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Honorary Freemen

Volume 987: debated on Thursday 3 July 1980

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

In section 249(5) of the Local Government Act 1972 after "royal borough" where it first occurs insert "or any parish or community having by grant or royal prerogative the status of city and any parish or community entitled by such grant to be called or styled a royal town", and after the further references to "royal borough" in that subsection and in section 249(6) insert "or parish or comunity as aforesaid.".—[ Mr. Nelson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

With this we may take amendment No. 288, in title, line 18, after 'council', insert:

'to empower certain further authorities to confer honorary distinctions'.

The purpose of the clause is to restore to a number of ancient cities and royal towns the power to confer honorary freedoms on people of distinction or on those who have rendered eminent service to the communities in which they live. Under section 249(5) of the Local Government Act 1972 that power was restricted to London boroughs and districts having the status of a city or borough. It thereby excluded those cities which were designated as "parishes" or as "communities" under the Act but which retained the status or style of cities or royal towns by way of grant or Royal Proclamation.

Thus, in the case of Chichester, a city with a population of 22,000, a city council and a mayor, there is no legal power, as there had been for centuries before, to confer freedoms. Seven cities and royal towns are affected by my new clause. They are Bangor, Caernarvon, Chichester, Ely, Ripon, Truro and Wells.

I am pleased to advise the House that my new clause enjoys the support of all those hon. Members within whose constituencies those cities fall, and that that support comes from three political parties. The power to confer honourable freedoms is inexpensive but gives great pride and pleasure to those who give them and to those who receive them. In my own case of Chichester, it is well known that for some time the city council has wished to confer this honour on the Royal Military Police, whose training barracks are in the city and who have contributed so conspicuously to the local community and to charitable causes in the district. It is desirable that those cities should have the right to recognise such service or distinction, especially as they previously exercised that right. Some have continued to do so, unaware they they are no longer legally empowered to grant freedoms.

Amendment No. 288 is a consequential amendment to the long title.

I hope that the House will accept that there is a good case for this modest change in the law. It will give great pleasure to many of my constitutents, as well as to others. The freedom of the city does not grant many privileges. However, if regiments are given the freedom to enter cities, they are entitled to march with bayonets fixed, drums beating and flags flying. That is certainly an honour that I hope will be bestowed on the Royal Military Police in Chichester.

I take issue with the hon. Gentleman. This is a significant honour. The misery of having to muffle drums, and of not being allowed to fix bayonets when entering a city of distinction is a misery that should not be underrated.

I do not wish to pick an argument with the hon. Gentleman, as I fear that I shall lose his support for the new clause. I readily concede his point. There is a good case for changing the law. I thank those hon. Members who have supported the new clause. I earnestly hope that the House will join me in supporting it.

I support the clause, which was so eloquently moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) in the cause of soldiers marching with fixed bayonets and drums through our historic cities. The regiments do this in Bury St. Edmunds and they have had the right to do so for almost 800 years. In 1973 we sensibly continued that right. Therefore, it would be churlish of me to do anything other than welcome the prospect of similar marvellous civic occasions being conducted in Chichester, Ely and other places.

I declare an interest, in that I am an honorary freeman of the City of London. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester said that there were not many privileges conferred with the honour. That is correct. As far as I can make out, the main privilege is that of being asked to contribute to an almost endless succession of good causes which one simply cannot refuse. Therefore, there are duties as well as rights.

I wish to make only one serious point. I understand that the Government will accept the new clause. If there is to be a right to make people honorary freemen, for heaven's sake let it be used sparingly. Nothing is worse than an almost indefinite number of elderly ladies and gentlemen feeling that at the end of their time on the local council they are bound to get the freedom of their borough. That devalues the honour. I believe that it should be held as an honour that is sought after. I believe that it should go to such admirable bodies as the Royal Military Police, and, in in my case, the Suffolk Regiment. It would be unwise for local authorities to give it to everyone. Naturally, Parliament would not wish to restrain the judgment of local authorities, but they would be very wise not to devalue the honour by chucking it around too liberally. Power is important, but is best used sparingly.

The mayor of the city of Ripon has written to the Government urging them to accept this new clause. Ours is an ancient city with charters going back to Alfred and Athelstan, and in 1604 it was made a Royal borough. The rights that these charters conferred and the dignity of the city were confirmed in 1974 in a further Royal charter. Very unnecessarily, and possibly inadvertently, the Local Government Act 1972 excluded these seven authorities—which are, in effect, third-tier authorities because they were subsumed within a larger district—from retaining the privilege of granting freedoms. Therefore, this is an opportunity to correct that. It is a cherished honour. It is the ultimate accolade that a city can give to people who have given it distinguished service. It is right that it should be used sparingly, and in our case in recent years it has been given only to the Royal Engineers, the RAF and two distinguished citizens.

I agree for once with the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) that this is a great honour. In the Royal borough of which I have the honour to represent the major part, we make sure that this honour is a great privilege. It is given to regiments, very distinguished citizens and members of the Royal Family, and it is not given lightly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) said that it was important that it should not be assumed that, just because one has had a long period of service on a local council, one should automatically get the freedom. Looking back on historic records on the granting of freedom in the Royal boroughs, I find that it has always been restricted to very distinguished people and to regiments in the area. I am certain that the residents do not mind—in fact they enjoy—hearing the bands play in Windsor, and that they are not at all frightened by the sight of fixed bayonets. I am sure that the House will agree that the new clause should be accepted, provided that the honour is restricted to those who really deserve it.

I shall be very brief. I agree entirely with what other hon. Members have said. In the seven years during which we have arguably not been allowed to create freemen, we have used the privilege very sparingly. In my case only the RAF Hospital in Ely and the Anglian Regiment have been recipients of the honour. I hope that the Government Front Bench will be sympathetic and compassionate.

I listened with interest to my hon. Friends the Members for Chichester (Mr. Nelson), for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) and for Ripon (Dr. Hampson), and to the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud). The Government recognise that there is a strong case for this category to have the additional power. We endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds that this is not something that should be treated lightly. It is a peculiar and attractive honour which should convey particular respect and honour on its recipients.

I should not wish to suggest that the new clause should be opposed, but I must draw the attention of the House to the fact that there are two printing errors. It says
"by grant or royal prerogative."
It should read "by grant under the Royal prerogative." Later it says:
"called or styled a royal town."
It should read "called and styled a Royal town." If those two errors can be corrected in the next printing of the Bill, the Government will be pleased to accept the new clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.