§ [SECOND READING.]
§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ (11.0.) THE SECRETARY TO THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT BOARD (Mr. GRANT LAWSON, Yorkshire, N. R., Thirsk)
, 448 in moving the second reading of this Bill, said it proposed to effect certain changes in the law which for many years had been urged upon successive Governments by private Members on both sides of the House. The County Councils had no power under the Act of 1888 to oppose private Bills in Parliament, but they had no power to promote such Bills, although the smallest boroughs in the country were able to do so. Much inconvenience sometimes resulted from this lack of power, as it was impossible to have a great county scheme for any purpose if a Bill in Parliament was required to carry it out. Clause 1 gave to the County Councils the same power to promote Bills as was possessed by borough and urban district councils. The second part of the Bill dealt with some Amendments of the Borough Funds Act of 1872. Under that Act a borough or urban district council had to obtain the consent of a mooting of owners and ratepayers to the promotion of, or opposition to, a private Bill in Parliament, and a poll might be demanded by a single ratepayer or owner at the meeting. If a poll was demanded it was taken, not in the manner in which polls were usually taken in this country, but by means of voting papers left at the houses of the electors, and subsequently collected. These were defects in the law which the Government proposed to amend. They proposed to continue, but in a form more suitable to modern ideas, the requirement of the consent of the electors as a check upon the desire to promote Bills. There was to be a public mooting of the parochial electors—the widest franchise in the country—at which the chairman might be required to put the Bill in sections, instead of putting it to the meeting as a whole, as at present. It was also proposed in the Bill that a poll might be demanded within ten days by not less than 100 parochial electors, or one-twentieth of the electors, whichever might be the smaller number. It would no longer be possible for one man to put the borough or district to the expense of a poll. With regard to the opposing of a Bill, it was possible that at very short notice opposition might require to be taken up, and with the present complicated machinery, requiring twenty-one days notice and a meeting of the owners and ratepayers, it was sometimes difficult for a council to 449 oppose a Bill which they thought ought to be opposed in the interests of their constituents. The Government proposed that, as the opposing of a Bill was not a very costly matter, the meeting of owners and ratepayers, or of the parochial electors, should be dispensed with. The Bill gave no additional subjects for private Bill legislation, and did not increase the prospects of a large amount of money being spent on the promotion of private Bills, but would really reform certain defects in a somewhat antiquated method of procedure.
§ Motion made and Question proposed—"That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Grant Lawson.)
§ MR. CALDWELL
congratulated the hon. Member on the clear manner in which he had described the Bill. The measure would undoubtedly effect a great improvement in regard to the County Councils. It had always been the Unionist Party that had objected to the county councils having the power to promote Bills, and he was glad they had at last recognised the fact that these bodies were almost equal to having the power already possessed by the smallest borough in England. There was a good deal of advancement required in these matters, and he welcomed this advance because it: was in the right direction. In the case of boroughs the ratepayers were all interested, and it was inconceivable that there should be a Bill promoted for a particular locality applicable only to one section. In future the consent of the parties would have to be obtained before the Bill was proceeded with. A County Council had often to deal with matters which did not relate to the county as a whole. Obviously in such a case it would not be covnenient to have a poll of the electors of the whole county, and there might be a difficulty in getting a poll for a section. He congratulated the hon. Gentleman opposite upon the lucid manner in which he had explained the 450 provisions of the Bill, and also the Government upon the advancement they were making, and he hoped they would be encouraged to bring forward other Bills of a similar character.
§ (11.15.) SIR ALBERT ROLLIT
thought the local authorities were very much indebted to the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board for effecting this real reform in local government. He was glad the Bill retained the principle of holding a public meeting, and it made this check much more real and effective than it had been in the past. Occasionally differences of opinion had impaired the effectiveness of public meetings, but now they would have the advantage of the poll being demanded by a substantial number and not by one single individual, who from personal reasons might cause an expenditure of something like £1,000. In Liverpool one individual demanded a poll, and the cost amounted to between,£2,000 and £3,000. Another advantage of this Bill would be a reform in the system of voting. Under the Borough Funds Act voting papers had to be delivered at each house, and they had to be marked by initials. This led to great confusion, because many voters put crosses, and consequently they did not get the real opinion of the community. One of the great advantages of this measure would be that exception might be taken to only one part of an omnibus Bill without jeopardising the whole Bill. At the present time the question put to the public meeting was the whole Bill, whereas the new practice would be to divide the Bill into parts and then the opinion of the community could be taken upon any part or Clause of the Bill without sacrificing the remainder. The right to oppose Bills was an inherent one, but this Bill would put the matter beyond doubt, and that would be an improvement. He disputed the contention of the hon. Member for Mid, Lanark, that those sitting on the Ministerial Benches were unwilling to promote 451 measures of this kind for the welfare of the communities to which they belonged. He was glad to see that in regard to this measure both sides of the House were agreed, and he believed that this Bill would effect a real reform in local government.
§ MR. HENRY HOBHOUSE
said he wished to say a word or two about the first part of the Bill. He desired to thank the President of the Local Government Board for enabling County Councils to promote Bills in Parliament. This power had already been conferred upon small towns in the country. Many hon. Members some time ago endeavoured to get a second reading for a Bill of this character, and they were thankful to the Government for achieving that which had now become impossible for ordinary private Members to do. No matter how zealous hon. Gentlemen opposite might profess themselves to be in regard to legislation of this kind, it was an unfortunate fact that when Bills of this character were promoted by hon. Members on the Ministerial side extending the powers of County Councils, they were apt to be objected to by hon. Gentlemen opposite on some mysterious principle. It was only when the responsible Government from time to time introduced Bills of this character that they could get those reforms carried.
§ MR. CALDWELL
said that in the case of private Members' legislation the Bill went through very often without any discussion, and he should always object to that course.
§ MR. HENRY HOBHOUSE
replied that the House was perfectly competent to discuss a Bill without objecting after 452 twelve o'clock, but it had now become impossible to carry such measures after twelve o'clock owing to objections raised by hon. Members opposite. [An HON. MEMBER: What about Banbury.] He was glad to think that the practice of throwing on private Members the risk of having to promote Bills was no longer to continue.
§ MR. COURTENAY WARNER (Stafford, Lichfield)
said he wished to join in the congratulations to the President of the Local Government Board in regard to this Bill, but he did not think the speech which had just been made was quite fair. Bills had been objected to just as often on the opposite side of the House, and very near to the Treasury Bench, and it was not fair to make that sort of accusation apply to one side of the House. With regard to the poll, he thought the number, fixed at 100, ought to be reduced to a more reasonable figure. He was willing to put absolute confidence in the elected representatives, but he did not think it ought to be such a difficult matter to demand a poll as this Bill would make it. To get 100 signatures would be a very difficult thing, especially before the ratepayers had been educated on the subject. He suggested that 25, or at the most 50, signatures would be ample.
§ MR. WALTER LONG
said the hon. Member knew that legislation of this kind had always been confined to that part of the country affected by the Acts it was proposed to amend. He had no objection to the extension of the Bill to Ireland, and if the hon. Gentleman proposed it, he should consult with his right hon. friend the Chief Secretary and be guided by his views. He thought the hon. Member for Lichfield rather misunderstood the situation in reference to the number of electors being fixed at 100. The object in view was that County Councils and corporations should be allowed to carry out their wishes unless a substantial number of parochial electors were opposed to their proposals, and to reduce the number as suggested by the hon. Member would not help this object at all. As the hon. Member for Islington had said, boroughs were often put to great expense and inconvenience by polls demanded by one person, who very often was a cantankerous member of the community. He was glad to find that there was agreement on both sides of the House in regard to this Bill.