HL Deb 15 April 1969 vol 301 cc16-30

After Clause 14, insert the following new Clause:

Place of work qualification in local government

(" . A person shall be qualified for election to and membership of a local authority provided that throughout the twelve months preceding the last day for nomination of candidates for the relevant election he shall have had a principal place of work within the area of the authority.")

The Commons disagreed to this Amendment for the following Reason:

Because it contradicts the principal that the sole qualification for candidature, as for the franchise, at local government elections should be residence within the local government area. It is upon this principle that Clause 15 of the Bill abolishes the non-resident qualification for voting, and also for candidature, at local government elections and also the property qualification for candidature at such elections.


My Lords, I beg to move that the House doth not insist on its Amendment No. 11 to which the Commons have disagreed. Of the 36 Amendments made to the Bill by this House, the Commons have disagreed to only two. This is one of them. It was moved in Committee here, with his customary eloquence and persuasiveness, by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor and, against my advice, was carried on a Division. We were glad, on the Report stage of the Bill, to accept another Amendment put down by the noble Lord, but on this occasion he is not pushing at an open door; and I hope to satisfy your Lordships that there is good reason why this particular door should remain closed.

Your Lordships will be aware that one of the most discussed provisions of the Bill (Clause 15 of the Bill as first introduced in this House) is that giving effect to the Government's firm view of principle that residence should be the sole qualification for standing for a local authority as also for the local government franchise. Clause 15 accordingly abolishes the nonresident qualification for voting, and consequently for candidature at local elections. It is not, however, my purpose to discuss the merits of Clause 15, which has been accepted by both Houses of Parliament. I will concentrate on the Amendment before the House.

The effect of the Amendment would be to introduce into electoral law a new alternative non-resident qualification for election to a local authority based neither on the ownership of property nor on the occupation of property, but on "principal place of work". Stemming as it does from a recommendation of the Maud Committee on the Management of Local Government, whose Report was published in 1967, and stemming also front Lord Brooke of Cumnor's Amendment, it can be said to have a highly respectable parentage. It is not, however—the Amendment, that is, not the parentage—one which commends itself to the Government. This was made clear at the outset of the proceedings on the Bill in another place. On Second Reading there my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland made clear the Government's view that— what we want is identity and local representation whereas with this qualification, the qualification proposed in the Amendment, we would not get local representation"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, 18/11/ 68; col. 1026.] An Amendment to the same effect as that now before us was defeated at the Committee stage in another place, after full discussion and on a Division, by 240 votes to 226, arid when the Lords Amendments were considered in another place the Amendment now before us was again rejected on a Division, by 228 votes to 202.

It is true that the Commons have no monopoly of interest in the arrangements for local government elections, but the record which I have cited shows that in this particular matter the elected representatives of the people have accepted the Government's view that residence alone should be the qualification for candidature, and have reiterated their acceptance, after the opportunity for further consideration, afforded by the passage of the Amendment in this House. The plain fact is that, given the principle underlying Clause 15 of the Bill as introduced in your Lordships' House it would be inconsistent, not to say contradictory, to introduce a new non-resident qualification for candidature; and this is the ground on which the formal statement of the Commons Reasons for disagreeing with the Amendment is based.

There are, however, other grounds for regarding the proposed new qualification as undesirable. The qualifications for candidature deriving from the ownership of property or from the possession of the non-resident franchise were of long standing. They were, in fact, the last remnants of the property basis for the franchise, and their abolition completes the process (already accomplished in the case of Parliamentary elections) of doing away with it. The proposed qualification—an entirely novel one—does not, it is true, turn on property: but it is not so much property as the basis for a qualification that the Government find undesirable here as the fact that the qualifications conferred by property have been non-resident ones; and on this score the Amendment now before us is, in the Government's view, wrong in principle.

Much has been said of the loss to the quality of local government that will follow the abolition of the nonresident qualifications deriving from property. In the Government's view, the case on this ground has been grossly overstated; end, in any event, if loss there is, the Opposition will have no monopoly of it. Be that as it may, the object of the Amendment is no doubt to compensate for that loss. The question is, however, whether this is not a serious case of over-compensation. 'The non-resident qualification conferred by property was limited to a quite small number of persons. A "principal place of work" qualification would be vastly more widespread. Too much need not be made—I certainly will not make too much of it—of the argument that the principal place of work qualification could lead to a local authority being swamped by persons who, though working in the area of the authority, live outside it. The possibility does exist, however, and is by no means a theoretical one, particularly in the case of smaller urban authorities containing one or two large concerns drawing, perhaps, as many as half their employees from surrounding rural areas. And it is in urban areas, as I pointed out when we considered this Amendment in Committee, that there is far less, indeed very little, difficulty in finding suitable candidates. Indeed, if the Amendment were to stand it might well increase the difficulty which does exist in some cases of finding suitable candidates in rural areas.

In the light of what I have said, I hope your Lordships will now see that the Amendment is open to serious objections. The qualification for candidature at local government elections which it would introduce is an entirely new and untried one which, in certain areas at any rate, might well distort the pattern of local government. It contradicts the whole principle—an important one—on which Clause 15 is framed. And, finally, it has been considered, reconsidered, and on both occasions rejected by another place. I trust your Lordships will accept that rejection, and will refrain from insisting on this Amendment. I beg to move that this House doth not insist on the Amendment to which the Commons have disagreed.

Moved, That this House doth not insist on the said Amendment.—(Lord Stonham.)

3.22 p.m.


My Lords, those whom the Gods would destroy they first make mad. There is no objection of substance to this new clause, approved by a majority of more than two to one in your Lordships' House. It is an act of madness on the part of the Government to have put their Whips on to drive their supporters into the Lobby against this proposal, on a Division in which this Government, who started their career three years ago with a clear majority of 100, could muster a majority of only 26. That shows fairly clearly what Government supporters in another place think of this matter, because the absentees from that Division Lobby are obvious. The noble Lord has explained most courteously the purely theoretical reason for which the Government have got the Commons to reject this new clause. The Commons reason is because it contradicts a principle. They might well have added, "because the Government think nothing of a unanimous recommendation made by the Committee under the noble Lord, Lord Redcliffe-Maud, which they themselves set up".

We should not discuss these matters in the abstract. Let me revert to a specific case which I ventured to quote at an earlier stage of the Bill. I cite it again because I know there is an idea prevalent that the people who will be excluded if this new clause is not agreed to will be "old-stagers", people who are really past it but who are hanging on. I wish to revert to the case of a young man who wrote to me, having been elected to his local borough—a small non-county borough—at the age of 23. I say, all honour to a man for seeking to go on to the local council at that age! Within a few years he was elected mayor—I believe he was at that time the youngest mayor in the country—and he has now served on that council for ten or eleven years. But as his family increased he had to move, and he moved just outside the borough boundary to a slightly larger house. If the Government imagine that all borough boundaries are wisely drawn they must think again. In many places it is hard to say, until one receives one's rate demand, on which side of the local government boundary line a particular house is situated. In this case I have no doubt that the man being himself a councillor was well aware that he was moving out of the borough, but he was not moving to a distance, and his whole interests and his place of work remained in that borough. To his utter surprise this man now, at the age of 35 or so, will be excluded from the local government work in which he has already distinguished himself.

It is no good the Government saying that after their day's work is done people can go off to some distant town to a meeting of the rural district council. It is not possible to do so, and if people are to take part in public work a very large number who are busy all day must take part in it in the neighbourhood where they themselves earn their daily bread. This man concluded his letter to me by saying: I would respectfully ask your Lordship's help and active support in persuading the House of Lords to reject this unfair provision, especially in view of the anticipated reorganisation of local government and the existing difficulties at present experienced by all Parties in finding suitable young candidates who are prepared to take an interest in council work. The noble Lord, Lord Stonham, made no reference that I can recall to the anticipated reorganisation of local government, yet we all must realise that that is likely to bring within local government areas fringe neighbourhoods which are now just outside them, thereby reversing the position and making such men as this once again able to serve. But the Government, true to their theoretic principle, will no doubt be proud of themselves that for a period of three years or six years they have excluded a valuable man or woman from local government.

In the debate on March 27 in another place the Home Secretary used as an argument that, it would be possible to have a council made up of people who live outside the area".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, 27/3/69, col. 1838]. No doubt it would. It would be possible to have a council made up of left-handed cretins if the electors had so decided. But the decision rests wholly with the electors. All this talk by the Government about swamping the area is incomprehensible to me. At elections you can swamp an area with votes, but you cannot swamp an area with people who have no votes. All that this Amendment does is to enlarge the field of choice for those resident electors who wish to have the best possible man or woman to represent them. It seems to me highly improbable that any electorate would wish to be represented exclusively by people who live outside the council's area. But it seems to me highly probable, if a man or woman has already given good service on the council and happens now to live outside the area, though he or she works within it, that the electors would still wish such a person to represent them.

The Government are seeking not only to reverse a decision of your Lordships' House, but to smack in the face the Redcliffe-Maud Committee. The Redcliffe-Maud Committee's finding was unanimous, and I propose to read it. It says: Many people may have just as much interest in the area in which they work as in the area in which they live, and this should be recognised. The effect of the law is to exclude some people who might be valuable candidates for election to local authorities, particularly in urban areas. What is the Government's comment on that? The Government's reaction is this. They say, "Many people may have just as much interest in the area in which they work as in the area in which they live, but this should not be recognised. If the effect of the law is to exclude some people who might be valuable candidates for election to local authorities, particularly in urban areas, what is that to a Socialist Government?" My Lords, that is the situation with which we are faced. We cannot lose this Bill for the sake of this new clause, but I regard the action of the Government as disgraceful.


My Lords, I am very surprised to hear the vehemence with which the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, has opposed this recommendation by the Commons. When all is said and done, the Commons are the best authority to deal with this matter. They are the people who will be affected by this procedure. It is in the election to their House; and they are the custodians of what they think is right by way of the representation of the people. Therefore, I am surprised at the noble Lord's vehemence. It indicates that it is not just the principle with which he is concerned: it is because the Government have exploded a myth. It is because the Government have gone against something that this House attempted to do. Having removed the residential qualifications previously in the Bill, by the Amendment which was carried in this House they sought to impose another type of qualification which has never been accepted in the past. That was done very deliberately in the hope that, having removed the bias that was there by way of the residential qualification, and having approved a working representation, this House would redress some of the privilege that had gone with that type of qualification in the past. When Lord Brooke opened his remarks he really indicated his feeling in connection with this—that it was because it was once more pricking the bubble of privilege which had been there previously.


My Lords, if the noble Lord will forgive me, may I tell him that I care for local government; I believe in local government. I am not in the least concerned with privilege.


I accept that the noble Lord has a wonderful record in local government—and so have others. Others of us have a very good record in local government. I accept all that he says and feels about local government; but I am not speaking about local government itself. I am speaking about the people who serve on local government. This is a privilege which this House tried to institute, and I am delighted that the Commons have thrown it out. I think this improves the Bill from when it left this Chamber.

3.34 p.m.


My Lords, I am rather sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, is persisting with this Amendment, which runs right across the view which has been expressed by another place. He rather reminds me of the old sergeant-major who said, "Don't do as I do; do as I say", because I want to resurrect the ghost of Mr. Henry Brooke, who was a member of the Cabinet which introduced the London Government Bill some years ago. What did that Bill do with regard to the county in which I was then Chairman of the County Council—namely, Essex? It cut that county in two. There were many people from the London boroughs which he absorbed into Greater London who were members of the Essex County Council. Many of them had served there for very many years, and they wanted to continue to serve. But the Government of which the then Mr. Henry Brooke was a member—and a very distinguished member—said, "No; you have got to go to London. You cannot continue in Essex, despite the fact that you have been a member of the Essex County Council for scores of years and despite the fact that you may journey each day from Barking to Chelmsford in order to earn your daily bread". What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander; and if the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, was on that occasion content to say that people should vote where they lived, and should stand for the councils where they lived, and that the place where they happened to work had no relevance whatsoever, what right has he to come along now and try to convince this House the other way round?

Let us look for a moment at the way it would operate. I know my County of Essex. I know that there are 30,000 or 40,000 people who are employed at Ford's and who journey to Ford's every day. Some of them journey from other boroughs—like Barking and Ilford—which are now in London, but thousands upon thousands of them come from boroughs and rural districts which are in Essex—places like Thurrock, Basildon, Chelmsford Borough, Chelmsford Rural District and so on. If 20,000 or 30,000 of those people were to be regarded as being eligible to stand for election and to vote for the council which is now known as Dagenham and Barking, surely it would completely unbalance the standing of the people who are residents in that borough. The people who are resident in the borough should surely be the people to say whom they want on their local council.

I could not agree, my Lords, with one of the noble Lord's closing remarks. That was to the effect that people who work outside their district council area cannot possibly manage to serve on that district council. I myself did it for many years, and many of the members of my Billericay Council, now Basildon Council, were people who worked in London all day but who had sufficient interest in the affairs of their local council to get away from work early in order to attend its meetings. My Lords, I think we should be doing something which is quite contrary to the democratic instincts of our system of local representation if we were to allow people who are virtually foreigners to participate in the work of what is essentially the local council. I hope that, on reconsideration and reflection, the noble Lord will not try to press this Amendment.


My Lords, I should like very briefly to support my noble friend Lord Brooke. I thought that the argument which he produced was full of common sense and logic. The noble Lord, Lord Popplewell, said that it was the Members of another place who were affected. This seemed to me an absolute mis-statement. The people who are most affected in this issue are the electors, and that is why I so much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, when he says that this is denying the electors the widest possible choice of their representatives.

I do not know much about local government; I have never been in local government. But while I was a Member of another place I naturally came in touch with it a good deal. The local government I came in touch with was that in South London. The specific case of which I am thinking, and to which I should for a moment like to call your Lordships' attention, is the case of a busy borough where some men make Money—perhaps they own shops, or other premises—and then, as they get a little older, move out of the borough. In South London they generally move to places such as Streatham or Wimbledon, where they have a little more by way of country amenities. But their work is still in the borough; they have worked in the borough for a great many years, and they know the borough extremely well. What is more, they are efficient and effective men, and they are just the sort—


But the borough is no longer good enough for them to live in.


I am afraid I did not hear the noble Lord's intervention, but what I was going to say was that these men are extremely useful on the council. Their heart and soul is in the council, and they know the borough—and this applies to men of both Parties. Therefore, I think we are doing the boroughs an extreme disservice by taking away from them the service of really successful and efficient men.


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord for one moment? This Bill, in the provisions in Clause 15, has taken out the property qualification. They take away the franchise which those people to whom the noble Lord is referring have enjoyed and which enable them to sit. We are all agreed about that. They would not be able to sit anyway. What is now proposed by this Amendment is to bring in a vastly larger number of people.


I will not pursue the point, because my noble friend Lord Brooke has made it. But the main point about this is that we are denying to the electorate a wide choice of men and women to represent them, and this, I think, is a disastrous thing to do.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Brooke has given an example of what happened to an individual. I can say what happened to me. Many years ago I was engaged in a large factory—in fact I was chairman of it, and spent my whole time there. I lived just outside the boundary of that borough; it was a few hundred yards walk into the borough in which my works were situated. The matter of residence arose when there was a question of my becoming a member of the council, for although I worked all day in the borough, I was resident just outside it. The way I overcame the difficulty was this. Immediately adjoining my works and inside the borough there was a field of about two acres. I was able to buy those two acres and therefore qualified to become a member of the council. And in fact I was chairman of it.


My Lords, I wish to answer very briefly the point (which seemed to me to be a very bad one) made by the noble Lord, Lord Popplewell. He said that we who supported the Amendment which the Commons have now rejected were doing so in the interests of a privilege. But whose privilege? The only privilege that we are promoting is the privilege of the electors to elect whom they wish to elect. What is wrong with that? The noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, who often makes speeches with which I agree, said on this occasion that we were concerned with the qualification of the electors. That was a misreading of the Amendment before us. It does not concern the qualification of the electors at all.


My Lords, I also went on to mention the qualifications of the people who sat on the council.


My Lords, I know that the noble Lord went on to raise that other point. But the Amendment is concerned only with the question of who can stand for election and be elected. I hold the extraordinarily old-fashioned view that the electors ought to be given the maximum liberty to elect the people whom they wish to elect. I have not served on a local government body, but I did serve for many years in another place. I never lived in the constituency that I was representing; but they knew at the time they first elected me that I was not in a position to go and live in the place I represented. They did not regard that as a disqualification.

There are many, on both sides of the House, in another place who do not live in their constituencies. What, I wonder, is the special merit of denying to the local government electors this ability to elect the people whom they wish to elect. As I understood my noble friend Lord Brooke, he was not proposing that we should insist on this Amendment. But I think it a great pity that when the present Government are replaced by a Conservative Government—and the early replacement is that for which the whole country is longing—we shall have to take up so much of our time in simply reversing some of the follies that the present Government are perpetrating. I must warn the present Government that they are following a bad example. The people who go furthest in denying the electors' ability to choose as they want are the Communists. The Communists say simply: "You can have elections; but you must not vote for anybody except a Communist or a person approved by the Communists in advance." That is the most extreme limit of this doctrine. But approaching that, in various degrees, you have other limitations on the ability of the electors to choose. I believe that all those disabilities are wrong in principle. I share the contempt of my noble friend Lord Brooke for the Government's action.


My Lords, would not the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, agree that he made one mistake when he said that Members of the other place were not necessarily resident in the place they represented? They represent Britain. So far as I know, it is a necessary qualification, in order to stand for Parliament in this country, that one should be resident in Britain. I have always thought that that was so. I should have thought that the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, and his friends would be very angry indeed if somebody were to put down an Amendment to enable people who were not resident in Britain to be elected to another place. Surely that is the parallel with this case. Is not the noble Lord confusing the matter?


My Lords, may I answer this point? I do not think I was confused. I adopt and agree with the famous speech of Burke to the electors of Bristol. The noble Viscount is not saying something I do not know when he tells me that the Member of Parliament is not simply representing his constituents. I think he does represent them, but is not their delegate. I do not think that anybody on either side of the House misunderstood me.

3.46 p.m.


My Lords, I do not wish to detain the House, but there are one or two points that I think I owe it to the House to deal with. First, in view of some of the speeches—particularly that of the noble Lord, Lord St. Helens—I ought to make it clear that this Bill as it stands now, unquestioned by the Opposition, abolishes any right to vote, or to stand as a candidate, that is based on the ownership or occupation of property. All the cases cited by the noble Lord, Lord St. Helens, were based on either the ownership or occupation of property—as indeed was the case cited by the noble Marquess, Lord Aberdeen. So let us get that out of the argument. The argument is about a totally new principle which has never been in this kind of legislation before, a totally new qualification for standing as a candidate; namely, that a man should qualify as a candidate in accordance with his place of work. This is new.


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord? I spoke of a small field; but immediately houses were built on it by men working at the works.


My Lords, that does not invalidate the point I was making to the noble Marquess. His chairmanship was based on his occupation or ownership of property. Furthermore—and this is not in dispute; the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, is not going to dispute it—this is an entirely new concept—


My Lords, I am not going to dispute that; but I am a little surprised that this Government, of all Governments, wishes Parliament to reject an idea simply and solely because it is a new idea.


Hear, hear!


My Lords, it is astonishing how noble Lords—and particularly the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde—will cheer an absolute non-starter. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, is such an experienced campaigner that he knows precisely at which point to get up and precisely which kind of false point to make. We all enjoy it, but I am sorry that noble Lords behind him were deluded by tactics of this kind into voicing " Hear, hears!" and that kind of thing.

Of course, the Government are not opposed to this Amendment simply because it is an entirely new concept. The point I want to make is that the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, said that our rejection of a totally new and untried concept was an "act of madness''. I cannot accept that at all. He said, rightly, that he cared for local government. We all care for local government. It is because the Government care very much for local government that they are determined that the right to be a representative in local government should rest on the point where a person lives. The noble Lord spoke about a young man who became a member of a local authority at the age of 23, and eleven years later suddenly discovered (after eleven years on a local authority he must have been a remarkable representative if he did not know before) that he would not be qualified if he moved outside the area. The point which the noble Lord made was that these persons are busy all day and cannot go to a distant place to serve on a local authority. My Lords, the "distant place" is where they live. They are going there in any case.

Finally, the noble Lord made a good deal of play about what he called the Government forces in another place having to be whipped up to win a small majority. There were four Divisions on that day, and in the Division on this point there was a majority of 26. The voting was 228 to 202. There were two other Divisions on that day on the Decimal Currency Bill, which had nothing whatever to do with this matter, and was not a very highly controversial measure. In one of those Divisions the Government had a majority of 22—the voting was 102 to 80; on the other, they had a majority of 15, the figures being 91 to 76. This must have been a bad day for majorities, but it was certainly not an unduly small majority, although perhaps majorities were smaller than usual on that day. It cannot be disputed that the Amendment that was passed in your Lordships' House did give another opportunity for reflection. The other place did reflect: they again re jected the Amendment by disagreeing with us, and I again urge your Lordships that we should accept that disagreement and not persist in the Amendment.

On Question, Motion agreed to.