I beg to move, in page 1, line 10, to leave out "December," and to insert "March."
My purpose in moving this Amendment is to draw attention to the matter of filling casual vacancies in local councils. This matter was discussed on the Second Reading, and attention was drawn to the fact that whereas casual vacancies for this House are filled by election, those for local councils are not. The object of this Amendment is to substitute the month of March for December, so as to give the Government time to consider whether a better method of filling vacancies should come into being in place of the existing method. At present local councils are closed corporations, and that is bad for——
The first Amendment. During the war we have surrendered a great many of our liberties in order that a greater liberty may be preserved, but it is the duty of Parliament to see that these berties are not unnecessarily suspended, and I want to suggest that by accepting the suggestion to extend the period of this Bill to March instead of December and so enabling the Government to take appropriate measures to bring in another Bill——
I think any discussion on temporary vacancies must be out of Order. We cannot discuss that on this Amendment or on the later Amendment, because, as the hon. Member no doubt understands, one cannot amend a Bill which is purely a continuation Bill I do not think one can allow any discussion on the question of casual vacancies.
Do I understand from your Ruling, Colonel Clifton Brown, that it would not be in Order to state the reasons why it is undesirable that this Bill should be extended beyond March?
Is it your Ruling, Colonel Clifton Brown that I cannot state in detail what I want the Government to reconsider and why I think it is desirable that they should reconsider this matter?
That would be going into the second Amendment, which would be completely out of Order. The hon. Member has said why he wants to insert "March" instead of "December," but he may not expand that argument into the second Amendment. Does the hon. Member wish to withdraw his Amendment?
No, Colonel Clifton Brown. Although it is not possible to extend further the argument which was developed on the Second Reading, I hope the Home Secretary will give sympathetic consideration to the argument that it is desirable that this Bill should be extended only to March in order that the whole question may be given more consideration by the Government than it has received up to the present. The impression generally is that in their original intention the Government did not envisage the war going on so long or that the consequences would be so serious. When they propose to extend the present procedure for another year, I hope they will be willing to give further consideration to this matter. Although they are perhaps not able to give a definite pledge now, I ask that on a further occasion when they extend this Bill this question should receive the Government's sympathetic consideration.
I appreciate your Ruling, Colonel Clifton Brown, that one cannot go into the specific manner in which one wants this Bill altered, when it comes to an end, and we therefore have to make it plain that we object to its remaining in operation as it is now. There was never any real necessity for this Bill at all. No doubt there are certain areas such as bombed areas where grave difficulties might arise, but in those cases it would be reasonable for the Government to take powers to exclude by Order——
If you rule that way, Colonel Clifton Brown, then I cannot elaborate that point any further, but I want to say this: I feel sure that the Home Secretary will be influenced in this matter by the volume of Parliamentary opinion on the subject. If he finds that a large number of Members, belonging to all parties, hold strongly that some effort should be made to alter the system we have been working on up to the present time, I feel sure that he, as a good democrat, will bow to such opinion and will consider between now and when the Bill comes forward again the possibility of introducing Amendments. During the last two years my voice has been almost a lone voice in opposing this Measure. But it is so no longer. A considerable volume of opinion has been expressed on the lines of what my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Lipson) and I have said to-day. It was so, for instance, on the Second Reading, and I have reason to believe that others are prepared to take the same view. I do not expect my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, because two or three people express their views strongly on this subject, to take any very serious steps, but if he finds that a representative body of Members in all parts of the House do so, I believe it would be his desire to look into the matter in a much more serious way than has been done up to now. I am precluded from using some of the arguments put forward on the Second Reading, but I am sure he will bear them in mind—he knows them well—and will take them as said although they have not actually been said on this occasion.
I wish to support the Amendment, but I do so for different reasons from those stated by the hon. Members who moved and seconded it. I support it because I have contested six municipal elections in November. Whenever there may be municipal elections—I hope it may be in 1943—I trust that, considering the amount of illness caused by having elections in November, the elections will not be fixed either for December or the old evil day of 1st November. I intervene simply to suggest that when alterations are being made in the election law in the dates of elections, consideration should be given to the question of whether, just as the month of March is stipulated for county council and similar elections, common sense should not intervene and reign supreme and March be fixed for the holding of municipal elections.
Within the limits of your Ruling, Colonel Clifton Brown, clearly it would not be in Order to refer to the arguments which a number of us would have liked to put before the Committee. I hope the Home Secretary will consider sympathetically the suggestions that have been made and that, if he is not able to accept the Amendment, he will at any rate indicate that the Government will give consideration to some alternative methods of dealing with this matter. If the Bill is passed in its present form, without the Amendment, it will mean that the whole machinery of local democratic Government will continue in suspense. That is something which was perfectly justifiable for one year or even for two years, but it cannot be justified as a continuous process going on year after year. If the Amendment is not accepted, it will mean that interest in local affairs will tend to die out among a large section of the electorate and a small group of people will have complete control and will be able to co-opt members of local government bodies without any consultation with the wider body of electors. That is not good for the continuance of democracy. It is not a party matter, because in many parts of the country, particularly in the smaller localities, party considerations do not enter into the election of the local authorities". It is very important that the electors should continue to be interested and should have an opportunity of expressing their interest. If the machinery of election is in suspense for a long period, this will have a deleterious effect on the whole life of the community. Therefore, I hope the Home Secretary will consider seriously the plea that has been made to him.
I hope my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will accept the Amendment, because if he does not do so, I feel that it will be tantamount to endorsing a policy of official recognition by the Government of the day of party caucuses throughout the country. That would be a bad thing. We know that in the United States of America, under their Electoral Law, there are elections known as "Primaries" which are officially recognised by the Constitution.
I will not pursue that point further, Colonel Clifton Brown, but will content myself with submitting to you, within your Ruling, that it would be unfortunate if a large section of the people were not concerned at all, when vacancies of this kind arise, for so long a period. In some constituencies a small number of people, perhaps four or five, meeting in a private" house, decide among themselves—probably having been given a name by the town clerk of the district concerned—who shall be the nominee in a certain ward.
May I submit to you, Colonel Clifton Brown, that it is a reasonable argument to address to the Committee to say that this practice should not be allowed to continue for such a long period of time? It is for that reason that I feel that the date should be altered. I hope the Home Secretary, when he replies, will, if it is possible to do so within your Ruling, deal with the very substantial arguments that have been made in the Debate.
I realise that I am entirely lacking in the necessary skill to give the Committee, within the terms of your Ruling, Colonel Clifton Brown, the reasons I support the Amendment. It must be clear, however, that there is a feeling of disquiet in the country about this matter. At the present time the associations of local government bodies are considering the form of postwar local government, and it is true to say that in almost every case there is emphasis upon the necessity for the maintenance of the democratic system. The County Councils Association, which is a very important body, is considering the question of post-war local government, and as the discussion takes place, it is clear that the desire is that we should not depart to any extent from the democratic principle. During the war we are departing from it. We cannot help doing so. We cannot run the war by committees. I want to express the view that the present method of appointing local government members cannot be considered as truly reflecting the mind of the people. There are certain aspects of the case which ought to be considered. The Home Secretary will know of some instances where the agreement upon which the original Act was based has not been kept. When the original Act was passed, there was agreement in the House that parties would be entitled to co-opt their members and that if a member of a party died or resigned, that party would be able to nominate a successor. That agreement has not been faithfully kept.
I sincerely hope that my right hon. Friend may consider inserting March instead of December, because I can apprehend certain issues arising which will almost compel him to reconsider his position. After March, of course, a great deal can happen. I am not entitled to give reasons why it should be so, but I can assure him that the arrangements which have been made for the purpose of working this Measure are not being carried out faithfully.
Hon. Members have been so reasonable and friendly in their observations that I find it difficult not to surrender completely forthwith. I am in some difficulty in replying, because I also must mind my step and not in any way conflict with the Ruling that you, Colonel Clifton Brown, have given. I am in the position that I know almost exactly the arguments which the hon. Members for Cheltenham (Mr. Lipson), East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander) and others would have put up if they had been able, and I know the full, complete and devastating answer to all those arguments, which I think the Committee would accept as conclusive. Nevertheless, we are dealing with a Bill which is to renew an Act of Parliament, and we cannot get to the point of amending the Act itself. I cannot get into the field of argument which hon. Members would have put before the Committee had it been possible, but I assure them there there are very strong arguments the other way, which I am sure they would have taken serious notice of.
It is the case that Parliament dealt with itself differently from the way it dealt with local authorities. In the original Act we decided that no local elections should be held, and that was quite conclusive, whereas Parliament was prolonged for a year, without, of course, any prejudice to the right of the Prime Minister to advise His Majesty to dissolve Parliament, and therefore neither a General Election nor a by-election was prohibited in the case of Parliament. But, wisely or unwisely, Parliament dealt differently with local authorities and prescribed that there should be no election of any sort while the Act was in force. I think it would be inconvenient to accept an Amendment to limit the duration of the Bill to six months. If Parliament is legislating at all it ought not really in other than very exceptional circumstances to legislate for less than 12 months, which is a convenient temporary period; I do not think it would be reasonable to cut that down by half, but, in considering the Bill next year, assuming that I am still at the Home Office, I will instruct my officers that the attention of the Home Secretary shall be drawn to the arguments which have been put forward in the House and elsewhere as to any perfections or imperfections in this legislation.
I will give instructions that, when the Bill is being prepared next year, all the points that have been raised shall be put before the Home Secretary. I do not wish to deceive the Committee by leading them to think it probable that the kind of alteration which some Members have in mind is likely to commend itself to the Home Secretary, because there are very strong arguments the other way, and I should think it is about 100 to 1 against any alterations being made. Nevertheless, certain points have been brought to my attention, both in the House and in Committee and privately by the hon. Members for Cheltenham and East Wolverhampton, and I will see that they are given consideration so that they can be weighed up.
Of course, there is nothing magic in choosing the month of December, but actually in practice it means that there will not be an election till 1944, because the practice is to have local elections in November, It would be more appropriate to select some other month, so that if, by good luck, we should have a victory next summer, we should have our elections in November, 1943.
There are intelligent reasons for November. The range of local elections is that county council elections are held in March, urban and rural district councils in April, county and Metropolitan boroughs in November—that date also applies to Scotland—and December is the month for Scottish county council elections. If we are going to get a clear-cut date which does not affect any particular class of election unfairly we are really bound to take December.