§ Order for Second Reading read.
THE ATTORNEY GENERAL,
in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said, the object of this measure was to simplify the process of revision, and have but one register for Parliamentary and municipal voters in boroughs. At present the revision was separate, the qualifications were to some extent separate also, while the expense and inconvenience under the present system caused much dissatisfaction. The Bill left the county registration untouched, with the single exception that the revision for the counties and that for the boroughs should take place at the same time. The necessity for the alteration of the date was this. It was desirable that the various overseers who prepared the lists should do their work both for the Parliamentary and municipal boroughs, at the same time, and also that the Revising Barrister, to whom the duty of revision was to be in trusted for municipal as well as Parliamentary boroughs, should do his work at the same time and at the same expense. It was important that all the franchises—the borough franchise, the Parliamentary franchise in the borough, and the Parliamentary franchise in the county—should be dated on the same day. The voters in respect of the Parliamentary and municipal boroughs were not absolutely the same, though nearly so. By the earlier Reform Bill there were certain old Parliamentary franchises preserved which did not apply to boroughs as municipalities. The Bill now before the House still preserved those franchises. Therefore, a certain number of persons had votes for the Parliamentary borough who had none for the same borough as a municipality. On the other hand, there was an important addition made by Parliament to the municipal voters—namely, women, who had not a share in the Parliamentary franchise. Under these circumstances, it was of course absolutely necessary that two lists, one of the Parliamentary and the other of the municipal electors, should be made out, and in both cases the lists were prepared by the same officers. The date 1948 of the franchise, both Parliamentary and municipal, would be the same—namely, the 31st of July. There was a certain number of Forms and Notices prescribed by the Registration Act, the 6 & 7 Vict., c. 18, in the case of Parliamentary votes that were not required to be served in the preparation of municipal lists, while there were various lists, made by overseers of parishes and published for the Parliamentary voters, that were not to be prepared for municipal voters. Thus a list of freemen, the list of present voters, the list of new claims, and the list of objections had to be prepared, all of which related to the Parliamentary voters, while the burgess list, which related to the municipal voters only, had to be prepared by the overseers and delivered by them to the town clerk. The Parliamentary lists were dated the 29th of August and the municipal list on the 1st of September. Then the overseers had to publish the Parliamentary voters' list on the first two Sundays in August, while the town clerk had to publish the burgess list on the 15th of September. New Parliamentary claims to vote had to be made to the overseers before the 25th of August, and new municipal claims to vote had to be made to the town clerk before the 15th of September, and objections to such votes had to be made before those days respectively. At present all objectors to voters in boroughs were required to state some ground for their objections, while no such obligation was laid upon objectors to county voters, and it was the object of this Bill to remove that distinction, and to require all objectors to county voters to assign a reason for their objections. The result of all this was that for the Parliamentary borough as ninny as five lists had to be prepared—four by the overseers and one by the town clerk, and for the municipal boroughs but one list—namely, the burgess list, which the town clerk had to prepare. The revision of the lists of the Parliamentary voters for boroughs was in the hands of the Revising Barristers, who, on the whole, performed their duties most satisfactorily; but the duty of revising the municipal lists was discharged by the mayor and two assessors, who constituted, he thought, a very unsatisfactory tribunal for that purpose, inasmuch as the assessors in boroughs in which party politics ran 1949 at all high were chosen from merely political considerations. It was now proposed that the Revising Barrister who went through the Parliamentary list should revise the borough list also. In the case of appeal the present law appeared to need amendment, since the decision of the Revising Barrister was conclusive, unless he chose to grant a case, and though he did not mean to hint that there had been any abuse of the power thus vested in the hands of the Revising Barrister, yet it was plain that such a thing might occur, and that under the Ballot Act his power had been largely increased. As matters at present stood, the appeal when the case was granted was to the Court of Common Pleas, which had performed its high functions not only without being open to the charge of any abuse, but with promptitude, appeals made in the Michaelmas Term after the revision being generally decided before Christmas. As to the mayor and assessors to whom he had just referred, the only means of correcting any mistake made by them was through the cumbrous machinery created by the 7 Will. IV., and 1 Vict., by a writ of mandamus of the Court of Queen's Bench. Since the passing of 7 Will. IV., the writ of mandamus had been made subject to an appeal to the Exchequer Chamber and to the House of Lords. To show how the thing worked he might mention that he had been engaged in a case in which the contention on his side was that the mayor and one assessor had by a wrong decision disfranchised one-third of the voters in a borough in the South of England. It was sought by a writ of mandamus to replace those persons in the position to exercise their rights, and the matter was taken by appeal to the Exchequer Chamber and afterwards to the House of Lords, the result being that a final decision had not been given in the case until four years had elapsed and three revisions had been held, the costs incurred being enormous. Now, in order to remedy the evils of the existing system, it was proposed to make one register for the boroughs. On that register there would, for reasons which he had already laid before the House, be two lists; there would be one revision, and that revision it was proposed to in trust to the Revising Barristers, who would of course be selected as persons 1950 perfectly apart from all political considerations. As to the appeal, he proposed to keep it where it was in the case of the Parliamentary voter, and in the case of the municipal to give the same remedy, the appeal to be made to the Court of Common Pleas. Power was to be given to the Court to alter the municipal register, as it was now given in regard to the county and borough Parliamentary registers. He proposed further to give the Court of Common Pleas power in a short and summary way, on application to a Judge in Chambers, to compel a Revising Barrister to grant a case if the Judge was satisfied that he ought to do so. He thought there ought to be some such power, he had no fear that it would be greatly used; and its very existence perhaps, would prevent the necessity for its exercise. They proposed also to compel a statement of the grounds of objections in the ease of county voters as well as in the case of borough voters. He would for the present pass over many points of detail, as being essentially matters for discussion in Committee. In putting the revisions together it was necessary to alter the dates of the various notices and stages connected with the lists. They had substituted for the sake of convenience the 24th of June for the 31st of July. The proposed changes of dates appeared to be numerous, but they were all governed by one and the same rule—namely, to make the new dates bear exactly the same relation to the new point of departure, the 24th of June, as the old dates bore to the old point of departure, July 31. If they were to have one revision, and if the time for the election of town councillors and mayors—namely, early in November, was to remain unaltered, the revision would have to be fixed so as to give a reasonable time to enable the lists to be made out and the voting to be based upon them. His right hon. Friend opposite (Mr. Hunt) suggested that the election of town councillors should be held on the 1st of January, and then a great many of those changes of dates would be unnecessary. No Constitutional principle was involved in either of those dates; but at a meeting in London, at which more than 50 of the largest towns in England were represented, an unanimous opinion was expressed in favour of the dates contained in the Bill. They particularly objected 1951 to the elections taking place on the 1st of January, on the ground that that day was at present generally a day of rejoicing, and that, if the elections were to come off at that time, the whole of the Christmas week would be spent in canvassing. Independent of the respect which was due to the authority of these persons, the reasons which they gave seemed to him good, and the Bill was therefore drawn in accordance with their opinion. There was a certain number of non-Parliamentary boroughs in England—58, he believed, in number—and the question arose whether they should make the same rule for Parliamentary and non-Parliamentary boroughs. They thought that, on the whole, it would be better to have one rule for all. Non-Parliamentary boroughs were generally polling places, and the Revising Barrister being obliged to visit them for the revision of the county list, it would add little to his trouble to revise the municipal list at the same time. He hoped he had made it clear to the House what they intended to do by this Bill, and he begged now to move that it be read a second time.
§ MR. HUNT
said, that he had no objection to offer to the principle of this Bill. The change proposed by his hon. and learned Friend opposite was very desirable—namely, that the revision of the municipal lists should take place at the same time and under the same superintendence as the Parliamentary lists. He entirely disagreed, however, with the proposal of this Bill in reference to the period at which revision was to take place. His hon. and learned friend proposed that the revision for both boroughs and counties should take place at a time when, by the habits of this country, everybody who could leave home was away. The habits of the people of this country, as regarded locomotion and travel, depended very much on the sitting of Parliament and the holding of the Assizes. According to this arrangement, the work of revision would not commence until the professional gentlemen who were concerned in the revision were mostly away from home. The proposal of the Bill was that revision should take place between the 9th of August and the 24th of September. Parliament was generally prorogued about the 9th of August, and the summer Assizes generally came to an end about the same 1952 period. That was the very time when people went to the sea-side, to the Continent, or to the Highlands. It would thus frequently happen that a person's vote would be called in question in the Revision Court, and that he would not be able to sustain it because he was in Switzerland or Scotland. He would either have to run the risk of losing his vote, or he would have to return at great personal expense and inconvenience to defend it. It seemed to him that they ought to change the time of the municipal election rather than change the time of revision, and he hoped his hon. and learned Friend would re-consider the matter. The objection to the change was that Christmas would be spent in canvassing. He thought, however, that in these halcyon days of vote by Ballot they were to lose the benefits of canvassing. [Mr. COLLINS: No, no!] His hon. Friend the Member for Boston was not a member of the Committee which sat to inquire into the subject four years ago, and he (Mr. Hunt) was, and they were told that one of the great advantages of the Ballot was, that it would be able to dispense with canvassing, on account of the absence of any security for promises being redeemed. The most natural course would be to make the register come into force on the 1st of January. In the counties that was so now; and the time, he thought, should be the same for the boroughs. Moreover, there was frequently much drunkenness both at Christmas and at the time of elections, and the holding of municipal elections on the 1st of January would give one week's saturnalia instead of two, thereby improving the morality of the country. He hoped, on those grounds, that the present dates with regard to the Parliamentary register would be retained.
§ MR. JAMES
said, he was not going to criticize the Bill in a hostile spirit, but there were one or two suggestions which he wished to offer. He regretted that the Bill did not provide for the appointment of registration officers, to supersede the overseers in the preparation of the lists—a change recommended by the Committee of 1869. He had originally favoured the 1st of January as the date when the new Lists should come into operation, but on reflection he preferred the 25th of October, for the register having been made conclusive, and the 1953 registration being usually completed by the end of September, it was undesirable to have three months' interval, during which persons would lose their qualification and yet retain the right to vote. [Mr. HUNT remarked that the Register could not be printed by the 25th of October.] He believed this might with due diligence be effected. He regretted that no provision was made in this Bill with regard to the pressure which was put upon lodgers to prove their qualifications, because at present they had to show that their qualification was good at every registration. Things had come to such a point that it was necessary there should be some legislation. The measure would apparently check the evil of frivolous objections. In many boroughs the agents on both sides objected to working men, in the hope that they would not be able to attend, and even if they attended and substantiated their claim, the Revising Barrister, as the law now stood, seldom awarded them costs. He would suggest that the Barrister should be required, on the requisition of a certain number of the electors, to hold a Court after 6 or 7 at night, a point of greater importance than the keeping open of the poll to a later hour.
§ MR. COLLINS,
while approving the principle of one register for Parliamentary and municipal purposes, regretted that the Bill left unaltered two great inconveniences of the existing law. The overseer had to publish on the 1st of August a list of persons qualified on the previous day, a task obviously impossible, resulting in an imperfect list, and in unnecessarily numerous objections and claims. There ought to be a reasonable interval between the date of qualification and the issue of the list. There should also be an interval between the date for objections and that for claims, so as to allow persons whose qualification was objected to to put forward another, if they had one. At present an overseer might give notice to his political friends, which would enable this to be done on the same day that the objection was made, but might withhold such an intimation from the other side. He considered it a great boon that the revision of the municipal registration was to be taken out of the hands of partizan mayors and assessors, and also that the temptation to make frivolous objections was lessened. He could not regard the 1954 alteration proposed to be made in the Bill as to time an improvement. It would in practice be found a most inconvenient thing to turn the week intervening between Christmas and the 1st of January into a time of electioneering. It was a time when persons were, or ought to be, given up to charity and goodwill; but the prevalence of party politics would create, instead, feelings of bitterness and discord. He hoped that the middle of January or the middle of December would be substituted for the first day of the year. These were, however, matters of detail which could be discussed hereafter, and he hoped they would be considered without any party spirit.
said, he could not regard the Bill as being a very comprehensive measure. It did not attempt to consolidate any of the existing statutes; but it certainly did remedy one or two of the more glaring evils of the present system of registration. They should wait, for a further amendment of the law, until certain questions affecting local government had been settled. The Bill provided against frivolous objections being made to voters, but it did not provide for the efficient registration of those voters, for there was no method of correcting the list or filling up omissions therein. More time ought to be given to the overseers between the making up of the lists and the time of publication. The principle of the Bill was good so far as it went, and he hoped the hon. and learned Gentleman would press it forward with every possible celerity, in order that when amended it might come into operation at the next registration.
§ MR. C. E. LEWIS
observed that the object of the Bill, so far as the making of one list of Parliamentary and municipal voters was concerned, seemed to meet with the general concurrence of the House. He was, however, opposed to the suggestion that the list should, as to each class, come into operation on the same day. If it did, then the power of appeal, so far as regarded the municipal voters, would be taken away; because the municipal elections would be held on the 1st of November, and the earliest day on which the appeal could be heard was the 2nd of November, the first day of Michaelmas Term. With respect to boroughs, the Bill might very well provide that the list for muni- 1955 cipal purposes should come into operation on, say, the 1st of December, and with respect to Parliamentary elections in boroughs, and also in counties on the 1st of January. In some cases an appeal had the effect of deciding great numbers of cases, and he believed that one decision respecting a vote at White-haven affected between 300 and 400 votes, and he would therefore suggest the propriety of adopting a plan whereby the procedure could in this respect be simplified, and they could avoid the objections attaching to the suggestion that the municipal elections should take place on the 1st of January, and the consequent turmoil of elections at the period of Christmas. There were one or two subsidiary points on which he wished to remark. The 11th clause provided thatWhere any objection was made to any person appearing on any list of voters for any county or borough, or to any person claiming to be on such list of voters, and the name of the person so objected to was retained on or inserted in the list by the revising barrister, the revising barrister should, unless for special reasons he otherwise determined, order costs to be paid to the person objected to.This might be very well in boroughs; but in counties, where the qualifications for voters were so numerous, intricate, and dissimilar, a provision such as he was now alluding to would enable persons who desired it, to stuff the registers with faggot votes, because no one would undertake the responsibility of objecting, and testing the qualification in the Revising Barristers' courts. One of the most important difficulties and infirmities which underlay the whole system of registration was the fact that a Revising Barrister's court was the only judicial court in the country in which there was no power to summon witnesses. That state of things had existed ever since the passing of the great Reform Bill in 1832. He had hoped that into any measure dealing with the subject there would have been introduced a proposal to remedy that. The present measure, however, not only failed to do this, but actually proposed to continue the existing practice. So infirm was the proceeding in the Registrar's Courts that although a person might know another who was not qualified to be on the register no compulsory evidence could be got at to decide the matter. While, on the one hand, it was the duty of Parliament to protect the voters 1956 from wholesale objections, it was incumbent upon them, on the other, to insist upon the purity of the register; but the operation of the provision to which he was now alluding would be to nullify all registration proceedings. With regard to the dates at which the registration courts were to sit he also wished to make a few remarks. At present the courts sat between the middle of September and the end of October. The Bill proposed that in future they should conclude their sittings by the 24th of September. But many hon. Members would know that the Assizes on two of the largest circuits very often lasted until the first week in September, and one result, therefore, of the proposal to alter the dates would be, in the case of Revising Barristers going either of those circuits, to drive over the sittings of the courts so late that the work would be done very hurriedly, and therefore imperfectly. Another result would be that the proceedings of the courts would take place during the time of harvest, which was the most awkward period of the year for the transaction of public acts in which farmers and other voters resident in the agricultural districts were concerned. He should feel it his duty to take the sense of the House upon this point when the Bill came to be considered in Committee, unless a modification of the clause was proposed by the hon. and learned Gentleman in charge of the Bill. On the general question, he wished to endorse the opinion of the hon. Gentleman who had last spoken (Mr. Brand), that the measure was another instance of the tendency of the House, and those who regulated its proceedings, to go upon the patchwork system of legislating, instead of adopting the principle of consolidation. The present measure proposed to alter or partially repeal no less than 12 different Acts of Parliament, and he could not help thinking that the hon. and learned Gentleman (the Attorney General) would have done better to attempt a consolidation of the whole law relating to the registration of voters, instead of bringing in a patchwork Bill such as the one they were then considering. He should give his support to the measure, so far as it provided one system of registration for Parliamentary and municipal voters, but thought some serious evils might arise from passing the Bill in its present shape. There were two 1957 great dangers to be guarded against—one was the danger of persons really entitled to vote being objected to; but there was also the great danger of persons not entitled to vote being placed on the register.
§ MR. HIBBERT
said, the points which had been brought forward in the course of the discussion were principally matters of detail which did not affect the principle of the Bill. He agreed with the suggestion which had been made by the hon. Member for Boston (Mr. Collins), and he believed his hon. and learned Friend who had the charge of the Bill would be able to put off the publication of the list for at least six, and perhaps for 10 days. The Bill had two objects—first, to save expense, and secondly to prevent unnecessary annoyance to the voter. So far as expense was concerned, the printing of the register in a large borough cost a very large sum. In Liverpool last year it cost £1,135, in Manchester quite as much, and even in Oldham it was over £1,100—therefore, the House might well understand why the municipal authorities of the country were in favour of the Bill. In the interest of economy and as a means of getting a more perfect list, the Bill deserved the support of Parliament. It would deprive political agents of the power of annoying voters with notices of frivolous objections. At the last revision of the register for the borough which he represented (Oldham), 10,000 objections were made, the municipal list itself containing the names of only 14,000 voters. As to the suggestion of the hon. Member (Mr. C. E. Lewis) that a Bill should be proposed for the consolidation of the Registration Acts in preference to a small amending Bill like this, he (Mr. Hibbert) would observe that the longer that hon. Member was in the House he would the better understand the difficulty of carrying a Consolidating Bill through the House. After this Bill passed it would be desirable that the task of consolidating the Registration Acts should be undertaken. As to the suggestion that municipal elections should be postponed from the 1st of November to the 1st of January, he would observe that the municipal authorities had by a strong resolution expressed their appreciation of the plan suggested by this Bill, and their objection to an alteration of the date of mu- 1958 nicipal elections. The agents in different parts of the country thought there would be no difficulty in having the registers printed early enough to come into operation on the 25th of October. His hon. and learned Friend would consider how he could meet the objection which had been made on the subject of appeal, and would also be glad to consider any Amendment which might be proposed in Committee to improve the Bill.
§ MR. ASSHETON
said, he thought the clauses which referred to frivolous objections were as valuable as any part of the Bill. Such objections were made by the thousand, and in many cases they were most frivolous and vexatious.
§ MR. PELL
said, he thought the suggestion of the hon. Member for Derry (Mr. C. E. Lewis), with reference to county elections was of considerable importance. Great reform was needed with respect to the making out of claims to be put on the county register. At the proper time he should be prepared to move that the Bill be referred to a Select Committee for further consideration, together with a Bill which he had introduced on the same subject.
§ MR. WHEELHOUSE
said, he hoped that greater facilities would be given to lodgers for putting themselves on the register. The greatest possible difficulty was now thrown in their way to prevent their getting on the register in the first instance, and to prevent their remaining on it afterwards.
§ Motion agreed to.
§ Bill read a second time, and committed for Thursday next.