HL Deb 26 January 1967 vol 279 cc678-89

3.18 p.m.

Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee read.

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

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD MERTHYR in the Chair.]

Clause 1:

London borough elections

1.—(1)The ordinary elections and retirements of London borough councillors duo (apart from this Act) to take place in 1967 and each third year after 1967 shall be postponed for one year so as to take place in 1968 and each third year after 1968; and accordingly in section 23(2A) of the Local Government Act 1933, as inserted by paragraph 8 of Schedule 4 to the London Government Act 1963, for the reference to 1967 there shall be substituted a reference to 1968.


moved, in subsection (1), to leave out "1967 and". The noble Lord said: This Amendment and all the other seven Amendments in the Marshalled List deal with the same point and, therefore, if I can persuade your Lordships to accept the first one, I will move the others formally. As I explained on Second Reading, elections were held in May, 1964, in the 32 London boroughs to elect councillors to hold office for the next three years. They happened to be very successful elections for the Labour Party. There were more than 1,100 Labour councillors elected and about 670 Conservatives. The Labour Party, in fact, won a majority in 20 out of the 32 London Boroughs. Under the law on this subject, which is the London Government Act 1963, all these 1,800 councillors go out of office three and a half months from now, and new elections are due to be held on May 11, 1967. The polling in recent by-elections in various London boroughs shows a marked falling off in support for Labour candidates and, to judge by those polls (although I know this cannot be a certain test), there will be pretty substantial changes in the representation of a number of boroughs next May.

This is the moment when the Labour Government come forward with a Bill which seeks to legalise the holding over of these elections until May of next year and to extend to four years the tenure of power of the councillors who were elected in 1964 for three years, and for three years only. This is designed also to extend for a further twelve months the Labour Party's majority control over a number of London boroughs where at elections next May they may well lose that majority and in some cases are almost certain to lose it.

I had always regarded it as the duty of the Home Secretary in discharging his difficult, and indeed delicate, responsibilities for the electoral system, both national and local, to set his face against any twisting of the electoral machinery for the advantage of his own Party. That is why I think that the proposal which is before us now is a dishonourable one. It is the extending of the term of office of sitting members by the use of a Party majority that is so grossly unfair—and it has always been considered grossly unfair.

With your Lordships' permission, I should like to quote from an extraordinarily apt, and indeed prescient, petition 250 years ago against the Septennial Act, which prolonged the duration of the Parliament of that time to seven years. It is a Petition by 31 Peers against that Act, and I will read this extract: Because it is agreed, that the House of Commons must be chosen by the people, and when so chosen, they are truly the representatives of the people, which they cannot be so properly said to be, when continued for a longer time than that for which they were chosen: for after that time they arc chosen by the Parliament, and not the people, who are thereby deprived of the only remedy which they have against those, who either do not understand, or through corruption, do wilfully betray the trust deposed in them: which remedy is to choose better men in their places. Fortunately, among the London boroughs in 1967 there is, so far as I am aware, no suspicion of corruption, but equally certainly there is a strong desire, evidenced by letters I have been receiving as well as by recent by-elections in the boroughs, to have the opportunity to choose new men next May who will pursue new policies. Existing policies which the local electorate would wish to alter are to be prolonged by this Bill and imposed for another twelve months by the will of Parliament against the will of the electors, if this Bill goes through unamended. If in another place the right of the citizen to vote is overridden by a Party majority, surely it becomes the duty of your Lordships' House to uphold that right to vote.

There are only two situations I can think of which would justify prolongation of the term of office of sitting members. One is where that is quite unavoidable, and the other is where the reasons for postponement of elections are accepted as valid by the various political Parties that seek to try their fortunes at those elections. Those who were elected to Parliament in 1935 for a period of not longer than five years had their term of office extended to 1945 by common consent, because a General Election in war time was unthinkable. Those who were elected to metropolitan borough councils in November, 1945, for a period of three years had their term of office extended by six months, by common consent among the Parties, because it was agreed that May was a better month for going to the poll in local elections than November. Those who were elected to the Surrey and Kent and Essex County councils in April, 1961, for a period of three years had their term of office extended until 1965 because, by common consent, it would have been absurd to hold new elections for the whole of these counties in April, 1964, when as from April. 1965, just twelve months later, a considerable part of each of these counties was to be transferred to Greater London and to come instead under the administration of the Greater London Council and the London borough councils.

The noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, in the Second Reading debate, spoke as if this had been done in the teeth of the opposition of the Labour Party. Everybody knows that the Labour Party at that time opposed the 1963 Bill as a whole, and indeed moved many Amendments to it. The noble Lord sought to quote what happened on that occasion as an excuse for what the Labour Government are doing in this Bill. The facts here are of quite considerable interest. The postponement of the 1964 elections in Surrey and Kent and Essex was enacted by Schedule 3 to the London Government Act 1963, as the noble Lord said on Second Reading. I submit to your Lordships that the place for opposition to be made known on a matter like this is in Parliament. To judge by the noble Lord's speech, one would have expected that the Labour Party would have put down Amendments to Schedule 3 and fought the proposal in the Bill, as they could easily have done if they had felt so strongly about it.

If your Lordships care to look up the debates on Schedule 3 to that Bill, both in Committee and on Report in another place, you will find that Schedule 3 was agreed to practically without debate. There were no Amendments designed to alter the date. Exactly the same thing happened both in Committee and on Report in this House. That Schedule was wide open to amendment, but no Amendment was moved similar to the one I am moving to-day, for the simple reason that the change of date of those county council elections was accepted by everybody as necessary.

Nobody has sought to pretend that the postponement of the 1967 London Borough Council elections is necessary. The chief justification offered by the Government is that if they take place in a different year from the Greater London Council elections there may be a higher poll. There may be, but that is not a compelling reason. It is only a hypothetical reason, which may not in fact be fulfilled. One cannot entirely close one's eyes to the fact that the continued control of 20 out of the 32 London boroughs for an extra 12 months will be highly advantageous to the Labour Party; and conversely, as we all know, will be bitterly resented by the electors who see the chance of a change in local policies being filched away from them.

Imagine a football match where just before the end the home side are a goal down, and they cannot bear to let the other side win. So they persuade the referee that his watch has gone wrong, that his watch is fast, and that really there is another quarter of an hour to play, to give them a chance of winning, or at least equalising. Any football club which stooped to do a thing like that would be disgraced. No other team would agree to fixtures with it another year. Even the loyalty of its most loyal supporters would be shaken.

That is an exact parallel to what this Bill proposes. If it were a game, I know that noble Lords opposite would never dream of defending that sort of behaviour. Before they go into the Lobby against this Amendment, I hope they will bear that in mind and will realise that they will not only be conniving at electoral cheating, but will be approving the use by their Party of methods which in their private lives they would instinctively reject. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 1, line 7, leave out ("1967 and").—(Lord Brooke of Cumnor.)

3.32 p.m.


The noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, has moved his Amendment with all the skill but not with the moderation that we normally expect from him. I am going to support the Government in their opposition to this Amendment. In future, I may not always find myself in a position to support the Government. Up to now I think the Government have been pretty good—but, of course, also up to now they have had the benefit of the inestimable value of my advice. From now on they are on their own, and they must do the best they can.

I am speaking on this Amendment because, when the London Government Bill was before this House in 1963. I moved an Amendment to Schedule 2, which sought to do two things. The first was to prevent the elections to the Greater London Council and the London boroughs from falling in the same year; and the second was to give the Greater London Council a running-in period of four years, as against the three proposed in the Bill. By far the greater part of my speech on that occasion was devoted to the first of these, because I thought, for the reasons which I then gave, that those elections ought not to be held in the same year.

I based my arguments on, first, the convenience of the political Parties and others interested in the elections, and the fact that to hold them in the same year would place an unnecessarily heavy strain upon everyone concerned; and, secondly, on the fact that the holding of the elections in the same year would lessen rather than heighten interest in local government in the London area. I said then, and I quote myself—something I do not like doing very often, but I think it is right that I should do so on this occasion— Those of us who are knowledgeable in these matters know perfectly well that there is nothing more likely to stimulate interest in a body than an election to that body, and this applies equally to Parliament and to local government elections. Running up to the election there is always a heightened interest in the body and in what it has been doing. The Parties brace themselves for the effort; the workers and the prospective councillors consider the faults of the existing administration and begin to understand or become heightened in their judgment".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14/5/63, col. 1227.] I believe that what I said then was absolutely right. I still believe it to be true that, if you hold these elections in the same year, you are going to destroy to some extent the interest of the electors in the election. Those of us who have experience in these matters know the difficulty of sustaining interest over a period in which there are two separate elections running, one shortly after the other. Indeed, the figures of the people voting in recent elections have proved beyond any shadow of doubt that it is a disadvantage to hold elections one very shortly after the other.

Casting my mind back over the lengthy proceedings on that Bill in this House, I can never remember charging the Government of the day with a Party political motive in introducing it. I did not believe then that the Government had—certainly not as their primary motive in producing that Bill—a desire to secure a Party political advantage, although I must admit that there was a widespread thought in my Party that the Bill, and its widening of the area of London government at the higher level, was designed to secure a better chance of Tory control in this great metropolis. That view was expressed here and it was felt. I never subscribed to that point of view myself, because I recognised that something had to be done about local government in London, for it had long since outgrown the structure devised for it so many years before. My motive in moving the Amendment at that time was the simple one of improving all that surrounds the elections to the local authorities of Greater London, and of stimulating and maintaining interest in their work.

I do not believe, despite anything which the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, has said, that this Government have introduced this Bill purely for Party advantage. I am absolutely positive that this Government, any more than the last Government, would not produce a Bill designed purely for this purpose. It would be unworthy of any Government to do anything of that sort. I will not charge the last Government with doing it, and I will not accept that this Government are doing it at this time with this Bill. My motive in supporting the Government to-day is the same as my motive in 1963; namely, to make the job of elections easier for the interests concerned, and to maintain and improve citizens' interests in local government in the Greater London area.

It rather looks as though we are running up to a Division on these Amendments. Perhaps I shall be permitted to make, now that I have joined what I call the "Elder Statesmen's Bench", an observationon the relationship between the two Houses. There was a time when I regarded this House as an "indefensible anachronism", to use Harold Laski's phrase, and would have kicked the whole thing over. After five years of watching this House closely in its work, I have come to appreciate its true value within our system of Government, to say nothing of the fact that I have come to love it! But it seems to me—and I have watched things fairly carefully—that lately we have become a little "Division-happy", if I may coin a phrase; a tendency to go a little too often into the Division Lobbies. This House has powers which, with minor changes, I should wish to preserve. I know that a situation in which the majority Party in the Commons is the minority one here is one which calls for the greatest restraint by the majority Party in this House; a restraint which we did not have to exercise when we were in Opposition. I realise that this necessity for caution throws a great responsibility on the leaders of the Party opposite, and is at times, inevitably and understandably, a very difficult task for them.

In the interests of this House and of the relationship between the two Houses, I would appeal to noble Lords opposite to use their undoubted right to defeat the Government only on matters of vital principle, and not for purposes of Party political expediency, for if they do that they are on the way to destroying this House. I cannot feel that the series of Amendments now before the Committee involves a matter of vital principle, and I sincerely hope that the Opposition Party will not carry these Amendments to a Division. I hope I shall be excused that last part of my speech, but it is something about. which I have thought rather deeply: the relationship between the two Houses, the continued existence of this House and the retention of some of its powers, which I think it ought to hold. I hope that your Lordships' Committee will consider what I have said.

3.42 p.m.


We are all, I am sure, very pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord Champion, speak to-day. We expressed our appreciation of him only a week or two ago. The views of the House on his Deputy Leadership were then expressed on behalf of us all, and we are quite sure that among his many excellent qualities he is a good House of Lords man. But I am bound to say that I cannot entirely accept his advice to-day. I speak on behalf of a Party which is in a minority in both Houses and, therefore, can have a certain independence of mind. I should also like to remind the noble Lord that although during the discussions on the 1963 Bill, in which I took a small part, it may be that he did not accuse the Conservative Government of gerrymandering, this was not so in the case of other noble Lords. Indeed, the noble Lord in charge of the Bill for the Labour Opposition, Lord Morrison of Lambeth, spoke repeatedly and with the utmost venom, in a nice sort of way, about the Conservative Party. So when we fabricate history, let us make sure that no one who was alive then is still alive when we are doing the fabrication.

In this case, I must admit that not all the Liberals in the Liberal Party, in its wider connotation, think the same, but we in this House, having heard the speeches on Second Reading, have made up our minds that on the whole we should like to support the Amendment. We do so because we feel that there has to be a very good reason indeed for postponing an election. The election of members is a right which the subjects of this country have, whether in a Parliamentary or a local government election, and we do not feel that, merely for administrative purposes, merely for the convenience of town clerks and other people, an election should be postponed. One year will be gone, and gone for ever.

Although the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, has charged the Labour Government with doing this for gerrymandering purposes, I do not myself believe that to be the case. I do not believe that the Labour Party are doing this with an improper motive from a political point of view. I think they are doing what they so often do, and what every Government does—that is, to do it for administrative purposes, for administrative convenience. Time after time, it seems to me, the whole of this country is having its burdens increased because it is thought desirable that some civil servant, local or Government, should not be put to any greater trouble. But that is what civil servants are for—to he given trouble. Time after time, we must, as Parliamentarians, make one thing clear: that when principles are at stake administrative convenience must take second place. I have made this speech many times in your Lordships' House, and I shall make it again, I hope, whenever the need arises. Because that is what is happening: we constantly find that people in office are being considered, to the detriment of the ratepayers or the electors.

I have first-hand knowledge of this subject, because I am an elector in London—in fact, in South Kensington—and take a considerable interest in the local Party. My wife is on the executive of it, so I know something about our problems—and they are very real problems. To fight two elections in the same year is for us, anyway, in South Kensington, no mean problem. But I believe that we should do it if necessary. In my own ward, Earl's Court Ward, no less than one-third of the population changes every year. That is something which does not happen anywhere else in the country. We have Australians and Canadians, and people of every sort of colour and creed in the world living in Earl's Court Ward; and, somehow or other, we have to tackle this problem. Inconvenient and difficult though it is, I think we should tackle it, when the due time comes. I do not care what part of London you take: none has the problems we have in our ward; and if we can face them I do not see why other areas also cannot do so. Many of them have stable populations: ours, as I have said, is constantly changing.

That is all I want to say to-day. I hope that your Lordships' Committee will support this Amendment, and I hope that perhaps the Government will give way on it; because, quite frankly, there is no real case for resisting the Amendment, which has been put forward so well, and so clearly, by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor.


I should not have intervened in this debate but for the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, in which he claimed that the purpose of the Bill was administrative convenience without proper regard for the electors and the elected authorities. I lived the early part of my political life in the Borough of St. Pancras, which is now part of the Borough of Camden, which the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, took very much to task during our previous discussions. In 1926, on getting married, I moved from London out into Hertfordshire, because in those days I could not find anywhere to live, to rent, in the borough in which I had worked for so many years. What worried me about my work in local government in London—let us be quite honest about it—was the absolute apathy towards local government elections. In the Borough of St. Pancras we won an election in Ward 8 in which 600 electors voted (this is now over forty years ago), out of a total electorate of 7,000 or 8,000. In a local government election, a borough council election, in those days, to get a 30 per cent. poll was really exciting. In most of our elections the percentage was very much less.

Then I moved from London out into Hertfordshire. In Hertfordshire the community interest was then much more alive, of course, and it was a tremendous thrill to me as a youngster—more enthusiastic and even more revolutionary then than I am now—to see a 40, 50 or even a 60 per cent. poll in a local government election. But in Hertfordshire, in the case of the vast majority of the urban and rural authorities, one-third of the council retires each year. That is a good local government theory arising from the Local Government Act 1894, in which it was said that it was wrong for there to be a considerable upheaval in local government, with the possibility of losing a complete council, at three-yearly intervals, and that it was better, from the point of view of continuity, that one-third of the council should retire each year. In Hertfordshire, as is the case with many counties up and down this country, that is now the practice. What has been my experience in Hertford-shire?

I live in Welwyn Garden City, whose civic pride and enthusiasm is as high as that anywhere. While, in a year in which we had only the county council elections—as we shall in April of next year—we managed to maintain a poll of 30 per cent. to 40 per cent., and, in some areas, even 50 per cent., in a year when the borough or rural council elections came within a matter of three or four weeks afterwards the latter were a complete "flop" so far as the turn-out of electors was concerned. Why is it that in a place like Welwyn Garden City, with its civic pride, in such a year the poll for the urban district council elections drops from 50 per cent. or 40 per cent. down to 30 per cent. or 25 per cent?

The reason is twofold. One is that the electorate becomes a little apathetic when elections follow close upon one another. In theory, it ought to be an asset to the political Parties; because if you have done your job properly, on the first election in April for the county council you have canvassed the area and know where your voters are. For the second election all you have to do is pull them out to vote. But in fact it is the other way round. Even your own Party workers, though you have a marked register, are less enthusiastic, having flogged themselves pretty hard; for, let us be honest about it, it is the case that the same few willing horses to do the work all the time. I cannot speak for the Tory Party on this matter but I can speak with some experience of the Labour Party. Furthermore, in the rural areas—I will not say that this applies so much in London—in April people are beginning to get lumbago from digging the garden, and all sorts of other activities occur. You cannot maintain the same facilities. Things change.

I used to argue that the Tory Party preferred middle-of-the-week elections because this made it more difficult for the ordinary worker to place his vote, as he is working during the day and is too tired when he gets home. When I moved into Hertfordshire I ran a campaign to change local government elections from Wednesdays or Thursdays to Saturdays. The campaign was successful and, to give them full credit, the Tories on the Hertfordshire County Council in those days agreed to the changeover throughout the whole county. I am now running a campaign to change it back; because, with the five-day week, even now workers just will not come out on Saturday. You go round to them and they say, "We are going to the Spurs". You ask them to vote before they go. They always reply that they will do so when they come back. But on the way back they call in at the "local", and by the time they arrive back home it is past nine o'clock, and still they have not voted. Circumstances change. I think this Bill is correct. The fact is that you can flog the electorate too much. You can flog, more extensively, your own Party workers too much. To have too many elections close upon each other is, I think, detrimental to the full application of democracy in local government.