HC Deb 01 June 1874 vol 219 cc797-801

Bill considered in Committee.

(In the Committee.)

Clause 1.


said, he was of opinion the clause ought not to stand part of the measure. The position of the question was this—Till a few years ago Revenue officers were disqualified not only from taking part in elections, but even from voting; but, in 1868, at the instance of the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Monk), a Bill was passed relieving them from the latter disqualification, still, however, leaving them subject to the penalties imposed by former Acts in respect of their taking part or interfering in elections. No doubt, the object of Parliament, in passing the old Acts, was to restrict the power of Government to influence elections, and to interfere with their freedom. The measures were very stringent, subjecting offenders to very severe penalties, which were to be exacted from them at the suit of any common informer, who was to receive a portion of the penalty. Circumstances having in the course of time altered materially, Revenue officers were allowed to vote, but remained subject to penalties for interfering in elections, and as these penalties were imposed by old Acts, some of which applied to one branch of the service and the remainder to other branches, the alteration that was made in 1868 left the law in a state of considerable confusion, and, no doubt, some amendment of it was to be desired. Inasmuch as officers of the Post Office and of the Inland Revenue were now permitted to vote, and it was difficult to draw the line as to what was called interfering with elections, he thought it was perfectly reasonable to complete the work which was begun in 1868, by repealing these old and obsolete statutes. One of them which related to officers of the Post Office and to the Postmaster General himself was quite incompatible with the present state of things, because the Postmaster General might possibly be held under that statute to be liable to a heavy penalty for addressing his constituents. But he (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) must point out to the hon. Member (Mr. Monk), and to the Committee, that very considerable inconvenience might arise, if officers of certain branches of the public service were, as a matter of habit, to take an active part in elections. He had been told there were a great many cases in which gentlemen connected with the Court of Probate, or some other branch of the Public Service, were excluded from taking their legitimate part as British citizens in elections, and he had no wish whatever to restrain them from taking such part. But it must be quite obvious that there might be, and that there were, certain branches of the Public Service in which there ought to be a good deal of discretion exercised as to how far officers ought to take an active part in elections. For instance, take the Post Office. With reference to some Election Petitions, applications had lately been made to Judges for the disclosure of a telegram on the part of the Post Office. Well, suppose that there was a postmaster in some borough, in which a very severe contest had been going on, who took a very active part in politics. Was it not obvious that he might be suspected of using his position as postmaster of the town, to inspect telegrams having reference to the election? We had heard of cases in some places where letter-carriers had been suspected of tampering with letters, or leaving them behind, because they had to do with electioneering purposes. Again, take the officers of the Inland Revenue, it was perfectly obvious that those gentlemen, going as they did at all hours into places of business if they were known to be very keen political partizans, and if they were dealing with persons who were also known to be keen political partizans, would always be liable to be accused, however falsely, for political reasons, of having been severe, or of having been lax in matters connected with the Revenue. For reasons such as these—and he might extend his illustrations indefinitely—it was clearly undesirable that officers of certain branches, at all events, of the Public Service should take an active part in electioneering contests. And, therefore, although he quite agreed with the hon. Gentleman that the law should be altered, and that old, obsolete, and inconvenient restrictions should be removed, he thought the House should do nothing to restrain the Executive Government from taking such steps as they might find necessary for preventing any unseemly or inconvenient interference of their own officials in electioneering contests. Now, the first clause might cause some difficulty. It provided that no person engaged in the Revenue Departments should be liable to any pains or penalties by reason of his having solicited the vote of any elector, or addressed any assembly of electors, in reference to the choice of any person to servo as a Member of Parliament. If they passed so broad an enactment as that, it seemed to him they would inconveniently impair the action of the Executive Government, and the Board of Inland Revenue or of the Customs might be held to have violated the Act, if they issued any order whatever with regard to the officers taking part in elections. Therefore, what he proposed was, that the Bill should be amended by striking out that section; that they should limit themselves to a repeal of the enactments which now prevented officers from taking-part in elections; and that they should explain in the Preamble that the reason for passing the Bill was, that the officers of the Revenue Department were still subject to severe penalties with reference to electioneering matters to which the officers in other branches of the public service were not subject, that it was desirable to abolish such penalties, and that then they should leave the matter to be dealt with at the discretion of the Government. He thought it very probable that the Board of Customs and of the Inland Revenue might think it necessary to issue some orders on the subject.

Motion made and Question proposed, "That the Clause be omitted from the Bill."—(Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer.)


said, it was not his intention to oppose the omission of the clause, although he did not think it would prevent the Revenue Departments from issuing any departmental Order, with reference to their servants; but he went much further, he cordially agreed with almost every word that had fallen from the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He hoped it was understood, that it was not the intention of the Government immediately on the passing of the Bill to issue any General Order, requiring the officers of these Departments not to interfere in elections, otherwise than by recording their votes. He thought the Government and the Commissioners of those Departments might very well trust the public servants not to take any step which would be improper with reference to elections. As to the Amendments which the right hon. Gentleman had put on the Paper, he (Mr. Monk) assented to them all, and he thought the Bill when altered as the right hon. Gentleman suggested would effect a very great public service.

Motion agreed to; Clause struck out accordingly.

Clause 2 (Enactments in schedule repealed).

On the Motion of Mr. CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER, Amendment made in line 28, after "Act," by inserting— And any enactments reviving or continuing the same, or any of the enactments contained in the Schedule to the Act of the thirty-second year of Her Majesty, chapter seventy-three.

On the Motion of Mr. MONK, Amendment made, by adding at end of Schedule page 2, "2 and 3 Vic. c. 71, s. 6."

Clause, as Amended, agreed to.


On the Motion of Mr. CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER, Amendment made in line 8, by leaving out from "still" to "restriction" in line 16, both inclusive, and inserting— Are still subject, to the suit of informers and others, to certain very severe penalties in relation to Elections for Members of Parliament, to which penalties other civil servants of the Crown are not subject, And whereas it is desirable to abolish such penalties.

Preamble, as amended, agreed to.

House resumed.

Bill reported; as amended, to be considered upon Thursday.