HC Deb 10 May 1871 vol 206 cc578-93

Order for Second Reading read.


, in rising to move that the Bill be now read a second time, said, that his apology for introducing the measure was, that it was founded on the Reports of two Select Committees; that it was calculated to conciliate hon. Members on both sides of the House; and that it aimed at ameliorating, if possible, the present unsatisfactory state of the law. He was sure his hon. Friend opposite the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr. Pell), who was going to move the rejection of the Bill, and hon. Members who had avowed their intention to oppose it, would give its framers credit for having endeavoured to make the machinery of registration more simple, to make the process of registration less annoying and vexatious, and to reduce, if possible, the expenses incurred at elections, both by candidates and to sitting Members. In 1864, on the Motion of the Chairman of Ways and Means, a Select Committee was appointed to inquire into the laws affecting registration of county votes. That Committee reported, and on their Report a Bill was introduced which passed the second reading in this House; but, for some reason which prevented many Bills from passing through the House, it had proceeded no further. In 1865, a Bill had been introduced by the right hon. Member for the county of North Northampton (Mr. Hunt), which passed into law, making some changes in registration, but it did not make any sweeping reform in the law. Since that year the Reform Act of 1867 had come into operation, and had made great changes in our electoral system—in fact, making the confusion in this matter worse confounded. All the franchises created under that Act were, in addition to, and not in substitution of, the then existing franchise. He would point out that the voluntary system, by which persons belonging to certain classes were registered on sending in their claims, was still continued; that the new £12 occupation qualification which seemed to include all those qualified under the old Chandos Clause really did not; and that great inconvenience was caused by the overseer having to make out a fresh list of these £12 voters every year—an inconvenience to which he would presently allude. The lodger franchise, too, was practically inoperative; and he would quote a letter from the vestry clerk of Chorlton, a township of Manchester, stating that only two lodgers out of a thousand were registered: and in addition to these, the Registration Act did not provide for the official registration of a new class of voters, inhabitant occupiers, although it was clearly intended that they should be put on the lists by the overseers. The existing registration law, however suited to the old franchise, was totally inadequate to meet present circumstances; for it was based on the strange principle, that any single voter had the right to put a voter to the expense and trouble of proving his right to be on the list. The result in Liverpool was that, in 1868, out of 40,000 names, 15,000 claims had to be separately considered by four revising barristers, who were occupied three weeks in the work of revision. There were 9,000 objections, of which 4,700 failed; fines were imposed in at least 500 cases, and they would have been imposed in 1,800 other cases, if the objections had not been withdrawn. The figures proved that some better check upon factious objection was required, and the opportunities for disfranchisement were so great that election agents were unable to resist them. The omission from the overseers' lists of so many persons entitled to vote proved that the system of registration required thoroughly overhauling; for, if a working man had to support a claim or to answer an objection, the securing of his vote involved the loss of a day's wages. He proposed by the Bill to remedy existing evils—as to objections, by throwing greater responsibility on the registration officers, and by providing for the official correction of the lists prior to revision; as to claims in counties, by simplifying the forms and the lists; and in boroughs, by making provision for the continuous registration of lodgers, requiring formal notice in case of change of residence. It was possible to devise systems of registration theoretically more perfect than that which this Bill would establish; but he had only striven to make that which existed as perfect as possible, for, however desirable, the Scotch system could not be adopted in this country, because we had not corresponding valuation lists. The date of qualification was proposed to be altered, with the view of giving more time for registration, bringing the register earlier into force, and shortening the time of the period of occupation as a qualification to vote. At present the claim was sent in on the 20th of July, it was made public on the 1st of August, and then there remained only 18 days—nominally 21—during which a third party could investigate the claim, and see whether it was valid. The overseer had also on the 31st of July to make out a list of persons qualified to vote, and publish it on the 1st of August. By this Bill, the date of making the claim would be thrown back to the 31st of May, and thus the whole of June would be given to the preparation of the first list, and the whole of July for complaints and objections; and in order that this might not have a disfranchising effect, it was proposed to shorten the period of occupation, making it 10 months from the 31st of May. The working of the Bill necessitated the appointment of a registrar of voters, which was provided for by the 3rd clause; and this he considered the most important part of the measure; for it was necessary that the lists should be in charge of competent and trustworthy officials; whereas, hitherto, in many cases, the officers had been incompetent to perform their duties properly; and hence the work had fallen into the hands of third parties—namely, political associations. The Committee of last year reported in favour of appointing paid assistant-overseers as registrars for districts, if the appointment of such officials should become regular and compulsory; but their appointment had not become general, nor could the Poor Law Board issue compulsory orders for their appointment. Again, the Petty Sessional divisions might have been taken as the area for registration purposes, and the clerks to the magistrates nominated as registrars; but the objection to this plan was, that the clerks to the magistrates could not possibly have the same amount of knowledge with regard to occupation as the Poor Law officials. It had therefore been determined to select the Poor Law Union as the area for registration purposes, and to make the clerk to the Assessment Board the registration official. In order to prevent that functionary from acting in a party spirit, the revising barrister would be empowered to fine him heavily in the event of his neglecting his duty, and the Board which appointed him might, if it thought fit, dismiss him without compensation. With respect to polling-places, the Bill allowed the magistrates to arrange for as many as they pleased, provided the polling districts did not overlap the boundaries of the Unions. It had been found impossible to establish a self-acting system of registration with regard to owners as well as occupiers; but it had, however, been deemed expedient to alter that provision in the Reform Act which required the overseers to make out in each year a fresh list of all persons qualified to vote in respect of occupation under the Reform Act of 1867. This list includes all owners occupying their own freeholds, and nearly all the occupiers under the Chandos Clause, so that in districts where the majority of voters belongs to these classes the list had to be made out only to be erased. This might, indeed, be remedied to a certain extent by repealing the Chandos Clause; but, unfortunately, such a course of procedure would have a disfranchising effect in certain cases. A clause had therefore been inserted in the Bill confining this list to persons who were not already on the rate books. At present there were five complicated county lists put before the revising barrister; but the Bill proposed that henceforth the registration officer should make out only three lists, which would be consolidated into two by the clerk of the peace. There would be, first, a list of all occupiers qualified on the 31st of May; secondly, a correction of the previous list, published on the 10th of August; and, thirdly, a list of the claims and objections relating to qualifications in respect of occupation to be allowed or disallowed by the registrar. These lists would be consolidated by the clerk of the peace into two lists. By Clauses 35 and 36 it was provided that where a borough was a municipal as well as a Parliamentary borough the two lists should be consolidated, although it had been found impossible to make them completely identical. If a voter had more than one qualification, and did not select one of them, the revising barrister would be empowered to put him down for the ownership, and expunge the other qualifications. It had not been thought advisable to throw the whole of the responsibility on the registration officer. Where any person is entered more than once upon the register, the registrar is authorized to object to any and every entry of the name of such person, and to send notice of objection. Any person who thus finds his name included in the county list for several qualifications may serve a claim upon the registrar electing to be registered for one such qualification. By the 8th clause the registration officer was made a testing agent to a certain extent; but there was an appeal from this officer to the revising barrister. With regard to costs, the presumption would be in favour of the voter qualified in respect of ownership, if he were on the existing register, and no costs in that case would be given; but new claimants would have to prove their case, and the presumption, of course, would be in favour of the objector. It was intended to retain the whole machinery of revision Courts, as being positively essential to a system of registration; but it was proposed that in future the appointment of the revising barristers should be vested in the Court of Common Pleas, which would probably exercise its patronage more impartially than a single Judge. Then the revising barristers must be of seven years' standing at the bar, instead of three, as at present, and they would be paid according to the amount of work they performed, in lieu of a fixed payment of 200 guineas. After remarking that he should be personally quite contented if the statement he had made led to a fair discussion on the subject, and to the adoption by the Government of so important a Bill, the hon. Member concluded by moving the second reading of the Bill.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Henry Robert Brand.)


, in rising to move that the Bill be read a second time that day three months, said, that, as a Member of the Select Committee of last year, he had acquired some information which he should make use of in opposing the further progress of this measure. With regard to that portion of the Bill which related to the borough franchise he should say very little indeed, but would confine his remarks mainly to the process of county registration, which it was alleged would be greatly simplified by the Bill. This he denied, and he likewise disputed the statement that the present measure was founded on the Reports of the two Select Committees which investigated the subject of registration generally; for the Committee of 1870 reported that the system of making claims on the score of property must continue. They were also unanimously of opinion that unqualified persons did come on the register with undue facility, and they expressed their belief that that evil would be best checked, not by such a scheme as was embodied in this Bill, but by the operation of party registration societies. The same Committee came to the conclusion that a self-acting registration of votes was not possible for those voters whose qualifications depended on property, and that it would not be worth while to attempt to establish a scheme which would deal with only one portion of the voters for a county—namely, the £12 occupiers. Speaking generally, there was nothing in the Report of the Select Committee of last year that would justify the House in passing this Bill, which would neither simplify matters in any way, nor tend to diminish the expense of registration; on the contrary, the changes proposed by the Bill, implying three different processes as necessary to be gone through to secure the desired result, would involve great cost to the ratepayers, many of whom were not voters, but all of whom would have to bear their proportion of the cost. That was unjust to the minority. The important matters and privileges dealt with by the Bill, the number of its clauses and its repealing schedules, all showed that it was a measure far too complex to be dealt with by any other than the Government, and considering that the inconveniences of the proposed changes would be great; that the power given to the registrar proposed to be appointed, to examine claims without summoning witnesses, or holding anything in the shape of an open Court, was, to say the least, extraordinary; and that the labours of registration societies would be increased by the Bill, better reasons were required in support of it than those advanced by the hon. Member who had charge of the measure. He would therefore move that it be read a second time that day three months.


, in seconding the Amendment, said, that if the hon. Member (Mr. H. R. Brand) had confined himself to embodying the recommendations of the Committee in his Bill he would have supported him. He, however, proposed a new Reform Bill, and he agreed with his hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr. Pell) that, as the measure proposed to interfere with at least six Acts of Parliament, only the Government ought to introduce it. The hon. Member sought to simplify that which it was impossible to simplify. It was easy for the £12 householder to find his way on the register; and it was not supremely difficult for one having a property qualification to make his claim and prove it. The proposal to make the clerk to the Assessment Committee the registrar was objectionable, as he was frequently the magistrates' clerk also; and it was desirable to keep the administration of justice entirely severed from politics; and no better Court of Appeal could be conceived than the present, because it was presided over by officers free from local influence. The proposed additional charge on the rates would be especially unjust to county ratepayers as a body, as many of them had no votes, and owners of property did not pay their rates directly. Under the Bill, the whole work of disputing and defending claims would have to be done twice over; and the revising barrister, who was now well paid for doing very little, would receive his salary for doing almost nothing.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day three months."—(Mr. Pell.)


said, he thought the House ought rather to discuss the principle of the Bill than its clauses; and he must seize the present opportunity of stating that a long experience of county registration convinced him of the necessity of a new Registration Bill, which should facilitate the enrolment of all persons who were properly qualified to vote. With regard to counties, his contention, from personal experience, was that as far as possible the forms of the lists should be simplified, so as to minimize the action of registration agents, either on one side or the other. In counties the amount of qualification should not be considered so much as the number of persons qualified. He believed rating would become more and more the principal ingredient of county qualification, as, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, for instance, a large proportion of the voters were rated occupiers, and the number was constantly increasing. It was highly important, therefore, that a correct registration should be had of those who voted in right of occupation, and they ought to be considered before the persons who voted in right of ownership, because they were a migratory class. He firmly maintained that the list ought not to be made by the overseers of the parish, for it was an impossibility for them to do so under the present regulations. The proper unit of registration should be the Union; and the proper registrar was the clerk to the Union, who was appointed not on account of political considerations, who would have the names of voters constantly before him, and whose misconduct would cost him his position. How could duplicate registration be prevented if the lists were made out by each separate parish? He suggested that Parliament should assort, by reading this Bill a second time, that our registration laws required amendment, and he hoped the Government would, upon the basis of that assertion, take up the matter as soon as possible, as he was of opinion, that having given the franchise, it was their duty to see that no obstacles were thrown in the way of those who endeavoured to obtain it.


objected to the dictum that all legislation should be initiated by the Government; on the contrary, it was most desirable that unofficial Members should bring forward measures and obtain the sense of the House upon them, and he thought the hon. Member (Mr. H. R. Brand) deserved the thanks of the House for the care and ability he had bestowed upon the one under consideration. The county registration might be described by the word unsatisfactory. The parish overseer was the person to make out the lists; and the register, which ought to be a complete and accurate one, was a result of the action of contending political parties in the county, each struggling, not for a just, but for a favourable register. It was true the Bill did not remove all the evils, for some of the evils were irremovable; but it did the next thing to removal, it attempted to mitigate them. The hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. C. S. Read) said that the clerks of the Union were not fit to carry out the business of registration, but the overseers were less fitted for it. He regretted that the Bill did not go further than it did, and must say it contained many good points. It took a step in advance, and, in his opinion, in the right direction. The objection that it was improper to throw the charge of registration on the ratepayers, because some of them were not voters, applied equally to the proposal to throw the charge on the Consolidated Fund, because all taxpayers were not voters. The objections raised to the clauses of the Bill were not sufficient to justify the House in rejecting the Motion for a second reading, and he trusted the measure would be allowed to go into Committee and there be discussed in detail; accordingly, he would appeal to the hon. Member for South Leicestershire to withdraw his Amendment.


said, the Bill was admittedly imperfect, and therefore it would be as reasonable that it should be withdrawn, as that opposition to it should be discontinued. If the Bill was read a second time the House would be pledged to the principle, and the Government might thus be hampered at some future day; whereas, if the Bill was withdrawn, they would be perfectly free, and enjoy the advantage of the present discussion. So far as he (Mr. Henley) was concerned, he thought the principle of the Bill would not introduce an improvement into counties. As regarded the registrar, although the overseer was not the most desirable official, he was preferable to the clerk to the Union; and he objected to giving the registrar the power of striking off duplicate insertions on the register, because an occupier who was a freeholder might sell his freehold after the lists were completed, and if his occupation qualification was struck off, he would have no right to vote unless he strained the law, and voted as a freeholder. The Bill would also make the clerk of the Assessment Committee a quasi judge, and make it imperative on the judge who was to sit on appeals to confer beforehand in regard to the very point on which he might thus form a conclusion before the question was tried; that he thought a curious provision, to say the least of it. He did not wish to express an opinion either for or against appointing different machinery, because everyone knew that the overseers were not the persons best fitted for the office; but he did not think that the officers named in the Bill would be an improvement. He hoped that the Bill would be withdrawn, as the question was admitted on all hands to be one that might well be taken up by the Government; but they could not ask them to do so this Session, after what happened a night or two ago; but he thought they would have a long reign, and ample opportunity before a dissolution came of legislating on the subject.


said, that the state of the Public Business was a sufficient answer to the suggestion that this subject should be left to be dealt with by the Government, for seeing that the Prime Minister had already been obliged to withdraw two of his principal measures, what chance was there that he could undertake to assume the responsibility of any fresh subject? As far as he understood the Bill, the clerks of Guardians would have no more power than the overseers now; but he must say, in regard to the latter gentlemen, that although the system which the Bill aimed to remedy was a "cheap and nasty" one, yet it must be remembered that the overseers themselves were often forced to undertake the task against their will, consequently, in many cases, the duties were performed in a very loose manner. In regard to the objection that the Bill did not follow strictly the recommendations of the Committee, he would remind the House that if they were to wait till all those recommendations were to be carried out, they would have to wait a very long time indeed. If the measure then before the House would enable Members to obtain a seat in that Assembly cheaper than at present, it would, in his opinion, be a very good thing to pass it.


said, he thought that particular measure was one which, if introduced at all, should be introduced by the Government on their own responsibility. That Bill and the measure next on the Paper — Registration of Voters (No. 2) Bill—taken together, involved a large question—namely, the entire reversal of the whole policy of this country for years past as regarded the registration of voters. Those two Bills would, moreover, throw a very large additional expense on the local rates of every county and borough, while they would also place the registration of voters in boroughs in the hands of one man—a salaried officer, the nominee of the Town Council or some other local body, in which party feeling often ran high; an officer, too, who might be swayed by political bias, and who would be practically responsible to nobody but the revising barrister. He strongly objected to any such arrangement, holding that political rights were far too sacred a matter to be left in the hands of any single paid official so chosen; and besides, it would be impossible in a large borough like that which he represented (Leeds) for one man to do satisfactorily the work now done by the overseers of the several townships of which the borough was composed. The overseers were generally plain, sound, commonsense men of business, anxious to do their duty; they acted under the influence of public opinion, and in nine cases out of ten they were not less competent than the class of persons who would be made registrars under that measure, who would be practically irresponsible. He thought it would be much better for the Government to introduce an efficient measure, and not leave it in the hands of an independent Member.


said, he could not support the Bill as it stood, although its subject was one well worthy of candid and careful consideration. His own experience as a revising barrister convinced him that under that measure the cost of county registration would be at least trebled; and another strong objection which he took to the Bill, was that it conferred on the registrars not only ministerial but also judicial functions. Again, it was proposed that the revising barrister, who was to be appointed in March, should act as a sort of assessor to the registrar, and afterwards sit as a Judge of Appeal from that very registrar's decisions. The duties of the registrars ought to be merely ministerial, like those of the present overseers. The Courts of the revising barristers were now tribunals entirely above suspicion; and he did not think it would be expedient that the revising barristers should be appointed by the Court of Common Pleas, instead of by the senior Judge going circuit at the Summer Assizes, as at present. He should be sorry to see the power of appointment transferred to the Court of Common Pleas. In short, he thought the Bill contained many valuable suggestions for the improvement of the present law; but before altering that law, it ought to be shown that the principles propounded in this measure would be a decided improvement on the law as it now stood.


said, that he could not find in the Bill any provision authorizing the printing of parish lists, but he supposed they were included in the Union list, and that a considerable saving would be effected thereby. He thought that the hon. and learned Member for Leeds (Mr. Wheelhouse) was to some extent wrong in the remarks he had made upon the Bill, for the hon. and learned Gentleman was a Member of a Committee before which the whole of the suggestions forming the basis of that Bill came, and he did not then make any remarks, but allowed the Report to pass without raising any objection. With regard to the question of registrars, he thought it was one that could best be dealt with in Committee; he must say the officers appointed at the present time no doubt did their duty very well, but that was not the point — the point was, whether there was at present as much security that they would perform their duty in such a manner as it would be performed by the officers proposed by the Bill. He thought not. The overseers were shifting officers and changed from year to year; whereas the registrars would be stationary, and would consequently gain a greater amount of experience than if they were migratory, and suggestions coming from them would be of greater weight than any given by overseers. As far as borough registration was concerned, he denied that the Bill would have the effect of increasing the cost. They had gone carefully into that point as regarded Scotland, and found that in Edinburgh the registration cost 8d. per vote, including printing. In England the cost would be found now to come quite up to that amount, if it did not exceed it, and he thought the operation of the Bill would not cause an increase. There was one important point to which he wished to call the attention of the House—namely, that portion of the Bill relating to lodger registration. The House never intended that the lodgers' franchise should be a mere mockery; but that had turned out to be the case, for in London, where the number of lodgers was estimated at 200,000, in 1868 the number of lodgers on the registry was only 15,000, but in 1869 the number was further reduced to 4,000. Evidence was taken by the Committee to show the difficulties which existed in the registry of lodgers, and various remedies were proposed. Now, in his opinion, the recommendations of the Committee which were incorporated in the Bill would secure the desired results, without any danger of the multiplication of fictitious votes. He thought sufficient reason had been shown for taking action in the matter, especially as there was no public duty which was performed in so loose and objectionable a way as that of registration. A large number of those to whom the House had intended to give the franchise had had it withheld from them by arbitrary and unintelligible distinctions, to remedy which the Bill proposed to put the lodger in the same position as the householder as far as registration was concerned.


said, he thought it would be admitted upon all sides that there could hardly be a subject more worthy to occupy the attention of Parliament than that of endeavouring to secure a good and perfect register of Parliamentary voters. The measure before the House, so far as the boroughs were concerned, embodied the opinion of every Member of the Select Committee which had inquired into the subject; and, as regarded counties, it embodied the opinion of the majority; and, although the measure in some of its details had been successfully impugned by more than one hon. Gentleman, and more particularly by the right hon. Member for Oxfordshire (Mr. Henley), whose eye rarely failed to detect the weak points in a Bill, yet the main objects seemed to him excellent, and the measure was founded as near as possible upon the principles on which, in this matter, they acted with so much success in Scotland. The objection to cost, and one or two other matters, were objections of detail which could be met in Committee. But it was said that, however good the measure might be, it was one which ought to be brought forward by the Government; now, considering the state of business in this Session, and the number of remanets which would probably be carried over to the next, he could not undertake to say that the subject would speedily occupy the attention of Government, and under those circumstances he thought it was the duty of the Government to give every possible facility and assistance to those independent Members who were industrious enough to initiate legislation as to a matter which was admitted to be of great importance. He was bound to say, having heard the introductory statement of the hon. Gentleman who introduced the Bill, that there was no Member of the Government or of the House who could have put the provisions of the Bill more clearly and ably before the House than did that hon. Gentleman, and, considering the acknowledged want of this measure, the main principles of which had not been successfully impugned, he should, on the part of the Government, be happy to give his vote for the second reading.


said, he could not support the Bill, as he believed there was no wish on the part of the country for the change which it proposed.


said, he must oppose the Bill, as he objected altogether to the principle of handing over to the clerks of a Union the duty which was at present performed by the overseers. Many of the clerks of Unions were appointed for political reasons, and were political agents, and it was therefore very objectionable to hand over this work to them; and besides that consideration, it was very probable that many of those gentlemen would object to the proposed change, inasmuch as if these duties were to be imposed upon them they would be deprived of the power of acting as political partizans. Even if the change were made, the lists would still be made out in the manner in which they were made out now. The Union clerks would then revise the overseers' lists, taking advice as to their proceedings from the revising barristers, before whom any appeals from their decisions were ultimately to go. He objected to handing over to the Union clerks duties which ought not to be entrusted to them, and he objected to those clerks being invested with functions of a judicial character.


said, as Chairman of the Committee which sat upon the subject, he would point out that on that Committee both sides of the House were represented in an equal manner, and after hearing evidence from all quarters, the Committee came to a unanimous conclusion in favour of this change. The right hon. Gentleman who spoke last (Mr. G. Hardy) was wrong in supposing that the lists of voters were generally in boroughs prepared by the overseers. The overseers were nominally responsible; but the persons who really made out the lists were the rate collectors; and it was not a good thing to leave those persons nominally responsible who did not do the work. The right hon. Gentleman had also spoken of the Union clerks as political agents; but the overseers and rate collectors were surely quite as liable to entertain strong political views; while as to the notion that these clerks were to exercise judicial functions, that was an entire misapprehension. The clerk would make out the list with the help of the rate collectors and the rate book, and this Bill would merely give him a second opportunity of revisal when he had made errors in his first list, and enable him to make only those corrections in it which would be made as a matter of course by the revising barrister, the object simply being that the working man should not be made to waste a day, and lose a day's wages on account of some merely technical and clerical error.


said, he would quote from the clause of the Bill to show that it did confer judicial functions on the registrar.


briefly replied, pointing out that most of the objections which had been made to the Bill were mere matters of detail, which could be considered in Committee upon the measure.

Question put, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."

The House divided:—Ayes 151; Noes 135: Majority 16.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for Wednesday 19th July.