§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ MR. MONK
, in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said, that those hon. Members who sat in the last Parliament would remember that that was not a new subject; for this question had been several times under the notice of the House. When the Reform Bill of 1867 was passing through Committee, the then Member for Buckingham (Sir Harry Verney) proposed the insertion of a clause, to enable officers connected with the Revenue Departments to exercise the franchise in the same way as other citizens; but as both the present and the late Prime Minister expressed an opinion that further consideration of the subject was desirable, and as the House was impatient to send the Bill up to "another place," the Motion of the hon. Baronet was negatived, and nothing-further was then done in the matter. The following year, in conjunction with Sir Harry Verney and Mr. Otway, he (Mr. Monk) brought in a Bill to remove from the officers of the three Revenue Departments—namely, the Inland Revenue, the Customs, and the Post Office—certain restrictions which had been placed on them with regard to elections by an Act passed at the instance of the Rockingham Ministry in 1782. At that time the influence of those officers in certain boroughs was so great that, according to a statement of the Marquess of Rockingham, they were able to command a majority in no less than 959 70 boroughs, and could thus directly influence 140 votes in this House. That state of things was entirely changed long before 1807 by the increase of voters under the first Reform Act. The Bill he introduced in 1868 met at first with considerable opposition, and among its opponents was the present Prime Minister, but so strong was the expression of opinion in that House in favour of restoring the franchise to the revenue officers that the right hon. Gentleman withdrew all opposition on the part of the Government to the measure, and when it reached the House of Lords it received the hearty support of the present Lord Chancellor, who exposed the weakness and sophistry of the arguments which had been advanced against it by the gentlemen at the head of the Inland Revenue and the Customs. It was passed in that House without any opposition, and through its operation the Revenue Officers had been enfranchised; but those employed in the Customs and Post Office were still debarred, under very severe penalties, from canvassing, or otherwise interfering in elections. With regard to the present measure also, he understood there had been unfavourable opinions addressed to Government by the heads of the same Departments. It had been held by Sir William Stephenson that although the measure of 1868 repealed the provisions of the Act of 1782. yet there were other old Acts under which penalties for canvassing at elections might still be inflicted on officers of the Inland Revenue. In that opinion he could not agree; but he had introduced a clause in the present Bill which would place the matter beyond any doubt. Two years ago, when he proposed to move for a Select Committee to inquire into the political status of the revenue officers, it was suggested to him by the right hon. Gentleman then at the head of the Government, that he should, by means of a Question in that House, first elicit the opinion of the Attorney General on the subject. He acted on this suggestion, and from the answer of Lord Coleridge (the then Attorney General) it appeared that only two of the three Revenue Departments—namely, the Post Office and the Customs—were under any restrictions with regard to elections. The Attorney General said—With regard to the Inland Revenue officers, he believed they might now vote, and also interfere 960 in elections by canvassing, because the statute which prevented them from so doing had been repealed."—.[3 Hansard, ccx. 886.]There appeared to be no disposition to allow the disability to continue in the case of the Post Office employés, and the question to be considered was, practically, whether the officers of the Customs alone were to be forced to remain under a galling restriction while all other Departments were free? He could not conceive that the new House of Commons would permit such an injustice. One of the chief arguments which were urged against the Bill which he (Mr. Monk) brought forward in 1869, and against the Motion for inquiry in the following year by the late Prime Minister, was that if the officers of these Departments were allowed to attend election meetings, or to canvass for a Parliamentary candidate, there would be political disquietude in those Departments—that officers of these Departments would help to get a candidate returned to Parliament with the view of obtaining promotion for themselves. But that argument applied equally to the Home Office, the Admiralty, and the other Departments where the disabilities which this Bill would remove did not exist, and a conclusive answer to it existed in the fact, that since the introduction of the system of competitive examination no appointment in any of the Revenue Departments could be obtained through the influence of any Member of the House. He contended that the whole of the men employed in the Departments of the public Revenue ought to be completely enfranchised, and that that was simply the object of this Bill. No doubt, the Government could, if it thought fit, defeat the second reading; but he felt perfectly satisfied that sooner or later this measure, or one of a similar nature, would be sanctioned by the Legislature. The law now was that Civil Servants generally were absolutely politically free, with the exception of the Customs and the Post Office, and he considered that all the men employed in the Government Departments ought to be placed under the same law. He should be perfectly ready to assent to the Bill going before a Select Committee if it should bethought necessary; but he implored the Government to give their support to the second reading, so that all the Departments under the Government might be placed upon the same 961 footing. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving the second reading of the Bill.
§ Motion made and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Monk.)
§ THE CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER
said, he would admit at once that that was a question which required very careful consideration, and that the Government should also take into consideration the experience which bad been gained since the passing of the measure which was introduced by the hon. Member some few years ago, for removing from public officers the disabilities under which they formerly lay I in reference to voting at elections. At the same time, he would point out that the question was one of a very serious and important character, and not to be treated as simply a question whether they should remove from certain officers disabilities which were likely to be annoying and offensive to them. It required careful consideration whether they should extend to Revenue officers, not the right of voting simply—for that they gained some years ago—but the right of taking an active part, in canvassing, and at election meetings. It was also a question whether taking off the disability would be to do the officers a service or a disservice. It should be considered how far the disabilities operated to protect the officers in the performance of their somewhat delicate duties. He gladly bore testimony to the honourable character of the officers in the Civil Service generally, and to the great courage, fidelity, and honesty with which they performed their sometimes unpleasant and onerous functions, but he thought that that high character should be guarded in every possible way. The public had at present confidence in their servants, but it should be considered whether their position might not be altered for the worse by their being turned into political partisans. The Excise officers, for instance, were employed in assessing the amount of duty which should be paid by persons engaged in various trades, and this duty naturally brought them into collision with such persons. If the officers were turned into political partisans, would not imputations as to their impartiality be cast upon them?
§ MR. MONK
observed that the disabilities did not apply to the officers of Inland Revenue, but only to the officers of the Customs and the Post Office.
§ THE CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER
said, if that were so the case was somewhat altered.
§ MR. MONK
said, he had already referred to the opinion of Chief Justice Coleridge that the Bill was not required in reference to the Inland Revenue Department.
§ THE CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER
At all events the Commissioners of Inland Revenue were, on the 13th of this month, of opinion, according to their Report, that the gentlemen in their department were under this disability, because they said that they thought it unnecessary to repeat the statements in their former Report, of the danger which they apprehended from the removal of the disability; for such things must occur readily to anybody. Suppose, for instance, an officer who was a political partizan were accused of showing undue favour, or of acting with undue severity, to one person or the other. The House, moreover, should be in full possession of the present opinions of the officers of Inland Revenue and Customs as to the expediency of allowing officers employed in the Customs Department to take an active part in canvassing or to attend political meetings, and therefore it appeared to him that the proper course to take on the present occasion would be to let the second reading of the Bill pass without opposition. In the interval between the second reading and going into Committee, the Government would take the matter fully into their consideration, and would call for further information from the officers of the two great Revenue Departments, and see in what way they had better deal with the subject. The hon. Gentleman was aware that it was easy for an officer of the Customs to give offence in the performance of his duties, or to be accused of giving offence. Frequently his superiors were obliged to remove him from some place where he had got into disagreements, or was supposed to have become so closely allied with certain persons that it was thought better for the interests of the public service that he should be transferred to another place. If such circumstances were attributed to political reasons, a very uncomfortable element would be 963 introduced into the discipline of the service. The Government felt fully the importance of the subject, but it was of importance in reference to the interests of the public and in reference also to the interests of the officers themselves, lie would take care that the Reports should be placed in the hands of the hon. Gentleman, and Government would, when the Bill got into Committee, approach the consideration of it without prejudice.
§ MR. NORWOOD
supported the Bill. It applied to the employés in the Customs and the Post Office, and he could not conceive why the law should be different as regarded them and those employed in other Government Departments. He had no doubt that Customs' officers and Post Office clerks at present took an active part at the elections, but they did so clandestinely. That was most objectionable, and it was far better they should have a public platform on which to declare their opinions.
§ MR. FORSYTH
said, he was glad the Government did not intend to oppose this Bill, for which he should vote. It was an anomalous thing that while the officers of the Excise could canvass and take an active part at elections, the officers of the Customs and the Post Office clerks could not do so. The Bill proposed to do away with that disability, and he most cordially supported it.
§ MR. CHILDERS
hoped the House would assent to the very wise course proposed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer—namely, that before dealing with the Bill in Committee, there should be an enquiry as to those who were, and those who were not, subject to disabilities, and also whether or not the interests of the public service required that these disabilities should be continued. At the same time, he wished the House to understand that the position of public servants was not So very simple with respect to elections as might seem at first sight to the advocates of this Bill. The Government possessed, in addition to the power of reprimanding, degrading or dismissing, very largo powers with regard to the transfer of public servants from one part of the country to another, and it was most important that the Government should not be liable to the imputation of making such transfers for some political motive connected with elections. For instance, there might be 964 a clique of revenue or other public officers in a particular town or district, of one party, and if they were allowed to actively interfere at elections, great pressure might be put on the Government of the day to break up the combination by transferring them to different places. It would be very difficult to object to the action of the Government, who must be allowed full powers as to the places where officers were stationed; yet there would be perpetual suspicions of party motives, and the public service would seriously suffer.
§ MR. WHEELHOUSE
supported the Bill. He was extremely glad Government had determined not to oppose it, but leave it to a Select Committee to decide if it was conducive to the public interest. He hoped the Select Committee would have power to inquire into everything which affected the present status of the Civil servants of the Crown.
wished to point out that the present restrictions of the law as to solicitations for votes by officers in the Customs and Post Office were disregarded, for deputations had waited upon him with a view of having their salaries increased.
§ MR. O'SHAUGHNESSY
considered that the Civil servants had a right to express their opinions on all subjects, and he should give them an opportunity of legally doing so.
§ MR. SPENCER WALPOLE
said, with reference to the observation of the hon. and learned Member for Leeds (Mr. Wheelhouse, he did not understand that the Bill would be referred to a Select Committee; but that the Government would make a statement on it upon going into a Committee of the Whole House.
§ Motion agreed to.
§ Bill read a second time, and committeed for Friday 8th May.