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Cost Of Parish Council Elections

Volume 179: debated on Wednesday 26 November 1952

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2.43 p.m.

asked Her Majesty's Government whether they have any proposals to reduce the present high cost of the election of parish councillors. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to ask the Question which stands in my name, but, before dealing further with it, I should like to offer sincere congratulations to the noble Lord who, I understand, will reply, upon his recent appointment as Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs. I can assure the noble Lord that nowhere will the Minister in charge of Welsh affairs receive a warmer welcome than in any meeting of a Welsh parish council. The question which I am raising to-day is really a small one, but I think it is of some importance and of general interest throughout the rural parts of the country. Let me make it plain that I am not blaming anyone or any Government Department or any Party for the state of affairs which gives rise to it. Indeed, the change in the law which was quite recently made, and which has been the cause of all the trouble, was actually asked for and much desired by the parish councils' organisation. Perhaps I ought to say here that I have an interest in the matter because I am a Vice-President of the Parish Councils' Association. It was at their suggestion that the alteration was made.

Unfortunately, some of the results were as unfortunate as they were unexpected. I might just remind the House that the old method of electing a parish council was the show of hands. The parish meeting assembled, names were put before the meeting and all those present were asked to show, by raising their hands, which members they wanted to serve on the parish council. That went on from, I suppose, 1894 until 1948, but it was not a popular method, though it was cheap. It was not popular because it was not secret. I need not suggest some of the possible abuses which that method involved. In 1947, the Committee on Electoral Law Reform issued a Report in which they said:
"We regard some form of poll as the only satisfactory and practicable method of election, and we do not think that the exercise of the right of a parish to this method of electing its council should depend on its possessing sufficient financial resources."
As a result of that Report, there was passed in 1948 Section 60 of the Representation of the People Act, which brought it about that in future there was to be a secret ballot for the election of parish councillors, along exactly the same lines as the secret ballots for electng district and county councillors and Parliamentary candidates.

But what was not foreseen was the cost of this method as it fell upon small parishes. The cost is occasioned by the payment of fees to returning officers, and very largely by printing and stationery, and the situation which has now arisen in some parts is really little short of absurd. May I remind your Lordships that the present law is that a parish may spend in any one year up to a 4d. rate, without asking permission from anyone. It may spend up to 8d. in any one year if it has the permission of the parish meeting; and if it wants to spend more than 8d. it must have the permission of the Minister. So far as I know, no other local authority is constricted in this way; but that is the practice and the law with parish councils.

I now turn to the actual costs in a few parishes in the 1952 elections. I am quoting, I admit, only extreme cases. The number of cases in which the cost has amounted to a 6d. rate is so great that I do not propose to mention them here to-day; but I have ascertained that in the parishes of Bonby and Minting in the parts of Lindsey the cost was a 7d. rate, in the parish of Hinxworth in Hertford shire it was 7½d., in Cublington in Buckinghamshire it was 7 ½d., in Stevington in Bedfordshire it was 8d., and in Freystrop in Pembroke it was 9d.;and the record for the whole country is apparently taken by the parish of Monk silver in the county of Somerset, where the rate was 10 ½d. Perhaps I should add, quoting from the Press, that the 300 villagers of the Parish of Edingale in Stafford shire refused to pay a bill of £27 for their parish council election. To meet the bill, which amounts to an 8d. rate, a parish meeting was called. The hall was filled, but nobody would propose, second or support the resolution. My Lords, I feel that we have something to learn from that.

So it comes to this. You have here actual instances of parish councils spending in one year on electing themselves more than double what they have the power to spend on their own initiative in that year—that is before they begin to think of any other expenditure, before they begin to pay their own clerk or post a single letter, even with the consent of the parish meeting. I have quoted the name of one parish which has more than exceeded what it can spend in a year. Indeed, if that parish did not obtain the consent of its parish meeting it would very nearly finish the whole of its three years' existence before it had paid for its own election. My Lords, is that state of affairs satisfactory? Is that system efficient? I beg leave to suggest that it is neither, and that something ought to be done about it. I would concede that it would be reasonable if parish councils spent up to a 2d. rate on their own election, but more than that I think calls for some investigation and correction.

Briefly, what are the results of this state of affairs? What is happening on an ever-increasing scale in the country to-day is that before the election takes place certain negotiations go on in the parish. Some attempt is made to make the number of candidates fit the number of vacancies. The sort of conversation that might very easily take place is that when a man has taken all the necessary steps to put his name down for election as a parish councillor, he may be told by an official—and it would be quite true in many cases—"If you stand, the election in this parish will cost £30; if you do not stand it will cost nothing." That is surely most undesirable. It has about it a ring of the East European variety. The presentation of a single list of candidates is not something which I think we in this country should encourage. It is, in fact, just what we do not want, and it will certainly result in an ever increasing number of uncontested elections. Again I ask—is that really what we want?

What are the remedies. I must propose some remedies before I sit down. The first suggestion I have to make is one about which, I frankly admit, parish councils could do something themselves. It is the only one in respect of which I think they could help. It is that something should be done so that we may have fewer and larger parish councils. The powers exist already for that to be done under the Local Government Act of 1933. There is admittedly great reluctance to amalgamate parish councils, and still more to amalgamate parishes. But I feel that they could do something about that themselves.

The other suggestions I have to put forward are suggestions in connection with which someone else must help, because I do not think the parishes alone can do what is necessary. Surely, fees could be reduced. These fees are payable to returning officers, and these returning officers, I understand, are already full-time officials, paid a full salary for their work. Is it really satisfactory that they should be paid these extra fees at election times? Surely some arrangement could be made by which a full-time official would receive a comprehensive fee or salary for all that he did in the year, and his work, such as it is, in helping at the election of the parish council, would be included in the total year's work. I am casting no asper- sions on returning officers. I am sure they do their work excellently. It is not their fault that they receive these extra fees. But I do suggest that an inquiry might be made to see whether these fees could not be at least pruned, if not abolished altogether. The other major expense is printing and stationery. Some of it, of course, there must be, but I doubt very much whether some economy could not be made in that direction.

Thirdly, suggestions have been made, both in 1948, when the Bill was before Parliament, and since, that some at least of this expense should be spread a little more widely by charging it either to the rural district council or to the county council, or to both. I know that there is, naturally, opposition to this suggestion. I am aware that it was rejected in 1948. But we have learned a. good deal since 1948 on this particular matter, and I do plead that this suggestion should be reconsidered. It might well be reasonable and air that the cost should be more widely spread amongst the population. I therefore ask Her Majesty's Government to investigate this matter again, to see whether there is not some way of removing what appears to be, at least in some cases, almost an absurd position.

2.54 p.m.

My Lords, I must crave your indulgence on this, the first occasion upon which I have ventured to address your Lordships. I do so only with the greatest diffidence, because I am conscious of what a bad speaker I am. I wish earnestly to support the plea made by the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, for some reduction in the exorbitant cost of parish council elections. As Lord Merthyr has pointed out, this cost bears very hardly on small rural parish councils, with low rateable value—so much so that many of them, having been badly "stung" by contests in the 1948–49 elections, have decided no longer to have contested elections. Whether that is good or bad I do not know, but I am certain that it is a state of affairs which was not foreseen by those who framed the Representation of the People Act. With one suggestion which Lord Merthyr made I cannot agree at all. That was his suggestion that county councils or rural district councils should subsidise the poorer parishes. That, in my opinion, would be an entirely wrong approach. We do not wish to maintain, by means of a grant-in-aid, the present high level of costs; we want to reduce them drastically.

In this connection, I have a proposal to make which I will endeavour to explain to your Lordships. As most of your Lordships know, parishes having a population of less than 300 souls manage their parochial affairs through a parish meeting, at which every Government elector is entitled to express his or her point of view on parish affairs. I belong to such a parish, and I find that the system works admirably and costs us nothing beyond our annual precept of £3. To illustrate how well and cheaply it works, let me take the case of a neighbouring parish situated two miles away. This parish has a population of 392 people. For some reason or other (I think possibly they thought it was grander) they decided to have a parish council and elected representatives, with the result that the 1949 election—and, I venture to say, their only contested election—cost them a 6d. rate. It is really too ridiculous a situation. Here are two tiny rural parishes side by side:one runs its affairs for £3 a year and the other runs its affairs for £3 a year plus the cost of a 6d, rate every time there is a vacancy on the council. My suggestion, therefore, is that we should broaden the basis of parish meetings, and that they should be much more widely extended. I would propose that the minimum number of people living in a parish to qualify it for a parish council should be raised from 300 to 500. That, I suggest would be a start, and it would enable us to see how the idea worked. I believe that if we had that rule it would relieve dozens of parishes up and down the land of the cost of election expenses. Finally I commend and endorse what Lord Merthyr has said about the cost of polling officials; I think that point requires some investigation.

2.57 p.m.

My Lords, it is the custom in your Lordships' House for the next speaker after a noble Lord has made a maiden speech to offer him the congratulations of the whole House. But, quite apart from that custom, I know that I shall be expressing the feelings of the whole House in offering the congratula- tions of every one of us here to the noble Lord, Lord Dorchester. I understand that the noble Lord has sat in this House for a great number of years—upwards of twenty-seven I believe. It is good that he has at last—if I may use the expression —broken the ice. I am sure I am expressing the feelings of the whole House when I say that we sincerely hope to hear him many times more in the future.

In rising to support my noble friend Lord Merthyr I should like to give your Lordships an example of what happened in my own parish of Great and Little Hampden, in Buckinghamshire, three years ago and this year. As Lord Merthyr has said, it was a great idea that these parish councils should be elected by secret ballot. I know that in my own parish the idea was welcomed most enthusiastically. The parish council of Great and Little Hampden has five seats, for which, three years ago, eight candidates stood. But afterwards they were very surprised, and somewhat horrified, when the bill came in. This amounted to a 3d. rate. The effect of that in my parish this year when the elections came round again was as follows. Four people put their names forward to be candidates for the parish council. One of those four said that he would stand only on condition that there were not more candidates than there were seats. If there were more candidates than seats he was going to withdraw. As it happened, when nomination day came, there were still only these four nominations. The result was that when four members had been elected, the returning officer had to write to a previous member of the parish council to tell him that he would have to regard himself as re-elected, so that we could have five members on the council.

My next point is perhaps slightly away from the question, but I think it affects the matter. A small parish like mine, which has 245 electors, has to contend with three separate polling days—for the county council, for the rural district council and for the parish council. Can something be done to spread the costs of these three elections more evenly? Would it be possible for these elections all to take place on the same day? I do not know whether that can be done, but I throw out the suggestion that something might be done to co-ordinate election duties. Or could some simpler system of secret voting be devised? I have not given notice of these suggestions and I do not expect to receive a reply from my noble friend today. However, possibly one or two of my suggestions may fit in with what the two previous speakers have said, and I sincerely hope that some thought will be given to the whole question of the cost of these elections.

3.2 p.m.

My Lords, I should like to join in the congratulations and thanks which have been extended to the noble Lord, Lord Dorchester, for his most interesting contribution this afternoon. I express the hope, which is not merely verbal, that he may join in our discussions more frequently in the future. Without striking a wrong note, I would say that the name of Dorchestet will always be associated in the annals of the Party to which I have the honour to belong with one of the greatest of epic struggles for liberty and freedom that ever took place in this country.

I am sure that we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, for raising this question. The parish councils may be the smallest unit in our system of local government, but they are the most ancient. Their history goes back to the time of the Tudors, more than 500 years. They began to decline with the onward march of industrialism, following the Industrial Revolution which began about 1760. There are some people who think that this country, in pursuit of the aim of being the workshop of the world, took a wrong turn. Be that as it may, in the 'nineties, with the passing of the Local Government Act of 1894, there was a deliberate attempt to revive interest in our village communities. I believe it is on record that an ancestor of the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury (whom we all congratulated yesterday and who, I see, is not in the House to-day), one who was perhaps the greatest statesman in the line whom we have had, when told that it was proposed to set up parish councils, growled, "Councils! Give them circuses!"

I think that to-day we are beginning to realise the importance of our village communal and I venture to suggest that any handicap to the proper functioning and flowering of this life ought to be given serious attention. All Parties are responsible for this handicap. We must remember that in 1894 your Lordships' House returned the Parish Councils Bill to another place with 800 Amendments (the House seemed to be more vigorous in those days than we are to-day), and one of those Amendments was to limit the councils to a 4d. rate. We have to remember, too, that the parish councils have been further handicapped by the de-rating of agriculture and agricultural hereditaments. I know that when the recent Act was under discussion in another place a plea was made for some alleviation of the provisions of that Bill, and while the then Home Secretary did help in some ways he was not prepared to meet the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, this afternoon.

I am one who was born within the sound of Bow Bells, but, like most townsmen, I have a longing for our countryside. I want us now to take every possible step we can take, following the agreement of all Parties that we must develop agricultural and rural life, to help our village and rural communities. We may talk about the, number of tractors we have on the land and the efficiency of our agriculture. I hope that the beauties of the countryside will never be sacrificed to efficiency, and that the human beings behind the production figures, the men and women who work on the land, will have the right to be considered and consulted and will have a voice in framing their own village communal life. It is not for me this afternoon to go over the wide range of powers which the parish councils have. Backed as they are by a growing and powerful national association, I feel that the handicap to which the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, has drawn our attention should receive the attention of Her Majesty's Government because until we make the men and women in our villages feel that they are as important as our urban population, that constant drift from the villages to the towns will continue. Therefore, I hope that the question which is before the House will receive the most urgent attention of the Government.

3.9 p.m.

My Lords, I should like to say one word because, while I entirely agree with what my noble friend Lord Merthyr and other noble Lords have said, I hope that, if the Government consider this matter, they will consider revising the system of parishes. In my area, my parish was amalgamated with three other ecclesiastical parishes into one civil parish, which has a parish council. These four parishes have very little in common. They are in different valleys and do not even use the same market town. The unit as it now is is too big to look after the parish pump and too small to have enough money to do anything worth doing. I think parishes should be either larger or smaller. The only other thing I want to say is how much I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Buckinghamshire, in hoping that in rural areas in future it may be possible to hold the various elections on the same day.

3.10 p.m.

My Lords, I feel sure I speak for all your Lordships when I say that we have in the past waited far too long to hear the noble Lord, Lord Dorchester, and I hope that we shall not have to wait so long to hear him again. Turning to the Question of my noble friend Lord Merthyr, here again I should like to begin by thanking him for his kind references to myself. I assure him that I shall take the first opportunity of going to a parish council meeting in Wales, though I hope he does not want me to go to each one, because my job then would be far too arduous.

The noble Lord's complaint was that, in the more extreme cases, once a village council has elected itself it has really finished for the next three years because that is all it can afford to do. That is a state of affairs which might be welcomed in another place! I agree with the noble Lord that it is a bad thing, and I think it is a shortcoming of the 1948 Act which has become generally recognised. I do not think that I would dissent from anything which the noble Lord has said; perhaps he cited extreme cases, but I believe what he said to be broadly true. On the other hand, I was glad to hear him say that he did not feel—and this seemed to be the opinion of noble Lords generally —that we ought to go back on the 1948 Act and to revert to the old system of election by a show of hands. This was a reform that was overdue, and to revert to the show of hands is not the solution of the problem. But clearly the problem has got to be solved. Like most problems, however, it is not as simple as it looks, because the scope of reducing the cost of parish council elections is limited.

I will certainly bring to the attention of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary the suggestion of the noble Earl, Lord Buckinghamshire, and the noble Lord, Lord Raglan, that the various local government elections should be held on the same day. That is a possible factor towards economy, and it is something well worth considering. The suggestions made by my noble friend Lord Merthyr are what I might call the schools of solution of this problem that have been adumbrated already. There are various difficulties to both suggestions. First of all, there is the question of the fees of county council officers. It is possible that if those fees could be waived that might be a way of overcoming this difficulty, but I must make it clear that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has no jurisdiction whatever with regard to those fees. It is laid down in the Act that county councils may prescribe the scale of fees, and it would need legislation to change that. But, as I say, at the moment my right honourable friend has no jurisdiction whatever in this matter; nor, indeed, would the County Councils' Association be willing to alter their view on that point at the present time, though it is a field to be explored.

The other alternative which the noble Lord suggested is that some of the expense should be charged to rural district councils or county councils. That particular suggestion was put forward when the Representation of the People Act of 1948 was considered. At that time it was resisted on the ground that to do it would be contrary to the long-established principle that each local government area should bear the cost of its own elections. I do not say that that principle is sacrosanct, but it is a principle which obtains everywhere else, and I think we should be careful before changing a principle of that kind.

I am sure the House will agree with me that this is a complicated problem, and it is not one that can be resolved overnight. I can, however, say this to the noble Lord who has raised the matter to-day. He is probably aware that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary received a deputation from the National Association of Parish Councils on the 17th of this month to discuss this particular question. He told that deputation that he was prepared to consider their suggestions, which I may say run very much on the same lines as those made by the noble Lord, although I do not think all the suggestions we have heard this afternoon were then put forward. May I say, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, that we welcome the additional suggestions which have been made this afternoon and which may all help toward a solution of the problem? My right honourable friend has promised to consider these suggestions, and is at the present time considering them. I am sure the noble Lord will appreciate that, before anything can be done, a number of consultations will have to take place, with such people as the Minister of Housing and Local Government, the County Councils' Association, the Parish Councils' Association and the Rural District Councils' Association. I can assure the noble Lord that we are looking into the matter and trying to reach a solution, and I hope that in due course we shall be able to find a way of improving what I agree is an unsatisfactory state of affairs.