§ MR. VERNON HARCOURT
, in moving that a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the Laws affecting the Registration of persons entitled to vote in the Election of Members to serve in Parliament for Boroughs in England and Wales, and to report whether any and what amendments are required therein, said, that he was afraid that the subject of which he had given notice would be found somewhat dry in its details, but it was not uninteresting to a great number of Members in that House; and a strong desire prevailed that the law in respect to it should be placed on a sounder and better footing. The evils of the existing system were very well known. The question he intended to raise was not calculated to excite party feeling. It was entirely removed from all matters of controversy which affected the basis of the suffrage. Both sides would probably agree that whatever franchise was established every facility ought to be given for all classes of voters to be placed on the register at the smallest amount of trouble and expense. The importance of the question could not be denied. Indeed, ever since Sir Robert Peel's famous aphorism that the battle of the Constitution must be fought in the registration courts it had been admitted that this matter lay at the root of our political system of government. The battle-field of the Constitution was, however, at pre sent in a confused and embarrassed condition, reminding him of the story in Hindoo mythology, according to which Heaven rested on the earth, the earth was supported by an elephant, and the elephant by a tortoise, but what the tortoise was supported by nobody had been able to say. So the English Government 971 was understood to stand on the House of Commons, and the House of Commons on the constituencies, but what the constituencies depended on was by no means clear. As far as he could understand the matter, they appeared to stand on the overseer, who made out the list of persons to elect Members for that House. The overseer's office was very ancient, and he might say antiquated, and the machinery at his disposal was not adapted to the present condition of affairs. He was not a person necessarily conversant with the law, and instructed in the manner in which the list of voters should be made out. Some boroughs were divided into different parishes, and different overseers might happen to act on different principles in the several parts of the boroughs; so that there would be no unity of principle or uniformity of action. The overseer made out his list from the rate book, which was an imperfect and incorrect document for the purpose of a political register. The rate book was kept for the economical purpose of collecting the rate and not for the political object of ascertaining the constituency. The result was that the list made out by the overseer contained names which ought not to be in it, and was deficient in other names which ought not to have been omitted. Then, in order to correct the list, the expensive machinery of the registration court was put in motion, and, after all, a very indifferent list was finally obtained. All this arose from the fact that the rate book from which the list was taken was constructed not for a political but an economic purpose. It might be said, why should not the overseer be compelled to keep the rate book more accurately? Why, at present there was a law and a penalty to compel him so to do, but the law was wholly inoperative, and he believed that any law with a similar object would be equally ineffectual. These considerations led him to the conclusion that, in each of the boroughs of England, there should be an officer whose particular duty should be to pay attention to the making out of the list of voters, and who would discharge the functions of a registrar of voters. That was a plan adopted with great advantage in Scotland, where the system of registration was extremely satisfactory. For example, there was only one man to attend to the whole register of the borough of 972 Glasgow, and he was informed that he performed his duties admirably. He should be sorry to throw any additional burden on the borough rates; but it was probable that the cost of paying such an officer would not be greater than the charges incurred under the present system. The first requisites, as the basis of the register, were accurate street lists of the occupiers of boroughs. It had been suggested that those street lists might be made out through the intervention of the Post Office as an assistance to the registrar, and he understood that the head of the Post Office, without committing himself to the details or principle of the plan, was not unwilling to give instructions in order to see whether such a thing could be conveniently done through the intervention of that establishment. That would materially diminish the labour of revision, and, instead of crowding claims and objections into a few weeks in autumn, he would suggest that they might be sent to the registrar at any period of the year. In that manner we might get a primâ facie good list of the voters. If that were the case, he hoped we might, to a great degree, dispense with the expensive machinery of registration associations. The registers being so deficient, he admitted their existence was almost indispensable, and, at the same time, the temptation became too great to give money to voters to enable them to be placed on the rates and to attend the registration courts. Nevertheless he considered that these registration associations were productive of serious mischief. The consequence of their establishment was at once to scatter objections broadcast over the constituents, and this system had gone to such an extent that the House must feel itself bound to provide a remedy. It seemed to be thought that in politics, as in love and war, everything was fair, and objections were recklessly issued by thousands by the representatives of both parties. He believed that both sides were equally unjust and unfair in that practice, and. that objections were made on the unfair speculation that a number of good voters would lose their votes simply because they could not attend to support them. The injustice was great, because it fell the heaviest on those who depended for their subsistence on their daily wages, and to take such men away from their work to 973 attend the Revising Barrister' Courts for one, two, or three days, was to destroy the maintenance of himself and family. The consequences were most mischievous in their results, because this system inflicted on them a pecuniary fine for which they endeavoured in some way or other to recoup themselves in money, and it thereby became an absolute premium on corruption. Parliament should see that each voter was put upon the electoral list without expense to himself or to others, for if others were at the expense of putting him on the register or of keeping him there, they would as a matter of course claim his vote, and, in most cases, would get it. And all these considerations had greater weight when viewed in the light of the recent ruling to the effect that expenditure upon an election contest by a registration society of money paid to it by a candidate was not an expenditure for which the candidate was responsible. Presuming that to be the true reading of the law, the sooner it was altered the better. As a remedy he suggested that; all the objections to the first list should be made within as early a day as possible, and that the claims should be delivered a fortnight afterwards; it would then be possible to remove all merely formal grounds of objection, and to cast upon the objector the responsibility of sustaining the objection if he could. He also recommended that the practice of compelling the objector to specify particularly the grounds of his objection should, be adopted in the boroughs as well as in the counties. Vexatious objections could be prevented by making the objector pay costs in cases of failure, and find security for those costs before he was heard. The voters would then stand in as fair a position as a successful candidate; he would be placed upon the register by a competent; authority, as the registrar of voters would be, and if not absolutely secured against frivolous objections, it would be in the power of the court to award him compensation for loss of time in cases where he stood his ground on his right to vote being challenged. Some alteration, too, was required in the law regulating the registration of lodger claims. Under the present law the lodger franchise had been almost a dead letter, because the lodgers could not tell whether their claims would be objected to or not 974 unless they attended at the Revising Barrister's Court. He could not understand why the lodgers should not be placed in the same position as any other voter, by having his name put upon the first list, which would entitle him to notice of objections. A great deal of caution would be necessary in dealing with all those matters, as it would be impolitic to discourage objections to such a degree as would lead to impunity of errors in the register; and having said so much he would pass to the revising authority. That was rather a delicate matter for a person in his profession to deal with. Sydney Smith once said in reference to a Bishop that the greatest punishment that could, be inflicted on him was that he should be preached to death by wild curates. It was a dangerous position for a man to do anything to bring down upon him the wrath of the class of Revising Barristers. He had no disposition to pass any censure on that tribunal; but he begged to point out that if they got their primary list in better condition there would be much less for Revising Barristers to do, and he should I hope that many of the trivial details they had now to correct would be removed, and they would only have to deal with questions of law, which were sent by appeal to the Court of Common Pleas. Fewer Revising Barristers would then be required, and they would be able to pay them a higher remuneration and thereby to secure the services of persons of greater weight in the profession. Another amendment was required in the matter of appeal. At present there was no power to compel an appeal from the Revising Barrister, and a strong feeling existed throughout the country upon this point. In the north of England thousands of voters had been; disfranchised by a decision of the Revising Barrister, from which all appeal had been refused. In the most trivial suit at Common Law the subject had a right to tender a bill of exceptions to the ruling of the Judge. What reason, then, could be urged against making the same rule in the case of decisions by Revising Barristers? To show that I greater powers of amending the list should be given to Revising Barristers than they had at present, he instanced the case of a man, resident in Oxford during the last twenty years, who had 975 been struck off the list simply because he had moved from one street into another during the previous twelve months and the overseer had omitted to enter the two addresses on the list. The Revising Barrister had in that case no power to amend the description, although he knew the man had as good a qualification as any in the borough. These were a few of the points on which the law required amendment; probably if the Committee asked for were appointed, others having more experience than himself would suggest many more. The noble Lord the Member for Middlesex (Lord Enfield) had suggested that the question of county registration should be included in the order of reference; but he had purposely omitted to include counties because they stood in, an entirely different position; the qualification was different, and in consequence of the area of the constituency the machinery of registration must be different. He believed, however, county Members would do good if they had a Committee composed of some of their own number to inquire into the subject of county registration. He would venture, in conclusion, to say that an improved registration system was an object in which they would all concur. Everyone must desire to diminish that increasing cost which had become a scandal to our Parliamentary system, to make the franchise free from much of that corruption which now attended it in consequence of our defective registration, and to give the electors the enjoyment of their rights without vexation and without expense. He hoped that a wisely considered scheme would place our Parliamentary government upon a more just and satisfactory footing than that upon which it stood at present. He begged to move for a Select Committee.
§ MR. RATHBONE
, in seconding the Motion, said, that the present state of the law was such as to offer an almost overwhelming temptation to revision agents to make a large number of speculative objections without any foundation, but upon the bare idea that a great many of those objected to would not be able, or would not take the trouble, to come up and defend their votes. At the last revision court for Liverpool, out of some 40,000 names on the primary register, no fewer than 15,000 had to be separately considered by the Revising 976 Barristers, who took three weeks in going through the lists. About 9,000 were objections, and 6,000 claims. Out of the 9,000 objections no fewer than 4,700 failed altogether, 500 fines were imposed for frivolous objections, and more than 1,800 fines would have been imposed if the objections had not been withdrawn when it was seen that the Revising Barristers were doing their duty. Of 4,600 householder claims no fewer than 2,000 were good, or, in other words, 2,000 names that had a right to be on the lists had been omitted by the overseers. As he was anxious not to overstate the case, he must deduct from the 9,000 objections 1,400 which were made on both sides, and which related to persons who were dead, but that left no fewer than 7,600 men who were called away from their daily occupations to defend, their votes in the borough of Liverpool. And that did not include the county registration. In other words, about one person in eight of those entitled to vote had been subjected to the inconvenience of which he complained. Nor was that all—because a very large number was struck off because they were unable to attend to sustain their claims, the objections being in many cases altogether without foundation. There was only one point on which he would venture to correct the hon. and learned Gentleman who had made this Motion. The hon. and learned Gentleman had said that this hardship pressed most on the poorer classes. In his opinion it would have been more correct to say that it pressed most heavily on the industrious classes who were least able to spare time to defend their votes. With foremen and others whose work was of a really responsible character it was not a mere question of the loss of a day's wages, but of offending their employers by not attending to some important business, and thus losing their situations. There was one safeguard in addition to those mentioned by the hon. and learned Gentleman that he would suggest, not upon his own authority merely, but upon that of some of the most experienced registration agents in the north of England; and it was this—that a person before making an objection should be compelled to state, either before the Registrar or a magistrate, the primâ facie grounds upon which the objection was based. The figures he had quoted proved conclusively the necessity of some entirely new method 977 of forming the primary lists. It appeared to him that the House of Commons was bound to give the electors of this country that protection to which the greatest rogue was entitled, for ho could not be compelled to appear before any Court until a primâ facie case was made out against him.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed.
§ MR. COLLINS
said, that upon reading the Notice he was very much, surprised that the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Harcourt) had not included the counties in it, because the registration in counties was as defective as that in boroughs. The registration in boroughs was very simple, and he doubted if it could be materially improved. ["Oh. Oh!"] Hon. Members might exclaim "Oh, oh!" but that did not disprove his statement, but rather showed that they were not conversant with the system. The registration in boroughs was taken entirely from the rate book, and it was the duty of the overseer of the parish to take the rate book on the 1st of August, look through the rates made during the previous year, and if he found that the persons named had been on during the whole of the twelve months he was bound to place them on the register for the following year. The system was therefore self-acting in boroughs. The hon. and learned Gentleman was somewhat inaccurate when he stated that the owners, and not the occupiers, were on the rate book. Since the passing of the Small Tenements Act the contrary was the case. He did not think there was a small borough in the kingdom in which the overseer was not bound to put the occupier's name on the register, and he believed it was done. Otherwise, how could the overseer collect the rate? Overseers were not, of course, infallible; no more were registration officers. An overseer might not know whether a man entered upon his occupation on the 1st of August or the 10th of August, although if the man entered on the former date his vote would be good; if on the latter his vote would be bad. It was obviously impossible always to tell whether an occupation began on the 30th of July or on the 2nd of August. But having seen something of the working of the union assessment committees, and knowing how very accurate they were, as far as the north of England was concerned, he believed there 978 was not a single borough there where care was not taken to have the occupier's name brought upon the rate book. The law very properly required a man's qualification to be stated for the whole of the previous twelve months, and if he had lived six months in one street, and another six months in another street, the two houses he had occupied in succession ought to be placed against his name. Surely there was no hardship in calling upon the man who wished to protect his vote to give the public information where he had lived for the entire year. That had been the law of the land ever since the first Reform Act; there had been decisions of the courts upon the subject; and it was perfectly well known and understood. With regard to the right of appeal, lie thought the Revising Barristers were, if anything, rather too ready to grant a case for an appeal. They must judge whether they could grant a case or not; and they would not refuse one if there were any grounds for giving it. Their duty was just the same as that of magistrates at quarter sessions. It was said that lodgers ought not to have to claim their votes, but should have their names put down like other people's. But how was the overseer to get at the lodger, who paid no rates and was not on the rate book? The overseer collected money from the occupiers—a very substantial mode of knowing them; but he had no dealings with the lodger, who must be made to show that he had lived in his lodgings for the requisite period to qualify him. They surely could not say that a lodger once upon the list was to remain on it always, without having proof that he was entitled to be there. In the case of the counties, however, there were one or two points really requiring to be dealt with by legislation. In the counties at present they had two occupation franchises—that of the old £50, or—as he might be called—the Chandos occupier, and that of the new £14 occupier, and the consequence of that was that, as almost every £50 occupier was at the same time qualified also under the £14 occupation franchise, the Chandos occupiers were put on the list twice. That was a needlessly cumbrous arrangement, and it would be better to put those Chandos occupiers on under the £14 clause. In that way they would cure the evil of having a Chandos occupier, as sometimes happened, remaining on 979 the list for perhaps six years after he had left his farm and gone away. In conclusion, if the Government thought there was scope for a Select Committee, of course he would have no objection to it; but he would certainly prefer that the subject should be dealt with by a Bill, and that the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Harcourt) should sketch out in it the alterations which he deemed desirable.
§ MR. CANDLISH
said, the question immediately before the House related to the boroughs, not to the counties. The hon. Member who had just spoken (Mr. Collins) stated that the Revising Barristers would always give an appeal to parties when they made out a fair case for it. Now, he knew a borough in the north of England where a Revising Barrister, by Ms own interpretation of the law, struck out 2,000 voters from a register comprising a total of some 5,000 voters; and that Revising Barrister refused an appeal against his decision. That fact alone, he thought, would justify the appointment of the proposed Committee. The thanks of the House and the country were due to the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Harcourt) for bringing the subject before them, and also for the remedies he had suggested. He wished that before proceeding to amend the mode of making up the electoral register, the grounds on which that register reposed were changed, and the connection between rating and voting were cut at as early a date as possible. The principle of making the vote depend upon parochial rating could not stand as a basis of the franchise, beset, as it was, with so many difficulties. There were other executive defects in the Reform Bill. In many boroughs in the counties of Durham and Northumberland, there were several tenements under the same roof. In Tynemouth all tenants of such houses were struck off; whilst at Shields the same class of tenants were retained. But in Sunderland, which he had the honour to represent, the Barrister compounded the matter by retaining some and excising the rest. Until there was some degree of uniformity in the definition of a house, the working of the Act must be defective. Men of the same social rank were enfranchised in one section of the borough and disfranchised in another. The Assessed Rates Bill, which had been introduced by the Presi- 980 dent of the Poor Law Board, would do much to get rid of some of the evils of the Reform Bill, but it would fail to touch the question as to what persons were rateable. In conclusion, he trusted the Government would grant a Committee with enlarged power, so that everything connected with the subject, all matters of detail not involving matters of principle, might be brought under its consideration.
§ VISCOUNT SANDON
thanked his hon. Friends opposite for having brought this proposal before the House. The system of registration in Liverpool, the borough with which he was connected, led to very great and serious evils, and the party he was associated with was as anxious as his Colleague who sat opposite that the law on the subject should be altered. It had been said that the present registration system pressed very hardly on the poorer classes of the community; but in his opinion the House ought to consider the matter not as one affecting one particular class, but all sections of the community, and there could be no doubt that all alike—the merchant, the clergyman, the professional man, the tradesman, as well as those technically known as the working classes—were subject to much unnecessary annoyance in this matter. With all due deference to the hon. Member for Knaresborough, the objectors to the present system did not rest their case on the fact of the law not being clear, but on the ground that it was vexatious and oppressive. He could fully endorse the opinion expressed by the hon. and learned Member for Oxford (Mr. Harcourt), and he would venture to suggest that it would be satisfactory to both sides of the House if the Government should see fit to refer this difficult question to the judgment of the Committee on Municipal and Parliamentary Elections, which was shortly going to sit under the direct management of the Government. When he sat in the House, some ten years ago, it was considered undesirable to multiply Committees on kindred subjects, and it must be obvious to every one that the most experienced Members of both parties would be taken up by their attendance on the Committee already appointed, so that this matter, one of no little delicacy and intricacy, and of perhaps as great importance as those entrusted to the Committee on Parlia- 981 mentary and Municipal Elections, and certainly nearly allied to them, would have to be dealt with by men of far less experience and knowledge in such affairs.
§ MR. DILKE
said, that in many of the larger boroughs the lodger franchise was the most important franchise. In the whole of the old metropolitan boroughs the total increase of voters on the register under the Representation of the People Act was only about 15,000, and the increase consisted of lodgers. But the form for claiming the lodger franchise was technical in the extreme. There were two forms in use, one containing two signatures, the other three; and the Revising Barrister admitted one of the classes to the register only on the condition of his decision being subjected to an appeal to the Court of Common Pleas. But, owing to want of funds, or other cause, the appeal was not tried, and the uncertainty therefore remained. Again, the Revising Barrister sat in the day instead of in the evening, as might be done with convenience to the working classes. The lodgers, unlike other classes of voters, were required to send in a fresh claim every year. The collectors might be made to leave at all lodging-houses notices to the lodgers. As the law stood at this moment, an occupier who occupied two or more houses in succession within the same borough, provided he had not left it, might claim for the houses in succession, but in the case of a lodger there was no such provision. If there were two joint occupiers of a house, each might be placed on the register under the old law, if they paid together more than £20, but no such privilege was given to the lodgers. He contended that the same privileges ought to be given alike to lodgers and occupiers. The result of this state of things was that, whilst in the metropolitan boroughs there were between 200,000 and 300,000 male lodgers of full age, as a matter of fact only 15,000 of them had succeeded in getting on the register. Turning to another point—it could not be questioned that the omissions from the lists in London had been wholesale. In portions of the borough which he had the honour to represent, out of every 100 houses, twenty-five were omitted from the list, on the ground that they were empty or were occupied by women; out of the remaining seventy-five occupiers only 982 forty were placed on the register. From inquiries he had made he found that something similar was the case in the whole of the metropolitan boroughs. Of the thirty-five occupiers omitted, only ten were omitted from any fault of their own; the other twenty-five were left off the register entirely by the negligence, he would not say of the overseers, but of their subordinates. It was a singular fact that the Representation of the People Act (1867) made no provision of a form of claim for enabling occupiers whose names had been omitted through the negligence of the overseers to claim their votes. In Paris there was an excellent system of registration in force, established, not by law, but by authority of the municipality, which might possibly be introduced into this country. Cards were prepared bearing the name of the voter, his residence and profession. When those cards were shuffled into alphabetical order they formed the register, and when into streets, the street lists of the entire borough. Clerks, at a certain period of the year, went round and inquired at each house whether the voter still lived there, and whether there were any other persons who ought to be on the register. From these inquiries the lists were made up, and then subjected to a revision. That system somewhat resembled one he had seen in operation in Australia, under which the rate-collector was directed to leave, at every house in his district, a form of claim enabling persons to get upom the register. Instead of the revising court he was convinced that there should be some efficient person appointed who should be made responsible for the registration of each electoral district.
said, that whatever doubts his hon. Friend the Member for Boston (Mr. Collins) might have entertained as to the existence of a grievance upon this subject, those doubts must have been removed by what had come out in the course of the present discussion. The hon. and learned Member for Oxford (Mr. Harcourt) had made out a good case; but by the time the hon. Member for Liverpool (Mr. Rathbone) and the hon. Member who had just addressed the House (Mr. Dilke) with so much force and knowledge on the subject had concluded their speeches he must have been quite satisfied that there existed in our system of registration very grave imper- 983 fections which required to be removed. When it was, stated that in Liverpool there were thousands of voters whose names never appeared upon the list, and that in Chelsea and in other places, out of seventy-five occupiers whose names should have been on the list, only forty appeared there, and when it was stated that numbers of voters were struck off the list on the most frivolous objections, it was impossible to deny that great defects existed in the present system of registration. And it was no wonder that such should be the case. There had been an immense expansion of the suffrage, and the machinery they had endeavoured to apply to the increased pressure consequent upon that expansion was imperfect. In fact, there existed at the bottom of the whole system this great defect—namely, that this system was intended for fiscal purposes, and was unequal to the discharge of political functions. The overseer was good for the purpose of the rate; but he was bad for the purpose of a political register. The hon. Member for Boston had said nothing could be better than the register. They knew, as a matter of fact, that, whatever might be the responsibility of the overseer, his first interest was for the rate. He liked to see who paid the rate. Now, in many cases the rate was paid by the owner, and the occupier's name never appeared in the rate book, and this was one of the reasons why the omissions complained of in the register occurred. A suggestion had been made that the inquiry should not be limited to the boroughs, as there existed grievances of the same description in the counties. He recollected when he was on a Commission of Inquiry some years since very grave imperfections were found to exist, and the remedies recommended by that Committee were very similar, if not identical, with those proposed by his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Oxford. He also recollected that they recommended that there should be an officer whose special duty it should be to look after the registration, and it was suggested that the clerk of the peace should be intrusted with that duty. Again, with respect to the objections, they recommended that strong measures should be taken against those who objected to votes on frivolous grounds. In Scotland, which had so frequently led the way in a great many useful reforms, hardly any of those 984 difficulties existed. There they had to deal with the question of boroughs in which a good valuation list had been drawn, up, and that was found to be a record upon which trust might safely be reposed. The consequence was that all those omissions, all those grievances, all those expenses, to which the unfortunate voters were exposed in this country, were altogether unknown in Scotland. He was not sure, indeed, whether they had even such an institution as a Revising Barrister in Scotland; but, if it existed at all, it was deprived of all the inconveniences which were attendant upon it in this country. He thought enough had been said by himself, and if not by himself by others, to show the necessity of such an inquiry as was proposed; and he agreed with his hon. and learned Friend that there would be advantage in limiting that inquiry to boroughs. If they could succeed in establishing a good and perfect system, the counties would not be long in following their example.
§ Motion agreed to.
§ Select Committee appointed, to inquire into the Laws affecting the Registration of persons entitled to vote in the Election of Members to serve in Parliament for Boroughs in England and Wales, and to report whether any and what amendments are required therein."—(Mr. Harcourt.)
§ And, on March 19, Committee nominated as follows:—
§ Sir STAFFORD NORTHCOTE, Mr. LEFEVRE, Viscount SANDON, Mr. RATHBONE, Mr. COLLINS, Mr. DILKE, Mr. BOURKE, Mr. MORLEY, Mr. WHEEL-HOHSE, Mr. CANDLISH, Mr. PEMBERTON, Mr. WENT-WORTH BEAUMONT, Mr. GOLDNEY, Mr. HODGKINSON, and Mr. HARCOURT:—Power to send for persons, papers, and records; Fire to be the quorum.