HC Deb 11 June 1868 vol 192 cc1398-404

In moving for leave to bring in a Bill to facilitate the registration for the present year, I will endeavour to notice as briefly as possible the details which it will be necessary to lay before the House. Hon. Members are aware there are a great many steps which have to be taken with a view to the registration of voters, both in counties and boroughs, beginning with the step which was taken yesterday—namely, the issuing of precepts to overseers, giving them instructions how to proceed. From that time various steps have to be taken by overseers and other public officers until the publication of the list upon the 1st of August. First there are notices issued on the 10th of June persons are to send in claims; these claims have, in the ordinary course, to be sent in on before the 20th of July, and by the last day of July overseers have to revise, the register and prepare the list of claims, in order to publish such list on or before the 1st of August. I am speaking now of counties; but the preliminaries in boroughs are in many respects the same, though more steps have to be taken. After that there is the publication of the list for a fortnight, including two Sundays, to allow persons to inspect it, and then come the objections. Practically, therefore, we may say that the time is fully occupied until the end of August or the beginning of September. At present the revision commences in boroughs on the 15th, and in counties on the 20th of September, and it is necessary that some time should elapse between the publication of the lists and the commencement of the revision, in order to allow of communications between Revising Barristers and the clerks of the peace, and others, as to the time which will be occupied in particular places. The revision, therefore, cannot begin immediately after the publication. In considering the question how far it is possible to shorten the interval between the dates at which the various steps or pro- cesses are fixed, I confess that I have felt there is very little opportunity of shortening those occupier in the preliminary making out of the lists. So many persons are affected by them; and the House must remember that we have disfranchised seven boroughs, which cannot be put into the counties until the Scotch Reform Bill has received the Royal Assent, because the disfranchisement will not till then have been completed, and therefore time must be given to send in claims in those cases. Moreover, until the Boundary Bill is passed, it is not certain with respect to many voters whether they will be within counties or boroughs. In those cases, again, time must be allowed, and under these circumstances it appears to me—the question will be for the consideration of the House in Committee—that there is no possibility of shortening with advantage that which is preliminary to everything, the thorough making out of the lists, so that everybody who is entitled may have an opportunity of making their claims, and everybody also may have opportunities of objection equal to those which are given under present circumstances. Probably, with increased numbers, at least as much time will be required as at present, and I have not attempted to shorten it. I propose, therefore, that the revision shall commence both in counties and boroughs on the 14th of September. I have taken that day, because at least one Sunday must intervene for the purpose of publishing the lists, and though it might possibly be done by the 7th or 8th, it is more advisable to compress the revision; for you can multiply the Revising Barristers more easily than you can interfere with the voters, who are not so capable of taking care of themselves, and might fall into mistakes. It seems to me, therefore, most advisable to compress the revision, and I think that with an increased number of Revising Barristers, three weeks will be sufficient. I have proposed in the Bill an addition of one-third to the number; but that will be for the consideration of the House, and possibly the best plan will be to enable the Judge who remains in town to appoint additional barristers where they are wanted, for the Judges on circuit go abroad or to different parts of the country as soon as their labours are finished. It seems advisable, therefore, to place in the hands of the Judge who remains in town the power of sending additional Barristers, upon the application of other Revising Barristers, where there is a pressure of business, so as to complete the revision within the time I have stated. One of the great difficulties hitherto in connection with the completion of the lists has been that, in consequence of the necessity of numbering the lists from the beginning to the end, the printing could not be begun until the whole revision was complete. If, however, Revising Barristers are allowed either to number by parishes and send in parishes to the clerk of the peace as they are completed, or to number by polling districts and send them in as they are completed, the printing might be begun almost within a day or two of the commencement of the revision, so that both might proceed together; and though so long a time ns the present could not be allowed for printing, it might be completed by the last day of October, thus allowing from the 14th of September to the last day of October. Having got so far, and the lists being completed, the next step will be to let them get into the hands of the public for the necessary purposes of the elections. I think it would not be proper to issue the writs immediately on the publication of the lists. It seems to me that at least seven or eight days should elapse; that interval, however, I think, would be sufficient, because we all know that registration agents more or less supply themselves with the lists beforehand, and that they know a good deal about the results of the registration before the lists are actually published. I should also propose that, instead of thirty-five days being required between the proclamation and the meeting of the new Parliament, that period should be reduced to twenty-eight days. In that way, it seems to me, the new Parliament might assemble by the 8th or 9th of December. There would then be sufficient time to swear in the Members in the course of that week, so that on the 14th of December we might proceed with whatever business the House might think proper to take. For my own part, I wish the meeting of Parliament could he still more expedited; but I do not believe that, with justice to the voters, it is possible further to facilitate matters. It would not be just to shorten the time in which the voters are to send in their claims, especially when it is considered that we have not settled by Act of Parliament who are to be the voters in the counties in which we have disfranchised the seven boroughs, and who cannot come into the list as county voters until the Scotch Bill is completed. Also the claims of lodgers must be considered. The consideration of these will not begin until late, and they will take more time than is usually occupied. I have not felt that I could recommend the House to cut off any period of the time allowed for claims; but with respect to the revision, printing, and proclamation, I really believe that in the way I have suggested matters may be expedited. What, after all, is it that the House requires? The House wishes that a decision should he come to as early as possible as to whether or not certain principles are to prevail in the ensuing Parliament. Well, we wish also for as early a decision as possible, and I believe it might be arrived at in time to allow hon. Members to get to their homes again before Christmas. This would also allow—what I think would be only justice to any Ministry, whichever side might be in power—six or seven weeks to prepare for the meeting of Parliament in February, and to decide on the measures they might think proper to propose in the course of the Session. I can assure the House that I really believe this can be done, and I have brought forward what I believe are the most feasible means for bringing it about. There may, I am aware, be an objection that there will be no appeal from the Revising Barristers to the Court of Common Pleas. It must be remembered, however, that an appeal can only be allowed by the Revising Barrister; and I believe that in such cases the names are almost always inserted on the list, and that if an election comes on those persona may vote, the subsequent decision of the Common Pleas in no way affecting the validity of such votes. Nothing material, therefore, depends upon the hearing of appeals. If the House wishes for more information as to the details, I am prepared to give it. With regard to the Bill, I propose to fix the second reading for as early a day as the House will permit, and immediately afterwards to refer the Bill to a Select Committee to examine the details. That examination would not, I believe, occupy more then a few hours, and thus we might arrive as rapidly as possible at the object which we all have in view. The right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Gladstone) proposed a preliminary inquiry; but by referring the Bill to a Select Committee I think there will be more prospect of coming to a definite and reasonable conclusion than in any other way. There are some small Amendments in the Bill which I need not enter into until the second reading. The object of them is to effect certain improvements in matters connected with registration, and to get rid of certain doubts which have been raised. The right hon. Gentleman concluded by moving for leave to bring in the Bill.


The statement of the right hon. Gentleman, although very brief, has been perfectly clear and intelligible; and we have likewise come to the subject with very great advantage on account of some previous discussions which have brought all the points of it with considerable clearness to the minds of hon. Members. As far as I am able to judge, the proposal of the right hon. Gentleman has been conceived with an earnest desire to meet the two great objects that are in view. In the first place it gives full and ample time for the registration of voters, and to make an arrangement that would run no serious risk of interfering with the legal and formal exercise of those electoral rights which have been conceded by statute to the people of this country to take part in the election of representatives. If the right hon. Gentleman entertains a doubt—and I think there is great ground for doubt—whether the previous stages down to the commencement of the revision can be shortened, he has certainly erred on the safe side—if I may so speak—in leaving perfectly intact all the time now allowed for the completion of those lists. Diligence will be required, and in a degree even greater than usual, on the part of the officers concerned, on account of the augmented number of electors; but we have no reason to doubt that that diligence will be shown. With regard to the subsequent stages, I think the plan of the right hon. Gentleman is a good one, and that by an inquiry before a Select Committee the expenditure of considerable time will probably be saved in the House itself. If that were done, it would enable the House to carry this bill through its various stages without any lengthened discussion. It is plain that we are all agreed upon its objects—first, the facilitation of the registration, and, secondly, a dissolution of Parliament at as early a period as possible. The right hon. Gentleman has himself given what is really the most conclusive practical reason for desiring an early dissolution. We are going to submit a very great issue to the country. We have been compelled, in consequence of the necessity for submitting that issue, to maim very considerably the objects of the present Session. The Government have, with very great propriety, withdrawn important measures which they had prepared for the consideration of Parliament; and it is possible that they may likewise have to withdraw other important measures. Now, if this heavy arrear of business is to pass over until 1869, and if that year is to bring—as every year does bring—its own great and proper subjects for discussion, it is most important that the Administration which is to be responsible for the general conduct of the business of the country should have some time for the preparation of the measures to be submitted. And that observation applies quite as much to the present Administration—supposing that the verdict of the country should be favourable to them—as to any other Administration which may take their places. I am quite sure, from old experience, that it will not be practicable for the Government to make much progress either in the preparation of the Estimates or their measures until they know whether they are to be the parties responsible for carrying them through. So far as I am concerned—and I venture to say it is an opinion generally shared on this side of the House and in other places—I think it will be for the general convenience to fix on the earliest possible day for the second reading of the Bill, after we have seen the Bill and have had one or two days to consider its details; so that it may pass through the ordeal of a Select Committee. When it has assumed the best form of which it is capable, we can then enter upon a discussion of the provisions of the Bill. For my own part I shall be ready to use every effort to forward the progress of the measure.


I think I am entitled to say that the remarks I made a few weeks ago as to the possible date at which the new Parliament might assemble were not conceived altogether in that unjust spirit towards the Government which the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government on a subsequent occasion chose to assert. He said that my suggestions were conceived in a sceptical spirit, and that my conclusions were not to be depended upon. But the Home Secretary has now come just to the same conclusion as myself, within a day or two, as to the date at which it will be possible to take a dissolution of Parliament. There is one point mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman as to which I am still sceptical—as to shortening the dates for the return of the writs. There will be no difficulty in carrying out this suggestion in regard to the whole of England and the bulk of the Irish and Scotch seats. The real difficulty in shortening the thirty-five days would be in respect to Shetland and the Orkney Islands. I have not been there myself; but I know those who have, and I understand there is a stormy sea to be crossed, which is at times so rough in the winter that no steamboat can go, and it sometimes takes a week or ten days at that season of the year to cross between Orkney and Shetland. The Scotch Reform Act fixes by a special clause no less a period than thirty-five days as the maximum. The sheriff is to have the election proclaimed, and the poll taken within thirty days from the time at which he receives the writ. If that period has been fixed after due consideration, the period of twenty-eight days for taking the election in the Orkneys will not be sufficient in case of bad weather.


I wish to know whether the right hon. Gentleman proposes in the Bill to deal with Ireland. If not, I hope the Chief Secretary for Ireland will be prepared with clauses to be introduced into the Irish Bill for the purpose of shortening the registration.


I have made deliberate inquiries on this subject. It will be necessary to introduce a separate Bill for Ireland, and I apprehend there will be no difficulty in arranging so that the Irish elections shall be fixed for about the same time as the English elections.

Motion agreed to. Bill to amend the Law of Registration so far as relates to the year one thousand eight hundred and sixty-eight; and for other purposes relating thereto, ordered to be brought in by Mr. Secretary GATHORNE HARDY and Sir JAMES FEROUSSON.

Bill presented, and read the first time. [Bill 167.]