HC Deb 24 April 1861 vol 162 cc1014-21

Order for Committee read.

On Motion that Mr. Speaker do leave the Chair.


said, the House was, no doubt, aware that this Bill, which had been introduced by the hon. Member for Sussex (Mr. Dodson) referred to the taking of the votes for Members of Parliament for the Universities; and as he believed the second reading of the measure had been agreed to at a late hour of the night and without any lengthened discussion, it was probable that hon. Members generally were not very well acquainted with its provisions. That being so he might be permitted briefly to refer to the objects which the promoters of the measure had in view. As the House was aware, elections for our Universities were conducted after a fashion in which some peculiarities were observable. The constituency consisted of Masters of Arts, members of the Universities, who were subjected to no qualifications so far as residence was concerned, and who consequently were found to be scattered all over the country—many of them dwelling abroad. They, moreover, did not possess a common character, being members of different professions. As the present system worked, the resident members possessed an influence rather out of proportion to their number in consequence of their being united on the spot, and of the communication which took place between them. The present system, therefore, was attended with advantages to those persons who were engaged in the business of governing the Universities and in tuition. Masters of Arts resident at a distance from the Universities could only come personally and vote by incurring much expense, and, in many cases, being put to much personal inconvenience; and the fact was, that a large proportion of non-resident members were prevented giving their votes. He was not sure that the present system worked in an unjust or inexpedient manner, although it did not perfectly provide an equal opportunity for the voting of non-residents. There was this difference between the present case and that of country voters who resided at a distance from the polling places—that the former were permitted to be brought to the polls at the expense of the candidates. The present Bill, introduced by his hon. Friend the Member for Sussex, proposed to alter the present system by providing that non-resident voters for the University should give their votes by letter sent through the Post Office. It was clear that such a system was not equally applicable to the non-resident voters in counties and boroughs, as many of them could scarcely read or write, and might be subjected to dictation as to the votes they should give. It could not be said that these objections would apply to those non-residents qualified to vote for Members for the Universities, who, of course, were gentlemen of liberal education, and who, no doubt, would give an unbiassed vote. As matters at present stood it was thought by many that the clerical clement already prevailed to too great a degree in University elections; but if this Bill passed it would have the effect of giving University representation a more purely clerical character even than it now possessed, by the preponderance of persons in holy orders who were entitled to vote. Some persons might think that an objection to the proposed change, others might think it a recommendation; but no doubt it would have that effect. However that might be, the operation of the Bill would be more completely to call forth the constituencies. Those constituencies having been created, it was the intention of Parliament that they should exercise their franchise, and the Bill must tend to produce that result. Having made these remarks upon the general scope of the measure, he must be permitted to add that as no attempt made to introduce this mode of voting had been successful and we had no precedent whereon to frame the measure providing such a mode, great care must be taken that the details of the Bill should be fully considered; the utmost care must be taken that the new system did not conflict with the general laws respecting the conduct of elections, and to provide for any technical difficulties that might occur after the passage of the Bill in the course of its operation. If hon. Members thought that the clauses of the Bill as they at present stood sufficiently carried out its intention, he would have no objection to go into Committee on the Bill now; but if, on the other hand, they should think the Bill required more consideration, especially in its details, than could be advantageously given to it by a Committee of the Whole House it had better be referred to a Select Committee. Perhaps it would save more time in the end to refer the Bill to a Select Committee.


thought that the promoters of the Bill could not have any objection to refer the Bill to a Select Committee, when suggestions could be entertained for any Amendments. Such a course would be preferable to going into Committee of the Whole House on the Bill, as material alterations might be made in some of the clauses. As the Bill stood there was no efficient guarantee for the genuineness of the signature of the party sending his voting letter or paper, except the name being sent up to the Vice Chancellor as that of the person who intended to vote; this provision of the Bill would have to be more guarded. The best way would be to require some resident member of the Senate to receive the voting papers, who would be in a position to verify them, and thus any mistake or other irregularity would be prevented. At the University of Oxford candidates were proposed at Convocation. At Cambridge there was no form of proposing or seconding a candidate, but any member of the Senate could tender his vote for any candidate qualified to serve as Member of Parliament for the University. The Bill provided no security whatever for the outlying constituencies, who would know nothing of an election until it was communicated to them a long time after the election was going on. If the Bill were passed it would be absolutely necessary to allow a certain interval of time to elapse between the nomination and the voting, particularly where there were more than two candidates proposed, in order that the non-resident voters might know who the candidates were; otherwise proxy papers might be sent up in anticipation and in ignorance as to who were the candidates. The right hon. Home Secretary said that there was no successful precedent for the election of Members of Parliament in the manner proposed; but the House should recollect that a power had been granted by recent statutes—which, however, had not yet been exercised—to elect the Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, and Steward without the necessity of the personal attendance of the electors. He did not know how far Parliament would like to follow up that course. The University of Cambridge would have the power to prescribe the mode in which an election should be conducted with regard to the selection of its own officers, and the Parliament might look with jealousy upon its mode of election of Members of that House; therefore, he was not sure that the experiment could be followed up; at the same time he thought it was a point to be considered. As to the merits of the proposal, he was in favour of voting by proxy, if it could be safely done, in the case of other constituencies besides those of Universities. He thought it would be a great improvement in our elections; but he believed that it ought to be accompanied by proper safeguards, otherwise it would be liable to great abuse. But if they applied that principle to the Universities—whatever might be said in favour of taking votes by proxy—the arguments á fortiori would favour such voting in the rural districts; and, if Parliament conferred the right upon non-resident as well as resident voters to exercise the franchise, he thought it would do well to provide such facilities as that they should not be open to the charge of having conferred a right without the power to carry it into effect. When the Bill was brought out of Committee it would, no doubt, have received several improvements.


thought that, if the system of voting papers was to be adopted, they would confer more benefit upon the electors in counties and boroughs than in Universities. He thought the measure was more called for in other constituencies than in the Universities. The House should bear in mind that the Bill would create new constituencies for the Universities. As an elector for the University of Oxford he felt great interest in the Bill, and its effect would be to throw the election of Members of Parliament into the hands of the country clergy. He thought the subject deserved careful consideration, and he hoped it would be thoroughly ventilated before the passage of the Bill.


said, that having once put himself forward as a candidate for a University constituency, he would venture to give the House his opinion. He was in favour of the principle of the Bill, because he thought that, since every Member should he a fair representative of the constituency that elected him, it was a mockery to give the franchise to 3,000 or 4,000 gentlemen, not one-third of whom could probably afford the expense of coming up to vote. He admitted that the effect of the Bill might be to turn the balance more in favour of clerical views; hut he was anxious that all classes should be fairly represented. When he was a candidate for Cambridge University he received a great number of letters from country clergymen, living in distant parts of England and in Scotland, stating that they would gladly vote for him, hut that they could not afford the expense of travelling to the place of election. Last year, when a proposal was made to give a Member to the University of London, he was urged by Members of the Senate to bring before the House some proviso enabling the electors to give their votes without appearing personally at any particular place. The system of voting at Cambridge was already different in some respects from the system observed in counties and boroughs, and, therefore, a further change could not be objected to on principle. He thought the Bill should be referred to a Select Committee.


considered that the arguments in favour of referring the Bill to a Committee upstairs were unanswerable; and he hoped the hon. Member for Sussex (Mr. Dodson) would not be unwilling to accept the suggestion, as the only hope that he had of success was to have the difficulties well sifted before the clauses came before the House for its decision. This was the only case in which the non-resident Members were the essential parts of a constituency, and that being the case, was it wise to throw obstacles in the way of the non-resident voter recording his vote? There was, therefore, a strong ground for accepting the principle contained in this Bill, the real effect of which would be to equalize the outlying voters. He did not see why a man living two hundred miles away should not have equal facilities for recording his vote with one who lived twenty miles off.


said, that the principal of the Bill had been generally recognized as one which might safely be introduced into University elections, and thought it would be discourteous on the part of the promoters to refuse their assent to the proposed reference to a Select Committee. At present the poorer portion of the country clergy were practically disfranchised. He saw no reason to dread an increase of clerical influence in the representation of the Universities.


said, he had been in communication with the authorities of the Universities in Ireland, and although they heartily concurred in the principle of the Bill, they thought that considerable alterations were required to make the provisions applicable to the Irish Universities. Seeing the advantage, therefore, of sending the Bill to a Select Committee, he trusted that the hon. Member who had charge of it would agree to the suggestion which had been made for that purpose.


expressed his gratification at the large amount of support which the principle of the Bill had received. He did not think that the adoption of the system of voting papers in University elections would form a precedent for the introduction of the same system into county and borough elections, inasmuch as the University constituencies were essentially different from all other electoral bodies, being for the most part non-resident. It was doubtful whether the Bill would increase clerical influence, but if clergymen had the franchise they ought to be allowed to exercise it, whatever the consequences might be. He maintained that the Bill provided ample security against fraud or negligence. In the provision relating to these points he had followed the Bill of the Earl of Derby's Government. He retained the right of a country voter to send his voting paper direct to returning officer, and he pointed out that the forgery of voting papers, besides being almost impossible in the nature of things, must be carried on wholesale to produce any effect on a University election. Finding that the general opinion of Members was that the Bill should be carefully considered in a Committee upstairs, he would yield to the suggestion which had been made, and conclude by moving that the Bill should be referred to a Select Committee.


said, his impression was that instead of the system of voting papers increasing the clerical element in these University constituencies, it would have a directly contrary effect. The principal reason why the constituency of Oxford was less numerous than it ought to be was that a great number of Members took their names off the books because they did not wish to lose the time and in some instances to incur the expense involved in a personal appearance at the University elections. The House must not suppose that of the persons educated at Oxford a majority, or even a considerable proportion, entered the clerical profession. Every other profession received members from the same source; and as time was as valuable to a rich lawyer as money to a poor clergyman, the present system was equally inconvenient to both. He was persuaded that the result of the measure would be to increase the number of those to whom Parliament intended that the franchise should be secured.


said, he was glad the Bill would be referred to a Select Committee, as it must be carefully looked into, especially as regarded the prevention of fraud in the use of voting papers. They could not shut their eyes against the fact that the Bill was likely to lay the foundation for the extension of the same principle, and they could not, therefore, watch too narrowly its details. He quite agreed in the principle that there ought to be the greatest convenience, consistent with safety, for the exercise of the franchise on the part of those who now had it; but then came the question whether Universities, from special circumstances, required a different provision from that applicable to other constituences. No doubt, as regarded resident and non-resident voters, they stood in a very different position. Perhaps at the Univessities there were ten non resident to one resident member, whereas in counties probably not a fifth or sixth of the whole electors were non-resident. He wished to guard himself against being considered to approve generally of the principle of voting papers, and though desirous to give the greatest amount of convenience to voters, yet they must take the utmost care that it was not accompanied with evils which would neutralize all the advantages. He thought, however, that the University constituencies were so peculiar, that by a well-considered plan they might be applied to them without inconvenience. It might be an erroneous opinion, but he thought that voting papers would lay the foundation for secret voting, and he was not desirous to take any step in that direction.


thought that limited proxy voting might be so regulated as to afford a guarantee of the authenticity of the transaction. He hoped the Bill was not referred to a Select Committee for the purpose of being shelved, hut that it would be fairly considered, and really passed into law during the present Session.


observed that, as the voting papers would be delivered in quite a public manner, the voting would be as perfectly open as if the electors went personally to the poll.


gave notice that in Committee he should move an alteration in the mode of taking the voting papers. At present the Bill provided that the voting papers might be taken at any time after the opening of the poll, hut he should propose that they be not taken till after the conclusion of the personal poll. It was very important that every man should have an opportunity of giving a personal vote, for, at the last moment, a candidate might come forward, and if his written vote had already been recorded for another man he would be unable to give him his support.


said, that having moved the Resolution in Committee on which the Bill was founded, wished to state that he had never contemplated voting by proxy, whether special or general; his object merely was that the vote should be given before some such authority as a justice of the peace where the elector resided, and transmitted to the returning officer for the University. Nothing could be more mischievous than to allow persons to collect proxies, as in the election of East India directors and joint stock companies, and thus constitute themselves virtually the only electors. Such a system had led to the most scandalous abuses. He hoped the Bill would not introduce a new scheme of voting, hut keep as near as possible to the analogy of that already existing.

Order for Committee discharged.

Bill committed to a Select Committee.