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Local Government (Scotland) Bill Lords

Volume 440: debated on Tuesday 22 July 1947

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Order for Second Reading read.

10.31 p.m.

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

The Bill to which I ask the House to give a Second Reading deals broadly with the machinery of local government and provides a framework of general powers within which local authorities can exercise the functions which they already possess or may obtain in the future. The Bill before the House has been considered in another place, but it originated in a relict left by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite, the Member for the Scottish Universities (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot), who, in 1937, was Secretary of State for Scotland. He appointed a Committee which included representatives of the Scottish local authorities' associations, the three main political parties and the Departments concerned. I am sure that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman will be glad to see that his action is about to bear fruit. Indeed, as I shall briefly explain, his interest in the Bill has not been confined to those days before it actually was the law. The Chairman of the Committee was Sir John Jeffrey, a former permanent Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, of whose death recently hon. Members will have learned with regret. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman, the Member for the Scottish Universities, and I represented our respective parties on the Committee, and the Liberal Party was represented by the late Sir Robert Hamilton. The Committee was asked to consider—and I think it right to make this explanation because there is a feeling that the Bill, while it is I think strictly within the rules of the House should be open to Amendment—local government and public health laws in Scotland, with such amendment as might be necessary to facilitate consolidation, and to secure simplicity, uniformity, and conciseness.

After a long, weary journey, we were able to introduce the Bill into another place in 1946. We were not able to get the Bill through in that Session, but that enabled further consultation to take place with the local authorities, with the result that the Bill was re-introduced this Session. The Bill came before another place last March. There it was referred to a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament. That Committee included Members of both Houses who had had experience of local government in Scotland, and in England and Wales, and it was presided over by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman, the Member for the Scottish Universities. As the report of the Committee shows, it sat for two and a half days, it examined the Measure with great care and, as a result, it introduced a number of minor Amendments in order to prepare it for the consideration of both Houses of Parliament. I would like to pay tribute to the trouble and skill with which the Committee, under the wise guidance and chairmanship of the right hon. and gallant Member for the Scottish Universities, applied itself to its onerous task.

This Bill is desired very much by the local authorities in Scotland and by those who are responsible for administration, which falls under Acts more than a hundred years old. By this means, which is something a little more than consolidation—by amendment and consolidation—we are able to get into one set of covers administrative legislation of the past 60 years. I do not think that there is any need for me to take up any more of the time of the House. This is a nonparty Measure, something for which all parties have worked and striven. Ten years ago I was appointed to that Committee and it gave me an excuse, if I may say so, to retire from local government, for I really wanted to give my services in helping to bring about a consolidation of local government law. I pay my tribute to all who took part, and particularly to the right hon. and gallant Member for the Scottish Universities, who set up the Committee, which made possible the Bill now before the House and who sat on the Joint Committee, which, as a result of its deliberations, produced this Bill.

10.37 p.m.

This is largely a consolidating Measure of 382 Clauses and 14 Schedules. The Secretary of State has paid tribute Lo the wise guidance, in the drafting of the Measure, of my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Scottish Universities (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot) for anything that he sponsors, particularly as relating to Scottish Measures, would only be done after due deliberation and careful thought. I would refer particularly, however, to Clauses 133 and 134, which deal, respectively, with the formation of new burghs, and, further, Clause 134 refers to the dissolution of existing burghs. As the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Scotland will be aware—after all, he comes from the Kingdom of Fife—there are a very large number of small burghs.

May I assure the hon. Gentleman that this does not affect in any shape or form the existing small burghs, and will, therefore, not affect a single small burgh in the County of Fife?

I am aware that there will be a serious limitation with regard to the formation of new small burghs in the future.

That question may properly be discussed in Committee. It is not a matter for discussion on Second Reading

With great respect, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I had thought that I was entitled to discuss that aspect of the matter. It does affect the size of burghs, and many existing small burghs are seriously disturbed. However, under Clause 134, with regard to the dissolution of existing small burghs, there is at least one in my own constituency, the ancient and royal burgh of Galloway, which derives its charter from a grant by Charles I. There are many Members on all sides of the House, I feel sure, who will wish to address themselves to the provisions of these two Clauses on Committee stage.

10.40 p.m.

There is one observation which the Secretary of State for Scotland made and that was that those dealing in local government matters in Scotland would welcome this Measure, because it puts into one volume, all the information required by town clerks and county clerks in a useful form. But, when we come to the Measure itself, it is an entirely different matter. I do not know how far we can go in discussing this Bill when we find that a very large part of it embodies the Local Government (Scotland) Act, 1929, whole Sections of which were passed through this House without a word of debate. Here again, it is being re-enacted without a single opportunity for having a discussion on these very important matters. It is a most extra-ordinary position. We are on delicate ground, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and I fear you may rule me out of Order. I know that the Bill has been before another place, and Amendments have been made by the Joint Committee. I do not know how far we can go in proposing Amendments, for it may be that this is a consoli- dating Measure and we cannot amend it. There are respects in which I want to see it amended. During the proceedings of the Joint Committee, the Chairman, the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for the Scottish Universities (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot), confessed that he was disappointed that the district committees had so little power. If he casts his mind back to the discussions on the 1929 Act, he will recall that we fought for these committees to be given a great deal more power than we are giving in this particular Measure. We were told that that Measure was in the interests of efficiency and economy, but that there was overlapping between district and county councils, and that this Measure was to be more efficient and would override all those difficulties.

I wonder if the right hon. and gallant Gentleman who, as Under-Secretary of State for Scotland at that time, played so large a part in getting that Measure through the House, is satisfied that the economies which were so much desired have been effected by the change? Is he satisfied that these services can now he compared with those we had before 1929? As I have said previously, I am wondering how far we can go in discussing a matter of this kind, but I do want to state, quite frankly, that town clerks and others who have charge of local administration in Scotland will welcome this Bill because it does give them, in complete form, the Acts of Parliament which concern them.

During the course of discussions on the Fire Service Bill, we heard comparisons between the English and the Scottish systems, and we discovered that, in England, district councils had some real duties to perform under county councils. In Scotland, the district committees have practically nothing to do. They are a mere skeleton of what they were prior to 1929. I would have liked to describe to the House what the district committees did prior to the 1929 Act coming into operation. As a matter of fact, the district committees of the county councils were really effective bodies. County councils, it is true, held the purse-strings —the finance committee of the county council had control of the district council —but so far as the administration was concerned, that lay in the hands of the district council.

It was considered far safer to have this county council control over district committees because the burgh councils, both small burghs and large burghs, as we know them under the 1929 Act, were becoming dangerous. Labour majorities were beginning; things were beginning to move; municipal houses were beginning to be seen and a number of things were beginning to be done. The right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State at the time, thought that the best plan was to have them under the control of the county council. County councils at the time were, of course, good Conservative bodies which could be depended upon. Now, we re-enact in this Bill all the objectionable features that the Secretary of State for Scotland himself took a very large part in opposing when this Measure was before the House in 1929. He has a different story to tell tonight.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I want to draw your attention to Clause 330 of this Bill. Clause 330 deals with the question of the convener—

I am sorry, the hon. Gentleman is drawing attention to a single Clause. It is quite clear that that would he a matter to raise in Committee. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Dunfermline Burghs (Mr. Watson) did make his observations rather more general. It is not competent for the bon Gentleman to raise matters on the Second Reading of the Bill which it would be more appropriate to raise in Committee.

We shall have to go through the usual 7rocesses of this House and no doubt, in due course, the hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to raise his question

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House for Thursday next.—[ Mr. Popplewell.]