HC Deb 16 February 1875 vol 222 cc409-15

Order for Second Reading read.


in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said, it was very similar to that which was introduced last Session. That Bill was read a second time, the House approving of the principle of it, as far as any principle was involved in it, and it was then referred to a Select Committee. There the matter was fully discussed, and the evidence of returning officers and other persons most interested was gone into, the result being that the Committee reported in the very terms of this Bill both in relation to the clauses and the amounts mentioned in the Schedules. Under these circumstances, he need only very briefly state the purpose and object of the Bill. The charges of returning officers had become, according to the views of many Members of this House, and also of candidates, very excessive, and far beyond what the law allowed. There were, however, words in the Ballot. Bill which gave opportunity for returning officers to contend that they were entitled to make these charges, and it was very difficult indeed for candidates to argue with returning officers as to their rights to make the charges; indeed, it was almost impossible to refuse to pay such charges, whatever they might be. But these charges were not only excessive, but they were exceedingly uncertain in amount. In some constituencies, indeed, great liberality had been shown by returning officers who had devoted their attention to procure economical expenditure, and had given their services gratuitously in many instances or had made only reasonable and fair charges. In other places the expenditure had been reckless as regarded the number of clerks and their payment, the representative of the returning officer in each booth, and the personal charges of the returning officer. He did not wish to refer to instances which could be freely given; but a Return had been obtained by the hon. Member for Mid Somerset which showed that in many cases these charges amounted to nearly £3,000. There was one peculiar example in the county of Bucks, where, although the contest was not a very severe one, the charges were very high, and altogether disproportionate with those in other constituencies. He believed he expressed the general feeling of the House when he said that the charges were excessive and that their inequality ought to be removed. The Schedules had been carefully prepared with a view to the attainment of this object. There was only one matter of principle involved in the Bill—namely, in the third section, which required that candidates before being nominated should deposit the sums they were liable to be charged under the Schedules. Perhaps the hon. Member for Hackney (Mr. Fawcett) might take exception to this section on the ground that it tended to ratify the principle of the payment being made by candidates instead of by the ratepayers. They must, however, take things as they found them. This House had decided that candidates should continue to bear the expenses, and had refused to put them upon the rates, and so long as this remained they must act in accordance. As to the future, if the hon. Gentleman brought forward any measure to effect the change he desired, that would no doubt be freely and fairly discussed, and anything he urged would be decided upon its merits. But so long as candidates were to pay these expenses this difficulty remained—a candidate who was insolvent might present himself, and the returning officer might expend £1,000 on his behalf, and he had no remedy to recover the share of the expense of the insolvent candidate, and he could charge the other portion against the willing and honest candidate. An instance of this kind took place in the case of the election for Haverford west. A candidate presented himself, whereupon the returning officer thought he had a right to make a demand for a deposit, which the candidate refused to pay. Upon this the returning officer wrongly considered he had the power to refuse the nomination, and he made an unopposed return in favour of the present Member (Lord Kensington), who was unseated, and had to undergo a second election. It was the wish of the returning officers themselves that this security should be given to them. It would be in the option of the returning officer to apply for the deposit or not. In many eases he would not, perhaps, make any such application; but it was only right that he should be secured from any loss.

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


said, he had always been of opinion that the true reason why the charges of the returning officers amounted to considerable sums was because the candidates, and not the ratepayers, had to pay them. If the constituencies had been required to pay them there would have been no necessity for this Bill, as the charges would in that case have been kept within moderate limits. One of the chief provisions of the Bill was that a considerable sum should be deposited by candidates to cover the returning officer's expenses. This provision, again, was only rendered necessary by the existing law, which made the candidate pay the returning officer's expenses. On this subject, as on some others, he differed altogether from most of those who sat on the Ministerial side of the House; but he had never yet been able to understand why the constituents should cast upon the candidates the expenses caused by their assembling to give their own votes under the presidency of their own returning officers. When the proper time came he should have no hesitation in asking the House to support the proposition that such expenses be paid by the constituency, because they ought to pay for the election of their own Members, and he believed the practice would tend to purity of election. If they went into Committee on this Bill for the purpose of dealing with the items in the Schedule he should call attention to the fees of the sub-returning officers, which he considered in some cases were too small.


said, before the Bill was read a second time, he should like to make one or two observations. He thought, to say the least of it, the speech of the hon. and learned Gentleman who moved the second reading of the Bill was extremely inadequate. It was true the Bill was rejected last year; but the House generally did not know in what form it would be brought forward. Looking at the Bill itself there were one or two points upon which his hon. and learned Friend (Sir Henry James) gave them insufficient information. It did not seem to him at all certain that the Bill would reduce the fees of returning officers. In fact, there were hon. Members in the House who could prove conclusively that in elections appointed under the Schedules of this Bill the expenses of returning officers, instead of being decreased would be very considerably increased, in some eases by no less than 50 or 100 per cent. Apart, however, from these details, the Bill was based upon a radically unsound principle. If we were to have excessive expenses of returning officers, they would not prevent them by this Bill. What they must do would be to interest the constituencies themselves in economy. Now, constituencies were encouraged in extravagance; and the more the returning officers got from candidates the better it was thought for the trade of the place, and that was the secret of the great expenses associated with the present system. There was no reason, so far as he knew, why a school board election should be less expensive than a Parliamentary election. In many instances, in consequence of women being able to vote, the constituency for a school board election was more numerous, and therefore, à priori, the necessary expenses ought to be greater than those of a Parliamentary election. In some cases he was free to admit that the constituencies in school board elections had not taken proper care of the expenses; but if they looked at the Returns lately laid before Parliament they would find again and again the, expenses of returning officers at school board elections were in many instances not one-half, in some cases not one-third, and in one or two instances not one-sixth of what they had been at Parliamentary elections. If they gave constituencies an interest, they would try to decrease the expenses. If constituencies had to bear the expenses of municipal and school board elections, why should they not bear the expenses of Parliamentary elections? Was not a Member of this House just as much a servant of the constituency—did he not, at any rate, do the constituency just as great service—as a member of a school board or a Town Councillor? It appeared to him that the hon. and learned Gentleman who had charge of the Bill ought to be able to give the House some assurance that it would not actually increase the cost of Parliamentary elections, as he thought it would in many cases do. In his own constituency he found that the candidates would have to deposit £1,200, and that was within a few shillings of what was deposited at the last election. He hoped it would be understood that the Bill would not be accepted as it stood, either as regarded principles or details.


said, he wished to offer one or two observations on this Bill. He agreed with the hon. Member for Hackney (Mr. Fawcett), that in many cases the expenses of returning officers would be enormously increased under it. Elections in Ireland were conducted in a somewhat different manner from what they were in England. In Ireland in nearly every polling district there was a court-house, and when that was used the expenses on account of polling-booths were very small. By the Schedule of the Bill it was possible for the sheriff or under-sheriff to charge £7 7s. for the hiring of a polling-booth, and £7 7s. for fitting up the same, and that was a total of £14 14s., which was a large sum of money to pay for such a purpose. Take, for instance, his own constituency (Galway), where the most extravagant sum of any constituency in Ireland was, according to the last Returns, spent on the official items. There the amount expended wasonly £3 3s. for each poll-booth. He had consulted hon. Members whose constituencies adjoined his, and they perfectly agreed with him that in no case would more than 4s. or 5s. have been the cost of fitting up the booths. By the proposed system, instead of decreasing the expenses, they would enormously increase them. There was another thing to which he would call the attention of the hon. and learned Member who had brought in this Bill—namely, the charge for travelling expenses. In Ireland those expenses were necessarily very large at elections, because the counties were in no case divided into electoral divisions as they were here in England. This was an important point that the Bill before the House did not notice, and which was equally ignored by the Ballot Act. There was at present no means of fixing how travelling was to be charged for. There was to be considered the journey of the presiding officers to the sheriff, their return, their fresh journey with the ballot boxes, return again, and then the officers' journey home. There were some good points in the Bill, he must acknowledge, but constituencies differed very much. Strange to say, on the point the hon. Member for Hackney had adverted to, the Bill would suit the constituency of Galway exactly, as the franchise was higher there than in the boroughs in England. Some Bill like the present was necessary, but it would require a great deal of revision before it was passed.


pointed out that the Schedule of the Bill already met the objection raised by the hon. Member, and remarked that it was said that the Bill would tend to increase the expenses of the returning officers; but he did not see how that could be, as their expenses were at the present time practically unlimited. What the Bill proposed to do was to put some reasonable limit to the expenses, and prevent such enormous sums being charged as were returned by some returning officers. He highly approved of the remedy the Bill gave to the officer to enable him to recover his expenses where a candidate was put up without his own consent, for which at present he had none. They had travelled rather beyond the limits of the debate by discussing whether constituencies should pay the cost of election, and he feared that if they had to wait till that question was settled before they fixed the relations between the candidate and the sheriff, they would have to wait a very long time indeed.

Motion agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for Wednesday, 17th March.