HC Deb 31 May 1872 vol 211 cc972-6

, in moving for an Address for Returns respecting Polling-Places in Scotland, said, he was surprised to find that it was the intention of the Government to oppose the Motion. He had always understood that it was the privilege of hon. Members of that House to be supplied with any useful information which might be obtained without incurring any very great expense; and in that view, the Return for which he had asked would only have occupied 30 lines, or half-a-sheet of paper, and it could not, therefore, lead to any great expense; while as to the use of the Return, he might state that when it was proposed by the Ballot Bill which had now left that House to exclude Scotch counties from the operation of the provision with respect to polling-places, he with other hon. Members objected, being satisfied that if the House could be made acquainted with the real facts as regarded the large area of Scotch counties, the small number of polling-places, and the almost insuperable difficulties which parties had to encounter in getting to them from great distances—even requiring steamboats sailing among islands—they would see that neither in England nor in Ireland was it so necessary to make an alteration in the law as it was in the Highland counties. However, the information which he had hoped to obtain in an official form he had obtained for himself in spite of the opposition of the Government, and he would inform the House of some of the results.

Area. Electors to 50 sq. m.
Orkney and Shetland 1,545 1,500 50
Argyllshire 3,250 2,900 42
Inverness 4,200 1,600 20
Ross and Cromarty 3,100 1,500 25
Why, if that number of electors was thought too small, they might have increased the area; but as the Bill stood now, the House would hardly believe that in one of these three counties there was only one polling-place for 600 square miles; in another, a polling-place for every 700 square miles, and in the third a polling-place for nearly 800 square miles. Yet the House refused a proposal for the benefit of the electors of these Highland counties. Whether it might interfere with aristocratic arrangements, or displace the aristocratic power existing in these counties, was a question which he held they had nothing to do with. What they had to do with was the convenience of the electors. It was for that purpose that the Bill to which he had referred was brought into that House; but he held it was utterly impossible in some of these counties for any independent candidate to start, who did not come forward under the wing of great aristocratic landlords. If that sort of thing was to be put an end to in other parts of the country, he did not see why it should be retained in the Highland districts. The hon. Member concluded by moving the Address for Retnrns.


seconded the Motion.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying Her Majesty that She will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House, a Return respecting the counties, divisions of counties, and combined counties in Scotland which severally return a Member to Parliament, showing, as far as can be given, the population of each, the area in square miles, the number of electors, the number of polling places at last election, the average number of electors to each polling place, the average number of square miles to each polling place, and the number of electors who at last election polled at each polling place, the two divisions of a county recently made for the purpose of returning a Member each for each division to be bracketed together and treated as an original county for the calculation of this Return, and the number of square miles in each county to be taken from the 'Edinburgh Almanac,' or any other authentic source,"—(Mr. M'Laren,) —instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


objected to the Motion because he was opposed to the practice of allowing hon. Members of the House to ask Departments of the State to occupy their time in gathering information which could be easily obtained in the Library. Why was the hon. Member for Edinburgh (Mr. M'Laren) to encumber the clerks of the House, who had plenty to do already, by getting them to furnish him with Returns which were most expensive, and were in reality quite valueless? The real object of this Motion was to bolster up an argument which had already been unsuccessfully urged, having been defeated on a division by the majority of Scotch Members, who believed that the present system was sufficiently elastic to admit of what was really required being done. He hoped that the Government would not accede to the Motion.


thought that, as a rule, the Department over which he presided was rather open to censure, not for being too unwilling to grant Returns, but for the opposite fault of acceding to Motions of this character too readily. When Returns were moved for where the facts were not within official cognizance, but were contained in certain books of authority open to everybody—as in this case had been proved by the hon. Gentleman's own statement—he did not see the propriety of giving the Return. It was different where the information could be had only from the Department, and he should have no objection to give a Return of the number of polling-places at the last Election, and the number of electors polled at each.


thought this a very small matter to be refused by the Home Office. Thirty shillings would cover the whole expense, and the utility of the Return would be unquestionable.


said, he was surprised to hear the Home Secretary refuse to supply a Return which was in itself reasonable, and would be attended with very trifling expense. As to the purpose for which the Return was to be used, it did not appear to him that was any business of the hon. and learned Member for Ayr (Mr. Craufurd).


thought that the hon. Member for Edinburgh (Mr. M'Laren) was quite entitled to get the Return he asked for. It was quite clear that the printing of the Return would not cost more than £1 or £1 10s.; and there were various officers receiving salaries in the counties who could easily get up the information required.


said, that he would certainly not be a party to withhold any information from the House which was in the possession of the Government or in the possession of any public Department in the control of the Government. In such a case, he should be happy to afford any hon. Member such assistance as he could desire. But in this case the information sought was not in any respect within the control of the Government. He agreed that the purpose for which information might be required by the party asking it could not be considered a reason for withholding it. It was quite sufficient that the information sought should be of a character as to render it available for public purposes. His objection to this Return was that the hon. Member was not asking for information at all which was within the possession of the Government, or within the control of the Government. Everyone knew that although the hon. Member ostensibly asked for a Return in the ordinary form, he was really asking the Government to employ its officers in obtaining information from sources open to all—such as The Edinburgh Almanac and Cyclopædias—and to manipulate the information thus obtained into such a form as would suit his own views. Now that, he confessed, appeared to him altogether objectionable in principle. To ask for papers or documents within the control of the Government was one thing; but it was quite another to ask the Government to find official clerks and other persons to extract information out of The Edinburgh Almanac and The Cyclopædia, and put it into a tabulated and printed form, in order that an hon. Member might have it in that form in his hand. No doubt if the information was to be gathered in that way the Return would not cost more than 20s. or 25s.; but the hon. Member could do that for himself, without putting the country to any expense; but if he wanted official information there must be a survey and an unknown expenditure. For these reasons, he must oppose the Motion.

Question put, and agreed to.

Main Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," put, and agreed to.