HC Deb 27 July 1871 vol 208 cc314-8

Sir, it may be convenient to the House that I should take this opportunity of answering a Question which was asked—not to-night but on Tuesday last, and which I promised I would answer this evening—as to what clauses the Government, on reconsideration, propose to omit from the Parliamentary and Municipal Elections Bill. We have been very careful in going over the clauses and considering what, with due regard to the object we wish to accomplish in the Bill, can safely be omitted. I feel sure that the House would not desire, notwithstanding the length of our discussions, that we should strike out of the Bill any clauses which in our opinion are necessary in order that the Bill, when it actually becomes law, should be properly carried out. When we brought the Bill forward four objects were contemplated—first, an alteration in the mode of nominations; secondly, an alteration in the mode of taking votes, which, of course, was a provision of the Bill, and gave it the general name of the Ballot Bill; thirdly, the amendment of the Corrupt Practices Act; and, fourthly, the new provisions for charging the rates with the legal expenses of elections. With regard to the first object—an alteration in the mode of nominations—the Committee have already dealt with it, or almost entirely so. With regard to the second provision—for taking the vote by Ballot—wo have had several meetings of the Committee upon it, and we have arrived at a point at which the principal provisions have been assented to by the Committee. We are now on the supplementary provisions with reference to elections by ballot; but, judging from the Amendments on the Paper, and from what has happened, we have no reason to suppose that any long discussion will arise on the other questions as to taking votes by ballot. Nevertheless, we have carefully gone through these clauses to see whether any of them could be safely omitted, and we have come to the conclusion that we can only recommend the omission of one, though that is an important clause. That is the 30th clause, which is one of the penalty clauses, and provides penalties against voters who do not follow the directions given in regard to voting secretly. We have come to the conclusion that as the Committee assented to the 19th sub-section as it then stood—the 18th as it now stands—of the 3rd clause, which declares a vote void and not to be counted unless that provision be complied with, we hope that will be a sufficient penalty, and that ballot may be enacted without any other penalty. That is the only omission we propose to make with regard to the Ballot clauses. We then come to the two other objects, and, first, the amendment of the Corrupt Practices Act. The clauses relating to this subject are from 22 to 28 inclusive. Clauses 22, 23, and 24, although amendments of that Act, are clauses which seem necessary to us, because we introduce the system of ballot so as to guard against personation. I need not repeat—it has often been stated to the Committee—that we do not think personation will be increased by ballot; but, taking precautions against it, we think it right to adhere to those three clauses. We then come to the 25th and 26th clauses. Clause 25 provides for bringing before a magistrate any person arrested for personation. We propose to omit it, because that provision is in principle secured by the present law. We then come to a very important clause, which is entirely new matter in the Bill. It is an amendment of the Parliamentary Elections Act, passed by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Buckinghamshire (Mr. Disraeli) in 1868. The Government are still of opinion it would be a good amendment of the Act. It is a clause relating to the expenses of candidates, and if we had unlimited time at our disposal—if we were at the beginning of the Session instead of the end—I should not hesitate to ask you to enter upon it; but under present circumstances I think we may safely postpone it; first, on account of the pressure of time; and, secondly, because of the facts I shall shortly detail to the Committee. The Parliamentary Elections Act passed in 1868 was passed only for three years. Therefore, this year we shall have to make provision for its continuance; and, instead of making provision for another three years, we propose to continue it merely for one year, with the full understanding that next year it shall be brought before the House, not merely as a continuing, but as a subject of amendment; and we think that new matter of amendment would be best treated at that time. This applies not merely to Clause 26, but to very many of the new clauses put on the Notice Paper relating to canvassers, &c. There is another amendment of the Corrupt Practices Act which we must treat in the same way if there is any differences of opinion or likelihood of any long discussion on it; that is a clause to prevent Election Committees being held in publichouses. So far as we can learn, there is an almost unanimous feeling in its favour, and I do not propose to omit that. We then come to the fourth point which I alluded to—namely, charging the legal expenses on the rates. It is true that is new matter, but it is very important matter, and in the opinion of many hon. Members in the House, and many electors outside, it is a question very desirable to settle at the same time when settling the question whether we do or do not take the vote by ballot; and the Government being of opinion that it is a most important provision, and one we should be very glad if the House would adopt as brought forward; although there is pressure of time we do not think we can advise the House not to take it into consideration this Session. It is first stated in the 18th clause. All the clauses from the 18th to the 21st relate to that question, and therefore must be considered as affected by it. But at the same time, as it is new matter, it is desirable that we should deal with all the other clauses first which relate to the Ballot, and to guard against personation. Therefore, supposing, as I have good reason for hoping, that we may to-night reach the 18th clause, I should propose to take the 22nd, 23rd, and 24th clauses before we take that clause. On the clauses after 28 I can hardly expect there would be much discussion, for they are almost formal clauses, being provisions that would be generally agreed to. The only other point on which I have to make any statement relates to a new subject which has been brought before us during the discussion in Committee, and that is in regard to polling-places. We had not introduced originally any provision as to polling-places, because we naturally did not want to add to the Bill provisions which we did not think exactly belonged to the subject. But in accordance with a wish which seems to prevail on both sides of the House, although first expressed on the opposite benches, I have put on the Notice Paper clauses with regard to polling-places in England, and my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General for Ireland has done the same with regard to that country. We propose to go on with these clauses; at the same time, wishing to be perfectly fair to the House, I should state that we propose to go on with them and press them on the Committee, believing them to be important, but, under the circumstances of the Session, if they were likely to lead to any very long discussion—that is, if they were not in principle accepted—we should doubt whether it was advisable to proceed with them this year, more especially as they would naturally, if not settled this year, come under the provisions of a Registration Bill for counties, which I conceive cannot be postponed beyond next year. That would be the proper place for them, but I quite agree with the hon. Members who have taken an interest in this matter that it is advisable to settle the question now if it can be settled. I have only, therefore, to state that I shall in the course of the evening put on the Paper a Notice for the omission of Clauses 25 and 26, and Clause 30, and the postponement of Clauses 18 to 21; or, if we come to them to-night, I shall move their postponement till after we have got through the other clauses.


To be taken up afterwards?


Where a clause is postponed it is taken up after the other clauses as they stand in the Bill.


said, there was an elasticity about the proposal of the right hon. Gentleman which looked as if the Government wished to pass the clauses which they could pass without comment or opposition, and leave out those which they could not so deal with. He only wished to say one word on this subject. [Cries of "Order!" "There is no question before the House."] He wished to say that there was one part of the statement of the right hon. Gentleman which he hoped Government would re-consider, and that was its proposal to postpone the clause relating to the expenses of elections until all the other clauses had been disposed of. The effect of this might be that a large number of Members who took an interest in that question might be absent, and would not have an opportunity of discussing the clause, so he hoped it would be taken up when a fair attendance of Members could be secured.