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Clause 330—(Dean Of Guild, Etc, Of Certain Burghs To Be Members Of Town Council)

Volume 441: debated on Tuesday 29 July 1947

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

This Clause relates to persons who are elected, without the ordinary means of election, to burgh councils, and only to certain burgh councils. This goes back to the Municipal Reform Act of about 112 years ago. In certain of our cities the town council consisted of two bodies—the guildery and the incorporated traders. Further back into history there was only the guildery. The incorporated trades slowly but surely had to fight their way into the scene and ultimately they got there. For about 300 years the corporations of cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh consisted of two close corporations, the guildery, on the one hand, and the incorporated trades on the other; in other words, the traders and sellers as represented in the guildery, and the craftsmen as represented in the incorporated trades. These craftsmen must not be confounded with the craftsmen of the present day. One of the absolute rules was that in no circumstances could they do any work with their own hands; they had to leave it to their servants. These were the two bodies who ruled the roost.

As time went on they degenerated beyond expression, so much so that in my native city of Edinburgh, the city in their hands became nearly bankrupt. They had to make a composition with their creditors and had to issue certificates in the manner of loan certificates, and it was not until my day that Edinburgh finally got rid of the debt that these craftsmen and guildery people had imposed upon it. The rest of the people they would succinctly describe as "the rabble "—a good Scots phrase describing all the people who were not of these two bodies, and had no representation of any kind. If one wants to learn a little about these people I would strongly advise hon Members to read Lord Cockburn's memorials of his times. Apart from the information that one can find in it, it is wonderful reading. In the third decade of the last century we did get reform and we had municipalities based on the right of the body of the people to elect themselves. But with that marvellous capacity for never doing a job properly which is a characteristic of the British people, they still left a form of appendix of the old system in the shape of one member of the guildery and one member of the incorporated trades in the reformed town council. That only happened in the case of Glasgow and Edinburgh. In Dundee, Aberdeen and Perth, the dean of guild is still outwith the elected persons.

This system has gone on for well over 100 years, but the question arises whether the time has not arrived when we ought to put this matter on a democratic basis. In those days a great deal was made of a person being a burgess or a guild brother. Under Clause 332 of this Bill every local government elector today is a burgess. As for the guild brothers, I think the less said about them the better. I could go tomorrow morning, if I were in Edinburgh, to the gaol and watch the prisoners coming out. I could go to a fellow and say "Are you a ratepayer in Edinburgh?" He answers "yes." "What are you in for?" "I was in for housebreaking." "Do you mind coming with me? I can give you the necessary cards. You go into the Town Clerk's office. You tell him you are a ratepayer. He looks up the register. You put down your cash, and you will become a guild brother without any more ado." That is the position, and it is high time we got rid of that sort of thing.

The incorporated trades are close corporations. I remember, a goodly number of years ago that a leading shoemaker in my native city wanted to become a member of the Cordwainers. He was in that famous street, Princes Street, and he desired to become a member of the Cordwainers, but they turned him down. He thought that was absurd, and applied to the Court of Session. The Court of Session decided in his favour. But the Cordwainers had a card up their sleeves, and demanded that he make a pair of shoes with his own hands, which fortunately he was able to do. He paid the necessary sum to enter, about £250, but immediately after that, the entry fee went up to about £1,600. Imagine these close corporations, which exist for themselves only, having the right to send members to the town council.

There is a much more pungent reason for my being on my feet. It is this. I was 21 years in a corporation. During all of that time I was in a minority, and it did not matter what I thought was good, or what I believed in, I was beaten with unfailing regularity. The time seems to be approaching when the people who think as I think may possibly manage to reach a majority. Suppose they reach a majority of one, and then along come these "buckshee" individuals, and by their votes alter the balance of power in that council. It seems to me to be absolutely absurd, and for that reason, although this was argued in Committee, I could not be persuaded—despite all the blandishments with which I was surrounded—that I was not on the right lines in seeking to abolish something that is absolutely out of accord with present day thinking, and certainly out of accord with the thought of the people I represent.

11. 15 p.m.

I support the proposal submitted by the hon. Member for Central Edinburgh (Mr. Gilzean). I do so with some backing from my experience in my own city. For many years members of the Glasgow Corporation have resented the idea of members from the guilds and merchant house. I think I am right in stating there are hon. Members now sitting on the benches opposite—I do not see any on this side—who have voted in Glasgow Corporation to have this practice discontinued. What amazes me is that a consolidating and amending Measure of this kind, which no doubt will last for many years, should be passed through without this Clause having been deleted, because it is now well established that these people serve no useful purpose as public representatives. After the historical review we have had from my hon. Friend I do not think there is very much to add.

It is admitted that in the early days prior to the development of local government, they had a function. What is the position now? My hon. Friend made reference to the cobbler. One famous corporation in Glasgow is that of the bonnet-makers, the one qualification being not to be a bonnet-maker. If you have been a prosperous distiller or a successful solicitor, then you have a chance of being incorporated as a bonnet-maker. Indeed they get sufficiently jealous to be associated with a number of corporations. It is a great thing for a provision merchant to become a member of the bonnet-makers and the dyers. The qualification is that he knows nothing about bonnet-making and less about dyeing.

If we are passing tonight a Measure consolidating the authority of local government in Scotland, surely it is an appropriate time to discontinue the practice of including people not elected in the ordinary democratic way. There are only two cities involved and to that extent other members may be quite unconcerned; but there would be a protest from the Members of this House if it were suggested that in this Measure every burgh in Scotland should allow the dean of guild court to be a member. Every Member would oppose it. If it is wrong to apply it all over Scotland, it is equally wrong in the two cities referred to. I would like an explanation from the right hon. Gentleman, who prepared this Bill with the support of the Joint Under-Secretary of State. If he looked back to the speeches he has made, he will find that he made good speeches on Glasgow town Council many years ago protesting against this. That seems to be one of the accidents of Government—you may make speeches on any side. But I want to stick to what I regard as a conscientious way of dealing with the question.

The hon. Member might make speeches of that kind when he sits on this bench.

Time to talk that way when the deed has actually taken place. If I raise the political issue, it is to say that it is no accident that the dean of guild and guild convener—I speak for the City of Glasgow—never cast a vote along the lines on which I cast mine, and, if I may say so, I think that I cast votes in the right direction. As a matter of fact, the people of Glasgow accepted the idea that the minority, which became a majority, moved in the right direction, but we made no impression on the dean of guild and at this time, when we are trying to clear up local government, we should not allow this anachronism to remain in this Measure in days of democracy.

This Bill does not mean general amendment of the administrative law of Scotland. It is to consolidate; that is the main purpose of the Bill. This Clause is simply re-enacting the existing law. If I may, I would compliment the hon. Member for Central Edinburgh (Mr. Gilzean) on his very fine speech——

Could we have a clear Ruling on this matter? The Secretary of State says this is a consolidating Measure. As I gather it, the suggestion was that it was only right and proper for the matters to come before the House with the authority of the Secretary of State.

I was trying to point out that the main purpose of the Bill is consolidation. The right hon. Gentleman opposite, when Secretary of State for Scotland, made it possible that we should be enabled to have Amendments made to clarify and modify certain provisions and to come to agreement where we could get agreement on the codes in Scotland.

The hon. Member for Rutherglen (Mr. McAllister) asked me for a Ruling. There is and can be no restriction on the sovereign power of Parliament. Let me make that clear. As a matter of strict Order, it would be quite competent for Parliament, if it thought fit, and having all the factors in mind, to make Amendments to this or any other Bill and I must so rule.

I was not disputing that fact, but I was trying to point out what was the purpose of the Committee set up by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite. Unless there is agreement, there are only two alternatives. They are—no Bill, or going back to pure consolidation, and in some cases that would be altogether unintelligible because some of these Acts were passed 100 years ago. I could not get agreement so far as the dropping of the present law is concerned. The Bill as it stands reproduces the existing law. It enables the dean of guild and the deacon convener to serve on town councils. A proposal that this existing right should be abolished was fully discussed before the introduction of the Bill and we then tried to get agreement. It was clear that it would be controversial and it was decided that it could not be accepted. A Joint Committee of both Houses also considered the matter, but that Committee did not recommend an Amendment. Its general view was stated in its report as follows:

"The Committee have felt that in amending the Bill it would not be desirable generally to go beyond amendment calculated to simplify or clarify the law. The amendments made by the Committee are mainly of the character mentioned, or are of a drafting nature, or consequential on other legislation."
There are many matters on which hon. Members on both sides of the House would like to see the law changed. I must say that there may be many things in connection with this consolidating Measure which I would like to have seen changed—in the interests of administration, in the interests of efficiency, and also to give a better code for local government administration. In this case, change would involve acute political controversy, and the Committee would not agree that it would be right to make these in what is primarily a consolidating Measure.

New legislation is bound to be introduced sometime dealing with the reorganisation of local government. Then we can take up much which, though we would like to do it now, we have allowed to drop. I am in favour of many of these things, but they can only be dealt with in legislation amending the existing local government law, and I think it would be wrong to deal with them now. That is why I resist the suggestion to leave out this Clause. It is not that I do not believe in these things, but because I believe that it is the wrong time to make the proposed change. It would make a change in the law which cannot be done in a consolidation Measure.

I want to reinforce the argument of the hon. Member for Central Edinburgh (Mr. Gilzean). I agree frankly that the Dean of Guild in Glasgow and the Deacon Convener in Edinburgh have always been men of the very highest character. I think the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Carmichael) will agree with that, but as he said, they never seem to act or agree with those who were elected. I agree with my right hon. Friend when he says it would be impossible to get agreement if such a thing had been attempted. I want to say categorically, here and now, that if the local authorities had been aware of the Ruling which has been given from the Chair to night, this anomaly would have been swept away. The real trouble of the Secretary of State as I have said already in regard to a Bill like this is that it may take 10 years to prepare and 10 minutes to shoot it through the corridors of Parliament. I think I am speaking on behalf of my hon. Friends, the Scottish Members, when I say that we were told in these last 12 months that no amendment could be made. Well, "no amendment," and "qualified amendment "may be two different things. I want to be generous, and I say they may be. But I certainly think we are entitled, if not to an apology, at least to an explanation why we and ourselves at 11.30 at night in the week before Parliament rises for a Recess, confronted with the Ruling given from the Chair that Parliament is predominant and that we can move and amend anything we like. All this has been put together on the assumption that no Amendment can be moved. I feel very keenly that I have let down my district committees in Dumbartonshire simply on the Government's advice as to what we can do and what we cannot do

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Kill.

11.30 p.m.

Clauses 331 to 382 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

First to Fourth Schedules agreed to.