HL Deb 25 January 1971 vol 314 cc795-807

7.47 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This is a short Bill; it contains only three clauses, and I shall therefore describe it as briefly as possible. The Bill has a simple purpose: to widen the qualifications enabling people to stand for election to local councils. I should say at the outset that the Bill has nothing whatever to do with voting.

If we are now told that we have repealed that, can I now deliver meat to an aerodrome or a ship that is departing? According to my Welsh English, one cannot do so.


I question whether my noble friend is talking about the Act of Parliament which exists, or this Bill as it is now drafted, or whether it would be this Bill with my Amendment in it. All I can say about it is that if there was any doubt at all and my Amendment were carried, we could appease my noble friend by putting the matter right at the Report stage.

On Question, Whether the said Amendment (No. 51) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 21; Not-Contents, 8.

Ardwick, L. Fiske, L. Lindgren, L.
Beswick, L. Greenway, L. Milner of Leads, L.
Blyton, L. Hilton of Upton, L. Platt, L.
Champion, L. Hoy, L. Popplewell, L.
Crathorne, L. Ingleby, V. Royle, L. [Teller.]
Davies of Leek, L. [Teller.] Jacques, L. St. Just, L.
Delacourt-Smith, L. Kilbracken, L. Summerskill, Bs.
Airedale, L. Falkland, V. Lauderdale, E.
Albemarle, E. Hatherton, L. Rankeillour, L.
Derwent, L. [Teller.] Kinnoull, E. [Teller.]

The present position is that since February 16, 1970, only those who live in the area of a local authority have been eligible to stand for election to membership of its council. But for more than fifty years, until the Representation of the People Act 1969, anyone who owned freehold or leasehold property in the area of a local authority, or who was the occupier of premises of a rateable value of £10 or more, was also qualified. Section 15 of the 1969 Act removed this eligibility, although councillors living outside the area covered by their council who had previously been elected because they owned property or occupied premises inside the area were enabled to stay on until their current term of office expired.

Section 15 was strongly opposed by the then Opposition in both houses. We have been quite consistent in our belief that it is wrong to narrow the range of people who can stand for election to local councils, and that many local authorities would be greatly strengthened if those who either occupied premises or had their place of work inside its boundaries, but their home outside, were enabled to stand for membership. In this we have been supported by the majority of local government associations and by the 1967 Report of the Committee on the Management of Local Government under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Redcliffe-Maud. This was the first Inquiry he undertook, not to be confused with the later Inquiry of the Royal Commission on Local Government in England.

In the Report on Management of Local Government, paragraph 424, the Committee concluded that:

  1. "(a) the present legislation makes it difficult for certain people to stand for election, and may be the cause of their resorting to arrangements to enable them to satisfy the requirements of the law;
  2. "(b) mobility of people increases; many 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;
  3. "(c) the effect of the law is to exclude some people who might be valuable candidates for election to local authorities, particularly in urban areas."
This Bill, therefore, not only restores the right of people living outside the area of a local authority to stand for membership of the council, if they have a qualifying connection through the occupation of premises, but adds a new qualification on the lines of paragraph 425 of the Report of the Committee on the Management of Local Government; namely, that any person who for a period of 12 months before the election had his principal place of work within the area of the authority should also be eligible as a candidate for election to the council. Subsection (2) of Clause 1 of the Bill gives effect to this.

Noble Lords may remember that when the Representation of the People Bill was debated in this House in 1969 the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, moved to insert a new clause on these lines, which would have enabled people to serve whose principal place of work was within the area. That clause was inserted by a majority in this House, but was later deleted in another place.

We believe that it is important that the range of candidates offering themselves for election to local authorities should be as wide as possible, bearing in mind especially the very heavy demands that are made on councillors, particularly experienced councillors who act as chairmen of committees, mayors or leaders of majority or minority parties. We accept that councillors should have, indeed must have, a close connection with the areas they serve; but in these days when boundaries are difficult to delineate we cannot agree that a man whose business or principal place of work is in the area has any less appropriate a connection than somebody whose home is within the area.

Noble Lords know better than I do that in practice it is a very common pattern in local government for a younger councillor to be elected while both his home and his work are in the area covered by the local authority. His family then increases; he finds himself wanting a bit more space, and he moves out into the suburbs. Sometimes these are within the same local authority area; but sometimes they are outside. But the man's connection with the area, and his interest in its affairs, is surely not any less because he works there during the day, often spending two or three evenings a week on the council's business, before travelling home to sleep over the boundary.

Some time ago I served on the council of an urban authority, and I remember very well the tremendous contribution made to the running of the council and the welfare of its citizens by councillors whose connection with the area was through their place of work, rather than through their home. Because all local government electors must now be resident in the area, the effect of the two qualifications added by this Bill will be that, probably for the first time, people will be offering themselves for election who are not on the register of local government electors for that area. The Government recognise that this is a new situation and have included in Clause 2 of the Bill a provision which allows the particulars on which the candidate relies for his qualification to be available for public inspection. We were glad to be able to agree in another place to this provision, which originated in a suggestion made by members of the Party of noble Lords opposite.

My Lords, I do not think that I need say any more in commending this Bill to your Lordships and asking, in the interest of healthy local government, that it should receive a Second Reading. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Windlesham.)

7.55 p.m.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord for the clarity of his exposition of this Bill, particularly after the long and tiring day that he has spent on the Front Bench opposite. We regret that he has had to stay here for the whole of this time. That is not our fault, but is due rather to the arrangement of business.

I can understand the haste of the Government in introducing this Bill, because if it is to become the law relating to the nomination of representatives for local authorities, it is, I think, to everyone's advantage that it should become law before the Elections of 1971. I would give that to the noble Lord, and say that I think it is right that this should happen, if it happens.

The noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, has said that the Party of which he is a member has been consistent and persistent in its attitude to this Bill. I think it has been. But I believe that it has been consistent and persistent in error, because I believe that this Bill is a mistake and ought not to go on to the Statute Book. In connection with the purpose of local government, I am sure that Lord Palmerston was right when he told the clergy of Edinburgh, who were asking for a day of prayer and fasting to avert the dreaded disease of cholera, that, the best course the people can pursue to stay the course of cholera will be to free their towns from filth and other sources of contagion which, if allowed to remain, will breed pestilence and death, in spite of the prayers and fasting of a united but inactive people. That was good sense. Expressed in other words, what Lord Palmerston was saying was, "clean up your own doorsteps." I believe that he was absolutely right in that. I believe that local government is about your own doorsteps and what you do about them.

If it appears in this short speech that the personal pronoun "I" is often used, it is because I believe that this House is often best served by those who are able to speak here from personal experience. It is many years since I entered local government, but I remember well that when I accepted nomination I was strongly advised to read up the subject in the classic text book, Clark's The Local Government of the United Kingdom. Almost the very first words in that book are: Local government is that part of the government of the nation or State which deals mainly with such matters as concern the inhabitants of a particular district or place, and which it is thought desirable should be administered by local authorities subordinate to the central Government. I think that the stress in that paragraph must be laid on the word "inhabitants". I have always accepted that to mean, in that context particularly, that the local authority is, or should be, governed by the local inhabitants themselves in the appropriate matters. Certainly it is not, in my opinion, desirable that the local inhabitants should be governed by people who come in from outside the area, and whose interests may conflict substantially with the real needs of the inhabitants in that particular district.

When I was a member of a local authority, my main interests were housing and education, and becoming the chairman of both in turn I pressed with all my energies for the clearance of slum dwellings, the building of new houses for people displaced by slum clearance, and to house the large numbers of people condemned by the housing situation to life in apartments, with all the misery of two women to one kitchen sink. In education I struggled for the best that could be got for the children, and in particular I was desirous of bringing into operation without delay the feeding of children in schools by the institution of a school meals service, for I wanted to end the malnutrition I saw in my every day in that area, then afflicted by massive unemployment.

The charge on the rates for the improvement of both services was a very high one, and I knew full well that it had to be added to an already almost intolerable rate burden. I was engaged in a low paid job and was hard put to it to keep up a very modest style of living, but I never resented paying the near record high level of rate because I lived so close to the very conditions I wanted to end. I was part of them, I was in it, and I could not divorce myself from it by going outside the area at night to sleep, or go anywhere else.

However sympathetically minded people from outside the area might have been, whether occupiers of premises or workers in the various town offices, and so on, it would have been very difficult for them to have had the same approach to the problems as I had. Occupiers of certain types of premises who do not live in the district, whose children are not going to the local schools, whose doorstep is ever free of the applicants for council houses (as mine never was; indeed, the applicants for council houses seemed to be wearing a groove in my doorstep when they were there seeking the opportunity of getting into some decent housing conditions), cannot be expected to have the same readiness to spend money on such services, for rate burdens are always thought to be high, and too high by certain types of people. To some extent the same thing would apply to those who only work in the area, whose thinking might be dominated by what might appear to be best for his employer. For example, the man employed by a road transport undertaking might be prepared to spend a wholly disproportionate amount of the local income on road improvements as against expenditure on education, et cetera.

The aphorism "Taxation without representation is tyranny" has stood the test of time because it is at the very heart of the struggle for, and the continuance of, our type of democracy. I believe that it is equally true that conversely representation without taxation is undesirable, and for that reason I was always opposed to those who sought 100 per cent. grants from the central Government for locally controlled purposes. As I said before, I knew that I had to help pay for the services that I so much desired to see in operation. That was as it should be, for it tempered, to some extent, an idealistic approach by stern practicalities.

I have seen it said that the safeguard here is always that, whether the councillor comes from inside or outside the local government district, he has to be elected by people who live inside. That has always been rather a strong point. It was, I think, a strong point when the original Amendment was moved to the 1969 Bill, as it then was, before this House. There is something to be said for that. But if we really believe that that should be our policy on this matter, no such qualifications as exist, or are proposed in this Bill, are necessary. The field should be thrown open to anybody who can secure nomination, no matter from whence he comes. But the simple fact is that this Government, as have other Governments, have sought to protect local government by ensuring that nominees have some qualifications that bear some relevance to the area to be governed. That is true of this Bill, and it is true of all the Acts of Parliament governing these matters in the past.

I do not think that this is a good Bill; I do not think that what they are embarking on is the right thing to do, and I say this for the reasons which I have very briefly given. So far as the terms of the Bill are concerned, I am bound to say that the very vagueness of some of the terms used in Clause 1: … occupied as owner or tenant any land or other premises … and the … principal or only place of work … are bound to cause great difficulties of interpretation for those who will have to interpret this Bill, if it becomes an Act. But these are Committee points to which we might return on the Committee stage.

My Lords, I do not advise my noble friends to vote against the Second Reading of this Bill. Indeed, I am not going to call a Division hoping that we should not have a quorum on it, which perhaps I might do in the circumstances of the last vote that we went to. But we hold the view that only in very exceptional circumstances should this House vote against the Second Reading of a Bill which has passed through the other House. We believe that they should be paramount in this matter, except in the most exceptional of circumstances. We might ask the House later to divide on an Amendment at the Committee stage, but I fear that even then we shall not have the advantage that the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, had of a built-in majority when he moved the Amendment that was, in some ways, the precursor of this Bill. We do not like this Bill. I should like to see it prevented from becoming an Act of Parliament, but, as I say, I certainly am not going to ask my noble friends to vote against it at this Second Reading stage.

8.8 p.m.


My Lords, at this very late hour it is not my wish to keep you for long, especially in view of the ordeal that the noble Lord opposite has had this afternoon in having to stand up to the Committee stage of the Shops Bill. However, there are one or two more comments that need to be made, after the very human plea that has been put forward by my noble friend on this side of the Chamber.

One would have hoped that when the Representation of the People Act 1969 had been passed the course of British constitutional history and electoral law had arrived at the situation in which every man, and every woman, had a vote for local and national elections in the places where they resided, whether it was for a parish or for a rural district, an urban district or a county council. In the case of elections to Parliament, of course, they merely had to have residence anywhere in the United Kingdom. This point of residence in the area in which one sought to have a vote was, to my mind, eminently right. This Bill disturbs—it is intended to disturb—that pattern, so that a rural or suburban element can be brought into the government of our large towns and cities, and that is something which I think is to be regretted. I know that, in theory, the operation could work in reverse, but I think the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, in his opening remarks made the point that he visualised this as bringing other people into the government of a city or a large town: bringing rural or suburban into urban government.

I do not know whether, in framing this Bill, proper consideration has been given to the—I was going to say the sort of people, but that is not quite what I mean—differences that exist between dwelling in a city and dwelling in its outer suburbs, outside its boundary, or in the countryside beyond. I assure your Lordships that the differences are quite profound. The city dweller lives tightly packed on the ground. He looks outside for his life, for his educational facilities, for his recreational facilities, for his sporting facilities—for the lot. He is an extrovert. But the people living further out usually live in larger houses—certainly with gardens, if not with more extensive grounds. They are much more self-contained as family units and they are introverts. Therefore the two do not necessarily blend when it comes to deciding what is best and what is not best for any given urban area.

Perhaps I can illustrate that most easily by referring to the present position in London. London has had its government reformed, and the Greater London Council is under the control of the Party opposite—because, in the end, these matters boil down to political concepts. But the Inner London Education Authority, representing the area of the old London County Council, is under the control of the Party of which I am a member. That is one measurement of the differences of approach between the city dweller and the dweller outside the city boundary. To bring the one in to dominate the other should be done only in the most acute situation, and with the greatest possible care. So why do it, my Lords?

This is a little Bill, as we can see. One might have the suspicion that the Party introducing it find difficulty in producing candidates in city areas to fight local elections. If that is so, then perhaps the noble Lord opposite will admit it. But it certainly would not be necessary to bring in this Bill if we were to have the larger local government areas of the Redcliffe-Maud reform proposals.

What I want, very pointedly, to ask the noble Lord opposite is: does the introduction of this Bill mean that no reform of local government will be taking place in the lifetime of this Parliament? That is a very important point on which we need an answer, because it has been so much in the air for so many years. We thought we had now got down to rather basic concepts—not necessarily the whole chapter and verse of Redcliffe-Maud, but very near to some possible and sensible proposals for one of the most urgent reforms in the country. Are we now to believe that we shall not see these for at least the next four or five years?

8.14 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful for the points raised by the two noble Lords opposite who have spoken. The advice which the noble Lord, Lord Champion, gave his supporters is extremely wise. However strong one's feelings, to vote against a Bill—particularly one concerned with electoral representation—which has received a Second Reading in another place is not the normal practice of this House, and I am sure that it is wise not to extend it. I have taken note of what was said by the noble Lord, that he feels it may be necessary to press an Amendment at Committee stage. We shall certainly be ready to provide information, or to do anything else we can to help in advance of that date.

The noble Lord spoke about the inhabitants of the area and the fear that people from outside whose interests conflicted with those inside might come to predominate. But I would reply not only with the answer that he gave to the House, having posed his question, that the electors can decide whether or not they wish to elect somebody whose place of residence is outside; but, perhaps more important in the Party system, that the selectors—the people from the different Parties represented on the council—will be able to decide whether that person is the sort of person whom they wish to have stand as candidate for election to represent the people who live within the area.

Without wishing to be in the least disrespectful to the noble Lord's own experience, I can think of people in his own Party who rendered very great service to local government and who lived outside the area which they represented. A case was given in this House when the Representation of the People Bill was debated, of a former Member of this House, Lord Cohen of Brighton. Nobody would deny his service to Brighton, but I understand that, because of the side of the road on which he lived, his home was in fact in Hove. There was the case of a man who lived outside an area although his business, his local government work and all his very wide range of activities were in Brighton. He would have been disqualified on the arguments advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Champion.

Another example, if the noble Lord will look at the Report of the Second Reading debate on this measure in the House of Commons, is that of the present Member of Parliament for Stockport, North. Here is a straightforward example of a man who has given many years of service to local government, including serving as Mayor of Stockport, and who lived outside the city boundary. So one has to be pragmatic about this. I do not think there is any real risk of councils being flooded with people who have no interest in the area. The Bill does not originate in the Amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, or in the Amendments put forward in another place in 1969 by members of my own Party, but in the recommendation of the Maud Committee on Management of Local Government, which neither of the noble Lords opposite has mentioned at all. This stated specifically that what matters is the strength of local government. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Fiske, what matters is not that a Party cannot find any candidates, but whether it can be sure that it is finding the best; whether the qualities of the candidates are of the highest, particularly those—and he knows better than most of us from his experience in London—in the very big areas where people are acting as chairmen of committees, with enormous influence and power.

I was asked two specific questions. The first was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Champion, and was about definitions. He was not happy that the phrase "principal or only place of work" would be easy to interpret, and he also had doubts about the words "occupied as owner or tenant". The Bill does not seek to define the principal or only place of work, because we do not wish to be unnecessarily restrictive. There is no reference to work which is paid or which is unpaid, and there is no exclusion of work which is voluntary. I am advised that we expect this phrase to cause very little difficulty in practice, and that it will be interpreted in a common sense way. In the vast majority of cases, it will be the place where a man spends most of his time and earns his living. There may be some fringe cases which will need to be interpreted, but we have confidence that they will be interpreted in a common sense way, as I said. On the question of occupying as owner or tenant, I must point out to the noble Lord that this phrase is one which has been consistently used since 1832 in Acts dealing with electors, and has not in practice caused any great problems of interpretation. So that phrase is one which is already well recognised in electoral law.

The noble Lord, Lord Fiske, asked me about the implementation of the proposals of the Royal Commission on Local Government in England, and asked for an assurance that this Bill would not affect the way in which the Government looked on those proposals. The two are quite separate, my Lords. This is a detailed Bill to deal with a very tightly defined situation, while the implications of the Royal Commission are enormously wide. We accept that, with larger units of local government, particularly those which cover an urban area and its surrounding countryside, the need for these two qualifications may be less in future if the recommendations of the Redcliffe-Maud Commission, or an interpretation based upon them, are implemented. But there will no doubt still be areas, particularly in the case of second tier authorities, where a man has a legitimate interest in one authority area and happens to live in another.

My Lords, let me end by repeating what I said when introducing the Bill. It is concerned with widening the range of people who can stand for local government office. It does not deal with voting; it does not even deal with the ownership of property. That has not been restored. The Bill is concerned with the occupation of premises or the principal or only place of work in a particular area. So we are bringing in here, for the first time, a wide range of people who have their main work in the area. They may perhaps be in factories or offices, and may be doing a wide range of work. The noble Lord, Lord Fiske, hinted that there might be some social overtones in the phrase, "the occupier of property". But this is not so in the "principal place of work" qualification. I think the noble Lord will probably accept that, and certainly it was implicit in the recommendations of the Committee on the Management of Local Government. My Lords, it is for these reasons that we have introduced this Bill, and we feel strongly that it will lead to a healthier and a stronger local government in future.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.