Clause 5. — (Annual elections of one-third of councillors.)

Orders of the Day — Representation of the People Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th January 1945.

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Photo of Mr Denis Pritt Mr Denis Pritt , Hammersmith North 12:00 am, 17th January 1945

I beg to move, in page 4, line 35, leave out from beginning, to end of line 3 in page 5, and insert: (2) All the councillors shall retire on the appropriate date. I shall have to be brief because my voice will not last very long. I hope that when the limited scope of my Amendment is understood in relation to the rather obscure words used in the Bill, the Amendment will commend itself to a fair section of the Committee. Perhaps I might explain its purpose rather than read a lot of words, although most of the Committee are very much more familiar with the actual working of local government than I am.

We all know, I think, that in most parts of the country—I think it is everywhere outside London—the ordinary borough or district council is elected, so to speak, in stages; that each year one-third of the people go out, and themselves or other persons are elected to take their place. So that you get a measure of continuity instead of, as this House gets, a general election at stated or unstated times. I do not want in the least to interfere with the general operation of that system.

I do not want even to argue whether it is good or bad—those who understand these things better than I do think it is good, and I shall not contest that. I am not sure that I have my years right but the substance of what I want to say is this. Take an ordinary borough council outside London. One-third of its members were elected in 1936 and ought to have gone out in 1939; one-third were elected in 1937 and ought to have gone out in 1940; one-third were elected in 1938 and ought to have gone out in 1941. I think that is right, but if it is not right in substance it is on the lines of the principle. We did not go on with that in wartime—and we could not alter it now if we wanted to do so and I do not suppose we want to do it—but extended the tenure of office of all these people, or of people nominated to take their places when they died or otherwise disappeared, so that we now have very old councils—people who have been acting as councillors for far longer than the electorate selected them to act, and many people were never selected, incidentally, by the electorate at all, though that does not come in as a particular part of the argument.

What are we to do? One would have thought that everybody would have said democratically, "At the first time at which it is convenient to hold an election, turn them all out and select a new lot; and when you have selected a new lot, re-introduce your system of moving by stages in thirds. You will have an awkward list because they have all been over the time limit and some will be expected to go out in one year or two years, but that difficulty arose when the statutes were first passed and arises when any new borough council is established, and there are all sorts of regulations to deal with that." But what the Bill says is, "Oh, no, the people who were elected in 1936 and ought to have gone out in 1939 will go out"—say, for the sake of argument—"in 1945; people who were elected in 1937 and ought to have gone out in 1940 will not go out in 1945 but in 1946; the people who ought to have gone out in 1941, will go out in 1947." I suggest that is thoroughly undemocratic, and that the fair and proper thing to do is to say, "You have all been there far too long" like, if I may say so without disrespect, this House, "and it is high time you all presented yourselves to the electorate again to see what is to happen." That is the beginning and end of what I intended by my Amendment. The words are a little obscure but I think my Amendment will operate in that way. If the words themselves are improper, of course the Government is well equipped to see that they are put right. This Amendment, Mr. Williams, will, I suppose, also cover the Amendment in my name which comes next but one, and which is a necessary part of this Amendment.

Photo of Mr Charles Williams Mr Charles Williams , Torquay

I thought that the second Amendment would, for practical purposes, be consequential upon this one, but we could deal with the two Amendments together if it was agreeable to the Committee.

Photo of Mr Denis Pritt Mr Denis Pritt , Hammersmith North

I am much obliged, Mr. Williams. I really should have had the courtesy to ask that at the beginning.

Photo of Mr George Griffiths Mr George Griffiths , Hemsworth

I want to oppose this Amendment. It may have some advantages but I think it has greater disadvantages. This applies both to borough councils and to urban district councils when the elections come. If all the councillors retire at the same time, there will be a rare muddle in practically every council. Again, if you sweep everybody off the council at the same time and all new people come on, that would be a great disadvantage, for you require someone to be left on these councils who knows how to run them. I think that the Clause is best left as it is, that those who should have retired had elections continued, shall retire now. Of course there is also the other part, in which it states that all co-opted members will retire. Co-opted members have not been before the electorate and they will do so at the very first opportunity there is for an election. I know a council which thought that this Bill was an Act and they have already printed the names of the people who have to come off in the November, 1945, elections. There have been two co-opted members out of the three in the ward, so that in that ward everybody will come off at the election—of course they have died more quickly there than they have in the South. I hope therefore that the Government will not accept this Amendment but will leave the Clause as it stands at present.

Photo of Mr Thomas Burden Mr Thomas Burden , Sheffield Park

I agree with the hon. Member for Hemsworth. (Mr. G. Griffiths) that to accept this Amendment would be to cause chaos in our local government administration. Important as that point is, there is a point in the speech of the hon. and learned Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt) to which I must take strong objection. That is the very discourteous and slighting way in which he referred to men and women who have been serving on local governing bodies during this very difficult time, often in a sense of public spirit. Take for example the men and women in our London boroughs and in our blitzed areas, who have carried on week after week under extremely distressing conditions. They were warned and ready, as we all know, if certain things had happened in 1940 to stand at their posts. They received those instructions then, and now at the end of the time, the hon. and learned Member says, "We shall tell them 'You have been there far too long, it is time you went.'" Is that the way in which public service is to be rewarded?

Photo of Mr Denis Pritt Mr Denis Pritt , Hammersmith North

On a point of Order, Mr. Williams. I did not say anything of the sort. I did not say, "It is time you went." I said, "It is time you submitted yourselves to the electors."

Photo of Mr Thomas Burden Mr Thomas Burden , Sheffield Park

HANSARD will be the judge of that to-morrow. All that I can say is this: I think it is very poor recompense for the service which men and women have rendered on our local governing bodies in blitzed areas, and so on, for them to be spoken of in that way in this Committee.

1.45 p.m.

Photo of Mr Alexander Sloan Mr Alexander Sloan , South Ayrshire

I would like to support the Amendment because I agree that after such a long period in office it is necessary that people should be called upon to submit themselves to the electors. In county councils members retire at the end of every three years and I have never noticed any serious disruption of their business because of that. It is true that many people have served too long on local authorities, but when we do have elections people ought to submit themselves to the electorate. There is a growing need for drastic changes in local government; that is evident to everybody who has the slightest knowledge of local government affairs. What will happen is that only one-third of the members will submit themselves to the electorate and it will be a further three years before the last of those remaining will go to the electorate. I think that is a mistake. The way in which, at municipal election time, only one-third go out every year and the other two-thirds try to rig the poll is most annoying. Those who have sufficient knowledge of local government will be prepared to say that when an election is held all the members of the council ought to seek re-election.

Photo of Mr William Gallacher Mr William Gallacher , Fife Western

This question calls for serious consideration. It is obvious that the hon. Member for the Park Division of Sheffield (Mr. Burden) was trying to arouse unnecessary prejudice against my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt). I would remind him that this Bill deals not only with London but with the whole country and that whatever might be true about London and London councillors has no bearing whatever in relation to the great number of councils throughout the country. If an election had taken place in the normal way in London last November there are many councillors who would have been told by the citizens of the various boroughs to get out. But the citizens did not have the chance to tell them and so the councillors remain. In every council throughout the country there are members now sitting who would have been told in a very peremptory manner to get out if a normal election had taken place.

Photo of Mr Thomas Burden Mr Thomas Burden , Sheffield Park

That may be the case with the hon. Member when the next General Election comes along.

Photo of Mr William Gallacher Mr William Gallacher , Fife Western

People are more and more demanding elections in order to elect new town councils, just as they are demanding elections to elect new Members of Parliament. When the time comes for the next General Election the electorate will decide whether they will order us to get out or not. Why all this attempt to create feeling or prejudice against my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Hammersmith? This is a job for the electors. All we have to decide is whether the electors will decide in the case of certain councillors, or whether they will have the opportunity of deciding in the case of all councillors. There have been no elections of any kind for a long time. Very undesirable co-options have taken place in many councils, to which attention has been continually drawn. Therefore, electors should have the opportunity of re-electing all councillors or rejecting them. Take the Dissolution of this House, which is a national Assembly, responsible for the affairs of the nation. There is no difficulty about the period between a Dissolution and the meeting of the new House. Is anything disrupted? When you have a position like that you have already made arrangements to cover it. I am certain that the Secretary of State for Scotland, who has such a great knowledge of these matters, would not suggest that if a decision was taken to contest all seats on the same day there would be the slightest possibility of the administration of the local authority getting out of control.

Photo of Mr William Guy Mr William Guy , Poplar South Poplar

Does the hon. Gentleman suggest that a councillor who is serving in the Forces should offer himself for re-election?

Photo of Mr William Gallacher Mr William Gallacher , Fife Western

There is no reason why he should not or why he should not be a member of the council, although he is absent on duty in the Forces. I have been asked by members of councils if they should resign on going into the Forces. I have told them that they should not, that they should keep in contact with the minutes and business of the council, and with a representative who could put their point of view. If, a local authority felt it necessary to bring back one or two men from the Forces in order to carry on council business then arrangements should be made for that, just as Members of this House make arrangements to resign from the Forces because of the importance of their business. We know all about this cheap nasty attempt to arouse prejudice and how it is being worked. We know the situation that exists between some of these people in London and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Hammersmith. It is a cheap and nasty attempt to create prejudice, and we should not allow our minds to be biased on this question.

Photo of Mr Denis Pritt Mr Denis Pritt , Hammersmith North

I do not want to repeat the arguments which have been used, or to answer them, because I do not think we should make heavy weather of this. But I want to say just one or two words in reply to the attack which has been made on me. The last thing I expected to hear was that the speech I made was capable of being construed as an attack on borough councils. Why the hon. Member for the Park Division of Sheffield (Mr. Burden) should make a sudden, violent and gratuitously offensive attack on me I do not know, and, frankly, I do not care. I have not the remotest intention of attacking borough councils. In any case it could not apply to borough councils in London, because this Clause has nothing to do with them. They do not go out in shifts. Why it should be thought that I am attacking the councillors of blitzed cities like Sheffield or Bristol by saying that it is time they represented themselves to the electors, why that is poor recompense to them for their work during the war, and that that is a strange way of rewarding people, I do not know. Why I should be accused of making an attack on them by saying that they should give the electors the opportunity of deciding whether they want them or not I do not know, but, anyhow, we live and learn.

Photo of Mr David Maxwell Fyfe Mr David Maxwell Fyfe , Liverpool, West Derby

I think every aspect of this problem has been examined and I can put, quite shortly, the reason why the Government do not feel able to accept the Amendment. The desire of the hon. and learned Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt) is to have what is usually known as "a clean sweep" approach at the first election. The other extreme would be the complete retention until the other one-third's retirement. I am sure that he appreciates, although he did not deal with this aspect, that the Clause does not go to the other extreme from the Amendment. It goes to the half-way house—and this is important from the point of view which has just been expressed by the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher). The half-way house is that one third of the Members, that is, those elected in 1936, should retire and that all the co-opted members should retire. The hon. Member for West Fife expressed certain views about co-opted members. Every one is entitled to his views, which must vary in different parts of the country, but whether he is right or wrong all co-opted members will have to face the electors. I think the hon. and learned Member for North Hammersmith will agree that that is fairly described as the half-way house between the two extreme views.

Photo of Mr Denis Pritt Mr Denis Pritt , Hammersmith North

Half-way from the wrong to the right.

2.0 p.m.

Photo of Mr David Maxwell Fyfe Mr David Maxwell Fyfe , Liverpool, West Derby

That is according to the hon. and learned Gentleman's view. The arithmetical result, as far as we have been able to judge it, is that it will produce almost exactly 50 per cent. retirement, so one has the fact that 50 per cent. of all the members, including those co-opted, will retire at the first election. Those who have spoken in favour of the Amendment say that is only half the loaf that they desire. My constituency has a provincial local authority where the annual third system applies and we in the provinces have considerable respect, I might almost say affection, for that system. It has worked well because it provides a certain continuity of administration in a sense rather different from that which the hon. Member for West Fife appeared to have in mind. It is not so much the question of the interregnum between one total council being elected and another total council being elected that we have in mind when we desire the annual third principle. It is the continuity of supervision and co-operation in administration which you get between the members and the officers of a local authority. It is a much more personal and closer relationship and one which in our experience has produced good results.

That is why we ask for a compromise between the system of a clean sweep and our annual third being retained in the present situation. Bearing in mind the basis of our provincial local government, I think the retention of some continuity—less than usual but some—is a good thing for local administration and we think this compromise between the two systems—a compromise which maintains some continuity on the side of those who like that and which, on the other hand, makes 50 per cent. of the councils face the electorate, including all co-opted members, is a fair compromise and we ask hon. Members, having expressed their views, either to take such step as seems good to them or not to press the Amendment to a Division.

Photo of Mr William Gallacher Mr William Gallacher , Fife Western

This argument of continuity would only apply provided you were satisfied that, if a full election took place, all or most of the council were going to be rejected. If all your men were going to be returned the continuity is there. On the other point, it is not enough to say that a co-optee should go to the electors. Surely, if a council is not capable of making a proper co-option, the council as a whole should go before the electors.

Photo of Mr David Maxwell Fyfe Mr David Maxwell Fyfe , Liverpool, West Derby

On the first point, there is not only the point of whether the councillors would all come back. There is the question whether they would go at that point or whether they themselves would continue with their work as members of the local authority. There are two sides to the medal. There is the side of the electorate and the side of the people who have been engaged in local government. On the second point, I would remind the hon. Member that the electorate get an opportunity of expressing their view of 50 per cent., as far as we can say, of the councillors. It would be dishonest to pretend that I can go the whole way with the hon. Member but I suggest that this compromise between two possible views is one which gives the electorate a fair chance of expressing its views.

Amendment negatived.

Photo of Mr David Maxwell Fyfe Mr David Maxwell Fyfe , Liverpool, West Derby

I beg to move, in page 5, line 8, leave out from the beginning, to the end of the Sub-section.

This Amendment is anticipatory of a new Clause which will be moved later on. Originally we had this provision dealing with the first election for charter boroughs but, instead of that, we are having a new Clause which will deal with all the different problems of different degrees. For example, there are charter boroughs and boroughs which have only had one meeting, and there are boroughs which have had redistribution of wards and various problems, and we think the general provision contained in the new Clause is a better method of dealing with it. Therefore, we delete the specific provision dealing with charter boroughs.

Amendment agreed to.

Photo of Mr David Maxwell Fyfe Mr David Maxwell Fyfe , Liverpool, West Derby

I beg to move, in page 6, line 43, at end, insert new Sub-section: (7) Nothing in this Section shall affect any power of His Majesty to create new boroughs, or any power to make Orders in Council or Orders conferred by the following provisions of the Local Government Act, 1933, that is to say—

  1. (a) Section twenty-five (which relates to the division of a borough into wards and the alteration of the number of councillors or wards or boundaries);
  2. (b) the proviso to Sub-section (3) of Section thirty-five (which provides for the rotation in thirds provision being replaced as respects a district council by the provisions of that Act requiring the retirement of the whole council in every third year);
  3. (c) Section thirty-seven (which relates to the division of an urban district into wards);
  4. (d) Sub-section (2) of Section thirty-eight (which relates to the number of rural district councillors to be elected by the several rural parishes);
  5. (e) Part VI (which relates to the alteration of areas);
and any such Order in Council or Order may exclude or vary the provisions of this Section to the like extent as it may exclude or vary the rotation in thirds provision.

Various parts of the Local Government Act, 1933, are mentioned in the Amendment, and these refer to the making of Orders altering the boundaries of wards and the constitution of local authorities. They can be made only when Section 6 of the Local Elections Act, 1939, is repealed by this Act and it is desired that they should be made without being tied to the rotation in thirds principle. For example, if an Order is made early in 1946 for altering all the wards of a borough, it might well be desired that the election in 1946 should not be for a third but for the whole number. We want to be able to provide for that. I think the Amendment meets in another connection somewhat the point which the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) had in mind and, in order to leave the Home Secretary free, I ask the Committee to accept the Amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 6, 7, 8 and 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.