I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
In asking the House to give a Second Reading to the Bill, the essential purpose of which is to confer county borough status upon the Borough of Luton, the House will expect me to say something about the presentation of the Bill to the House for further consideration approximately 12 months after its consideration and rejection last year.
The desire for county borough status in this vigorous, lively and progressive industrial town is intensely felt, not only amongst the people of Luton but, as one would expect, by the unanimous desire of the Borough Council. There is no party difference that obstructs the general and persistent desire of the Council to achieve this status. Further, when the Bill was considered a year ago, one of the considerations put to the House was that we might reasonably expect a comprehensive measure of local government reform. That being so, and in the expectation put forward by some that that reform would overtake individual applications for extended boundaries and change of functions, the argument proceeded that we should not deal case by case and town by town with such extensions or promotions.
There are three main issues which I desire to put before the House. The first,
with which I shall deal briefly, for I believe it will meet with the general approval of the House, is that, viewed in isolation, disregarding for the moment the argument of comprehensive reform and the effect on the county of Bedfordshire, the case for the promotion of Luton is recognised on all sides. The former Minister of Health, to whom these matters stood referred a year ago, expressed the position quite plainly in describing it in the debate on 26th April last year, when he said that Luton was a good independent unit of local government, capable of carrying out county borough duties. The hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Messer), although he did not go all the way, expressed himself quite plainly on this point when he said on 5th May, 1950:
By itself, it"—
that is, Luton—
has every claim to county borough status. There is not the slightest doubt about it; there is nobody who can deny that."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th May, 1950; Vol. 474, c. 1986]
Therefore, I will not spend the time of the House in describing the features of Luton—its population, more than 110,000; its financial vigour and administrative excellence—for I believe the House will accept that, subject to those conditions and viewed in isolation. Luton has a strong and unanswerable case for promotion to county borough status.
I have, of course, to deal with the two sets of considerations which were advanced last year. The first was the argument that we should not undertake local government extension or promotion in piecemeal fashion as comprehensive local government reform was on the way. The House will recall that in the debate in 1949, on the Bill to abolish the Boundary Commission, it was stated by the then Minister of Health:
Therefore, we came to the conclusion that the correct procedure was for the Government themselves to accept the responsibility of examining the whole position, and of ultimately bringing forward their own proposals. That examination is now in being."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd November, 1949; Vol. 469, c. 516.]
That speech was made in 1949.
Last year, I endeavoured to argue that even though that examination was in being in 1949, it had been so slow to emerge that little had been heard of it by the spring of 1950. Indeed now, a year later, no more has been heard of detailed proposals for comprehensive local government reform. Of course, no one is surprised that such proposals have not been forthcoming. On all sides of the House it is recognised, as I think the Minister himself said last year, that any Minister who dared to bring forward any set of proposals, whatever their merits or demerits, would soon find himself in great difficulty behind him as well as in front of him—we all know that.
All I want to say on that point is this. There is now no prospect of comprehensive local government reform. The plans that were in being in 1949, which were the subject of mention in 1950, have evaporated by 1951. I wish merely to record that view, with the possibility that it may be said from an authoritative quarter that comprehensive proposals are in fact on the way. I realise how such a statement would injure my argument, but in the absence of such comprehensive proposals, the passage of another year enables me to say that it is not right to refuse to consider cases for adjustment and even for promotion; that it is not right permanently or semi-permanently to freeze the local government structure unless active steps are being taken to prepare proposals for local government reform, and unless there is early prospect of their being produced.
On the second argument, I submit that the procedure which was deliberately left as the only constitutional procedure by the Act which abolished the Boundary Commission, should still be available to local authorities, and that local authorities seeking extension or promotion should not be answered by a vague hope or by wishful thinking for the future; and should not have their current adjustments deferred because of the distant prospect of some proposals for local government reform.
If that be accepted in substance, I realise that I have to deal with the third issue, the issue of Luton and Bedfordshire County Council. I realise that the argument put forward with considerable vigour is that for Luton to be severed from the county of Bedford would leave the county so impoverished as to make it difficult for it to conduct an efficient administration. If I am right in assuming that that is the main consideration, I propose to devote the remainder of my remarks to that consideration.
At the moment the county of Bedford has a population of approximately 312,000. It has a rateable value, in round figures, of approximately £1,800,000. A penny rate produces approximately £7,400. Without Luton, Bedfordshire would have a population of approximately 202,000, a rateable value of slightly more than £1 million, and a penny rate would produce approximately £4,300. The main issue is whether in the case of a county council with a population of slightly more than 200,000, a rateable value of slightly more than £1 million and a penny rate product of approximately £4,300 it is reasonable to argue that it is capable of independent and efficient existence.
If we take the figures for Bedfordshire without Luton and examine them in comparison with those of other counties, we find that Bedfordshire without Luton would be in very much the same position as Cambridgeshire, as Oxfordshire, as the East Riding of Yorkshire and as East Suffolk. Those who allege that Bedfordshire without Luton would be incapable of separate existence must explain how it is that Cambridgeshire, Oxfordshire, the East Riding and East Suffolk are held to be capable of independent and efficient existence.
Surely my hon. Friend realises that one or two of the counties he has mentioned were specifically mentioned by Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve as, in his opinion, incapable of supporting a separate existence as a county.
I am coming to that question and if hon. Members will bear with me I shall deal with it. If we view the issue from the figure that expresses the position in terms of the yield of a penny rate alone, Cambridgeshire, West Suffolk and Oxfordshire are in a worse position, while East Suffolk and the East Riding of Yorkshire are approximately in the same position. There are 23 counties in England and Wales with a population of less than 200,000 and 24 counties in England and Wales with a penny rate yield of less than £4,200. I am not now proceeding to argue as to the efficiency of those other authorities, or arguing that there is not a case for comprehensive local government reform which might affect them all. What I am saying is that, pending such comprehensive reform and without seeking to do it by the piecemeal method, an individual authority which on every ground has a claim to be considered should not be met by the argument that it should wait until the whole country is put right and until the comprehensive proposals are not only forthcoming, but have found their way into operation.
I introduced Cambridgeshire as a county, which at this moment is in approximately the same position in terms of population and in terms of the yield of a penny rate, as Bedfordshire without Luton. I would remind the hon. Member that I am dealing with the argument put forward, and which will no doubt be put forward tonight, that Bedfordshire without Luton would be incapable, of a separate existence. I am not suggesting that in those other counties there is perfection and that they are incapable of improvement and adjustment when comprehensive proposals are forthcoming.
One argument I have to meet, I confess frankly, is that at the moment Luton provides 35 per cent. of the population of the county and 42 per cent. of the rate monies of the county. I state that quite frankly because I want to deal with it, and at first sight it would look as if the severance of Luton would mean a disproportionate reduction in the county council's resources. I would of course make the obvious point that the severance of Luton would relieve the county of the expense of Luton, but that clearly is an insufficient answer to that consideration. Much more important is the effect of the equalisation fund. The right hon. Gentleman will recall that before the 1948 Local Government Act, an authority which sought, by improvement or extension, to change its status or area in a manner which affected adversely the county, was permitted to make provision within its Private Bill for the compensation of the county for its loss. By the Act of 1948 that became no longer possible. The reason which was given by the then Minister of Health to the Association of Municipal Corporations was simply that the equalisation fund will do what in fact this individual and private provision formerly did.
I have examined with care how the Equalisation Fund will affect the position. Today, Bedfordshire has rateable resources below the average and so is in receipt of moneys under the equalisation arrangement. The county receives grants to bring up its resources to the general level on the usual formula. After severance there will be a fresh calculation of the equalisation moneys to which the county is entitled and that fresh calculation almost obliterates any loss the county might otherwise have been able to claim. It has been estimated by financial experts that, after allowing for this adjustment of equalisation, the loss to the county council would be the equivalent of a 3d. rate, without taking into account any administrative county economies following the reduction of commitments.
I could give the figures upon which that calculation is based. The estimated expenditure for general rate purposes is rather less than £1,800,000. After taking into account the estimated reduction on losing Luton, there is left to be found a sum of money of approximately £ 1,200,000. The equalisation grant which is estimated to be receivable by the county council would be approximately half a million pounds. In other words, on the expert advice which has been received by the operators of the equalisation fund, the loss to the council in terms of rate would be between 3d. and nothing, according to the economies which it was found possible to undertake in county administration expenditure.
Another consideration in relation to the argument that the county would not be viable and would be incapable of independent existence without Luton, is that for the most part this is the position which obtained before 1945. Most of the services which would be referred to the county borough of Luton, restored to Luton as a county borough, were in fact administered by Luton before 1945. Education for example. Before 1945 it was a Part III authority. It is considered at the moment to be good enough to handle on behalf of the county not only the elementary education, but other forms of education. The police were taken over only in 1947. The fire service was taken over in 1948. The health services were taken over in 1948, and by the rather indirect method which most hon. Members know about, have been returned to Luton to administer. If the county will be so helpless after the removal of Luton, how did it get on before 1945? I admit there are some exceptions; there are a few services. But in terms of money, the position is that three-quarters of the services which the county would lose by the promotion of Luton were administered by Luton before 1945, anyway. I think that makes the argument about impoverishment ring a little hollow.
I have necessarily to face the question: Why is the county opposing? Every county in such circumstances opposes the promotion of a daughter community, or shall I say almost every county. It is a natural instinct so to do. I do not know what is to be the argument of the county if and when local government reform does come and Luton is promoted to county borough status. I do not know whether the county will continue to argue that they are so impoverished as to be incapable of separate existence and therefore they should be fused with an adjacent county, but I suspect that they will have moved to other ground when other proposals come forward.
The county has issued a statement in opposition to the proposals and I wish briefly to examine one or two of the comments made. In paragraph 8 of the county council statement it is said that the Bill makes no provision for recouping the loss which would be suffered by the county council. It goes on with this delightful sentence:
Indeed, it is a ground of objection to the Bill that it is incapable of containing the provisions which might be required in the interests of local government to remedy its injurious consequences
That is an argument which can be used at any time against any authority, because such authorities as Luton are precluded by law from including the compensation provisions. In this document there is no
mention of the equalisation fund, of its purpose and effect on Luton. The statement goes on to mention the Local Government Boundary Commission, pointing out and quoting from it that the object of the alterations in status of local government authorities is to ensure individually and collectively effective and convenient units of local government administration. Then it goes on, quite properly, to state:
such principle is equally applicable to the preservation of existing effective and convenient units of county government as it is to the creation of new units of county borough government.
But what it did not say was that in so far as the Boundary Commission produced recommendations, it dealt with Luton as a matter of priority. It did recommend county borough status for Luton and it did assume that Bedfordshire would be a viable unit of local government even after the severance of Luton. The Boundary Commission mentioned the figure of 200,000 as a minimum population element and even without Luton, though it is not mentioned in this statement, the population of the county would be in excess of the required 200,000.
The submission I would make to the House is that here is an authority which, viewed in isolation, is by general consent entitled to county borough status. There is the problem which inevitably arises of the effect of its promotion upon the county council. I want positively to assert that the effect on the county council has been greatly exaggerated; that it would do little more than put the county council back into the position it occupied before 1945, and that in terms of reduction of rate the reduction is between 3d. and nothing, according to the character of administrative economies.
When viewed alone, the case is good. All that needs to be argued out is the effect that the promotion of Luton will have upon the viability of the county council. I say that is a matter which should be properly inquired into by a committee upstairs. I believe that the arguments about the effects of equalisation and the arguments which relate to the rate product are matters which can best be determined with the help of expert witnesses who can be cross-examined. I suggest that in all the circumstances it is fair and reasonable to argue that a case has been made out for giving this Bill a Second Reading so that the technical details of its effect on the county can be hammered out at leisure and with expert aid.
If it turns out that Luton by its severance would impoverish the county, that would be a new position which Luton would have to face. But surely Luton, free from difficulties about its own capacity, no longer faced, I imagine, with the prospect of immediate comprehensive reform, can fairly ask that it should have the opportunity to argue its case and prove its assertions. Surely the House should not lightly disregard an application by a community which is vigorous, which is growing and which is conscious of the lack of prestige that it suffers by its present position in the local government structure. The least we can do is to give this Bill a Second Reading so that the real facts can be hammered out, so that my contentions, and others, can be examined as to what the effect is likely to be on the county.
It would be a tragedy for local government as a whole if every opposition by a county council on the grounds of impoverishment defeated a Second Reading, if we, by defeating such Bills as this, created the position that local government was frozen for an indefinite time. I ask this House earnestly to consider this request from a considerable authority that it shall have the opportunity of having the Luton versus Bedfordshire issue hammered out in a Committee of this House.
This matter was thoroughly gone into in the House when the same Bill, and also a similar Bill referring to Ilford, were brought forward not 12 months ago. When the Luton Bill was moved last May, the House decided by a majority of no fewer than 175 against giving it a Second Reading. I maintain that no new facts have materialised since that date unless it be that there is a new Minister of Health. But there is no evidence to show that the Government have in any way changed their views towards this problem since last May.
Before the Luton Bill was discussed, a similar Bill relating to Ilford came before the House and was also defeated, and Ilford has apparently decided to abide, for the present at any rate, by the decision of the House. As I pointed out last May, the case for Ilford being made a county borough is a much weightier one than is the case for Luton. Ilford has a much greater population, and, also, if Ilford were to be made a county borough, the effect upon the county of Essex would be felt very much less than would be the effect upon the county of Bedfordshire, were Luton to be made a county borough.
If this Bill is given a Second Reading there will, naturally, be another Ilford Bill following rapidly upon it, together with other Bills promoted by at least 20 other boroughs with a population of 75,000 or more, which aspire to achieve county borough status. The way will be open for any number of Private Bills of this sort to be brought before the House, and the precedent will be set for these Bills to be discussed in Committee. It would be quite wrong to think that because other boroughs do not promote annual Bills, as does the borough of Luton, their case is less strong or their ambitions less great.
I am a county Member, and I am violently opposed to this Bill because it runs counter to the interests of every one of my constituents and to the county of Bedford as a whole. But any hon. Member who examines the Bill quite impartially will appreciate that it seeks to serve only the purpose of Luton, and completely disregards the effect that it will have on the county of Bedford. In round figures the population of Luton is 100,000, and the population of the county without Luton is 200,000.
I should like for a few minutes to compare the benefits that would accrue to Luton were this Bill to be passed with the harmful effect that it would have on the rest of the county of Bedford with double the population. No responsible person connected with Luton, least of all, I am sure, my hon. Friend the Member for Luton (Dr. Hill) would complain that Luton has not had a fair deal from the county council or that it has not been treated with the respect and consideration which is due to a borough of such importance. In 1927 the borough of Luton covered an area of some 3,000 acres. On three separate occasions since that year the county council has agreed to an increase in Luton's acreage amounting in all to 5,500 acres. I am not saying that it is not right and proper that that should have been done, but Luton cannot complain that the county council has attempted to restrict the growth of Luton.
We entirely agree on that point. Of course the population has grown. What I am saying is that the county council has done nothing whatever to attempt to restrict the natural and very laudable growth of Luton.
As for the argument that the county council has failed to delegate powers, I submit that no function which could have been delegated to Luton by the county council has not been delegated. Indeed, every effort has been made to hand over to Luton as much control as possible in domestic affairs. Luton is also very well represented on the county council. No borough in England or Wales has, in proportion to its size, a better representation on the county council than has Luton on the Bedfordshire County Council. The chairman of the county council is a Luton man; the chairmen of the Education Committee, the Highways Committee, the Fire Services Committee, the Welfare Committee and the Finance Committee are all Luton men. They have nothing to complain of; they are not as badly off as all that; they have not really been badly treated.
What would be the effect on Luton if this Bill were to be passed? Their pride would be assuaged, they would become an autonomous authority, they would be cut adrift from the county of Bedford. But it is highly doubtful whether any citizen of Luton would benefit to any appreciable extent from such a change. To the remainder of the county of Bedford this Bill would, to put it mildly, bring about confusion. In fact, it is highly questionable whether Bedfordshire could remain as a county. If it did, it would be of a size which the Boundary Commission reported on as being uneconomic.
I maintain that the county less Luton would have a population under 200,000, which the Boundary Commission say is uneconomic. We do not want to set up uneconomic units at the present time. The county would lose overnight, as it were, 42 per cent. of its rateable value and a third of its population.
Turning to the question of the equalisation grant, I do not think it is possible for anyone to foresee exactly what effect that would have on the county, but the last Minister of Health said that it could in no way make good the loss which Bedfordshire would suffer were Luton to leave the county. What would happen about the roads, for example? Luton, which is well served by the roads in the county, would no longer be responsible to any degree financially for their upkeep. Luton would continue to use them. Not only we in Bedfordshire but the whole of the country hope that the industries in Luton will continue to thrive. Were Luton to be made a county borough under the 1888 Act, Luton would not be responsible for the upkeep of the roads. This would indeed be a heavy load to put upon the rural community of the county.
I am sure that my hon. Friend would not wish to mislead the House. All county roads within the borough are claimed roads and they are repaired, maintained and improved by the Luton Corporation.
That is within the borough. What about those in the county? They will be used by all the industry of Luton, but Luton will not be responsible financially for their upkeep. That burden will be placed upon the rural community. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton said, when the Bill was last discussed, that these were all points which should be thrashed out in Committee upstairs. I do not agree. By sending the Bill to a Committee, the House would be approving the principle of the Bill. I submit that the benefits which would accrue to Luton are as nothing compared with the losses which the whole county of Bedford would suffer. Therefore, the principle should not be approved.
When the county council met to discuss whether or not they should oppose the Bill, there were 21 members from Luton who voted on the issue. Presumably they were all men with divided loyalty: they were men of Luton sitting on the county council. They must have given the matter great thought. Of those 21, 18 decided that the Bill should be opposed, and only three voted against the Bill being opposed. I submit that the House would do well to follow that example.
If we considered this Bill on its merits and in isolation, I think that we should all agree, as the hon. Member for Luton (Dr. Hill) said, that Luton has a strong case, whether we consider it on the ground of population, of rateable value, of progressiveness or industrial efficiency. In isolation, Luton has a strong case for the Bill, but we cannot consider it in isolation. We must look at the matter from the point of view of the county of Bedfordshire from which Luton claims 42 per cent. of the rateable value and 36 per cent. of the population which would be taken away from the county if this Bill became law.
I confess that I could not follow the mathematics of the hon. Member for Luton. I shall look forward to studying what he said about the Equalisation Fund contribution in the OFFICIAL REPORT. On my calculations, the county of Bedfordshire would still suffer a substantial loss. Even after the rather complicated calculations about the county's loss of rateable value, and the allowance against these of services now supplied to Luton, and so on, the county would still suffer substantial losses of revenue. With the loss of revenue and the loss of population, the result for the county might well be described as catastrophic. The loss is not merely financial; the county needs Luton.
Would the hon. Gentleman agree, in view of my difficulty in expounding mathematics and his difficulty in understanding them, that it is fair and reasonable that a Committee of the House should be given the opportunity to thrash the matter out?
That is a matter with which I shall deal later, if I may be allowed to make my speech in my own way. I was saying that the county needs Luton in other ways than the purely financial. The hon. and gallant Member for Bedford (Captain Soames) said that the county had given the borough a fair deal. The chairman of the county council is a Luton man who has been chairman for 15 years; the chairmen of six of the major committees of the county are Luton men. It is fair to say that it is because of this marriage of the commercial and industrial element with the rural element that Bedfordshire is, and has been, a progressive county—for example, it is 40 years since cheap school meals were introduced there.
The hon. Member for Luton went into the Lobby to vote against the Matrimonial Causes Bill, which sought to facilitate easier divorce, but now he is asking for this marriage to be annulled on the ground that one of the parties will be better off as a result. I do not want to follow the analogy too far, but that is not the best of all possible grounds for a Bill of divorcement. The county needs Luton from the point of view of education—about 40 per cent. of the pupils of the Luton Technical College come from the county. On the question of the fire service, it is inconceivable that, if there were to be two separate services, each could maintain a full time fire force commander—one for the county and one for Luton. Again, in the case of the police there would have to be reciprocal arrangements—
That reinforces the argument that you cannot put an iron curtain round an urban area. The borough needs the county no less than the county needs the borough. As the hon. and gallant Member for Bedford pointed out, the borough will still use the roads for which the county will have to pay. The police must have rights over the county and the borough. In terms of education, in four schools in Bedfordshire 614 free places are available to children from Luton out of 1,148 free places available to children from the whole of the county. At present the county is establishing a farm institute which will be adequate to the needs of the borough as well as the county. I do not believe that we should put walls around an urban area. Today, the unwholesome one-way drift from the country to the town is being arrested and reversed. It is in the interests of Luton as well as of the county and the country that there should be facilities for the town children to get their education in the country which surrounds their town.
For all these reasons, and for others, I suggest that the effect of giving Luton county borough status would be highly detrimental to the county. It would affect not only Luton but the remnant of the county which would be left after the borough had been torn out. I know that the size of the population and the rateable value of the county, even so dismembered, would make it larger than some other counties, but the Boundary Commission recommended that many of these smaller counties should be amalgamated with neighbouring counties, on the ground that they are economically inefficient. The county of Bedford would be an economically inefficient unit if this major rateable mass were torn out of it. Luton can survive and flourish in its present status, just as it would survive and flourish as a county borough; the county would be grievously hurt if the borough were taken out of its effective area, and I believe that the county would suffer a grave loss if this Bill became law.
Nevertheless, on its merits, considered in isolation, I think Luton has a case I think it is entitled to have that case fairly and impartially considered in greater detail than is practicable in the House, because, on the Second Reading of a Private Bill such as this, unlike that of a public Bill, it cannot be fairly and impartially considered and evidence given in detail by learned counsel, as before an impartial Committee, where it could be considered in far greater detail concerning the effect of the Equalisation Fund contribution, the effect of the loss of rateable value and of population, the severance of services, and so on.
I believe that it is not unreasonable that the promoters of the Bill and the citizens of Luton should now have their case examined impartially and in detail, and in this I dissent from the views of the hon and gallant Member for Bedford and find myself in agreement with the views expressed by the hon. Member for Luton and the promoters of the Bill. I consider that is is fairer and better democracy that these considerations, and the considerations against the Bill, should be considered carefully, impartially and judicially upstairs.
I would hope and expect that, on the merits, the Bill would then be rejected on the grounds which I and other hon. Members who have spoken have indicated. It is clear, nevertheless, that Luton has a case to be considered, and that the case of the county should also be considered in a way that is quite impossible on the Second Reading of the Bill in the House. This is not a party matter, as the wide divergence of view shown by hon. Members who have spoken indicates. Indeed, the Member for Luton before the adjustment of boundaries, Mr. Warbey, was as emphatic in favour of county borough status on its merits as the hon. Member for Luton.
I think it is fair, therefore, as I have suggested, that because of these considerations of the case, it should be considered impartially, as it can only be in Committee. Since the last time that Luton made the attempt, and one must remember that Luton's attempts have continued for a number of years, I am bound to say that I feel that the prospect of wide amending legislation is not nearer, but further away. I hope it is not, and it may be that my belief is intuitional rather than reasonable. But it does reinforce the feeling that the promoters of the Bill and the citizens of Luton are entitled to have the Bill considered in greater detail than can be done now, and, for that reason, and for the others which I have mentioned, I am in favour of a Second Reading being given to the Bill.
I must confess that the speech to which we have just listened left me in a rather confused state of mind. It appears that the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Moeran), was doing his best to prove that the Bill ought not to pass through all its stages, but that, for some reason it ought to pass through this stage, because, he said, at this stage, we could not properly examine it. Therefore, he argued, it should go to a body which was capable of making that proper examination. Well, that is an argument in favour of the abolition of Second Readings. Why have a Second Reading if this detailed examination is all that is required?
The hon. Member for Luton (Dr. Hill) put up a magnificent case for Luton, with the ability of members of his profession for leaving out the essentials, while, in their positive statements, giving an impression that the only thing that mattered was the patient with whom they were dealing, and that the rest of the community did not matter at all.
Would my hon. Friend not consider that, in criminal proceedings, it is possible for a case not to be made out as a prima facie case, and then to be rejected out of hand?
I would not know. I have never been a criminal. What I do know is that this is infectious. Quite frankly, we could not give this Bill a Second Reading and expect that nobody else will come forward and ask for the same thing. [An HON. MEMBER: "Why should they not?"] I will explain why they should not. One reason is that, whether it is the present Minister or another, some Minister or another must grasp this method of the reform of local government. We do not get out of our difficulties in this piece-meal fashion. That does not get us out of the difficulties; indeed, it accentuates them. It is the usual argument of those who favour the all-purposes authority that we must have, in those all-purposes authorities, balanced communities.
Luton is worthy of every praise for what it has done, and I will say a word or two in a moment about some of the services for which it has been responsible, but what about the county? Nobody has said very much about the rest of the county. What other towns are there in the county? The town of Bedford, with 50,000 population, is at the northern end of the county; Luton is right in the middle, and, at the western side, the only other town is Dunstable, with a population of 18,000. Take Luton out of that county, and we shall not have a balanced community left, but, instead, an almost entirely agricultural community.
I do not really know what that has to do with the case. I am attempting to show that to have effective and efficient local government, we must have a balanced community for the purpose, and that, by taking Luton out of Bedfordshire, we shall destroy the possibility of that, balanced community.
Very little has been said about the service of the county and of Luton. The hon. Member for Luton might, perhaps, have strengthened his case if he could have shown that, as a result of Luton gaining county borough status, both Luton and the county would have benefited. What is the truth of the matter? The Bedfordshire County Council was responsible for building two grammar schools in Luton. It was also responsible for providing a technical school. At Dunstable, it was responsible for a girls' grammar school. If Luton becomes an all-purposes authority what arrangement is to be made for the boys and girls who ought to be getting secondary education but who are outside the boundaries of Luton? It is important that we should know. It may very well mean that boys and girls who are living outside Luton will need to go right through Bedford to reach Dunstable in order to get to a secondary school. It is the services which are important, and I say that we ought not to give a Second Reading to a Bill unless we are satisfied with it, and, having stated that we favour it in principle, leave it to the examiners, when it goes to Committee, to determine what the details shall be.
But, in this particular instance, the principle is involved. A county with a population of 300,000 is a small county. The figure of 200,000 has been quoted as that for a county council which is not the smallest in the country, but every local government report has always said that what we ought to do is to re-cast our system so that we get a unit of administration that is capable of rendering a maximum of efficiency in service. We cannot merely take the figures of population. What we have to do is to take the geography and transport, and, indeed, the particular type of service.
Let us look at the health services. The hon. Member for Luton is, of course, very interested in the Health Service. I am very glad that he has no criticism to offer about the county health service because, according to my examination, the county is not unmindful of the needs of Luton, or of the possibility of Luton making its contribution to the county service. There is a very good hospital in Luton, the Luton and Dunstable Hospital. The Bedfordshire County Council, to its credit, has co-operated with the Hospital Regional Board in the tuberculosis service. In addition to the ordinary tuberculosis work, it has done in its after care service what many other county councils ought to do. It has built open, sheltered workshops, a thing which I wish many other county councils would do, and, at the present time, there is a very efficient service running under the Bedfordshire scheme. They have a Medical Officer of Health who was in Lancashire where there was, of course, already a very efficient tuberculosis scheme under Dr. L. Cox, and Dr. Bothwell is now doing really good work.
If Luton gets county borough status, what is to happen to that service, for Luton as a county borough will be another health authority? The Regional Hospital Board will now have to make new arrangements with the Luton County Council as well as with the Bedfordshire County Council. Does not this all show that what we have to do is to exert pressure to get the whole matter reviewed for the purpose of bringing about a comprehensive reform of local government? The truth is that hon. Members on both sides are eager to see an expansion of social services, but it is no good talking about such expansion until we are prepared to create the machinery for their administration.
Because we have burked that issue, what has happened? We got the 1944 Education Act, and, in consequence, we get such hybrid units as divisional executives and excepted districts. We get elements in local government which are foreign to local government structure. We get the tendency for services to be removed from local government and to be placed centrally, which is a bad thing for local government, and we get some of the most important social services, the human social services, administered direct from Whitehall. In my view, there is no worse agency for administering social services than Whitehall. I prefer to see such administration carried out by the people on the spot. One of the reasons why I oppose this Bill is because I believe it would still further postpone the possibility of the reform of local government, and it is in that spirit that I hope the Bill will be rejected.
I am glad to have the opportunity of following the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Messer), and to pay my tribute, as one of the county Members for Bedford, to the work he has done for the last few years as Chairman of the Luton Hospital Board. He has won golden opinions in all sections of our county for the zeal with which he has tackled the formidable problem which he is called upon to face. I share with him the hope that whatever the solution may be for the status of Luton in the future, we shall be able to devise a balanced county community which, in both town and country alike, as the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Moeran), said, can be married in harmony.
I am speaking as one of the county Members for Bedford and not in any sense for the Conservative Party. But, as my three colleages have spoken, I hope the House will allow me to say a few words as well. I am sorry that I cannot agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Luton (Dr. Hill). I wish I could have done something to show my appreciation of the admirable work he is doing, not only as a member of my party, because that would scarcely be a suitable topic to introduce tonight, but as the distinguished Member for Luton. We hope very much that we shall see the hon. Gentleman here every year—or most of us do—but I think that many of us also hope that we shall not have an annual Luton Bill, and that, whatever may be the decision of the House this evening, that decision will be maintained.
I was very interested in the speech of the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South. I remember very well the speech he made 11 months ago when the Second Reading of the first Bill was before the House, and I remember the vote he gave after it. May I say that I think his speech tonight when he was supporting the Bill, was even stronger in opposition to it, than the speech he made 11 months ago, when he was actually opposing the Bill. I must say that the conclusion to which he rather unexpectedly came at the end of his speech reminded me of some words attributed to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition when paraphrasing the views of a Labour leader some years ago on another subject. They were: "The best thing to do is to take the damn thing upstairs and cut its throat." [An HON. MEMBER: "That was not the language he used."] I used language which I thought would be more suitable on an occasion of the kind, but, broadly, I think the House will recollect the quotation as actually given.
It is our view that it is fairer to Luton, and more honest, to do what ought to be done here, and not to take the Bill upstairs and do it afterwards. Eleven months ago we had a full debate both on Luton and Ilford. The Ilford Bill was discussed in the House last April and was defeated by 278 votes to 80. Eleven months ago the Luton Bill came before the House and was defeated by 259 votes to 84. It must appear, I think, a little singular that 11 months later the House of Commons should once more have to turn to a discussion of a precisely, similar Bill.
I must say it is a little extraordinary to find that, on that occasion also, the business of the day was to discuss education as it is today. This is perhaps not wholly irrelevant when we remember that the chairman of the Bedfordshire County Education Committee is a distinguished citizen of Luton, as, indeed, are many of the chairmen of the most important committees. Of course, as many know, the chairman of the county council is himself a distinguished Luton citizen.
In our view, there has been no change at all, except in two particulars to which I will come, since the House arrived at such an overwhelming decision only 11 months ago. As we see it, the two changes since the last time the Bill was before the House are that the local authorities' associations have been conducting talks to see whether they can find a general measure of agreement for the reform of the structure of local government. That has happened since the last Second Reading in the House.
All the indications are that unexpected harmony is prevailing in these discussions and I think it would be a very great pity for the future of local government if, at this stage and in the middle of these discussions, we once more carried through a piece of piece-meal legislation which would prejudice the working of any solution they may recommend and, as far as Bedfordshire is concerned, prejudice the creation of a balanced community.
Is it not a fact that in the discussions to which my hon. Friend has referred, the associations of local authorities, in the most friendly and harmonious way, have decided to agree about nothing?
Unless my hon. Friend has sources of information other than those open to most people—I certainly understand that the difficulties are formidable; nobody denies they are and not only this Government, but their predecessors have found the measure of those difficulties—there is an unexpected desire and readiness to try and work out a solution.
The second thing that has happened since last year is that on Bedfordshire County Council, who, after all, are very concerned, only three out of 93 members voted in favour of the Bill being brought before the House again. When we remember that Luton has 24 councillors and aldermen and that only three voted in favour of the House of Commons being asked once more to discuss the Bill, I think we are entitled to regard the recommendation of the county council as a measure of local feeling on that subject.
An Hon. Member: Perhaps 21 of them were afraid they would lose their jobs.
I do not know what the practice is in the hon. Member's own county, but in ours people are not going about constantly in fear of losing their jobs for speaking their minds. That is why we have three Conservative Members for Bedfordshire and we shall have four after the next election.
As I said, there have been only two changes since last year. Otherwise the situation remains exactly as before. It is the view of the overwhelming majority of people concerned in local government that except in exceptional cases where land is needed outside some authority's area for urgent housing purposes there should be no change in the status or area of a local authority in advance of a general review of structure and function. I was interested to see recently that the Ministry of Health had actually refused permission to a small urban district in Lincolnshire which wanted to be "demoted" and merged into a neighbouring district because the Ministry did not want any territorial changes in advance of a general solution.
The situation is the same again in another particular. The hon. Member for Luton asked, "What will happen and what will the county do if, in the fullness of time, the Government do recommend a general review as a result of which Luton is given county borough status?" The Chairman of the Boundary Commission, Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve put forward a solution in a new type of local authority altogether which would not be the all-purpose authority of the 19th century kind. I was interested to read some words he wrote lately, showing how his mind was working and what his recommendations might well have been if the Boundary Commission had not been dissolved. It might be that an honourable future for Luton might lie in that new status which the county as a whole would welcome, and which would provide harmony in future relations.
As I understand it, if it were not for the question of the police and fire services and some small planning functions, Bedfordshire would welcome the promotion of Luton. That, in fact, is what my hon. Friend said.
What I said was that as part of the general solution of the problems of local authorities and their relationships, if the recommendation was that a new status be applied to Luton with comparable powers, the county would accept that and work harmoniously in the new relationship.
Lastly, in one further particular the situation is just as it was before. Since a few years before I became the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire—and I have been a Member for a long time now and hope to continue to be so—Luton has increased its boundaries threefold at the expense of neighbouring rural districts. We do not begrudge that increase of territory and, of course, its population has increased enormously. Those increases in territory were willingly conceded by the rural authorities and the county council in the belief that Luton meant what it said when in 1927 in asking for a further extension by 2,000 acres it said it had
no desire to make a renewed application for the constitution of the borough into a county borough.
Because of that, the land was conceded and now we find the application is being
made again. I thought we might have heard some new arguments from my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, but there have been very few. He spoke about the Equalisation Fund, but he omitted to quote the words of the present Minister of Labour, who was then responsible for dealing with these matters. The Minister said then:
Even after making allowance for the rate equalisation grant, the position of Bedford would still be unfortunate….we would not be entitled to condemn Bedfordshire to a tepid life in order to satisfy the legitimate aspirations of Luton."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th, April, 1950; Vol. 474, c. 1058.]
However much my hon. Friend may juggle about with figures, he cannot deny that the loss of 42 per cent. of the rateable value of a county—and not a rich county—will obviously provide problems the county ought not to be called upon to face in advance of a national solution of a national problem.
I come now to the remarks of the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South. How tempting it would be to postpone an unpleasant decision and to say, "I am not going to make a decision now. Send the Bill to a Committee upstairs and a decision can be arrived at there." But this is a one-Clause Bill. It is not a Bill that can be argued about and amended upstairs. It is a single-Clause creation of a county borough and any discussion upstairs is equivalent to a Second Reading here. Here, in the House, is the place where a Second Reading should take place.
Certainly. But we have had the evidence. It has been deployed in the House on two occasions and we are as qualified to come to a decision as any Committee upstairs. Erskine May says, on page 826 of the 14th edition:
The promoters of a Bill may prove beyond a doubt that their own interests will be advanced by its success…
Although I do not wholly accept it, my hon. Friend the Member for Luton believes that he has made that out. Erskine May goes on:
…yet, if Parliament apprehends that it will be hurtful to the community, it is rejected
as if it were a public Measure, or qualified by restrictive enactments not solicited by the parties.
Further, it says:
…in every separate stage, when they come before either House, they are treated precisely as if they were public Bills.
This Private Bill is before the House and in my private capacity as the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire I hope the House will decide to reject it.
I wish to add my voice to those which have been asking for the rejection of this Bill. It seems to me that if we sent this Bill upstairs to be debated it would be entirely contrary to the view expressed by the House on the abolition of the Boundary Commission. It was made perfectly clear at that stage that the only changes which would be permitted were of a very minor character, and that nothing should be done which would materially alter the position. Because of that, this House ought not to accept the principle of sending the Bill upstairs, since in so doing we should undoubtedly open the floodgates to a good many more applications. It also seems to me to be something in the nature of a misuse of the powers possessed by a local authority that within this short space of time, they should seek to promote a Bill identical with one which has been most decisively rejected.
I would direct the attention of my right hon. Friend to the question whether the expenditure of ratepayers' money incurred by Luton Corporation on this Bill is reasonable, having regard to the decision of the House. It is not as though it has come before a fresh Parliament. It was this Parliament which rejected it most decisively before, and nothing has been introduced which alters the position in existence a year ago. Of course, we may be a year nearer getting comprehensive reform in local government, but my arguments remain precisely the same as they were, and I submit it would be quite proper for Bedfordshire to draw the attention of the Minister to the unreasonable expense to which they also have been put. After all, Parliamentary agents are not the cheapest people to engage. I believe their rates of pay are fairly high, and I am sure this expense is both unreasonable and unjustifiable and ought to be disallowed. I hope my right hon. Friend will give consideration to that point.
I come to the arguments which were used with respect to Luton itself in relation to the population and the penny rate problem. It takes a third of the population out and it takes 42 per cent. of the rateable value. Therefore, the rateable value per head of the population remaining in Bedfordshire is going to be proportionately lower, quite apart from the fact that it is actually lower. As to the argument about the equalisation grant making this up, I would warn hon. Members to be rather careful in their own interests before they accept it. What Bedfordshire is going to get because Luton no longer pays is going to be something which is taken out of the general pool, and there will be less available for the other authorities.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman does not want to mislead the House. The calculations to which I referred are not based on the assumption that money is drawn from other authorities. It is based on the assumption of a reduction in the equalisation fund amount that would pass to Luton and a substantial increase that would pass to the county.
It does not alter the validity of my argument. The equalisation fund as such is a global amount which the Minister provides, and the more that is taken by one authority the less is taken by the rest of the authorities. In effect, the total amount will be less. That is quite a legitimate argument, and he would be a very clever person who could forecast at this stage precisely what the effect would be.
There is a further reason why no change should take place at this stage. Before there is any major movement at all in local government at present, we ought to see what is the effect of the new valuation system. I think it is most important that we should see what is the effect upon the whole of the country and what will be the effect on the finances of different authorities before any changes are made at all.
Reference was made by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) to the position of the local authorities associations, and they were somewhat scathingly treated by the hon. Member for Luton. I have been privileged to play some small part in those deliberations, and I can say that those discussions are going on in a spirit of harmony, which is rather better than anything I have known previously to prevail in those circles. In view of the fact that four associations have come together to discuss de novo—they were no longer discussing the Boundary Commission's proposals—what would be a suitable system of local government, it would be a tragedy if at this stage the House were to say they agreed to a lot of local authorities going forward for county borough status. That is what will happen if we agree in principle that Luton should go forward with her application.
In my own county—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah!"] Well, we cannot give something to Luton and deny it to other authorities which are equally industrious and virile and whose responsibilities are no less than those of Luton. At least a dozen authorities in my county could come forward with such a claim. On what grounds should we reject them if we supported Luton? Some hon. Members may say that they will support it. They have got to decide what they will do with the rest of the County of Middlesex, and that will give them a big enough headache.
Probably the best solution would be to have all-purpose authorities. If the country could be divided into a suitable number of all-purpose authorities from the point of view of population and so on, that would no doubt be the best solution. But the Boundary Commission came to the conclusion that it was not possible, and because it is not possible it is highly undesirable that other odd pieces should be taken out before we get to the stage of considering local government as a whole.
I feel that we ought not to make changes now. In spite of the very able way in which arguments were put forward, we ought not to make a change in respect of Luton. If we do, we ought to make changes in respect of many other places, and once that begins I can see no end to this problem of local government. If we wait a little longer, if we can give the associations concerned a reasonable time in which to come to some conclusions, and if an agreed solution can be arrived at by the four responsible associations of local authorities, surely that will be a much better way of dealing with the problem than the other method.
I may not be so great a local government expert as the hon. Member, but, quite apart from that, I submit to the House that if there could be agreement between the four major associations, that would be eminently desirable. If this Bill receives a Second Reading, it means that these discussions will receive a considerable setback. For these reasons, I oppose the Second Reading of the Bill.
I am not going to intervene at length. When the hon. Member for Luton (Dr. Hill) was speaking, I thought that, had I been a Lutonian, I would have been in favour of the Bill. Later on I was interested to learn that a number of distinguished Lutonians sitting on the county council were not in favour of the Bill. That must give us some ground for reflection, and, to some extent, cancels out what I had previously thought—judging particularly from a deputation, led by the hon. Gentleman which came to see me, when we had an interesting discussion on the matter—that all the notabilities of Luton were solidly united.
The Council of Luton, organised on a two-party basis, is unanimously in favour of county borough status. There are some 18 county councillors and some aldermen who represent areas of Luton on the county council. There, there is a division of opinion. The majority of these councillors are imbued by their county council status and complexion, and are so fearful of losing their status that they have gone on to the county council's side.
The only point that I am making is that amongst the distinguished citizens of Luton—distinguished in the field of local government—there is not the unanimity, which I was previously led to suppose, in favour of the Bill. I am making that point in passing. I must confess that, as I said before when I had to intervene on another Bill of this kind, looking at the problem of local government realistically, I think that it is unlikely that this Parliament will pass any measure of reform. The balance of parties is, I think, such as would not allow the kind of tolerance which would be necessary for such a Measure, whatever its shape, to go through.
Therefore, I think that we are deceiving ourselves if we imagine that it is more than an outside chance—the hon. Member for Southall (Mr. Pargiter) as did hon. Gentlemen opposite referred just now to consultations between the local authority associations—that, in the first place, these local authority associations would agree to a concrete scheme, and, secondly, if they did, that it would be possible to carry through measures of this kind with the support of a substantial majority of the House. I am not using that as an argument one way or the other tonight; I am merely seeking to give my sincere opinions about this matter.
I do not regard local government as being totally frozen, because I draw a distinction between proposals for extension and proposals for changing status. I can concede that Bills may come along, promoted by local authorities, such as the Sheffield Bill, seeking moderate extensions to cover housing developments and other such things. In the case of the Sheffield Bill, I advised the House to give it a Second Reading. But a change of status is quite another matter and might be much more disruptive.
I am convinced by such evidence that I have been able to gather—admittedly the calculations are not at all simple—that the effects upon the county of Bedford would be extremely unfortunate if this were to take place. A reference has been made to the Exchequer Equalisation Grants and I had something to do with the framing of that Measure. I was Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, and I regarded it as a very distinct improvement upon previous arrangements. I am advised that it is the case that if Luton did obtain county borough status, although the calculations are complicated, Bedfordshire would be quite definitely the loser and a substantial loser, even when the repercussions of the Exchequer Equalisation Grants were taken into account. That, after all, is not only based upon the calculations of experts, but also on common sense. If we tear out from this not very large county so high a proportion of its rateable value, it must suffer.
This is a Private Bill, and no Whip to my knowledge or authority has been circulated, and so Members may vote as they think fit. As far as I am concerned, I shall vote against the Second Reading, because it would be very unfortunate at this moment to introduce exceptional treatment even for this very virile and admirable community. I think that they would do better to bide their time a little longer. I cannot believe that there is any great urgency in putting forward this plea at this moment. Maybe later on, when it may be possible to contemplate this in a broader way and with all sorts of alternative proposals before us, they may not be unsuccessful. I suggest to all Members that it is not therefore proper tonight to give this Bill a Second Reading.
I think it may be of interest if I also give a purely personal view. As the Minister has said, no Whips are on and each must speak for himself. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton (Dr. Hill) has put the case very strongly and vigorously from the point of view of his constituency, as he was properly bound to do. I listened with hope to the Minister, because we heard him on a previous occasion give what I thought at the time was good counsel to the House. We have had an interesting discussion, and arguments have been brought out which fully merit the second occasion on which the House has had an opportunity to consider this matter.
This is not a problem that can be shelved once and for all. It is the problem of adjusting local government to the growth of our country. It is not possible to freeze it indefinitely. The argument for bringing this Bill forward is that a year has passed. It is a very strong argument. All the arguments will require to be reviewed frequently so long as this condition continues. The right hon. Gentleman with admirable realism has said that the review, even if successful, of local government is not about to fructify in a Bill. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I have had some experience of local authorities over a number of years. I should hesitate to adopt the optimistic view that a unanimous Measure will be framed by the local authority associations and brought forward for the support of the House. That may be the case. If so, it will be a very unusual occurrence in local government affairs. But, as realists, we ought to dismiss that possibility.
The Minister went further. He said that even if this agreement were reached we must not expect a Bill to be brought forward in this Parliament. That rules out for the whole lifetime of this Parliament the comprehensive review to which all other arguments were made subordinate by those opposing the Bill. It may be that we are in for a period of Parliaments with narrow majorities. The only alternative is an overwhelming Conservative landslide, which naturally, as we are considering this on a purely non-party basis tonight, I do not ask the House unanimously to envisage. That is, however, the only argument which would justify the indefinite postponement tonight not merely of this Bill, but of all other Bills of this kind. For that was the proposal brought forward.
It was not said that this Bill presents an unusual case, so we should dismiss it. It was said that the number of cases that would require consideration is so numerous that we should not allow one to go through just now. Surely that is an argument for adjustment to be made. The shoe pinches not one foot but dozens of feet and all the other cripples demand the services of the shoemaker. That is not an argument against the shoemaker but an argument for the shoemaker. It is not an argument against adjustment, but an argument for adjustment.
If the hon. Member likes to pay us the enormously high compliment that we are the only source to which the nation can look for removing grievances, I am willing to accept it. I would not have expected it from those Benches, but I accept it as the swallow, sign of a long delayed summer coming at last.
I do not wish to detain the House, but I should have thought that there was a strong argument for this type of Bill being considered because of the lapse of time since other cases of the kind were agreed to. In the speeches which were delivered on the subject of the abolition of the Boundary Commission it was specifically stated that this procedure of Private Bills was being restored. This was the one remedy to which the House and the country were referred. Let this Bill then have its examination. It seems to me that otherwise we are letting ourselves in for an indefinite period of delay. I think that would not do anything but gradually increase the difficulties of local government in this country.
Speaking still on an entirely personal basis, it seems quite clear to me on the evidence that a case has been made out for further examination of this Bill. My Tight hon. Friend and I have examined this measure very closely indeed and with the greatest desire to come to an agreement, but we find ourselves apart on the issue. If there is a Division we shall find ourselves in different Lobbies. I do not think that local government will be best served by refusing this remedy on the ground that on some date, which nobody can prophesy, an enormous comprehensive review will take place. Everyone is willing to look forward to a comprehensive review, because everyone believes that when the review takes place all his pet schemes will be promoted and all his enemies confounded. We shall be equally disappointed when we see the proposals under the comprehensive review. Then we shall regret all the years which have slipped away when we have done nothing because of this promise which has not been fulfilled of something ideal in the future.
I should like to support the arguments put forward by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Kelvingrove (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot). I have been considering this Bill as one who is not directly interested as Member either for parts of Bedfordshire or of Middlesex. Middlesex is a county which more than any other has succeeded in preventing any single borough achieving a county borough status, so that hon. Members from that county cannot claim that their speeches are disinterested in this matter. On the other hand, we have just listened to a disinterested speech from the right hon. and gallant Gentleman.
I, too, am concerned with the wider problem of local government as such, and I will say to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Local Government and Planning that his speech was an embarrassment to those who are opposing this Bill for this reason. When we listened to the speeches on the Ilford Bill and the Luton Bill on the first occasion we heard a Celtic and charming reply from the Minister then in charge. We also heard an overwhelming case made for both those boroughs to become county boroughs. Some of us were persuaded not to vote for them on that occasion, because the Minister suggested there might still be a comprehensive reform of local government. That was the main reason which persuaded many hon. Members on this side here not to vote. We thought, "It is very difficult if the Minister still really believes in reform."
I think it was in this Parliament. [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes, it was this Parliament."] Whichever Parliament it was is largely irrelevant. The argument used on that occasion for not making this change was that there still might be a comprehensive reform of local government. Now my right hon. Friend has a very different attitude. He has stated that there is no prospect of comprehensive change in local government and he has rebuked my hon. Friend who, with a great access of ardour, spoke of the possibility, or likelihood, of any completely new reorganisation. My right hon. Friend, with great candid English commonsense, has stated that in the near future there is no prospect of comprehensive change in local government.
In view of that statement from someone who really ought to know, this whole problem of how to meet the actual demands of boroughs or non-county boroughs who want revision of boundaries or a change of status is surely transformed. And we must face that problem in its new form. We have been told a great deal about "opening the flood gates of change," but people on our side usually want to get improvements. They should not be terrified of change. It used to be considered a somewhat reactionary argument to say: "Wait for the great comprehensive change. Don't do anything practical now because something magnificent is coming."
What I was saying to my hon. Friend was that, by and large, we are all concerned in the improvement of local government but that he was offering us the advice: "Don't make any immediate changes because we must wait for the great big change in the future." I only remark that this excuse has often been made by reactionary people, as a reason for not doing anything at all.
Let us turn to the substance of the Luton case. My right hon. Friend said that it would do great damage to the county. When has any boundary extension not been argued against on the grounds of its doing damage to the county? Not within my knowledge of local government. We have had a remarkable number of figures given by the Luton supporters to show that even after the change, the county would be no worse off than any other county. I think the point about Cambridgeshire was very far from irrelevant because Cambridge including Cambridge City, has a lower yield from 1d. rate than Bedford would have after the excision—to use that brutal word—of Luton. In the second place we might all be in favour of comprehensive change; but if by the proposed change we create another small area to the existing 16 or 20 small county areas surely the urgency of comprehensive change will be increased. To grant Luton's claim will help local government reform.
Surely the arguments which have been put forward against the Bill mean that we would never make any changes at all. They mean a complete freeze. It is therefore not we who are arguing for the flood gates of change in this debate who are to be singled out for censure but our opponents who are arguing for a complete cessation of change.
My right hon. Friend also said that, though he was in favour—I was glad of that, for future reference—of boundary revision where new housing was necessary, he was opposed to a change of status in this period. I do not know why he should be, provided that there is a sound ground for the change of status. I was reflecting upon what we should feel like in Coventry if we were in Luton's plight. I think of Luton as a city about 50 years behind us. We had a population of about 100,000, as Luton has, about 50 years ago. Then we were a growing and thrusting young industrial city. Suppose we had been suffering under the thraldom of Warwickshire as a mere borough. The fact that we possessed a cathedral and a charter enabled us to avoid the thraldom to which the industrial area of Luton is now subject. That is an argument which appeals to me.
Nobody denies that on its merits Luton has a fair case to become a county borough. All the argument against is that it would be a loss to somebody else. But that is the only argument used. [Interruption.] Luton has no Lady Godiva and no great tradition, but she will have her tradition after a little longer life and after thrusting dynamically forward. Her great motor industry should help her. The hon. Member for Luton (Dr. Hill) urged his case much more powerfully than those who represented the county, showing the great superiority of the preparatory work in the town clerk's department of a borough compared over that of the county. I congratulate him on his brief, just as I commiserate with the hon. Members who spoke for the county areas. This was clear proof of the superiority of the industrial borough in its work of preparation for this debate over the reactionary county area. There is something symbolical in this contrast.
The hon. Member for South Bedfordshire said that he was in favour of the Second Reading. He is the only member for a county area who has ever had the courage to say that he is in favour of the Second Reading of such a Bill. We must give him credit for that. When we find a member of a county area supporting such a Second Reading—even though he did so by balancing his arguments on the point of a needle—there can be no question that we who are disinterested should finally come down in favour of the view that this House should give its support to the Second Reading and then argue the Bill upstairs. But I do not pretend that in giving support to the Second Reading we are not giving support to the Bill in principle. That would be ridiculous. Of course, one has to say that Luton has, in principle, a good case in order to vote conscientiously for the Bill.
I should never argue that we should send a Bill upstairs and deprive ourselves of the right to a Second Reading debate, but I believe that an overwhelming case was made out of the Minister's own mouth when he said that, in the new situation, with no chance of comprehensive change, both boundary revision and, if necessary, a change of status, if they are proved to have a good case, are things which should be accepted in principle by the House. Although we do not want the floodgates opened, I believe it is reasonable that boroughs should be allowed to go forward and present a considerable number of these Bills. Ought we not to establish the principle, in accordance with the wishes of the Minister, that a considerable number of these Bills should be allowed to go forward until such time as comprehensive local government reform has been undertaken?
I shall detain the House only a few minutes, Sir, and I am glad that you have found it possible to call another of the Middlesex Members, if only to satisfy the hon. Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman), that we are not all as reactionary as those who sit on that side of the House.
It is a very subtle distinction. I listened with great pleasure to the speeches of both my colleagues on the opposite side. As they spoke, I agreed with every one of their arguments. The only thing I disagreed with was their conclusions.
I, too, was greatly disappointed with the speech of the Minister, because I hoped that after a year's interval he might have been able to make some small advance upon the statement of Government policy made by his predecessor a year ago. But he has not done so and the position is left like this: that he says, clearly and definitely, that he is opposed to any change of status in any case, pending a radical re-organisation of all local government. That is the first point. The second point is that there is no chance whatever of any radical reorganisation of local government in the immediate future or, it may be, for a long time to come.
That raises a principle which is of great importance to many local authorities throughout the country as well as Luton, including the one in which my constituency is situated, which is not even a borough but only an urban district. It happens to have twice the population of Luton and, if I have the figures right, more than the total rateable value of the entire county of Bedford, including Luton. It is still only an urban district, though well managed, and it is looking forward to an opportunity of increasing its status. I am not making a case for my own local authority—
Well, it has claimed it now. I quite agree with those hon. Members who have said that one claim, if granted, may lead to others. Why not, if they are justified on the merits? Surely it cannot be right that there should be a complete freeze up, and that for an indefinite period, during which we must wait for a comprehensive review. No act of justice can be performed to any local authority.
As almost invariably happens when things are supposed to stand still, they do not stand still but slip back. The hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Messer) made this point. Local government, while it is supposed, under Government direction, to be standing still, is slipping back. The recent tendency has been away from the healthy decentralisation which we ought to seek to promote in local government and towards the concentration of powers in the greater authorities, in some cases in Government Departments and in some cases in boards.
The valuation responsibilities have been taken away from the local councils and transferred to the Inland Revenue. So have health services. My information is that almost invariably, if not always, the result of increased centralisation is to increase the cost both in manpower and in many of these services. What is worse still is that the effect of this tendency towards centralisation is to take local government further away from the people, to make it more remote from the people concerned with it. In my view that is a tendency which ought to be reversed.
For that reason I take the view that any local authority, such as the borough of Luton, which has the necessary minimum claim to state its case for a higher status, has thereby established a prima facie case. There may be arguments against it. Arguments against it in this case have been advanced on behalf of the county of Bedford and on those arguments I say nothing because I know too little about the fact. But I consider that Luton has established a prima facie case for promotion to higher status. I agree with the promoters of the Bill that that case should be examined upstairs, where the arguments in matters of detail can be examined with expert assistance. I shall support the Second Reading for that reason and also for what I believe to be the general good of local government.
I say right away that I intend to support the Bill in the Lobby. When I came into the House tonight I did not know what attitude I should take up about it; I was prepared to listen to the hon. Member for Luton (Dr. Hill). I started with a bias in the sense that I have been a member of a local authority—one of the best in England, of course—for almost 20 years. I honestly think—and this is born of some experience in the very heart of Lancashire—the county borough is the best unit of local government in the country.
All the arguments adduced by the hon. Member for Luton, and reinforced by hon. Members on both sides of the House, have been positive arguments. All the things that have been said against the Bill by the Bedfordshire Members and rather surprisingly, by hon. Members on this side of the House who are ardent local government people and who, when they speak for themselves and their own authorities, are absolutely devoted to the county borough authority yet who on occasions like the present find reasons, which I cannot fathom, for opposing municipality—all these have helped to make the case for promotion to county borough status.
I have had the memorandum from the Bedfordshire County Council and I have read that Luton has made a very considerable contribution to the government of that county. But when it goes on to say that some of the leading lights on the Bedfordshire County Council are the citizens of Luton, it implies, "If you take these people away from us, we shall not be able to manage." I do not see any other implication than that. It is a sign to me that Bedfordshire has a completely defeatist attitude. Everybody agrees that Bedfordshire, minus the 100,000 population of Luton, has approximately 200,000 people. All that the county can say is, "We have the quantity, but for Heaven's sake do not touch it; we do not have the quality."
What convinced me more than anything else were the words of the Minister. It was said a year ago that things were on the move, that there was to be a new set-up for local government, that we should not prejudice it, and that we should go into the Lobby and have regard to the comprehensive scheme which was to be placed before the House. I am satisfied now that there is nothing even on the stocks.
I was not referring to the Minister on that occasion but to the Minister tonight, when he said words to the effect that it would be dishonest for any Members to expect anything in the way of legislation to emerge within a reasonable time from the Government side.
That is what was said. No one can deny that, and it has proved to me that we have not even got to the blue print stage. I think it is wrong for an authority which, in my opinion, has made out its case, to be fobbed off by the pretext that something is coming, we know not when and we certainly do not know how.
To say that other authorities will suffer is the weakest of arguments, as one of the greatest ethics of British government is to treat things on their merits. Surely we are not going to hold this up for an indefinite time when the Minister says, "I have nothing to offer you. It is in the offing, but there is nothing more I can say." It is the wrong way to treat an authority with more than 100,000 people and with a rateable value in keeping with like authorities, which has made its claim and established its case and proved its case for county borough status.
I am speaking from experience and I know that county councils always have and always will—like the railway companies in the past, whenever there was an application for a road service—opposed, whatever was the argument. They oppose on principle. Coming in tonight to see what was the case for Luton and to hear what the malcontents from Bedfordshire had to say, my view is that the case is proved. The little I have said is in favour of the Bill and I will follow it up by going into the Lobby to support what I hope soon will be the county borough of Luton.
I am very much in support of the Bill. As hon. Members know I had the honour, last Session, to bring forward a Bill for the Ilford Corporation. Two very strong arguments have emerged from tonight's debate. The first was the speech of the Minister, which, I thought, constituted the strongest possible case for giving the Bill a Second Reading.
It must not be forgotten, as has been pointed out by other hon. Members, that one of the prime reasons why the Bills put forward by Ilford and Luton were rejected last year was that some comprehensive reform of local government was being considered by the Minister and would be brought before the House very shortly. Indeed, during the passing of the Local Government Boundary Commission (Dissolution) Bill the then Minister of Health went so far as to say that the Government's reforms or proposals were likely to come forward in 1951—
This is the report of what the right hon. Gentleman the then Minister of Health said:
The reason why we are postponing the use of certain powers until the end of 1951 is because we are hoping that our proposals will have matured, and that, therefore, any attempts on the part of local authorities to change either their functions or their boundaries in the meantime will be assimilated and overtaken by the proposals of the Government."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd November, 1949; Vol. 469, c. 516–517.]
It is therefore idle for the hon. Member for Southall (Mr. Pargiter) to criticise
the expenditure which Luton has undertaken. Luton is forced into this position because His Majesty's Government have not carried out the pledges which they made to the House at that time; and it is essential that local authorities who feel aggrieved shall exert as much pressure as often as they can to see that this reform is carried into effect.
I would refer to the rather pathetic statement which the Bedfordshire County Council have sent to right hon. and hon. Gentlemen. The gravamen of the case for Bedfordshire, as contained in paragraph 5 of their statement, is that Luton provides them with such excellent aldermen and councillors that if they were taken away the county would not be able to operate effectively. I consider it an insult to the House that such a defence should be put forward by what is alleged to be a responsible county council. We are told also that if the Bill is to go forward, a number of other authorities will come to the House with similar proposals. As the hon. Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman), said, what is wrong with that? If there are wrongs in local government structure; if local authorities up and down the country are aggrieved, what else can they do but come to the House and seek some redress for their grievances? Is that not the very function of Parliament?
The two main grounds for the creation of county borough status for Luton and, indeed, for other authorities are efficiency and finance. We have heard a lot about the financial grounds, but they have all been arguments to show the losses which the Bedfordshire County Council would suffer. Nobody has said a word about the considerable financial saving which would accrue to the Luton Borough Council. I am not in a position to give precise figures, but having regard to the experience of my own authority, where the position is somewhat similar, we know that the savings which would accrue would be considerable. The former Minister of Health, when dealing with this question of county borough status, made a positive statement with which I entirely agree: that the chief ground for a change in status must be efficiency. It is a fact that under the present set-up efficiency is not maintained at the level which we are entitled to expect from local authorities. There are considerable delays especially in educational services and these delays entail considerable expense.
There have been considerable changes in local government powers in the last five years, indeed since 1944. Under various Acts powers have been taken from the smaller local authorities and given to the greater county councils. I have not noticed that there have been any screams from the county councils because they were being given more and more power. On the contrary, they have been very glad to get these greater powers, and when it has been a question of delegating powers under various Acts of Parliament it has always been a great problem for local authorities to get adequate delegated powers.
Local government in our country is the very pillar and foundation of our social life. These perpetual delays by the Government in providing a new comprehensive scheme for local government strike at the very roots of our democratic form of life. They are hampering social progress. The reasons put forward by the Government are not accepted by any local authority in the country as a sound argument for delay. We must have a comprehensive scheme for local government reform at once, but we must not hold up any longer Luton's Bill, which is just and for which there is a proven case.
The House has been singularly honoured tonight by having the assistance of my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman) in considering this Measure. My hon. Friend is accustomed to roam over great problems of world affairs and I waited with interest to hear him focus his attention on the comparatively small problem with which we are dealing. I had hoped to have considerable illumination from him. I must say, however, that he put forward an argument which, had I been a member of the party opposite and had I desired to ridicule and burlesque the views of the party on this side of the House, could not have provided a more admirable text.
He advanced the argument that it does not matter how complicated the situation is; it does not matter how much injury may be done to people by making alterations such as these; it does not matter how important it is that the ground should be explored carefully before a move is made. He argued that the great thing was to have change—change at any price, regardless of its effect on other people. He put the point of view of what he described as the virile and progressive people of the county boroughs. He spoke almost with contempt of the rural sections of the community. He said how terrible it would be if Coventry were in shackles to Warwickshire and, therefore, how intolerable it must be for Luton to be bound to Bedfordshire.
It seems to me that the way in which we must approach this problem is not to start from some such hypothesis based on one's own local interest, but to look at it from the point of view of the whole community that will be affected by the change. When I had a little brush with the hon. Member for Luton (Dr. Hill) over Cambridgeshire, I think that the comment I made about Cambridgeshire was perfectly fair. The situation there is that it has been recognised for many years that Cambridgeshire could not live without Cambridge, and that one could not extract a town of that size in proportion to the population of the county without serious effect.
The argument that the hon. Gentleman put in reply was very startling. He said, "It does not matter how much of a hole you carve in somebody's middle. After all, he is a very fat man and there is plenty of him left." I should have thought that it was perfectly clear that if one is prepared, without regard to the balance of the county community, to carve out of the county a vigorous and progressive community, one is likely to cause the most serious and grave dislocation.
If it be true—I do not say that it is true—as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, East, wishes us to think, that the urban communities are so virile and progressive that they have so much to offer, I should have thought that that was a good argument for leaving Bedfordshire with what has been regarded as the great advantage of these virile intellectual sections of the community, to bring a breath of fresh air to the rather musty county hall of Bedfordshire. I do not know whether that is true or not; I do not know the county at all. It may be true but, if it is true, it seems to me to be a particularly strong reason for not performing this operation.
As I see the position, it is this. We recognise that it is difficult at the moment to have a comprehensive reform of local government. I do not think that the blame for that rests either with my right hon. Friend the present Minister or with his predecessor. I think the blame rests primarily with the local authorities themselves—primarily with Luton, which is one of the local authorities concerned, and with Bedfordshire, which is another. I think it rests with all local authorities who make up the local authority associations.
My attitude to this problem is a very simple one. I would say to them that, until they are prepared to get together and come to some kind of workable agreement and put their house in order, I am not prepared to support any change in local government which will make a comprehensive reform still more difficult when it comes.
Luton is in a particularly difficult position, because it is just on the borders of Greater London, and I made the point when the last Luton Bill was before the House, that to set up any county boroughs within areas which are covered by the Greater London plan would establish bodies which had created for themselves a vested interest, and, therefore, that it would be extremely difficult to change either their size or their status in the future. It was a little naïve of the hon. Member for Luton to say that, after all, if we cut out Luton from Bedfordshire, we will leave something like a few thousands—I forget the exact figure, but it was something like 2,000—over the minimum figure which the Boundary Commission would allow for a county.
All I can say to that is that if Luton, having got county borough status, is to be content with its present boundaries and is not going to come forward with a Bill for boundary extensions, Luton is a very remarkable town and will be about the only county borough ever to have done it. I have little doubt that what we may describe as the hon. Member's annual will come about, and that, if he succeeds this year, he will come forward with a boundary extension Bill, as the result of which Bedfordshire would fall below the minimum requirements of the Boundary Commission.
It is not primarily a question of treatment so much as a question of whether we have, in our local government units, an organism which can provide a balanced community, with resources of people, communications and the rest which should go to make up the basis of a unified local authority. I am quite prepared to accept the view that a solution of local government which depends upon carving out the vigorous towns and leaving the rest to get on as best they can, and without worrying what happens to them, is bound to lead to the wreckage of the whole system.
The hon. Member for Harrow, Central (Mr. Bishop), complained that in local government there was, today, a lack of healthy decentralisation. That is not an argument for setting up autonomous communities in the middle of an area, but an argument for tackling proper devolution and decentralisation within the county area. The argument which I thought would have been advanced by anyone having had the benefit of the great experience of Luton, would be to get the people of the county hall to work out such a system.
Having listened to the debate, I can see no reason why we should alter the decision which the House reached 11 months ago. I do not want this Bill to go upstairs to be killed. My objections to it are objections of principle, and they are not likely to be altered by any decision taken upstairs. My objections are based on the fact that, however difficult it may be and however complex the situation, we have to treat the local government problem as a whole.
However long we have to wait for the local authorities to reach final agreement among themselves it will be worth waiting for, because we cannot hope to buy time from the particularly aggressive local authorities by granting them this autonomy at the expense of the country and leaving the local government problems of the rest of the country unsolved. In my opinion, we should reject this Bill, and any other Bill of its kind.
The argument of the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl), which I think the House will agree, was both well constructed and attractively presented, had one complete fallacy in it. His whole argument was that the whole of this matter should be dealt with on a comprehensive basis, and few would disagree with that. The difficulty is that the Minister himself has come to the House tonight and said that he has no intention of doing any such thing. Therefore, the whole argument falls to the ground, and it is for that reason that it becomes necessary for corporations such as Luton to take individual action, because the Government have failed to take their own responsibility of dealing with the matter comprehensively.
The hon. Member for Southall (Mr. Pargiter) said that Luton ought to be charged for daring to present this Bill again. But the whole reason why they had to do it again was because the Government failed to keep the pledge given by the present Minister of Labour when Minister of Health, that this matter would be dealt with. The Minister of Local Government and Planning this evening not only said that he will not deal with it, but fortified that by an argument which I think had some force. He said that such things could not be done in Parliaments with a narrow majority. That is an argument which certainly has some weight.
But, again, the right hon. Gentleman has forfeited any support for that argument by the fact that in the last Parliament, which had a large majority, and when the matter could have been dealt with, the Government failed to do anything. Indeed, having created the machinery under the Local Government Boundaries Act, 1945, the Government then broke up the machinery and failed to take any action under it. That being the position, I am not really so daunted by the argument that the matter cannot be dealt with piecemeal. I believe that as the Government themselves are failing to take action on the very important problem of the reconsideration of the status of many of our boroughs, the only way to get them to act is to provide the spur of presenting Bills of this kind.
It has been suggested that once a Bill of this sort is accepted, it opens the gates for more such Bills to come pouring in. I hope they do, because that, I believe, would urge the Government to take the necessary action. Of course, it is an old argument that we must not take particular action for fear of opening the gates, and there is a kind of nightmare vision which exists in Government Departments that, once the gates are opened, there are the most horrible things to be found behind them. That is not always so, because most of the cases presented in this House would be reasonable cases.
I have examined the Luton case with the complete impartiality of one who represents a non-county borough which has similar aspirations to those of Luton. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that if the floodgates are opened and a Bill comes forward from the Hove Corporation, it will not be such an alarming project for the Government. Indeed, they will find it an attractive proposition.
Another argument which has been advanced is that if we take away the big borough council, what is to happen to the county? That argument has no validity either. I have no doubt that the same argument was put forward in Sussex when Brighton was made a county borough, and I have no doubt that hands went up in horror and that it was asked, "What is going to happen to Sussex if you take the great municipality of Brighton out of it?" But it was done, and Sussex is still there. It gets along quite happily, except that an unfair burden falls upon Hove. It is not really such an alarming prospect as some hon. Members seem to think.
The argument for the county was presented to some extent by the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Moeran) whose speech was commented upon by the hon. Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman). The hon. Member for Coventry, East, said he could not really understand how anybody could balance his argument on a pin-point, and argue his case one way and announce he was going to vote the other way. That sounded to me exactly like a speech by the hon. Member for Coventry, East on foreign affairs and I did not understand his difficulty in following that line of argument.
I rather support the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South in this. One hesitates to say anything derogatory of this House, but I rather doubt whether the Second Reading stage in this House is the best tribunal to judge a matter of this kind because we do not have the evidence and are not able to judge the full weight of the arguments presented. If the Bill goes to a Committee, the evidence is then presented and it is far easier to arrive at a solution. There is a danger in the present situation that. Bills of this kind are apt to be dealt with on the basis that they are supported by hon. Members representing boroughs and opposed by hon. Members representing counties. That is not really satisfactory, particularly as I believe county Members outnumber borough Members.
I hope, therefore, that this Bill will receive the support of the House and will get a Second Reading because there has been unanimity of opinion that the case for Luton is a good one and the opposition founds itself only on the fact that once one starts on this problem, one gets into all sorts of difficulties. I do not mind, of course, if the Government get into difficulty and I think there is an overwhelming case for a comprehensive reform of local government status. The only way in which we shall secure that, is by forcing these Bills on the Government until they are shaken with horror themselves at the flood-gates that have been opened, and give the matter comprehensive consideration.
The difficulties that arise in this matter come from assuming that the troubles of local government start with Luton. It is a fact that the present Lord Chancellor, I believe when he was Paymaster-General in 1942, started this series of hares. I remember the concern of at least three authorities since then with questions of merging into a county borough or enlarging into a non-county borough. The arguments against have come from all the counties with monotonous regularity.
In an able speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) suggested that there should be agreement among the local authorities themselves. It is only somebody with knowledge of local authority matters within the limited Metropolitan area of London who would put that forward. It is quite easy for the London County Council and the Metropolitan Boroughs Standing Joint Committee to get agreement, but the type of liaison in local government which prevails in London is not the sort of thing that ought to prevail up and down the country.
But that is not the case at all. The County Councils Associations, the municipal corporations, the urban and rural district councils associations, the Labour Party, the Conservative Party, indeed everybody has produced pet schemes for the reform of local government. There is a veritable Babel of voices and I do not think there is anything like unanimity within the political parties themselves on this matter. Hon. Members of this House are convinced in their own mind that the particular system of local government they advocate is the very best. I have no doubt either that if the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) was the Member for Luton he would make something like the case which the hon. Member for Luton (Dr. Hill) made this evening. I say, with respect, that he would make the case for his constituents. I do not believe he knows so much about local government as all that, but he was making a constituency case, and that is the trouble which has bedevilled this matter from first to last.
It seems to me that the Government of the day, whatever the political complexion of that Government, has got to make up its mind what is to be the solution, and we must have it fought out on the Floor of this House and if necessary upstairs. If we had suddenly embarked upon this matter there might be room for some argument, but it is now 10 years old if we count from the time of the commencement of the activities of the then Paymaster-General. We have had a steady deterioration in local government services, so far as the non-county boroughs are concerned, and there has been an increasing difficulty in getting the right people to enter into local government because its services have become so emasculated.
Middlesex is a special case. It is a metropolitan county. It was recognised by the people who framed the Education Act, 1944, as a special case. It was for Middlesex that the concession with respect to excepted districts was contrived. Sir Percival Sharp, who was then the Secretary of the Association of Education Committees, said that it would create an impossible position otherwise, and he said that if those towns with a population of 60,000 or, I believe, 6,000 or 7,000 school population were knocked out from the county scheme. Middlesex would be like a colander.
I did not say that he drafted the Act. I said that he described Middlesex in that way. It would be true to say, I think, that it was with Middlesex in mind that the Act was drafted to allow for excepted districts.
That is not so. I was concerned with the drafting of the Act, and although Middlesex presented some special difficulties, it was not the cause of the Act being drafted in the way in which it was drafted.
I am bound to say, then, that, it was the only justification for the drafting of the Act. It is not possible to produce another county which justifies the exceptions in that way. Cambridgeshire has a special arrangement under the Education Act, for a joint committee between the Cambridge Borough and the Cambridgeshire County Council. That involved special drafting to meet a local need. The fact is that local government was in such a haphazard condition that the first big scheme for the reorientation of powers under the Education Act, 1944, had to make allowances for geographical anomalies which existed. I am not going into the question of whether the Education Act should have been preceded by an Act concerned with local government. We all appreciate the difficulties which existed at that time.
Coming back to the question of Luton—[An HON. MEMBER: "Hear, hear."] After all, I do not think we can discuss Luton out of its setting. The case of Middlesex was mentioned by way of argument, and I think it is reasonable that one should argue against it. In view of the fact that some political prejudice may be imported into this matter, I should like to say that the idea of a county borough for Luton did not start in the mind of the hon. Member for Luton. It was brought before Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve in the Boundary Commission and it was raised by the Labour Party. The Boundary Commission has gone. Some of us regret it. Some of us would have liked to see the creation of a permanent body presided over by a distinguished chairman, perhaps a judge, who would have presented from time to time reports to this House about the future of local government.
I do not think that this place, with all its constituency prejudices, is the sort of place in which to discuss these matters. It is better that this should go to Committee upstairs. I do not think that there is any contradiction in the case put forward by an hon. Member behind me. This is a matter which might well be examined, with all the expert evidence, in another place. The previous Minister argued that this must wait until the result of another General Election. We know that the Minister of Labour who was then Minister of Health had in mind that the country would act sensibly by returning a Labour Government in sufficient numbers to carry it through. We have no guarantee at all that whatever way the next General Election will go, it will return any Government with a sufficient majority to grasp this nettle again.
What is left to a local authority if it is not to promote its Bill in the way advised by the Minister of Labour who was then Minister of Health? Therefore, we come to the main proposition that the Government must make up its mind on policy. There are many better cases than that of Luton seeking for revision. I know of at least three local authorities in North-West Kent. [An HON. MEMBER: "Ilford."] Ilford suffered through its advocates. They met with exactly the same arguments, not from a poverty striken county like Bedford but from the great county of Kent, one of the five great counties in the country. Exactly the same arguments, set out in the same brief by the same body—the County Councils' Association—were unloaded on to hon. Members.
If we have a spate of these applications, it may occur to the mind of the Government that this is a matter that might be taken out of politics altogether and put on the floor of another place. Generally speaking in these matters, people seem to be affected not by political affiliation but by constituency affiliation. Bearing in mind the deterioration which we have seen in local government and the uncertainty of local government over all these years, Luton might provide the pilot scheme by which to induce the Government to proceed with the great reform which we all desire.
It is one of my qualifications for intervening in this debate that I am free from the constituency affiliations just mentioned by the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell). My constituency has in it a county borough and three or four rural district councils, and I am President of the Rural District Councils Association for England and Wales. Therefore, I claim to look at this matter rather more impartially than some purely constituency Members who talk as county borough Members or as county Members.
I am against this Bill. I say so frankly for this reason. I think that anything that is done now in the way of creating more county boroughs will merely make the task of future local government reform more difficult, and very much more difficult. In that connection, I should like to recall to the House what was said when the 1888 Act was introduced by the President of the then Local Government Board. He said that it was to provide for local government in this country, and that we were taking out of the ordinary county and county district system, London and 10 other urban areas which had, at that time, more than 100,000 population.
Unfortunately, owing to the weakness of the President of the Local Government Board of that day, when the Bill finally became an Act no fewer than 53 county boroughs were created instead of the 10 that were originally contemplated. Since that time the numbers have steadily increased year by year, until I think I am right in saying that there are 83 county boroughs. What does that mean? It means that out of the county district system which was to be set up by the 1888 Act we have taken the pick of the population and wealth and encroached on rural and urban areas. We have reached the position where we have created certain wealthy county and county boroughs and left distressed areas which cannot, by reason of their low rateable value, look after all the numerous burdens which have been placed on their shoulders since those days.
Some ask why the Bill should not be sent to Committee. I suggest that what we have to do on Second Reading is to decide the principle.
It would be impossible for me to discuss the National Health Service at this time. Local government contains enough problems to occupy us for many hours without going into the National Health Service. A great reform has to be carried out, and I hope that it will be carried out by the next Government, with a substantial majority—only a Government with a substantial majority can do it—and we have to ask ourselves why we should now weaken and make the position worse. If we accept Luton and Luton becomes a county borough, there are at least 28 other areas which have an equal right to say that they should be county boroughs.
I do not want to go into pedantic mathematics, so I shall say that they have a similar right. I suggest that my hon. Friend should read the reports of the Boundary Commission, where he will see set out by Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve those which have a similar claim to Luton. Just imagine the task of any Government if 20 or 30 great wealthy areas are taken out of the local government system. We shall be in a position of having destroyed the district councils because they have no resources and wealth to undertake the increasingly heavy burdens that have been placed on their shoulders.
I ask the House not to leave the matter to be decided in Committee upstairs, but to deal with the principle on Second Reading. If we agree with the principle let us argue it in Committee of the House. I will not attempt to deal with that tonight, I am only concerned with the principle, and I beg the House not to prejudice the future reform of local government by encroaching on those areas and on that finance which is absolutely necessary if we are to have a healthy and strong local government in this country.
The hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Colegate) claimed that he was acting impartially when he proposed opposing this Bill. I am much more impartial than he is, and I am going to vote in favour of it. My impartiality rests on a similar ground in that I have the honour to represent a county borough and also a county area. I have stronger claims to impartiality than that, because a year ago when this Bill came before the House, I stated that I would not vote in favour of it because I thought we could not deal with this great and important problem of local government boundaries in piecemeal fashion. I was persuaded to the contrary, reluctantly, it is true, by the Minister of Health, when he chopped the head off the Local Government Boundary Commission because experience had shown that the separation of functions from boundaries would not work. This separation, which was introduced during the Coalition, caused five years to be wasted.
The Minister of Health wasted another year before making up his mind to wind up the Boundary Commission. The Minister came along and persuaded us that we ought to hold our hands for a little while longer as he was going to set up a departmental committee to tackle the problem of local government. A year ago when this Bill was considered, I thought there were going to be some results from this proposal. Nothing has happened. I do not know how many times the Committee has met. Perhaps some day we shall be told, but so far there are no results to be seen.
I greatly sympathise with the Borough of Luton and those county boroughs which are situated as Dudley is, although I do not think there is any county borough in the whole of the country so adversely placed as Dudley, because there is no borough completely surrounded by a county area as we are. If the Bill tonight is defeated, what encouragement is there for the County Borough of Dudley or any other county borough to do anything to adopt a progressive policy? Unless we in Dudley can bring forward reasonable proposals—not the kind of proposals suggested by the hon. Member for Burton which would result in the cutting up of the whole of the neighbouring county—that will give us land on which to build houses and to establish schools, we cannot adopt the progressive policies which are necessary. Unless the House of Commons tackles the grave problems associated with local government, the future is not too bright for boroughs like Dudley.
Very clearly we have moved some paces backwards since last year. The Minister of Local Government and Planning advised the House tonight to vote against this Bill. His policy in so doing is even more reactionary than that of the Minister of Health, when he abolished the Local Boundary Commission. If one looks clearly at the political situation, it is quite obvious that it is going to be a generation or more before we reach the time when we shall have a Government strong enough and willing enough to court unpopularity by dealing with the fundamental difficulties associated with local government problems.
It is, therefore, no good the Minister coming here and saying that this problem can only be tackled when we have got a Government recently returned and supported by a large majority. It is clear that the problems which press upon us are so great that that situation cannot be foreseen. Therefore, if county boroughs are to be forced to follow the policy which has been forced upon Luton, I hope, in the interests of Luton, and of good local government, that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading so that its details can be considered in Committee, so that Dudley and other county boroughs similarly placed will be encouraged thereby.
The question which the House has to determine tonight is not really whether Luton ought or ought not to be a county borough. This House has to decide whether Luton should have an opportunity of stating its case to the Committee upstairs which will decide whether they have made out a case for county borough status or not. The House is not able to judge these questions of facts upon which such matters have to be decided. There was even a dispute between the hon. Member for Luton (Dr. Hill) and the hon. and gallant Member for Bedford (Captain Soames) as to what the population of the county of Bedfordshire would be if Luton were to be taken out of it.
The right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Local Government and Planning, when he was dealing with the financial consequences of this Bill, said that he had been advised that if Luton became a county borough, the county of Bedford would be the loser. I waited for the right hon. Gentleman to say whether he had been advised to what extent the county would be a loser, but he did not venture to go as far as that.
The proper place to decide whether Luton should be a county borough or not is not on the Floor of the House but upstairs, before the appropriate committee. I can approach this matter, from a more detached standpoint than I could do when my hon. Friend presented his Bill last year. [HON. MEMBERS: "Divide."] It has been said that the Ilford Corporation has decided not to promote a Bill this year.
The only principle which the House has to decide tonight is whether local authorities would be allowed to take steps to put their house, as they think, in order—[HON. MEMBERS: "Divide."]—or whether we should prevent local authorities from doing so until the Government are able to make up their minds to propose a comprehensive scheme for the re-organisation of local government.
|Division No. 72.]||AYES||[10.0 p.m.|
|Aitken, W. T.||Hardy, E. A.||Morley, R.|
|Alport, C. J. M.||Harris, Frederic (Croydon, N.)||Morris, Hopkin (Carmarthen)|
|Ayles, W. H.||Harrison, J.||Nabarro, G.|
|Baird, J.||Heath, Edward||Oldfield, W. H.|
|Banks, Col. C.||Henderson, John (Cathcart)||Orr, Capt. L. P. S.|
|Bennett, William (Woodside)||Hewitson, Capt. M.||Pannell, T. C.|
|Benson, G.||Hicks-Beach, Maj. W. W.||Paton, J.|
|Bing, G. H. C.||Hill, Dr. Charles (Luton)||Pitman, I. J.|
|Bishop, F. P.||Hopkinson, H. L. D'A.||Porter, G.|
|Booth, A.||Hornsby-Smith, Miss P.||Powell, J. Enoch|
|Boyd-Carpenter, J. A.||Houghton, D.||Prior-Palmer, Brig. O.|
|Boyle, Sir Edward||Hudson, Sir Austin (Lewisham, N.)||Raikes, H. V.|
|Brooke, Henry (Hampstead)||Hughes, Emrys (S. Ayrshire)||Robinson, Roland (Blackpool, S.)|
|Broughton, Dr. A. D. D.||Hutchinson, Geoffrey (Ilford, N.)||Royle, C.|
|Bullus, Wing Commander E. E.||Hyde, Lt.-Col. H. M.||Russell, R. S.|
|Burke, W. A.||Hylton-Foster, H. B.||Shurmer, P. L. E.|
|Butcher, H. W.||Hynd, J. B. (Attercliffe)||Smith, Ellis (Stoke, S.)|
|Castle, Mrs. B. A.||Jones, David (Hartlepool)||Smithers, Peter (Winchester)|
|Clarke, Brig. Terence (Portsmouth, W.)||Jones, Jack (Rotherham)||Smyth, Brig. J. G. (Norwood)|
|Clyde, J. L.||Kaberry, D.||Stevens, G. P.|
|Cooper, Sqn. Ldr. Albert (Ilford, S.)||Keenan, W.||Steward, W. A. (Woolwich, W.)|
|Cooper, John (Deptford)||Kinley, J.||Storey, S.|
|Cove, W. G.||Lee, Miss Jennie (Cannock)||Teeling, W.|
|Crossman, R. H. S.||Lever, Leslie (Ardwick)||Thompson, Kenneth Pugh (Walton)|
|Crosthwaite-Eyre, Col. O. E.||Lipton, Lt.-Col. M.||Thorneycroft, Harry (Clayton)|
|Crouch, R. F.||Logan, D. G.||Thornton-Kemsley, Col. C. N.|
|Darling, Sir William (Edinburgh, S.)||Low, A. R. W.||Ungoed-Thomas, A. L.|
|Davies, Stephen (Merthyr)||Lucas, Sir Jocelyn (Portsmouth, S.)||Vaughan-Morgan, J. K.|
|Deedes, W. F.||Lucas-Tooth, Sir Hugh||Vernon, W. F.|
|Duthie, W. S.||McGovern, J.||Vosper, D. F.|
|Elliot, Rt. Hon. W. E.||Maclay, Hon. John||Wallace, H. W.|
|Ewart, R.||Maclean, Fitzroy||Ward, Miss I. (Tynemouth)|
|Fernyhough E.||MacLeod, Iain (Enfield, W.)||Wheatley, Major M. J. (Pools)|
|Foot, M. M.||Macpherson, Major Niall (Dumfries)||Wigg, G.|
|Foster, John||Mallalieu, J. P. W. (Huddersfield, E.)||Wilcock, Group Capt. C. A. B.|
|Gage, C. H.||Mann, Mrs. Jean||Wilson, Geoffrey (Truro)|
|Gates, Maj. E. E.||Marlowe, A. A. H.||Winterbottom, Ian (Nottingham, C.)|
|Gibson, C. W.||Mellor, Sir John||Yates, V. F.|
|Gridley, Sir Arnold||Moeran, E. W.|
|Grimston, Hon. John (St. Albans)||Monckton, Sir Walter||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Grimston, Robert (Westbury)||Moody, A. S.||Mr. McAdden and|
|Hall, John (Gateshead, W.)||Morgan, Dr. H. B.||Mr. Garner-Evans.|
|Adams, Richard||Bartley, P.||Brown, George (Belper)|
|Allen, Arthur (Bosworth)||Black, C. W.||Brown, Thomas (Ince)|
|Amory, Heathcoat (Tiverton)||Blenkinsop, A.||Butler, Herbert (Hackney, S.)|
|Anderson, Alexander (Motherwell)||Blyton, W. R.||Carmichael, J.|
|Ashton, H. (Chelmsford)||Bottomley, A. G.||Champion, A. J.|
|Awbery, S. S.||Bowden, H. W.||Chetwynd, G. R.|
|Bacon, Miss Alice||Braddock, Mrs Elizabeth||Clunie, J.|
|Balfour, A.||Brook, Dryden (Halifax)||Coldrick, W.|
|Barnes, Rt. Hon A. J.||Brooks, T. J. (Normanton)||Colegate, A.|
|Collick, P.||Irvine, A. J. (Edge Hill)||Rees, Mrs. D.|
|Collindridge, F.||Irving, W. J. (Wood Green)||Richards, R.|
|Cook, T. F.||Isaacs, Rt. Hon. G. A.||Roberts, Goronwy (Caernarvonshire)|
|Cooper, Geoffrey (Middlesbrough, W.)||Jannar, B.||Robertson, J. J. (Berwick)|
|Corbet, Mrs. Freda (Peckham)||Jeger, George (Goole)||Robinson. Kenneth (St. Pancras, N.)|
|Craddock, George (Bradford, S.)||Jeger, Dr. Santo (St. Pancras, S.)||Rodgers, John (Sevenoaks)|
|Crawley, A.||Johnson, James (Rugby)||Ross, William (Kilmarnock)|
|Cullen, Mrs. A.||Kenyan, C.||Ryder, Capt. R. E. D.|
|Daines, P.||Kinghorn, Sqn. Ldr. E.||Shackleton, E. A. A.|
|Dalton, Rt. Hon. H.||Lang, Gordon||Shinwell, Rt. Hon. E.|
|Davidson, Viscountess||Lee, Frederick (Newton)||Silverman, Julius (Erdington)|
|de Freitas, Geoffrey||Lennox-Boyd, A. T.||Simmons, C. J.|
|Deer, G.||Lewis, Arthur (West Ham, N.)||Slater, J.|
|Delargy, H. J.||Lindgren, G. S.||Snow, J. W.|
|Diamond, J.||Longden, Fred (Small Heath)||Sorensen, R. W.|
|Digby, S. W.||MacColl, J. E.||Sparks, J. A.|
|Dodds, N. N.||McGhee, H. G.||Steele, T.|
|Donnelly, D.||McInnes, J.||Stewart, Michael (Fulham, E.)|
|Drewe, C.||McKay, John (Wallsend)||Strachey, Rt. Hon. J.|
|Driberg, T. E. N.||McKie, J. H. (Galloway)||Sutcliffe, H.|
|Dugdale, Rt. Hon. John (W. Bromwich)||McLeavy, F.||Sylvester, G. O.|
|Ede, Rt. Hon. J. C.||MacMillan, Malcolm (Western Isles)||Taylor, Bernard (Mansfield)|
|Edwards, Rt. Hon. Ness (Caerphilly)||MacPherson, Malcolm (Stirling)||Taylor, Robert (Morpeth|
|Edwards, W. J. (Stepney)||Mainwaring, W. H.||Thomas, David (Aberdare)|
|Evans, Albert (Islington, S.W.)||Mallalieu, E. L. (Brigg)||Thomas, Iorwerth (Rhondda, W.)|
|Field, Capt. W. J.||Manningham-Buller, R. E.||Thomas, Ivor Owen (Wrekin)|
|Finch, H. J.||Manuel, A. C.||Thurtle, Ernest|
|Forman, J. C.||Marquand, Rt. Hon. H. A.||Timmons, J.|
|Fraser, Thomas (Hamilton)||Mathers, Rt. Hon. G.||Tomlinson, Rt. Hon. G.|
|Freeman, John (Watford)||Mellish, R. J.||Tomney, F.|
|Gaitskell, Rt. Hon. H. T. N.||Messer, F.|
|Ganley, Mrs. C. S.||Middleton, Mrs. L.||Turton, R. H.|
|Gilzean, A.||Mitchison, G. R.||Viant, S. P.|
|Gooch, E. G.||Monslow, W.||Wakefield, Edward (Derbyshire, W.)|
|Gordon-Walker, Rt. Hon. P. C.||Morris, Percy (Swansea, W.)||Watkins, T. E.|
|Greenwood, Anthony (Rossendale)||Morrison, Rt. Hon. H. (Lewisham, S)||Wells, Percy (Faversham)|
|Grenfell, D. R.||Mort, D. L.||Wells, William (Walsall)|
|Grey, C. F.||Moyle, A.||West, D. G.|
|Griffiths, David (Rother Valley)||Mulley, F. W.||Wheatley, Rt. Hon. John (Edinb'gh, E.)|
|Griffiths, Rt. Hon. James (Llanelly)||Murray, J. T.||White, Mrs. Eirene (E. Flint)|
|Hale, Joseph (Rochdale)||Nally, W.||White, Henry (Derbyshire, N.E.)|
|Hall, Rt. Hon. Glenvil (Colne Valley)||Neal, Harold (Bolsover)||Whiteley, Rt. Hon. W.|
|Hamilton, W. W.||Padley, W. E.||Wilkins, W. A.|
|Hannan, W.||Paling, Rt. Hon. Wilfred (Dearne V'lly)||Willey, Frederick (Sunderland)|
|Hardman, D. R.||Paling, Will T. (Dewsbury)||Willey, Octavius (Cleveland)|
|Hargreaves, A.||Pargiter, G. A.||Williams, David (Neath)|
|Hastings, S.||Parker, J.||Williams, Rev. Llywelyn (Abertillery)|
|Hayman, F. H.||Pearson, A.||Williams, Ronald (Wigan)|
|Herbison, Miss M.||Peart, T. F.||Williams, W. T. (Hammersmith, S.)|
|Hobson, C. R.||Poole, C.||Winterbottom, Richard (Brightside)|
|Holman, P.||Popplewell, E.||Woodburn, Rt. Hon. A.|
|Holmes, Horace (Hemsworth)||Proctor, W. T.||Woods, Rev. G. S.|
|Hoy, J.||Pryde, D. J.||Younger, Hon. K.|
|Hubbard, T.||Pursey, Cmdr. H.|
|Hudson, James (Ealing, N.)||Rankin, J.||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:|
|Hughes, Hector (Aberdeen, N.)||Rayner, Brig. R.||Captain Soames and Mr. Baker.|