confusion admittedly existed at first as to whether the two sets of elections were to be held in the same year, though not on the same day, as a permanent arrangement. It transpired during consideration of the Bill in Committee that the ultimate arrangement would be, as has been said, for combined elections on the same day. The then Government said, agreeing with the Royal Commission, that they regarded the Greater London Council and the London borough councils as an integral part of the whole arrangement for local government in Greater London, and that it would be more effective to hold elections on the same day. They agreed, however, in view of the arguments advanced for taking a different view, to consider the matter further before the Report stage of the Bill.
When it came to Report stage, the Government of the day reiterated that they thought that combined elections would focus attention on local government 223 and bring a higher percentage of voters to the poll. They said that they thought that the Royal Commission's argument that combining elections might help to eliminate confusion and give a better chance of understanding the respective functions of the different authorities had a good deal of weight behind it. It transpired that there had been some consultations with the local authority associations concerned about the practical difficulties which might arise in holding the two elections on the same day and the Government thought that the difficulties need not be regarded as insuperable. Nevertheless, it was conceded that strong arguments could be advanced for a different view, and that the matter was very evenly balanced. The decision of the House went against us then and the provision for combined elections stood. The arguments we used in 1963 are still in our view valid. We now have as an additional factor the views of the new local authorities which were set up by the London Government Act 1963 and the views of the officials who will have to conduct both sets of elections.
To take the views of returning officers first. With the object of considering the practical problems involved when eventually the two sets of elections were combined, the Association of London Town Clerks set up a Working Party of Town Clerks. There seems to have been some misapprehension as to the origin of this Working Party. It was set up by a professional organisation for the purpose of making a survey of the situation once elections were combined. It was not set up by the Government. The Working Party's report was sent to the London Boroughs Association, which in turn sent it to the Home Secretary. Copies of the report have been placed in the Printed Paper Office. As will be known, the town clerks are returning officers for both London borough council elections and the Greater London Council elections. The Working Party in their report have mentioned a number of difficulties which can be foreseen, including the provision of equipment and staff, complications in postal voting and the greater risk that mistakes would be made. The Working Party came to the conclusion that, as we said in 1963, these difficulties may not be insuperable. Nevertheless, they also concluded 224 that the burden that would be placed on returning officers would be a very heavy one and that the resulting procedure might not be satisfactory either to candidates or to the electorate.
It seems to the Government that attention must be paid to the views of the experienced officials who would have to operate the provisions for combined elections. As was said in 1963, the question whether there should or should not be combined elections is not a Party issue. Clearly the town clerks were not politically biased, and they made their report of their own volition, in view of the serious problems which they thought might well arise were two sets of big local government elections to be combined. It should be emphasised, before we leave the views of the Working Party, that their report relates only to combined elections, and combined elections are not contemplated in 1967. There have been suggestions that an attempt has been made to use the report of the Working Party as an argument against elections in the same year but not on the same day. Therefore it must be made plain that the Working Party's report does not deal with closely following elections, but with simultaneous elections.
To turn now to the views of the new local authorities set up by the London Government Act 1963. The Greater London Council in February of last year represented to the Home Secretary that the law should be changed to provide for the two sets of elections to take place in different years. In support of their representations that the two sets of elections should be held separately, the Greater London Council pointed to the administrative difficulties entailed in combined elections. They also said that such elections would be confusing to the elector, making it difficult for him, approached by a political Party in presumably a single election address, to distinguish his preference for one Party for borough matters from his preference for another Party for the Greater London Council's policies. The Greater London Council were of the opinion that the holding of the two sets of elections not only on different days but in different years would help to foster a sense of civic awareness in an otherwise long interval without the opportunity to, vote.
225 The other elected bodies, the 32 London borough councils, considered the matter through their Association, the London Boroughs Association, formerly the London Boroughs Committee. The Association sought the views of all the constituent councils, and 27 of the 32 borough councils favoured a change to elections in separate years; 20 of those 27 wished to see the change effected by postponement of the London borough council elections from 1967 to 1968. The Association made representations accordingly to the Home Secretary last April. The town clerks then, who are quite clearly non-political, are very doubtful—to put it at the lowest—about the desirability of combined elections. A large majority of the elected bodies—and on this issue they have not split wholly on Party lines—are also in favour of elections in different years; and of those wishing to have a change, the greater number—once again, not all of the same political Party—wish the change to be made in the manner that is proposed by the measure now under consideration. In short, the views of the officials who will be running the elections and a majority of the authorities concerned are the same as our view was in 1963.
Indeed, it may well be that the question whether the two sets of elections should take place in the same year or in different years is no longer one which divides us here. The point of controversy in another place was when the new arrangement for elections in different years should begin. Let me explain therefore why we believe that the change should be made this year. Leaving on one side the fact that a majority of the borough councils would prefer the change to be made before the next London borough council elections, it seems to us plain common sense that there should not be two closely following local government elections of this magnitude in two consecutive months. The late Lord Morrison of Lambeth, in the debate in 1963, said that provision for such elections would invite low voting and apathy, and put a great strain on Party organisations which is not in the public interest. It is quite true, as will probably be mentioned by noble Lords on the opposite side, that county council elections which are due to be held this year in the same week as the Greater London Council election will be followed a month afterwards 226 by municipal borough and district council elections. Every third year, that is, the year of county council elections, closely following elections are unavoidable in the counties where there are annual elections for borough and district councils, and triennial elections for county councils. The situation is not the same in Greater London, where both sets of elections are held triennially. Where we can avoid closely following elections there seems to us to be every reason for doing so. This would restore the position as it was before 1963, when the former London County Council and metropolitan borough council elections were held in different years.
After all, we are now able to look back at the elections held under the 1963 Act in April and May, 1964. The voting figures bore out what we said would happen. Despite the fact that the Government of the day had argued that the matters dealt with by the Greater London Council were hardly likely to stir up much enthusiasm—and this was advanced as a reason for ultimately combining those elections with the London borough council elections—over 44 per cent. of the electorate voted at the Greater London Council elections which were held in April. 1964. But a month later, at the London borough elections, where it had been assumed that more interest would be aroused by matters dealt with at the local town hall, just under 36 per cent. of the electorate voted—a drop of over 8 per cent. This seems to suggest that the timing of local government elections has just as much, if not more, bearing on the turn-out, as the nature of the local authority for which the electorate are voting. These voting figures are Jower than we should wish to see, especially when we consider how much publicity and interest had attended the setting up of the new authorities in Greater London. We accordingly think that if there is to be a Bill to provide, in the long term, for these elections to be held in different years, then the sooner that effect is given to it the better. Elections held a month apart have neither the alleged advantage of a concentration of interest—and we in our turn will admit that some argument can be made out for combined elections—nor the advantage of well spaced elections which serve to keep alive an interest in local government during the three years' cycle. The phrase "the worst of 227 both worlds" has been used to describe the interim arrangement; and we wish to bring it to an end before the next elections.
The Bill itself consists of only two clauses of substance and is quite straightforward. The main provision is in subsection (1) of Clause 1, which postpones until 1968 and each third year thereafter the London borough council elections due under the 1963 Act to be held in 1967 and each third year thereafter. The remainder of Clause 1 contains consequential provisions in connection with the election of aldermen of London boroughs and the filling of casual vacancies—a process which has already stopped because we are in the six-month period before the next elections are due to be held.
As has been said, the Bill does not itself affect the years of election to the Greater London Council; Clause 2, however, makes provision as to the date of the Greater London Council elections. This provision is necessary if the two sets of elections are not eventually to be combined. The date for the 1967 Greater London Council elections, April 13, has already been announced. Thereafter, the Greater London Council will have power, like the former London County Council, to fix their date for ordinary elections within the week in April for county council elections.
Before closing, it is right to say that the origins of this Bill lie in representations from the Greater London Council and the London Boroughs Association about the arrangements they desired for elections throughout Greater London. The 1967 local government election period will soon be upon us. The election period for the Greater London Council will start within the next couple of months and, without this Bill, the period for the London borough council elections a month later. So long as this Bill is before the House a state of uncertainty must exist both among the officials of town halls and in Party organisations. We accordingly hope that this uncertainty will be brought to an end soon by the amendment of the present law which is proposed in this Bill. My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Baroness Phillips.)
§ 3.46 p.m.
§ LORD BROOKE OF CUMNOR
My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, for introducing this Bill so charmingly, so clearly and so concisely. I do not think she really sought to conceal that this short Bill raises a grave issue. The issue is that, at the behest of what is at the moment the majority Party in the House of Commons, in the Greater London Council and in most of the London boroughs, the Bill proposes to deprive the people of Greater London of their right under the law, to decide four months hence whom they would like to represent them on the London borough councils for the next three years. It proposes to give those who were put in power by the electors in 1964 for a period of three years, and three years only, an extra uncovenanted twelve months of power during which they cannot be displaced, however strongly the feelings of the electors have turned against them.
The Government have no mandate whatever for this, either locally or nationally. The electors who are affected, millions of people, have not been consulted. One of the two main Parties on the borough councils affected, the Conservative Party, is bitterly opposed to this indefensible postponement of the elections—and no wonder! May I give an example? The Labour controlled council of the London Borough of Camden, where the Labour Party won a narrow majority by 34 to 26 when councillors were last elected in 1964 for the next three years, has been so conducting its affairs that it is running a deficit of no less than £1¾million a year on its housing revenue account; and it is no surprise that the district auditor, a wholly impartial official, has called attention to this as being a quite excessive burden thrown upon the ratepayers because of the failure of the council to charge reasonable rents to tenants who can afford to pay them. In the face of this sharp criticism from the district auditor, the council are taking quite inadequate steps to remedy the situation.
To judge by recent by-elections in that borough, the next borough council elections which, under the present law, are due to take place, as I have said, in May 229 of this year, will almost certainly result in the electors in Camden deciding to change a number of their present rulers and to replace them with people able to conduct the affairs of the borough with a greater sense of financial responsibility. That is one example only. The Labour Government, in the Bill now before your Lordships, are asking Parliament to keep the present councillors in power for an extra twelve months in Camden and in many other similar London boroughs. With the help of the Government majority, this shaming interference with the just working of democracy has been approved in another place, though it was vehemently opposed. That is how it now comes before your Lordships for consideration.
How has all this arisen? I will not go through the facts as they were stated by the noble Baroness, but I will pick out one or two of the salient points. The Royal Commission on Local Government in Greater London recommended that both the Greater London Council and the London borough council elections should take place on the same day. As the noble Baroness has said, in practical effect the London Government Act of 1963 provides that that should happen in 1970, 1973, 1976, and so on. I grant that there are practical difficulties about having different elections for different councils on the same day, and that there is a good deal of feeling that it would be puzzling to a certain number of electors—I think that it is a fairly evenly balanced matter—but I am influenced considerably by the report of the Working Party of Town Clerks who would have to run the elections. I accept that as a wholly unbiased report, and I think that we in this House should pay attention to it.
For that and for other reasons I, for one, take no objection to the proposal in the Bill that the Greater London Council elections should take place in 1970, 1973 and 1976, and every three years thereafter, and the London borough council elections in 1971, 1974, 1977 and so on. But to achieve that object there is no need whatever to meddle with the 1967 elections. Under the present law they were not going to be held on the same day in 1967, anyhow. The noble Baroness remarked that some confusion is said to have arisen about that fact. So far as I know, the only confusion was caused by a junior Minister in another 230 place who persistently asserted on television, quite mistakenly, that they were taking place under the present law on the same day. However, it has no doubt been explained to him that that was not the fact, and nobody now is labouring under that misapprehension. Under the present law, the Greater London Council elections will be on April 13, 1967, and the London borough council elections on May 11, 1967.
The noble Baroness spoke of the disadvantage of closely-following elections. But we have had closely-following elections before. We had them in 1964; we also had the London County Council and Metropolitan borough council elections with a similar interval in 1949; and, whatever the result, it certainly gave rise to no practical difficulty, except that the Labour Party lost a great many seats at both of them. But as in 1964 the Labour Party won a good many seats in both of them, I should not have thought that either side could make much of that particular argument. I believe that the people of London, having done this twice, would not find it intolerable to do it again in 1967, if there are reasons for that—and there are. I can see no valid reason why Parliament, if it thinks fit, should not enact that, at an election which has not yet taken place, the candidates should be elected for a period of two years, four years or whatever Parliament wills. Everybody knows then where he stands: the electors know, the candidates know, and there is no element of "dirty play". What is inexcusable in this Bill, and a flouting of fair play, is that elected persons or Parties who have been elected for a stated period should have their office extended for an extra year when there is no need for it, and when the electorate have not been consulted about it in any way, and when the Party out of power is positively and vigorously opposed to it.
In each one of the so-called precedents which were quoted in another place, both the main Parties—indeed, all Parties—were in agreement on what was to be done. I do not think the noble Lady referred to it, but she might have referred to the fact that, by agreement between the Parties, the London borough council elections of November, 1948, were postponed until May, 1949. There was a unanimous view that May was a better 231 time for elections than November, and nobody felt that it was a bad thing to make the change in that particular way.
In another place it was said—and perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, will remember this—that the reshaping of Greater London local government, following the Royal Commission's Report, necessitated the postponement of county council elections in Surrey, Essex and Kent. What happened was that parts of each of those three counties were being carved away and added to Greater London, and it would have been absurd to hold the county council elections in 1964 when,12 months later, a substantial part of each of those three councils was to be transferred to the Greater London Council and the Greater London boroughs. If the elections had been held in 1964, one would have had a confused election when some people were being elected for the normal period of three years as county councillors, and others were being elected only for one year until their electoral district was transferred to Greater London. Consequently, again with general agreement, with no opposition so far as I know from anybody, the county council elections in Kent, Surrey and Essex were postponed for 12 months.
I have said before that, where there was general agreement or overriding necessity, quite clearly it could not be taken as a gross infringement of democratic arrangements if there were a postponement of elections. In every case in the past, so far as I am aware, the political Parties—who, after all, have some claim to be representative of the electors—agreed that the changes were necessary. The postponement of the London borough council elections from May, 1967, to May, 1968, as proposed in this Bill, is not necessary, is not agreed, and is a unilateral decision by the Labour Party to deprive the electors of Greater London of their present lawful right to choose four months from now, whether or not they wish to retain in office the people whom they elected three years ago for a period of three years and no more.
It is an outrageous proposal to which the Government are asking your Lordships to agree. I do not, of course, blame the noble Baroness in any way. She is not responsible. She has been given what must have been to her a distasteful 232 duty, the duty of presenting a Bill to Parliament to legalise electoral cheating. The responsibility for this shaming action lies on the Home Secretary. At any rate, I can say that in discharging my duties concerning the representation of the people when I was Home Secretary—and I am sure this was equally true of my three immediate predecessors, if not more—I set my face absolutely against doing anything that was not completely fair as between all Parties. But other times, other manners. I would rather have resigned than yield to Party pressure to do such a thing as this. I would advise my noble friends not to vote against the Second Reading of this Bill, because it contains longer term proposals for 1970 and thereafter which are reasonable and acceptable. But when we reach the Committee stage next Thursday, we shall certainly seek to amend the Bill so as to restore to the London electorate their right to express their will in May next, a right which this Bill is designed to steal from them.
§ 4.0 p.m.
§ LORD LEATHERLAND
My Lords, of course the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, speaks as a real authority on matters concerned with London Government. He was for many years the leader of the Conservative Party on the London County Council, and during the whole of that period he did not, either by voice or by vote, give the slightest indication that he wanted to wipe that Council off the face of the earth and reconstitute a new Council with, as he hoped, a built-in Conservative majority to take its place. This afternoon the noble Lord has alleged that the Government have deprived the electors of their rights. That is precisely what he and his Government did in 1963, when the authorities were powerless under force majeure to raise any objection. He says that under this Bill an extra twelve months of uncovenanted power is being given to certain councils in London. That is precisely what he did in 1963 with the London Government Act. He says that the Government have no mandate. That was precisely the situation with regard to the reorganisation of London government, which he carried out in 1963.
§ LORD BROOKE OF CUMNOR
My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord would forgive me for interrupting for a moment 233 I do not want to enter into a quarrel with him, but I was not responsible for the 1963 Act. I was not the Minister in charge at the time. I was dealing with quite different things.
§ LORD LEATHERLAND
Of course not, my Lords. But the noble Lord was in the Cabinet and there is such a thing as the doctrine of Cabinet responsibility. The noble Lord accepts that. He alleges that there is to be interference with the just working of democracy. That is precisely what happened when he refused to allow me to lead my Party into a county council election in 1964, when he insisted by Statute that the Tory majority on my council should be extended for a further twelve months. He says that we are flouting fair play in order to let these councils have their office extended. That is precisely what he did under the 1963 Act, when he extended for twelve months the tenure of office of quite a number of councils. He alleges that this Bill is cheating. Then, by the same token, the 1963 London Government Act was also cheating, and we pointed that out in this House at the time.
I want to express my gratitude to my noble friend Lady Phillips for the clear, objective and, I think it will be agreed, non-Party way in which she introduced this as an administrative measure. She has saved me the trouble of saying many things which I should have chosen to say, because I think they were accepted without demur from the other side; therefore there will he no need for me to emphasise them.
We are often told that politics is the art of the possible. I accept that. But I think that there is something more in it than that. I think the question of right and wrong has also to come into the question of politics. I have no doubt that a very grievous electoral wrong was perpetrated in the London Government Act 1963. This Bill is aiming to right that wrong, and so I support it. What happened in the 1963 London Government Act? It is a few minutes since my noble friend explained it objectively, and I will repeat it so that we start from an agreed foundation. First of all, it abolished the scheme for holding the Greater London Council and London borough elections in separate years. It muddled them both together in the same year, with only a few weeks' interval 234 between the two. Secondly, it laid down that after this year there should be combined elections, with the elector going into the polling booth and being handed two long lists of candidates, which might have anything up to twenty candidates on each. He was then expected to be able to decide for whom he wanted to vote, in circumstances where he would have been voting for two separate authorities, with perhaps two separate sets of programmes and policies put before him by each one of the Parties. This Bill upsets those two pieces of confusion and restores the position to what used to be regarded as the normal.
I do not want to make a political speech, and so I am not going to suggest that there was any undue Party political malevolence in the Bill which the noble Lord's Government introduced in 1963. I am not going to suggest that, finding themselves unable to capture the London County Council at the polls, they picked out a number of Tory boroughs round the periphery and tacked them on to London. I am not going to suggest that they decided to have the two elections within a month of each other, merely in order to confuse the electors. I am not going to suggest that they had it in their minds that, after voting in April, people would perhaps feel rather mystified as to why they should be called upon to vote in May as well. I am not suggesting that there was any electoral trickery at all in the suggestion that you combine the two elections in one polling booth onone day at one particular hour of that day. I am going to assume that the Conservative Government regarded these electoral provisions of the 1963 Act as a tidying-up piece of administration carried out for the convenience of the public. But I suggest that under the Bill which the Government are introducing to-day this system will be made tidier still, and will be made even more convenient to the electors, and that it is an even more meritorious electoral exercise than was the 1963 Act.
What is to-day's Bill going to do? It is going to arrange that the Greater London Council elections shall be held in April, which is normal and about which there is no disagreement in any part of the House; and also, instead of confusing the electors with two elections in a few weeks, it is going to defer the 235 elections for the boroughs until next year. That seems sensible to me; otherwise a lot of people are going to say, "Why ever have we got to go and vote again? We voted only a few weeks ago." But this apparently sensible proposal seems to have caused an outcry from noble Lords of the Party opposite and from their colleagues in another place, who are telling us that a bonus year is being added to the period of office of the Labour-controlled councils in London—and incidentally, of course, to the Conservative-controlled councils as well.
On that point I want to say two things. The borough councils elected in 1964 did not really take over the full reins of authority until 1965, and they have therefore had only two years of real authority, real control of their municipal administrations. So the extra year which they are now being invited to carry will not be a particularly heavy burden. We know that there are large numbers of Conservative councillors who flew into office three years ago and who are now finding that the work entails more sacrifice of time than they ever imagined, and they are eager to lay down their burden. That was admitted by Members of another place.
The second point about this bonus year is one which I remember very well indeed. It concerns that same year, 1964. I was then the leader of my Party on the Essex County Council. I had been leader for many years and, by the grace of God, I am still the leader. We knew that an Election was due in 1964. The Tory Party was then at a very low ebb and Labour was riding the crest of the wave. We knew that we should regain control at that 1964 Election—nothing was more certain. But then the 1963 Act came in and robbed us of that opportunity of consulting the electors and saying to them in a democratic spirit, "Please will you return us to control in the Essex County Council?". We were robbed of that opportunity by the noble Lord and his Cabinet colleagues of that time.
This came about under Schedule 3, paragraph 7, of the Act for which the noble Lord's Government was responsible. That paragraph said: 236county councillors and county aldermen due…to retire on the ordinary day of retirement in 1964…shall…continue to hold office until…1965".If what we are doing to-day be an offence, that was equally an offence on that occasion. As I say, the councils had to act under force majeure, with a very powerful Conservative Government in office at that time. I do not accept that it is necessarily immoral to extend the period for which a council has been elected if there are some kind of unusual circumstances. Even Mr. Quintin Hogg has some qualifications in this respect. It was done for Kent, Surrey and Essex, and you cannot have a moral thermometer which registers in Centigrade for one Party and in Fahrenheit for another.
My Lords, I consider that this agitation, the spearhead of which this afternoon has been the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, is an entirely spurious one. Let us have a look at the history of this affair. Twelve months ago the Tories in London knew of the possibility of deferring the borough council elections. They knew that that suggestion was being considered. They did not oppose it on the Greater London Council. They knew in January last year, at the meeting of the London Boroughs Association, that that proposal was very much on the cards. They knew still further in April of last year, when the Home Secretary said that he was sympathetically considering the proposal. Was there an agitation then against this mythical monstrous injustice? Of course there was not. Nothing was said in another place. Nothing was said by noble Lords in this House. There was not even a single letter written by any borough to the Home Secretary in the three months following his April announcement and his announcement of the introduction of the Bill in July or August. As for the suggestion that in April, when Labour first intimated publicly, in the House of Commons, that this Bill was coming, Labour was then afraid of the electors, what was the position? We had just won a General Election with the greatest majority in our history, and all the public opinion polls were showing us on top and the Tory Party going down and down. To suggest that we made this change and announced it in April merely because we were afraid of facing the electors is about 237 the most rubbishy excuse which could be put forward.
But time marched on, and we found that the full effect, the full consequences, of the economic crisis were revealing themselves. The Government had to freeze and squeeze, and had to take all kinds of unpopular measures—and that is when a few clever Tories thought that here was a whip with which they could lash the Labour Party and pretend that the Labour Party was acting in an immoral way. They said to themselves, "We did it ourselves in 1963, but what does that matter? We are entitled to a double moral standard in political affairs". Then there was one of their leaders, a bit "too clever by half", who lifted his eyes up from the card table and said, "Ah! This is the time to pull out that ace of spades that I have been hiding in my slipper". So at that stage the Tory Central Office was called in and the agitation started—and, as I say, it is a spurious agitation from start to finish.
There has been a good deal of misrepresentation, springing from Tory circles—and very influential circles—about the proposal for deferring the London borough elections. The facts show that the Special Committee of the London Boroughs Association—the constitutional Committee—was unanimous in suggesting that the borough elections be deferred for a year; and when the matter came to the full Association, as my noble friend Baroness Phillips has said, 27 of the 32 boroughs voted for holding the elections in separate years; and, of that 27, there were 20 who said that this year's elections should be postponed. The others said they favoured postponement but wanted this year's elections to take place, as the arrangements for them would already have been made. There was a split Party vote on all the divisions that were taken in the Association. So it was not a question of all the virtue being on the Labour side and all the vice being on the Tory side: there was a split vote every time this was put to the meeting.
My Lords, it has been suggested in Tory circles—and I want to mention this because it calls into question the honour of a very respected London government politician—that the meeting of the Special Committee was not unanimous. The 238 chairman of that Committee was not actually called a liar, but a very prominent member of the Conservative Party said, "It is not true". So I have to inform your Lordships that Mr. Norman Prichard, the chairman of the Association, has received a letter from the deputy chairman, who is the leader of the Tory members of the Association, confirming that the vote in the Special Committee of the London Boroughs Association was unanimous. I have here(I do not want to read it to your Lordships because I am taking too long as it is) an impartial record drawn up by the officials of the Association—people like town clerks, and so on—which indicates beyond any shadow of a doubt that that original decision was unanimous; that it was not challenged in any way at all. There was one lady from Enfield who raised some questions but, of course, when one mentions the borough of Enfield, one begins to see cloven hooves leaving their footprints on the sands of time. But there was no serious challenge whatsoever to the unanimity of that decision.
I do not know what arguments there were which convinced the members of the Association that it was desirable not to have the two elections in the one year, but my own experience of conducting county elections—and I have conducted quite a number—has always been that at a second poll a few weeks after the first poll people tend to say, "We have already voted," and there is a smaller percentage poll on the second occasion than on the first. The statistics show quite clearly—and, although I know that a good deal of juggling can be done with statistics and that a good deal has been done with these particular statistics, yet those which my noble friend Baroness Phillips quoted quite objectively at the opening of this debate show what the effect is: that when you have two close elections the vote goes down on the second one.
Now there are even some Conservatives who are beginning to feel that to have two elections close together is not necessarily too good. Mr. Heath—and he is still a Conservative; he is still the Conservative Party leader, despite what the Gallup Poll said in the Daily Telegraph this morning; I have not heard of him 239 "doing a Jo Grimond"—said on October 24:There may be something to be said for the view that the Borough and Greater London Council elections should be in different years".We have had the same suggestion from other Tory quarters, too. Indeed, we had a hint of it from the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, this afternoon. If it is ideal and high-minded to take that view now, why was it not inserted in the 1963 Act, over which the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, and his colleagues had complete power? They had the chance to insert it in that Act, and they were cognisant of the Chuter Ede precedent of 1949. During the 1963 debate my noble friend Lord Champion actually proposed that the G.L.C. should be given a four-year tenure of office, but the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, who was in charge of the Bill for the other side, refused. He said that the Government stood by the normal three-year period, and added:…we feel that…the two sets of elections—the Greater London Council elections and the borough elections—should be held in the same year…".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 249, col. 1229; 14/5/63.]If I might use a hackneyed expression, he seemed to go "the whole Hogg".
My Lords, if there is now some genuine Conservative doubt about holding future elections in the same year, why should we have two of them this year, in the same year? Why not get rid of the evil straight away, as Her Majesty's Government are proposing to do by this Bill? There is nothing like acting promptly. As the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, said when he was pioneering the 1963 Bill through this House:…it is in the best interests of everyone that the changes should be brought into effect as soon as possible."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, col. 929; 9/5/63.]So far, my Lords, I have been dealing with the deferment of the borough elections, but the Bill deals with another, more serious matter; namely, that the elections should be held on the same day, in the same polling station, with two sets of papers being handed to each elector. I think that would be calculated even more to confuse the electors.
Because I am speaking non-politically I will not go on to say that that is precisely 240 what Members opposite intend. Down at Lambeth, in the Greater London Council elections, there were 14 candidates on the ballot paper. Imagine an ordinary elector being handed one G.L.C. slip with 14 names on it and then another, for the borough, with another 14 names on it. How is he going to bring his intelligence to bear on voting in circumstances like that? We feel strongly that a case is being made out for printing Party identifications on ballot papers, so that when people are confronted with a long list of candidates they will know which are Conservatives, which Labour, which Liberal, which Independent, and so on. I am reinforced in this view because in my area at the last elections we had a candidate called Davis. He was our retiring Labour councilor who had had a big majority, and was almost certainly going to be re-elected. What did the Tories do? They searched until they found a candidate named Davis. That fortifies me in suggesting that where there is a multiplicity of candidates (but not in the ordinary, small elections) the Party identity should be incorporated with the names on the ballot paper.
My Lords, I want to say this about the scheme for combined elections on the one day. The Working Party of the Association of Town Clerks, as my noble friend Baroness Phillips has said, found this to be almost unworkable and unsatisfactory, both from the point of view of the candidates and of the electors. I am not going to recite their Report to your Lordships, but it is really a most convincing document. I am sorry that, not only in another place, but also outside, some influential Conservatives have used most offensive language about the town clerks. I therefore want to say, as did my noble friend, that they undertook this investigation into the practicability of combined voting completely of their own volition in their capacity as returning officers for the election. They were not pressed by any politicians to do so. If Conservative leaders are going to continue denouncing those officials, I shall not hesitate to stand up here and praise them. In fact, in 1963 the town clerks also put forward information—not voluntarily, not of their own volition, but at the request of the Tory Government. Both Lord Hastings and Lord Jessel praised them.
241 Why are we having criticism of the town clerks this time? Is it merely because their views happen to coincide with those of Her Majesty's Government? I think that these town clerks are very worthy public officials. They always have been, right back to the days when the Acts of the Apostles was written; and I have just been referring to that Book in case any reinforcement were needed that these are very worthy people. Noble Lords will recall, I am sure, that in Chapter XIX of the Acts of the Apostles there are found these words:The whole city was filled with confusion: …Some cried one thing and some another:Then in verse 35 we find how wisdom was brought to bear. It says:…the town clerk…appeased the people,…That Book of the New Testament puts on record some of the things that the town clerk said. It might almost have been addressed to noble Lords here to-day. He said:Seeing then that these things cannot be spoken against, ye ought to be quiet, and to do nothing rashly…For we are in danger to be called in question for this day's work…. And when he had thus spoken, he dismissed the assembly.
THE LORD BISHOP OF EXETER
My Lords, does the noble Lord realise that in New Testament days a man, although called the town clerk, held a quite different office from what a town clerk holds today?
§ LORD LEATHERLAND
Yes, my Lords, and Bishops in those days held a different office from that which they hold to-day. They used to be people who held inquisitions, who cut off people's heads, or put them on the rack.
I have only one thing more to say. There have been suggestions to-day, very unfair suggestions—although I think that anything is fair in love and war (not that I know much about love)—that postponing both elections will deprive a great many electors of the chance of killing comprehensive education. I do not want to see comprehensive education killed. I think it is one of the things that will enable us to catch up with our industrial rivals, to stop the brain-drain occurring at 11-plus so far as thousands of potentially able children are concerned. But that is not 242 the main point. The main point is that comprehensive education is now national policy. It has been fortified by the two mandates of the General Elections, and the Minister has made it clear that he intends to see that comprehensive education is put into operation by every education authority in the country.
§ LORD SOMERS
My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord at this point? He said that comprehensive education is national policy. Might I suggest that what he means is that comprehensive education is Government policy?
§ LORD LEATHERLAND
My Lords, this is a Government who have the national interest at heart, a Government of the nation laying down policy for the nation. To suggest that you can kill comprehensive education, the national policy, just by changing councillors is merely begging the question. I suggest that that is another example of the confusion that the Conservative Party are trying to sow in respect of this measure.
I have dealt with only a few aspects of this measure's proposals. I have tried to deal with them rationally, without any of the hysterical blethering that we had from Mr. Hogg on television a few weeks ago. This Bill tries to reverse a bad decision made by the 1963 Act. It is trying to put wrong right; and, surely, that is what Parliament is for. I think there is a great deal of merit in having elections in London in two out of three years. It tends to keep public interest alive; and surely that is to be desired in one of the greatest metropolitan cities in the world. I am not going to suggest that all the indignation we have had in connection with the Bill is synthetic. Some of it is genuine; and, so far as the genuine indignation is concerned, I suggest that the time to have displayed it was in 1963, when the original wrong move was made.
Finally, my Lords, if I were a Tory, and if I thought that Labour was going down and down in the public estimation, I should be inclined to say: "Let us postpone these borough elections until next year. The Tories then will be even more more popular than they are now and will be able to turn out the Socialists neck and crop"—although that has to be read in conjunction with the Gallup Poll in the Daily Telegraph. In the meantime, your Lordships may have gathered that I support the Bill.
§ 4.29 p.m.
§ LORD ILFORD
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, has drawn upon many different sources for his inspiration this afternoon. It may well be that the town clerk whose advice and actions are recorded in the Acts of the Apostles was a different sort of official from the official with whom we are acquainted today. Whether he was the same sort of official or whether he was different, I am sure that all of us who have had dealings with town clerks accept very readily their advice and the action which they recommend. In this particular matter I think that all of us, as my noble friend Lord Brooke of Cumnor said, accept the conclusions reached by the Working Party set up by the Association of Town Clerks. I have not had the advantage of reading the Report of that Working Party, but I understand that it was mainly concerned with the possibility or impossibility, of holding two elections on the same day. I do not think it went beyond that.
My Lords, I do not think any of us is advocating this afternoon the holding of two elections on the same day. That is an idea which had its birth in the minds of the Royal Commission on London Government; and the Act of 1963 was, of course, very largely based upon their advice. The noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, has spoken at some length about the Act of 1963. It is quite true that in that Act some changes were made in electoral periods, but what was happening then was that the whole of the local government of Greater London was being completely transformed. So far from regretting anything done in 1963, I think that my Party are entitled to full credit for the passing of that Act. It is the only contribution to the reform of local government made in the last twenty years, and for that my noble friend Lord Brooke of Cumnor was responsible. No other Minister was found who was prepared to do the thing which has been most urgently needed in local government; that is, to come to some conclusion on what the structure of local government ought to be.
It seems to me that the Government are attaching much too much importance to the question of not holding two elections in the same year. It is a very different thing from holding two elections on the same day. Outside the area of Greater 244 London it has, of course, always been the case that in the third year, when the elections for county councils take place, there are two elections within a few weeks of each other. I think that all of us who have had some experience of that system see nothing wrong in that. It works quite satisfactorily; indeed, those responsible for Party organisation (I say nothing to their discredit because, after all, Parties are an essential part of our democracy) sometimes welcome the system. They make their arrangements for one election and do not have to make them a second time in a later year. I think there is a good deal to be said for having the two elections taking place in the same year.
But, my Lords, there is something of much greater importance than that in this Bill. I think that the Bill trespasses against a principle which lies at the foundation of our democratic system of government. I am sure it is right that where a councillor, or any elected representative, is elected for some prescribed term of office, that term should not be extended—apart, of course, from some exceptional circumstances, such as war, or the reconstruction that took place in London government. It may be desired. for some reason, that the term of office of sitting councillors, and that of councillors who will be elected at some future election should not be the same as in this Bill where it is desired to separate the Greater London Council elections from the borough council elections by twelve months. But apart from something of that sort I believe it is a most important principle that the period for which a candidate has been elected should not be extended.
Quite different considerations, however, apply in the case of a candidate not yet elected. There would have been nothing difficult or wrong in this Bill's providing, as it ought to have provided, that those councillors elected in the London boroughs at the last elections should serve for a period for which they were elected, and not for a longer period, and that councillors elected at the next elections should serve for a period of four years, or whatever longer period was thought desirable. There would have been no difficulty whatever about doing that. But it has not been done. Instead, a different course has been chosen, and it is one which, in my view, offends against 245 as essential principle of our local government law.
My Lords, it may well be that the political implications of this proposal have not been fully appreciated by the Party opposite. But whatever we say here, I am sure they will find it to be the case that the public will regard this as a device for avoiding elections which the Party opposite believed they were not going to win. I think that the Party opposite would be well advised to take this aspect of the matter into account; to drop this proposal and substitute for it a proposal more in accord with the principles on which our local government law is based.
§ 4.36 p.m.
§ LORD ST. HELENS
My Lords, I will try to follow the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, and not raise an undue number of Party political points. I hope I may meet with a similar amount of success. In common with those of my noble friends who have spoken from his side of the House I utterly deplore this Bill. Its object is to prolong by Act of Parliament a body which has been elected for a specific period of three years, a point already made by my noble friend Lord Ilford. In so doing it deprives the electors of London of the right to choose what sort of government they want for the period ahead. I fully agree that if we had had warning of this in the 1966 Election Manifesto of the Labour Party, the case for objection to this Bill would have been considerably weakened, but we had no such warning at all. Indeed, we have just been told by the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, that the warning came after the 1966 Election results had been declared.
§ LORD LEATHERLAND
My Lords, I do not like to interrupt the noble Lord, but what I said was that the Special Committee of the Association made its decision on January 28, 1966. On February 9 of that same year the full Association made its decision. Towards the end of April, 1966, the Home Secretary announced that the matter was being considered sympathetically.
§ LORD ST. HELENS
My Lords, I hope that I am not being very stupid, but I do not see that there is any matter of substantial difference between us. So far as I can see, no such warning was given to the electors, and now the electorate is being faced with a fait accompli for which it gave no mandate and against which it has no chance to protest. Frankly, my Lords, I find this to be a gross breach of faith on the part of the Government.
What are the reasons given by the Government? They gave them most clearly here and in another place in an earlier debate. They spoke first of all of convenience and confusion. They said there would be confusion in the minds of the electorate. The noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, in a most explicit speech, covered this point very fairly. She explained that there were two elections in the country and, whatever happened, it was better not to have two in London. On the other hand, I must say that she did not pay the electorate of London a very high compliment by suggesting that the electors are unable to discern between two elections separated by a month. There was more talk in another place of a low poll caused by apathy. If any of your Lordships had had the amount of correspondence and representations which I have received, from late constituents and people living in London, you would think, as I do, that it is a very arguable proposition that there is at the moment apathy in London over this Bill.
Finally the Government fall back on the argument of administrative convenience. We have heard a lot said in this debate about county clerks and sitting councillors, but I have not yet heard one argument raised on behalf of the unfortunate electorate whom this is going to affect. Surely it is a new conception of Government and democracy to put the convenience of officials before the rights of the electorate, and this is precisely what is being done in this Bill.
In another place, when he spoke on this Bill, the Home Secretary referred to it as a relatively non-controversial matter and called it "A sensible administrative rearrangement. "But this entirely ignores the fact that 1967 is going to be a critical year for the administration of London. As regards education it is going to be a 247 decisive year. It is against this that we on this side of the House and in my Party object to this Bill. Noble Lords who read the Hansard of another place will have seen deployed at great length the arguments on behalf of various boroughs and constituencies. I shall not go into them in detail and bore your Lordships, but the following points were raised as coming up during the course of 1967: the reorganisation of secondary education; changes in various boroughs and in local administration; changes in the management of certain housing estates which are vital to constituents living in those areas; changes in the level of rating, and changes in the application of housing subsidies in certain constituencies and boroughs.
All these arguments have been put at length, and I would simply ask here and now: are the rights of parents, of owner-occupiers and of ratepayers to have a say in the administration of their own boroughs simply to be swept away on the ground of administrative convenience? Because that is the argument which has come up in this House today. It simply "will not wash" to say that decisions by the electorate on these points have only been deferred, because we all know that the decisions taken during the course of this year on these controversial matters will have reached the point of no return by the time the electorate are empowered to vote next year.
I am extremely critical of the Government. I think that they are much in the same position as Henry VIII when he said that although he could not prevent the Pope from sending a Cardinal's hat to one of his Bishops, he could make certain that the Bishop would not have a head to put it on. Democracy has been described as "to have the right to say 'No' to the boss", and my charge against the Government here is that they are denying the electors that essential right in 1967. In another place, the Government were accused of gerrymandering. I looked up this word in the Concise Oxford Dictionary and this is what I read:gerrymander…manipulate (constituency etc.) so as to secure disproportionate influence at election for some party or class;".The Government denied hotly that they were gerrymandering. It struck me as the 248 height of cynicism to claim that the definition did not apply in this case because no election was being held. The issue of the reorganisation of secondary education is the most important of the issues coming up, and it is one on which I have had a mass of communications from friends of mine living in London.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord could help me? He says that he has had a mass of letters. Could he give me the date, approximately, of the first letter he received on the subject?
§ LORD ST. HELENS
My Lords, I think it was just before Christmas. There is very strong feeling about this. Let noble Lords make no mistake about it.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
My Lords, the point I was trying to make was that the issue we are now discussing was well-known some six months prior to the first letter the noble Lord received. If the general public were so "steamed up", I think the noble Lord would have received letters a good deal earlier.
§ LORD ST. HELENS
My Lords, I do not think so, because people are not quick to take up these issues. It takes a certain amount of time to gather strength in a borough. The letter came from a friend of one of the grammar schools. These issues take time to sink in. I think that is perfectly reasonable; we are not all politicians rushing to the newspapers to see the latest pronouncement of what is going to happen in future. There is strong feeling among parents interested in grammar schools. This is the last opportunity they will have to make a decision on this issue.
In reference to what the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, said, may I point out that the Secretary of State has no power to compel local education authorities to adopt policies which they feel to be educationally unsound? This should be decided by the electorate.
§ LORD LEATHERLAND
My Lords. I do not like to interrupt the noble Lord unnecessarily, but when my Party was in power in the Essex County Council and I was the Council's chairman, we put before the Minister proposals for certain comprehensive schools. The Tory Minister turned them down.
§ LORD ST. HELENS
My Lords, I do not question that specific case. We are not in the least bit for or against comprehensive schools. They are excellent institutions. What we are worried about in our Party is the destruction of the grammar schools. I remember my old father used to say that it took the Almighty hundreds of years to grow a tree, but it took some ass with an axe only half-an-hour to cut it down.
§ LORD LINDGREN
My Lords, we are not discussing education at the moment, but local government. So far as local government is concerned, it works within a framework created for it by Parliament. Is the noble Lord really exciting local authorities to defy the Government? No local authority can work outside the provisions made for it by Parliament and by the Minister in charge of whatever Department may be concerned.
§ LORD ST. HELENS
My Lords, according to the news I have read in several newspapers, certain local authorities have decided to stick to their own sort of education. And good luck to them!
§ LORD ST. HELENS
I am simply arguing that the electorate are being deprived of the opportunity to express an opinion, and I think that is an appalling thing.
I would make one comment an grammar schools. About ten years ago, in company with other noble Lords and Members of another place, I went on a Parliamentary delegation to America and visited many schools and universities all over the country. We had discussions with many professors and schoolmasters about the future of education. All and every one said how greatly they envied the British system of grammar schools. They reckoned that it took the first year in an American college to reach the standard reached in the sixth form of an English grammar school. In this Bill, without any forewarning, the electorate are having taken away from them the chance of protesting against these administrative changes.
§ LORD LINDGREN
My Lords, the noble Lord is quite off the mark. We are discussing the elections of borough councils. Within London, not a single borough 250 is an education authority. There is the Inner London Authority and there is the Outer London Authority, but, so far as London is concerned, the municipal boroughs are not the education authorities.
§ LORD ILFORD
My Lords, surely it is the case that outside the area of the old administrative County of London all the authorities are educational authorities.
§ LORD ST. HELENS
May I get a word in in try own speech? I am greatly obliged to my noble friend, and, indeed, what he says is so. If the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, who I am beginning to suspect has not done much homework on this subject, had bothered to read the Hansard of another place, he would have found this point which has been made by my noble friend made most forcibly at every stage in the discussions on the Bill.
In conjunction with the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, I will not detain your Lordships for much longer, but I want to conclude by saying this. I admit that, after all that has been said in another place and in this Chamber, this Bill concerns, in effect, a local issue. It is a local issue concerning only one of the great cities of our country. But it is an issue that contains a major principle of democracy, and one that has been fought for over the centuries in Parliament; that is, the principle of the right of the electorate to decide at specific intervals—and I reiterate the words "specific intervals"—the sort of government that they want for the future. I maintain that if this Bill is passed there will be many people in all parts of the country who will say: "Where is this sort of thing going to end?"
§ 4.52 p.m.
§ LORD CONESFORD
My Lords, the speech of my noble friend Lord Brooke of Cumnor in opening this debate and those that have followed from this side of the House have stated the case, as I see it, so admirably that I shall be brief. I start by making an admission which I am afraid will make me slightly ludicrous. I am a lawyer by profession, and I have always thought that there were few more ridiculous things than a lawyer asserting 251 that he was shocked. But, frankly, I am shocked by this Bill, and I am sorry that two Ministers for whom I feel so much respect as I do for the two Ministers in charge of this Bill should be in charge of so disreputable a measure.
Let me say at once that of course there are cases where Parliament may have to interfere with the rights of electors to elect some legislative or local democratic body. But it has generally been thought necessary, when there are interferences of that sort with existing democratic rights, both to prove their necessity and to seek to achieve consent and unanimity. In this case there is admittedly no necessity of any kind. My noble friend Lord Brooke of Cumnor has limited his opposition to this particular proposal of extending by a year the tenure of office of the existing councillors in the boroughs. For that provision in this Bill no necessity has been proved; nor, so far as I know, has it even been claimed. It is demonstrably unnecessary. There is no agreement by the other Parties.
When I was first elected a Member of Parliament for Norwich, I had no expectation or belief that I should be elected (this was in 1935) for 10 years. But the reason for the taking away of the rights of the Parliamentary franchise then was that we were fighting a great war. There was a National Government of all Parties, and there was agreement by all Parties to postpone the Election. When there ceased to be that agreement between the Parties, the Election took place. Is there not some substance in the case that there is something shocking in simply taking away the rights of electors, when admittedly there is no necessity, and admittedly there is no consensus agreeing to that change?
A very vigorous speech was made by the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, and I hope I am not saying anything improper if I say how much I enjoyed it. The formula that ran through it was to make a series of the most appalling accusations against Ministers in a former Conservative Administration and against the Conservative Party, every sentence being introduced by the beautiful formula, "I shall not say". I had previously enjoyed a speech on much 252 the same lines from an experienced speaker at Marble Arch. But that was on a very cold day. To be able to enjoy such a speech in all the comfort of your Lordships' House was indeed a delight, and I hope that we shall often hear from the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, in a similar way.
The argument that I am advancing about there being something shocking about what is proposed was even asserted by the noble Lord himself at an early stage in his speech, as he will discover when he reads Hansard to-morrow, when he said that my noble friend Lord Brooke of Cumnor, or the Government of which he was a Member, had done precisely the same unscrupulous bit of cheating in 1963. I thought that my noble friend Lord Brooke of Cumnor and others had shown that this was a quite different case. Apparently, however, the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, thinks that it was cheating. But if it was, is that a complete justification for their cheating? Later in his speech the noble Lord apparently abandoned that and did not think it was cheating, but seemed to think that the two things were quite parallel and both were all right. But to attack one as cheating, and then to say, "I support this because it is doing the same thing", seems to me to be advancing an argument which I should have thought would be rather shocking to the Bench of Bishops.
§ LORD LEATHERLAND
It would be a most reprehensible line of argument, which would be shocking to the noble Lord. But what I said was that the 1963 Act had perpetrated a wrong, and that my noble friend's Bill was going to put that right.
§ LORD CONESFORD
I thought the noble Lord said that it was perpetrating a wrong in extending the life of certain local bodies and, in so far as he thought that wrong, this Bill is not putting it right: it is perpetrating what the noble Lord has described as a wrong. I hope the noble Lord will not find that too difficult to follow.
Then there was this question of comprehensive education which seemed to cause so much confusion in the mind of the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren. Of course, the Minister of Education may have a wish; he may have a policy; 253 but the mere fact that he has a wish or a policy does not by itself alter the law. And it remains a fact that in some of these boroughs the constitution of the local authority may have an important effect on the future of the grammar schools in their area. At least that is the universal belief both of the authorities and of their electors; and I think of the electors on both sides in politics. Therefore, I entirely support the point that has been made by my noble friend Lord St. Helens, that this makes what is now proposed particularly outrageous.
My Lords, I do not wish to delay the House. However much I have differed from noble Lords opposite—and I do not think I have concealed that I have some quite considerable differences from noble Lords opposite—and however profoundly I have been shocked by much of their legislation, I have not generally questioned their intentions. Considering my respect for many of them, I think they must in their own minds have found some justification for what is proposed. If they have found such a justification. I hone they will tell us what it is. I have been quite unable to discover any justification. I hope they will agree that it must be at least prima facie wrong to deprive electors of rights of election which they at present possess by law, and to which they attach enormous importance. Most of the provisions of this Bill could be carried out perfectly simply without committing what I think is that outrage. No necessity for the outrage has been shown, and no attempt has been made to secure the assent of other parties to it. Nor would it have been any good, of course, to seek such assent, because it could not be granted. Whether we are right or wrong in the views we hold on many of the questions which may fall to be decided and argued in local government elections, we assert strongly that it is the right of the electors to decide upon them, and they are being deprived of that right without agreement.
§ 5.3 p.m.
§ LORD WOLVERTON
My Lords, I rise for only two minutes to say that I also am profoundly shocked by this Bill. I have been tempted to rise to my feet by a statement made by the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, with regard to withdrawing rights from local authorities, which was referred to in the speech of my 254 noble friend Lord St. Helens. I am subject to correction by the Front Bench, but I think I am right in saying that the Government have no powers to force local authorities to disband their grammar schools and introduce comprehensive education, unless they conic to Parliament to do so. They can use persuasion, and they are trying to do so. But until Parliament passes an Act the Government have no right to say they will do it. And for them to say that they will withdraw grant is, in my submission, entirely wrong, because local authorities are carrying out statutory duties under the great Butler Act of 1944; and until that Act is altered grant cannot be withdrawn. They could make different conditions, and not give grants for new building projects and so on; but, in my view, as I have said, to announce that they will withdraw grants for education is quite wrong. Perhaps noble Lords on the Front Bench will correct me if I am in error.
§ 5.5 p.m.
§ BARONESS STOCKS
My Lords, I am in the unhappy position of agreeing with much that has been said on both sides of this House, and I was particularly put in that position when I listened to the preliminary exchange of pleasantries between the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, and my noble friend Lord Leatherland. I absolutely agree with Lord Leatherland that the London Government Act 1963 was unnecessary, reactionary, expensive, complicated, and introduced for the wrong reason, which was to break Labour control of London Government.
§ LORD BROOKE OF CUMNOR
My Lords, would the noble Baroness allow me to intervene? I think perhaps I have some authority to speak in this matter, as it was on my recommendation that the Royal Commission was set up. That statement of the noble Baroness, I must say, so far as I am concerned, is absolutely untrue. It was necessary to have an inquiry because by almost universal consent London local government was not in a satisfactory state; and a Royal Commission, containing members of all Parties, unanimously recommended fundamental change.
§ BARONESS STOCKS
That may be so, my Lords, but the precise form which the change took was a product of a Government Bill, and I still think it was 255 motivated to some extent by the fact that many people wished to break the Labour Government. That is by the way, but I agree with my noble friend Lord Leatherland on that. I also agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, when he suggested there was more in this Bill than meets the eye, and my noble friend Lord Leatherland put his finger on it when he suggested that possibly some of the opposition to it was motivated by the fear that local authorities would be forced to stay put while "comprehensivisation" in education was carried forward, I think very ruthlessly. It is, of course, national policy—we know that. But it is a policy which can be implemented ruthlessly, or reasonably, elastically, and at different rates of progress. That means that many local authorities would wish to be able to express an opinion on that subject in the course of the next year, which the next elections would give them an opportunity of doing. Therefore, I feel that this Bill, as I still think was the case with the London Government Act, has an ulterior motive. I do not like it and I shall not vote for it; and I can only express my thankfulness that I have no constituents who will turn me out at the next Election for voting against the Labour Party.
§ 5.8 p.m.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
My Lords, may I first of all express appreciation to my noble friend Lady Phillips for the manner in which she presented this simple—although I gather from the tone of certain speeches, particularly that of the noble Lord, Lord Conesford—highly controversial Bill. Some of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, led me to believe that my task would be simple; that perhaps I could save some of the ammunition I might need to defend the Government's position for use on the Committee stage—because obviously, in view of what the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, says, we shall see an Amendment. But, my Lords, as to some of the later words he used, if it had not been for the tone of his speech I should have regarded them as a scurrilous attack upon the Borough of Camden and, in particular, on my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. They would have been 256 scurrilous if it had not been for the tone in which he said them. I should perhaps have left the matter until the Committee stage.
I want to say this before I develop the case on which my right honourable friend made his decision. I say this—and I will sit down if the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, wishes to concur or to disagree with me. Whatever we may think of the opinions of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary—to some maybe on the Back Benches he is too radical, perhaps too lenient, perhaps too far ahead for most of us—I do not believe there is anyone who would get up and say that the right honourable gentleman is dishonest. But that is what the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, said this afternoon. He said that my right honourable friend had cheated, hut he said it without a vestige of evidence to substantiate what is, in political terms, one of the most serious charges than can be made. I hope that on reflection the noble Lord will change those words. He may say that my right honourable friend was ill-advised, but I hope the noble Lord will not leave it as it is.
§ LORD BROOKE OF CUMNOR
My Lords, the noble Lord has invited me to intervene. What I said, and what I repeat, is that the Home Secretary yielded to Party pressure to present to Parliament a Bill which involves electoral cheating.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
All right, my Lords; there is some qualification there, and therefore I must deal with it.
I am sure the speech made by my noble friend, Lord Leatherland, was enjoyed by all of us. He was certainly my first choice to come in after the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor. He did exactly what I wanted him to do. He certainly proved the saying that those who live in glasshouses should not throw stones, and he was able to throw a few back, because there is a good deal in what my noble friend said. I have heard from noble Lords opposite that the voices of the local people in local authorities should always be heard. Indeed, this is what we were saying in 1963. If I remember rightly, we then had 13 days on the Committee stage on the London Government Bill—the noble Lord, Lord Newton, and the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, will remember that, I am sure 257 —and on many occasions we drew the attention of the Government to the fact that the county councils concerned were all united in opposition to the proposals of the Government of the day. Not only was the London County Council opposed to them, but the Surrey County Council, the Essex County Council and the Kent County Council, all of which had been elected on a popular franchise. They were not all Labour—in fact, only one was Labour and, if my memory is right, the other three were Conservative.
It is perfectly true that there was need for reform in London and that the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, had set up a Royal Commission, but those who had experience of local government in London and the Greater London area were opposed to the Bill, and we begged noble Lords opposite, on two or three occasions, that if they wanted to proceed with the Bill and put it on the Statute Book they should at least make the enacting day (the date on which the Bill would come into operation) a date after what everyone expected to be that of the General Election, so that not only the electors of London but also the political Parties involved could be in some position possibly to amend that Bill if they so wished. But the noble Lords who this afternoon have spoken so fervently on behalf of the electors of London and their rights in regard to the sort of local authority or political Party under which they should live, all went into the Division Lobby against us on that matter. I will not pursue that any further this evening.
I want to say one thing to the noble Lord and to the House as to why the Government accepted the recommendations of the London Boroughs Association, as the representatives of the London boroughs, for the postponement of the London borough elections from 1967 to 1968. I leave out the report of the town clerks because really that is not involved in the issue that is before us to-day. All we are concerned with are the recommendations that were arrived at and were conveyed to my right honourable friend, the Home Secretary, by the London Boroughs Association, representing the London boroughs, that these elections should be postponed.
§ LORD SOMERS
My Lords, if I may interrupt for one moment I should like to say, in connection with what the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, has said in regard to the electorate's being given no chance to voice their desires before the Greater London Bill was passed, that I happen to live in one of the boroughs which might now have been one of the Greater London boroughs, and it was owing to the desires of the inhabitants of that borough that it did not take place. Therefore I do not think his allegations are entirely true.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
My Lords, in fact the noble Lord has proved my case. The only reason why the Borough of Epsom and Ewell was excluded from the Greater London area was because the noble Lord, Lord McCorquodale of Newton, could gather up sufficient support on his own Cross Benches and on the Opposition Benches against the Government for the removal of the Borough of Epsom and Ewell from the Greater London Area. Epsom and Ewell were fortunate that they were able to get enough support from the Conservative Benches to ensure their removal.
§ LORD SOMERS
My Lords, my noble friend, Lord McCorquodale of Newton, and others only did so on the advice of the inhabitants of Epsom and Ewell.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
The point I am making is that the electors of Epsom and well were fortunate that they had the support of the noble Lord, Lord McCorquodale of Newton. There may well have been a number of other districts which are now in the Greater London Area which would have preferred not to be in it.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
The noble Lord well remembers that night, and so does the noble Lord, Lord Auckland. But let us leave that for a moment.
The recommendations were made by the London Boroughs Association. I think all of us are concerned about the low level of voting at local elections, not only in London but throughout the country. Therefore, whatever we do should be with the aim in mind of achieving a higher level of voting. Unlike 259 some noble Lords, I do not support compulsory voting, such as there is in Australia. But we must recognise that it is upon the political Parties that the responsibility falls to see not only that the electors know the issues but that the Party machines work smoothly. Not so long ago, because my wife is the chairman of my local Party, I had to go out canvassing, put election addresses into envelopes, and the like. Only someone who has been concerned in fighting elections can know the tremendous amount of work involved.
Let us consider these London Boroughs. The average size is some 200,000 electors, although there are some which have over 250,000. The noble Lord, Lord Ilford, with his experience, must know that even for the Conservative Party machine, or for the Labour Party machine which, it is true, depends mainly on voluntary work, it is a formidable task merely to inform the public of the names of the candidates.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
That may well be; but the task is formidable. When one contemplates the fight for the Greater London Council in April, and then, one month later, the Party machines going into action again, one realises how Party machines and Party loyalty are strained well beyond their capacity; and I believe that in the end the Party machines and local elections will suffer.
§ LORD ST. HELENS
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for allowing me to intervene. I should have said one could argue the other way: that it would be an immense advantage during the second election to have a fully marked up register.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
This may be true, but one of the great problems of Party machines is this. The noble Lord, Lord St. Helens, with his experience, may agree that it is one problem to get your register marked and to know where everyone is, but the real problem lies in getting the voters out and in knowing who are the sick and elderly. The register is quickly out of date. In the case of the 260 Greater London elections and borough elections there are different candidates and different issues; the issues for the Greater London election will be entirely different from those of the borough elections. This is why noble Lords opposite created these two specific machines with different functions. I do not believe the Party machines could do their job properly, notifying the public and, above all else, getting the voters out, on the basis of having two major elections within a month.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord St. Helens, that the elections in 1967 are going to be very important, and it is for that reason that we should ensure that as far as possible those elections are cerried out in the best possible way. It is for no Party political advantage—I will deal with that in a moment—that we have brought this legislation forward for the elections to be in a separate year. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, said that these proposals were bitterly opposed by the Conservatives.
In another place the right honourable gentleman for Enfield, West, Mr. Iain Macleod, said that the declaration by Mr. Norman Prichard, when he wrote in The Times (he was the Chairman of the London Boroughs Association) that the Special Committee had been unanimous, was not correct. Mr. Prichard had said it was unanimous. In fact one may say Mr. Prichard had been called a liar publicly. That, like the earlier statement, is a very serious allegation. I think it is right now to put this on record. I hope some of the Press, who printed this correspondence and who were not prepared to print the later letter will take note. I now quote from a letter of Alderman Taylor. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, will know him. He is the Leader of the Conservative Party on the London Boroughs Association and he is deputy chairman of that Association. He writes:As you know, I was not myself a member of the Special Committee at that time"—that is the time the decision, reported to be unanimous, was made, agreeing to postponement—…but I have made enquiries and am satisfied that the recommendation was in fact unanimous, and I have the authority of all Conservative members present at that meeting to say this.261 I felt it right to put that on record as a vindication of the stand that Mr. Prichard has taken throughout this matter.
§ LORD BROOKE OF CUMNOR
My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, I have never said any word against Mr. Prichard. Could the noble Lord just tell us what the recommendation is to which that letter refers?
§ LORD SHEPHERD
The recommendation was made by the Special Committee. On the 27th January, 1966, the Honorary Secretary to the London Boroughs Association received a letter from Greenwich London Borough Council asking that the Association's Special Committee should consider a suggestion that the London borough council elections should be postponed from 1967 until 1968, leaving only the G.L.C. elections to be held in 1967. On the 28th January—that is the meeting to which we have referred—the Special Committee unanimously agreed with the views expressed by the Greenwich Council but instructed that the views of the constituent councils be sought, which was done; because not all the London borough councils are members of the Special Committee.
My Lords, I have, perhaps with inadequate words, tried to make the case as to why we thought it right in the interests of the electors of London Government to change the date. I would say only this to the noble Lord in terms of political gerrymandering, political advantage. The decision was made by the Government on the recommendation of the London boroughs early last year. We had just had a major victory. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, himself suffered by that Election, although, if I may say so, we gained by his loss and, if I may say so, he certainly lends an air of competence to the Front Bench opposite. But we had that major victory. The opinion polls showed us with a lead that was astronomical. Anyone who was knowledgeable in political life did not take much account of it; but it certainly seemed clear to anyone who was in politics that in the foreseeable future, in any election that was fought. whether borough 262 or parish, if it was fought on political grounds Labour would certainly win.
I will say this to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor. I have had a long interest in Party machines. My father was national agent of a political Party from 1924 to 1945, and I remember some of the things he taught me. If I was a Party manager last April and May, making a decision for Party advantage, I should have chosen 1967 when the wind was fair. In 1968 it would be a little bit more doubtful; it would be a little beyond the range of radar so far as one could foresee. But the London boroughs, both Labour and Conservative, took the view that it was in the interests of the electors that the election should be postponed. If there could have been any advantage to the Labour Party in London, I have not the slightest doubt that it would have been to let the present Act continue and to have the elections in 1967.
On the debates on the London Government Bill, the noble Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, said that they rested upon informed opinion, and he used this argument on many occasions to vindicate the view of the Government of the day. The informed opinion that is available to Her Majesty's Government in this matter is no Royal Commission Report; because there is no Royal Commission in existence. Informed opinion consists of the councillors of the London boroughs, both Labour and Conservative. True, not all of one Party agreed one way or the other. There were some Labour councils who took a contrary view to the majority of Labour councils, and there were some Conservative councils who took a different view from the majority of Conservative councils. There was a division of opinion in Parties in this matter. I have not the slightest doubt that what the Government propose to-day is right.
Finally, I would say that there was no political pressure brought on my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, and I do not believe that the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, really believes that my right honourable friend would fall for it.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.