§ Order for Committee read.
§ MR. MONK
said, that he was glad to afford the Chancellor of the Exchequer an opportunity of which he knew that his right hon. Friend was anxious to avail himself, to explain to the House the circumstances under which Her Majesty's Government had deemed it consistent with their duty not to be present in their places at the hour at which the Speaker usually takes the Chair on Wednesday last, when he had the honour to move the second reading of this important Bill. He was sure that hon. Members who were present on that occasion would bear him out in the remark that he was extremely reluctant to snatch what was deemed by some to be a supposed advantage, but which he desired most distinctly and deliberately to state was not an unforeseen success, through the absence of all Her Majesty's Ministers. It was true that the right hon. Gentleman came down to the House half-an-hour after the usual hour of meeting, but when he (Mr. Monk) rose to address the House there was only one hon. Member present on the five Ministerial Benches above the Gangway. It would have been absurd for him to address mere empty Benches. He believed he was acting discreetly in moving the second reading and in reserving his arguments in favour of the measure for a reply. The reasons which had induced him, as an humble find independent Member, to introduce another Franchise Bill to the House at a time when two most important Government measures for the Reform of the representation of the people in Scotland and Ireland were occupying the greater part of the time and attention of Parliament, were briefly these. It would be in the recollection of the House that 1534 when the English Reform Bill was in Committee last year, the hon. Baronet the Member for Buckingham (Sir Harry Verney), proposed a clause by which the right of voting at Parliamentary elections would be conferred upon officers employed in the Revenue Departments, who were otherwise entitled to the franchise. That clause was negatived almost without discussion by the advice and recommendation of the present Prime Minister, and of his right hon. Friend the Member for South Lancashire, partly on the ground that by conferring the franchise on Revenue officers new influences would be introduced into public life, which might not be of a beneficial character, and partly because my right hon. Friend thought that, although there was a fair primâ facie case in their favour, preliminary inquiry was desirable; but chiefly because the House was anxious that no delay should take place in sending the Bill to the House of Lords, and that it should become law as speedily as possible. My hon. Friend allowed his clause to be negatived without a division, and for a time the hopes of the Revenue officers were doomed to disappointment. The object of this Bill was to relieve the public servants employed in the management and collection of Her Majesty's Revenues from certain disabilities imposed by an Act of the Legislature in the last century. In 1782, shortly after the formation of the Rockingham Ministry, a Bill was introduced into the House of Commons for the purpose of bettor securing the freedom of election of Members to serve in Parliament by disabling them from voting at such elections. That Bill was warmly contested in all its stages, but it was passed by considerable majorities, though in no one division were more than 110 Members present. At that time it was computed that the Revenue officers formed nearly 20 per cent of the whole number of electors throughout the country. On the third reading of the Bill the Marquess of Rockingham stated that in no less than seventy boroughs the elections depended chiefly upon the votes of the Revenue officers, so that in point of fact they could influence 140 votes in the then House of Commons. At present, they would, if these disabilities were removed, form a very insignificant proportion of the whole number of electors. Shortly after the union of Gnat Britain and Ireland the Act of 43 Geo. III., c. 25, was passed, creating similar disabilities for the sister country, and by the 7 &c 8 1535 Geo. IV., c. 53, s. 9, the provisions of the former Acts were amended and still further extended by increasing the penalty to be inflicted upon a Revenue officer for voting whilst in Her Majesty's service and for two months subsequently, from £100 to £500. Those were the enactments which the Bill sought to repeal. It was simply and solely a Franchise Bill, and was confined to the relief of the officers in the Revenue Departments from a fine of £500 and the further penalty of being for ever disabled and incapable of holding or executing any office of trust under Her Majesty, her heirs, and successors, to which they are liable for voting at elections. The Bill had been for some weeks in the hands of Members and of the public. There had been no undue haste, no surprise. The petitions which had been presented were unanimously in favour of the Bill. It was worthy of note that those Acts affected one branch only of the Civil Service. The Treasury, Home Office, Foreign Office, War Office, and Admiralty were wholly unaffected by them. The employés in those Departments could exercise the franchise freely without let or hindrance, and with respect to the officers in the Customs, Post Office, and Inland Revenue, whatever might have been the apprehensions of Parliament in 1782 as to the special influence of the Crown in directing their votes, it was preposterous to suppose that any such apprehensions could reasonably be entertained in 1868; indeed, if there were any grounds for apprehending any undue influence from that, or from any other quarter, an excellent opportunity would have been found for making trial of the ballot in taking the votes of the civil servants of the Crown. The chief argument used in favour of the Disabilities Bill in 1782 was that the Revenue officers themselves desired to be relieved from the franchise. One of the Members for Kent (Mr. Honywood) said that the Bill gave universal satisfaction in the ports in that county, as the officers were liable to be dismissed from their employment if they dared to have an opinion of their own in matters of election. That argument no longer held good. The Revenue officers, as might be seen by their petitions, considered their continued disfranchisement as a stigma and as a disgrace, and as indicating a belief that they were under the control of the Government of the day, and unfit to be entrusted with, the franchise. The Revenue officers themselves were a 1536 highly educated class, possessing political capacity equal to, if not above, their fellows. They were eminently fit to be entrusted with the franchise, and fully capable of exercising it with intelligence and independence. They had been selected by competitive examinations to fill offices of trust in the public service. Those offices they filled with credit to them-elves and with advantage and satisfaction to the country. He would ask the House whether it was not a glaring anomaly that these men should be deprived of their electoral rights upon entering Her Majesty's service, and that they should be restored to them only on being dismissed on account of incompetency or some grave and serious offence? In the face, too, of the wide enfranchisement by the Act of last year, their position would be more galling and intolerable than it had hitherto been. He would appeal to the House whether this was not a necessary corollary of the Reform Act of last year; he would appeal to the Scotch and Irish Members whether this was not a necessary adjunct to the Reform Bills for Scotland and Ireland? Nothing but the good of the State could justify the continuance of those restrictions, and he did not believe that they were necessary for the good government of the country or for the well-being of the public service. At that hour of the night it would be impossible for him to do more than to allude to the Report of the Commissioners of Customs and Inland Revenue just delivered to Members. Some of the arguments were inapplicable to the Bill, others might easily be refuted. But he must call the attention of the House to the remarkable absence of any Report from the Post Office. [" Move, move !"] In deference to the wishes of the House, he would at once move that Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."—(Mr. Monk.)
§ MR. SCLATER-BOOTH moved the adjournment of the debate.
§ THE CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER
said, he thought it was utterly impossible at that hour of the night to discuss a measure of so serious a character. He wished to explain and apologize to the House for his absence when the Bill stood for a second reading the other day. It came on at an earlier hour than was usual for the first Order of the Day, and he was 1537 not prepared for its coming on so soon. He was on his way to the House, but was unexpectedly detained, and readied very soon after twelve o'clock, but found the second reading had been agreed to without any discussion. The hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Monk) had on that occasion an ample opportunity for detailing the reasons for reading the Bill a second time—indeed, the Bill might have occupied the whole day; and if he had gone on with his speech he would have had the advantage of the presence of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Lancashire, who came into the House a few minutes after he (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) did. A few minutes ago he had received a message from that right hon. Gentleman to the effect that he understood from the hon. Member for Chatham (Mr. Otway), whose name was on the back of the Bill, that it would not be proceeded with to-night, and the right hon. Gentleman had left the House on that understanding. On the same understanding he had told a number of his Friends who intended to support him in opposing the Bill that they were at liberty to leave. He therefore hoped the hon. Gentleman would have no hesitation in acceding to the adjournment of the debate.
explained that he had a short conversation with the right hon. Member for South Lancashire, who informed him that, being very much tired, he could not wait for a long discussion, upon which he said he would ask the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Monk) not to proceed with the Bill; but the right hon. Gentleman left the House before he had the opportunity of learning the result of that communication, which was that his hon. Friend intended to persevere in his Motion. He thought it would be impossible now to persist in going into Committee when the Government declined to discuss the principle of the Bill.
§ Motion made, and Question put, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—(Mr. Sclater-Booth.)
§ The House divided:—Ayes 30; Noes 52: Majority 16.1538
§ Question again proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."
§ LORD EDWIN HILL-TREVOR moved, "That this House do now adjourn."
§ Motion made, and Question, "That this House do now adjourn,"—(Lord Edwin Hill-Trevor:)—after some discussion, put, and negatived.
§ Question again proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."
§ Motion made, and Question put, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—(Mr. Powell.)
§ After further discussion, the House divided:—Ayes 33; Noes 42; Majority 9.
§ Main Question put, and negatived.
§ THE CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER
said, he thought the question very worthy of discussion, and he should be glad to hear it fully discussed. He had no objection to the proposal of the hon. Gentleman.
§ Committee deferred till Monday next.
§ House adjourned at Two o'clock, till Monday next.