HC Deb 23 March 1877 vol 233 cc382-95

in rising to move— That it is desirable that the hours of polling at Parliamentary elections in metropolitan boroughs should be extended, and that the discretion now vested in returning officers of other boroughs with regard to the hours of polling at school-board elections should apply to Parliamentary and municipal elections, and should extend to the fixing of any period of not less than eight hours between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., said, that the Parliamentary history of this question was a strange one. In 1871 he had proposed an extension of the hours of polling which had met with but small support. In 1872 the then Government had again resisted the proposal as premature, they wishing first to see how the Ballot worked. Finding, however, that the minority on that occasion was a strong one, they had proposed a compromise. This compromise had been rejected by the House. When the Ballot Bill had reached the House of Lords, Lord Shaftesbury had moved the same Amendment which he (Sir Charles Dilke) had moved in the House of Commons. He had been supported by a portion of the Conservative Party in the Lords, and he had carried the proposal of "8 to 8 everywhere" against the Liberal Government on a division. The next day the Government had succeeded in inducing the Lords to return to the compromise which they had proposed in the House of Commons. This compromise the House of Commons had again thrown out, and no change in the law took place. In 1874, on the first Wednesday of the present Parliament, he (Sir Charles Dilke) had moved the second reading of a Bill which would have made the hours of polling 8 to 8 in all the boroughs. The question no longer stood in the same position as that in which it had stood in 1872. The Ballot Act was working smoothly, and the 8 to 8 school-board polling hours in London had proved a great success. The result of this change was that he had in 1874 received the support of the right hon. Member for Bradford (Mr. W. E. Forster), who had formerly opposed him on behalf of the late Government, and that he had received the discriminating support of the hon. and learned Member for Taunton (Sir Henry James) and others who had formerly opposed him strongly, but who then declared in favour of an extension of polling hours, not everywhere, but in the metropolitan constituencies, and in certain other boroughs where it was much needed. The result had been that in 1874 he had taken into the Lobby with him all the Opposition Members of the House who were present except six, while two or three metropolitan Members who sat upon the other side of the House had walked out rather than vote against him with the Government. The proposal which he brought before the House upon the present occasion was a more moderate one than that which he had made in 1874. He proposed to follow the school-board precedent—to extend the hours in all the metropolitan boroughs, and to leave an option to the country boroughs. The essence, however, of his Resolution was not option but extension—extension in London for certain, and extension in those other large boroughs in which extension was desired. In case a cry should be raised in favour of uniformity of hours he might remind the House that there was no uniformity at the present time. The hours in boroughs and counties were not the same; the hours in England and Ireland were not the same; and there was this reason for variety instead of uniformity, that the circumstances of various localities greatly differed. At the same time, in order to prevent those who might wish to oppose him from riding off upon objections of detail to the particular proposition which he placed before the House he wished to say that he was prepared to accept any reasonable suggestion from the Government; all that he desired was a distinct admission that there was a case for extension of hours in London and in certain other towns. He would leave the hon. Gentlemen the Members for Newcastle, for Birmingham, for Bristol, for Glasgow, for Hull, for Edinburgh, and for other non-metropolitan constituencies, where the need for a change was greatly felt, to state their own cases if they thought fit, and he would confine himself to that of the metropolitan boroughs which he knew best. The feeling in London in favour of an extension of the hours of polling was not confined to one party or to one class, but was almost universal. There was no metropolitan borough which contained a greater diversity of classes than did that which he had the honour to represent, which as regarded its Kensal Town district and parts of Chelsea, Fulham, Hammersmith and Notting Hill was a workmen's borough; while parts of Kensington contained great numbers of voters who were among the richest of the rich; and which was the home of half the merchants, of half the bankers and bankers' clerks, of half the lawyers, and of half the artists who lived in London. Yet his hon. Colleague, who had opposed his Bill in 1874, was about to second him upon this occasion and believed that an extension of hours in the metropolitan boroughs was urgently needed, and was not a Party question. Ho had reason to think that at least three out of the metropolitan Conservative Members would support his Resolution, which would make an overwhelming majority of the metropolitan Members present supporting an extension of hours should the Government oppose him and force him to divide. London was the only town in England which was divided into a great number of Parliamentary boroughs having their elections upon different days. In many provincial towns it was the custom for employers to give a whole or a half holiday on polling day; but how could they expect a manufacturer in Finsbury, interested in the Finsbury election on a Wednesday, to give a holiday to the persons in his employment on Tuesday, in order that a portion of them might vote for Chelsea at Kensal Town? How could they expect a banker in Westminster, interested in the Westminster election on the Wednesday, to give a holiday to his clerks on the Tuesday, in order that they might vote in the ward of Notting Hill where most of them resided? The hon. Member for Chippenham (Mr. Goldney), speaking against him in 1874, with perfect knowledge of his own constituency, but in absolute ignorance of the state of things in London, had said that the proper cure for the existing disfranchisement of voters was the increase of polling-places; but of what use was it to increase polling-places in Hammersmith for the benefit of artizans who were at work from 6 A.M. to 5 P.m. at the Opera House upon the Thames Embankment? And what was the use of increasing polling-places in Notting Hill for the benefit of Mr. Drummond's clerks, or of the attendants at the British Museum, who were at work at Charing Cross or at Bloomsbury, as the case might be, from 9 A.M. to 4 P.M., and who, on going to their polling-place at 8 A.M. at the opening of the poll, had found such a crowd that it was impossible for them to record their votes by a quarter-past 8, at which time they had been forced to leave—a crowd, which by the increase of polling-stations could only have been prevented at a great waste of money, for if they had polling-stations enough to poll the votes as fast as they came up at 8 A.M. those stations would be unfilled during the greater portion of the day. He had spoken of two classes as especially affected by the hardships that the present hours caused —men of business and artizans. Some hon. Gentlemen on the other side had a secret horror, which they would not express, of facilitating the exercise of the franchise by the artizans, to whom they gave it; but he was bound to say that his experience was that the law as to the employment of cabs was broken by both sides, and that the artizans, where any considerable number of them were working at one shop, were willing to sacrifice some hours, if not the entire day, and were illegally conveyed to the poll, so that they did manage to give their votes. The greatest hardship, then, was that of the business men, who were almost completely disfranchised by the present law. There was another fact which also went to make the London grievance greater than the grievance as it existed elsewhere. It was, that the Parliamentary election often followed close upon a School Board election, in which the polling hours had been from 8 to 8; and they found it in London impossible to persuade a large proportion of the voters that in the Parliamentary election the hours were quite different, and that they must poll between 8 and 4. He gave it as his personal experience that vast numbers of voters were disfranchised by the present law. The hon. Member for Chippenham had stated, in opposing him in 1874, that in 1868 only 11,500 persons had voted in the borough of Chelsea, and in 1874 14,500, which he said was an increase of proportion. The increase of proportion was very slight, as the increase in the number of electors had been immense; but if there had been an increase, what did it prove? The hours had been the same at both elections, but there was a keener contest, and while both sides observed the law as to the employment of vehicles in 1868, both sides broke it in 1874. What were the objections that had been offered to the change? They were two. That in conducting the poll in the dark there would be an increased possibility of personation and of rioting; and that the present hours were sufficiently long to tire out the presiding officers and all concerned in conducting the election, and that longer hours would throw upon them a strain which they could not endure. Those who had had to do with Metropolitan elections thought that these were sham objections, not capable of being defended in debate. Metropolitan School Board experience conclusively answered both. They had had repeated School Board elections in London, with a wider franchise and a larger constituency than existed for Parliamentary purposes, and they had had School Board elections fought with as much vigour and as much heat as any Parliamentary election that could be imagined. The same persons acted as presiding officers at the School Board elections as acted in the same capacity at Parliamentary elections. They had satisfactorily performed their duties; there had been no riot; there had been no personation, and yet the poll had been open from 8 to 8. By the admission of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen Cave), who had opposed him in 1874, the last Parliamentary election had been conducted in Cimmerian darkness in the metropolis owing to the density of the fog. At the majority of the polling places in Chelsea, and in Westminster, the poll had been taken by gas-light, and it had been as dark between 8 and 9 in the morning, and between 3 and 4 in the afternoon, the two hours at which personation would have been most likely to have been carried on, as it would have been in the middle of the night, yet there was no personation at the metropolitan elections in 1874. As for the convenience of the presiding officers, 12 hours' work made doubtless a long day, but it was only one day, and it was not a day of uniform hard work; between 11 and 12 in the morning, and between 2 and 3 in the afternoon the pressure ceased, and the presiding officers were able to get up from their tables and walk about. He did not suppose that the existence of the hardship in London at least would be denied. He had discouraged presentation of Petitions to the House in support of his Resolution, because he did not believe in Petitions, and because he thought the question one for fair and quiet consideration and not for outside pressure; but the fact that he had been supported by the majority of the Metropolitan Members in 1874, and that he was about to receive the support of most of those of his Metropolitan Colleagues who had then opposed him, spoke volumes as to the feeling of the people of London upon the point. The Metropolitan Members could of their own knowledge assure the House that vast numbers of voters were in London precluded from voting by the present hours. Surely the Party that sat opposite to him ought by all means in their power to facilitate the exercise of the franchise by those persons to whom they had given it 10 years before. He begged to move the Amendment of which he had given Notice.


in seconding the Amendment, said, that in the borough which he represented large numbers of the working classes were practically disfranchised by the present hours of voting, and that in consequence the subject -under discussion excited great interest in that locality. In 1867 great care was taken to give the voter every facility for exercising the franchise, and provision was made for establishing as many polling-places in every constituency as might be necessary. He could say, speaking for the borough of Chelsea, as other Metropolitan Members could for their constituencies, that there were living in that borough a vast number of artizans who during the day were occupied miles away from the place in which they resided. They went to work early in the morning, long before the polling-booths were open, and returned long after the booths were closed, so that the only time in which they could record their votes was during the dinner hour. But was it reasonable to expect that during that hour men would rush from one part of London to the other in order to vote? The working classes had been driven to the outskirts of London, where they might have purer air and better dwellings; but they were thus carried away from the scene of their daily labour, and could not exercise the franchise during the present hours. In his own borough there was now being built a new town which would accommodate 12,000 people, and when it was built many of the artizans who might live there would have to go to the East of London to their work. It might be said that it was too soon to meddle with the Act of 1867. That would be a valid objection if it were proposed to interfere with an organic part of the Act; but the proposal of his hon. Colleague was merely a matter of detail, dealing with the police regulation, which the local authorities might very fairly be trusted with; and he thought that the returning officers might at least try the experiment. He trusted the House would support the Motion by a majority should they go into a division; but he earnestly hoped Her Majesty's Government would make such concessions as would enable the principle of the Resolution to be carried out.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "it is desirable that the hours of polling at Parliamentary elections in Metropolitan boroughs should be extended, and that the discretion now vested in returning officers of other boroughs with regard to the hours of polling at School Board elections should apply to Parliamentary and Municipal elections, and should extend to the fixing of any period of not less than eight hours between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.,"—(Sir Charles W. Dilke,) —instead thereof.


said, the very temperate speech of the hon. Baronet opposite (Sir Charles Dilke) supported as it was by his hon. Colleague, was sufficient to show that this Motion had been brought forward, not in any controversial spirit, but with a desire to accomplish that which he was certain must be the wish of every hon. Member—namely, to provide in the best and most convenient way for enabling electors to register their votes when they desired to do so. This was a question which, as the hon. Baronet had stated, had been several times under the consideration of Parliament, and which had been rather put off than decisively set aside as impossible. The feeling of Parliament on the last occasion when the question was very fully discussed was that it was unwise to complicate the great changes which were made in 1867 with a change in the hours of voting. But, as the hon. Baronet had argued, the experience we had since acquired had both shown the need of some further re-consideration of the subject, and also where the difficulties might be expected to be found, what they amounted to, and how those difficulties might be met. It was not the intention of the Government to oppose the principle for which the hon. Baronet was contending; but, at the same time, he must say it was hardly possible to accept the Resolution in the form in which it had been laid before the House. He was not quite sure that it was desirable on this occasion to adopt a mere abstract Resolution, because there might be considerable inconvenience in that course arising from its vagueness, and they might find when they came to consider how they were to take action upon it that they were hampered by the terms of the Resolution. He did, however, not lay so much stress on that; he rather wished to call attention to some parts of the hon. Baronet's Resolution. To one thing he particularly objected, which seemed to recommend the Resolution to his hon. Friend behind him (Mr. Gordon) —namely, the discretion proposed to be given to the returning officer of fixing the hours of polling. It seemed to him (the Chancellor of the Exchequer), however, that though it might be very well there should be some elasticity, and that the same rule should not necessarily be adopted for constituencies the circumstances of which differed from others, yet to give to the returning officer a discretion what should be the rule in his own borough would be to place a very unfair burden upon his shoulders, and to leave him in a very awkward position, in which he might incur the danger of a charge of partiality, or partizanship, which might be just or unjust. If just, it would be very bad; and if unjust, it would be almost as bad to have the returning officer suspected of fixing the hours of polling with a view to favour one party or another. He quite admitted that as regarded the inconvenience arising from the present system in the metropolis, from what the hon. Baronet had stated, and from what they had heard from others who took an interest in this question—in fact, from what they all knew of the habits of electors, there was a very strong case for some alteration—he would not precisely say what—in the hours of polling, so as to enable the electors to record their votes. No doubt a similar case, with more or less force, might be made out for other constituencies. On the other hand, there were constituencies in which it would be very questionable whether a change in the hours of polling would not do more harm than good. There was, of course, the great question of order to be considered, and one of the objections which was made when the question was formerly considered was, that there might be a danger, if the poll was continued open till after dark, that excitement and disturbance might arise during the late hours in the polling districts. There was another danger—where they had to wait a number of hours while the votes were being counted. He imagined that in metropolitan constituencies it was impossible to count the votes on the night of polling; but in a town where the counting of the votes began immediately the polling was closed, and where there was a probability of its not being declared until 11 or 12 o'clock, there was great excitement during the hours that elapsed after the polling had closed. Of course, the later they drove the close of the poll the later they drove the declaration in the night, thus prolonging the excitement. That, of course, it did very much more now that elections were conducted under the Ballot than it did in the days of open voting. Therefore, care should be taken not to extend the poll unnecessarily. If they did so extend it they would introduce those drawbacks and disorderly proceedings without any corresponding advantages. It must also be remembered there wore cases of boroughs where working men had ample opportunity of giving their votes, and to which the remarks of his hon. Friend behind him would not apply. Under those circumstances, and desiring as the Government did that this matter should be dealt with seriously and fairly, he proposed that they should take this course. He thought it was understood that certain Bills on the subject of registration of voters which had been introduced this Session should be referred to a Select Committee; and he thought it might be not inconveniently made an Instruction to the Committee that it should consider the hours of polling, with a view to see how far they could best be altered. He proposed that the Instruction should be in words which he should move, if the hon. Baronet accepted his suggestion. Perhaps the hon. Baronet might be willing to withdraw his Motion, on the understanding that that should be done; but if he should think it more desirable that a Motion should be placed on the Journals of the House, he would suggest, and he should be prepared, if necessary to move an Amendment in some words to this effect— That it is desirable to refer to a Select Committee the question whether any and what alteration can, without inconvenience, be made in the hours of polling in Parliamentary and Municipal elections in the Metropolis and the towns, so as to offer greater facilities to electors desiring to record their votes. He thought, guided by the experience of last year's School Board elections, the Committee would be enabled, without difficulty, to arrive at some arrangement which, although it might not be uniform in all towns of the United Kingdom, would yet afford a practical solution to the reasonable proposal of the hon. Baronet.


hoped the hon. Baronet opposite (Sir Charles Dilke) would accept the suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to refer the question to a Select Committee. He quite concurred in what had been said by the right hon. Gentleman as to its being invidious to place upon the returning officer the duty of deciding what were to be the hours of polling. After what had been said, however, it could not be doubted that it was highly desirable, indeed neces- sary, that some change should be made. In the Tower Hamlets the hours of the dock labourers were from 8 A.M. to 4 P.M., with only an interval of 20 minutes for dinner, so that they were practically disfranchised. He did not think there was the least ground for fear that there would be any undue excitement or breach of public order, or that the expenses of elections would be increased by the change proposed; and it might be desirable in metropolitan constituencies to make it compulsory not to count the votes till the morning following the election.


thought there ought to be a Resolution inserted on the Journals recording the desire of the House to terminate the present inconsiderate state of things, which required a working man to vote where he lived, but during his working hours, and yet denied him a carriage to the polling-place. He therefore hoped his hon. Friend (Sir Charles Dilke) would accept the second of the alternative suggestions of the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer.


thanked the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the manner in which he had met the proposal of the hon. Member for Chelsea (Sir Charles Dilke), but thought that the proposed Instruction to the Committee should contain an intimation of what seemed to him quite certain—namely, that the feeling of the House was in favour of an extension of the hours.


said, they were all agreed upon the matter, and he concurred in pressing upon his hon. Friend (Sir Charles Dilke) the suggestion that he should accept the Chancellor of the Exchequer's second alternative proposal. There was an undoubted feeling in the House that a grievance did exist, at all events in London, and if the question was referred to a Committee, he thought it desirable that it should be a Committee for that purpose only. When the question was pressed upon him whilst he had charge of the Ballot Bill, it was found impossible to burden that Bill with any provision in reference to it. The fear that there might be disorder was removed by the experience of the School Board elections. He thought there might be some difference of opinion in regard to provincial boroughs, some of which, owing to the facilities afforded by employers of labour, would not require the poll to be kept open so long as others. He was also inclined to agree with his hon. Friend in thinking that the discretion as to when the poll should close should rest with the returning officer. However, these were all questions which could be best settled by a Select Committee.


pointed out that there were towns which could scarcely be called large where the inconveniences of the present polling arrangements were felt. For instance, the reference to the Committee ought to be large enough to include the case of Morpeth, where colliers had been compelled to lose either their votes or a day's work. The longer the poll was kept open the greater was the probability that the counting of the votes would be deferred to the next day, and then the excitement would be less. He thought the alternative proposals of the Chancellor of the Exchequer reasonable; but hoped the Government would give some assurance that when the Committee made its report, some legislation should be proposed to carry it into effect.


said, that when a Party spirit ran high, and the contest was likely to prove a close one, it was very important that every man who was entitled to the franchise should have an opportunity of recording his vote. He understood the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer to have intimated to the House that if the question was referred to a Select Committee, the inquiry would be restricted to the metropolitan and large boroughs. Although he was not a special advocate of the Resolution proposed, he would venture to suggest that other boroughs of smaller dimensions might be included.


considered that the onus might very well be thrown upon the returning officers, and believed that it would be a great advantage if borough elections could be conducted on the same system as elections for the school board.


in support of the Motion, instanced the case of Stoke, where thousands of working men were prevented from voting by the early closing of the poll.


said, ho would accept the second suggestion of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and withdraw his Motion in favour of that proposed by the right hon. Gentleman.

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

Question proposed, That the words it is desirable that the hours of polling at Parliamentary elections in Metropolitan boroughs should be extended, and that the discretion now vested in returning officers of other boroughs with regard to the hours of polling at School Board elections should apply to Parliamentary and Municipal elections, and should extend to the fixing of any period of not less than eight hours between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.' be added, instead thereof. Amendment proposed to the proposed Amendment, To leave out from the word "desirable to the end thereof, in order to add the words "to refer to a Select Committee the question whether any and what alteration can, without inconvenience, be made in the hours of polling at Parliamentary and Municipal elections in the Metropolis and the towns, so as to afford greater facilities to electors desiring to record their votes,"—(Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer,) —instead thereof.

Question, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the proposed Amendment," put, and negatived.

Words added, after the word "desirable," in the proposed Amendment.

Question, That the words it is desirable to refer to a Select Committee the question whether any and what alteration can, without inconvenience, be made in the hours of polling at Parliamentary and Municipal elections in the Metropolis and the towns, so as to afford greater facilities to electors desiring to record their votes,' be added to the word 'That,' in the Original Question, —put, and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put.

Resolved, That it is desirable to refer to a Select Committee the question whether any and what alteration can, without inconvenience, be made in the hours of polling at Parliamentary and Municipal elections in the Metropolis and the towns, so as to afford greater facilities to electors desiring to record their votes. Resolved, That this House will immediately resolve itself into the Committee of Supply.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."