HC Deb 31 January 1878 vol 237 cc813-6

Bill considered in Committee.

(In the Committee.)


said, that the Bill before the House, which was represented by its authors as a Bill to remove an anomaly, was, in fact, a measure to create one. He was not con-corned to prove that it violated the principle of inhabitant occupancy, upon which the franchise had been based by the Conservative Government in 1867. This was an objection to be raised by Conservatives, by the Attorney General, or by the Leader of the House. That which he alone wished to show was that the Bill was one exceedingly difficult to understand, and the operation of which it was hard evenfor the greatest election lawyers to foresee. He had consulted most experienced and highly qualified and competent lawyers upon the Bill, and they took opposite views as to what it meant. He held in his hand a letter from a Parliamentary draftsman second to none in his knowledge of this subject, in which he wrote that the Bill was ambiguous, and if I read it rightly, creates instead of removing an anomaly. Why create an anomalous exception to the rule which requires 12 months' inhabitancy as a condition for the franchise under the Act of 1867? If a person who lots his house for part of the year ought not thereby to lose his vote (and I do not say that he ought), let him have it under the Act of 1832. But where a franchise depends upon 12 months' inhabitancy, it seems absurd to give it, in exceptional cases, to persons who have not inhabited for more than six months. If the condition of inhabitancy is to he relaxed, it ought to he relaxed generally. His hon. Friend the Member for Christ-church (Sir H. Drummond Wolff) agreed with himself in wishing to remove certain hardships, and in a desire to somewhat relax the conditions required for the franchise; but while he (Sir Charles W. Dilke) desired to remove hardships and relax conditions generally, and as regarded all classes of the population, his hon. Friend wished to remove the hardships in the case of one class alone, and to relax conditions only in the one ease of the letters of furnished houses. The Bill was motived upon questions that had arisen under the Act of 1867; and, in consequence, he feared that the Judges would read it very strictly if it became law, and would hold that it had no bearing upon the Act of 1832. Passing on from these preliminary and general objections, he would attempt to point out some of the difficulties which would arise under the working of the Bill, of which he said the proper title would be "A Bill to shorten the period of residence in the ease of lodging-house keepers." Should his instruction be carried, and the new clauses which he proposed be added to the Bill, it would then, in fact, become that which it was not at present—a Bill to remove disqualifications in the case of all classes of the community. He had not himself directly opposed the second reading of the Bill, much as he objected to its provisions; because he admitted that there was a case for some measure to remove disqualifications. There were several hardships which existed under the present law, and which were not mere questions of registration, but questions of qualification or of franchise; but these ought to be dealt with as a whole, and upon principle. This Bill shortened the period of residence required in the case of a particular class—the persons who let lodgings. He had sooner shorten it for all. The present period, which was called 12 months, became, through the working of our registration system, in reality two years. He would gladly see the period shortened to six months, which would in reality mean 18 months; but he knew that a majority of the House would not be prepared to support such a proposal, and he would not, therefore, place it before the House. Let them consider, in the first place, the case, as it would stand under this Bill, of a man who let his house and removed into another house in the same borough. He would have the franchise, as the law stood at the present time, by successive occupation of houses. Now, let them take the case of a man who let his house and removed into lodgings in the same borough. He would lose the franchise at the present time, and ought not to lose it; but the proper manner to remove this hardship would be to carry the instruction to the Committee which he (Sir Charles W. Dilke) had proposed last year, and to insert one of his new clauses to give equal rights to a duly-qualified person occupying in succession a house and lodgings of a sufficient value with those possessed by a person occupying in succession a house and a house. No reason could be given against this change in the law, and it was by a mere blunder that the right to claim for successive occupation was not given to lodgers in 1867. The third case was that of a man who let his house and removed to Timbuctoo. Were the Government, who objected to Reform Bills in disguise, and to tampering with the franchise, prepared to stand up and say that a man ought to have the franchise as an inhabitant occupier who, having taken a house in the borough of Christchurch, started the same day for a journey in Central Africa, and returning 12 months afterwards—six months being in the qualifying period of one year and six months in the qualifying period of the next year— found himself on the register under the provision of his hon. Friend's Bill. Moreover, after being once on in this way, he might go away for 12 months at a time under the provisions of this Bill, six months being in one qualifying year and six months being in another, and yet continually retain the franchise as an inhabitant occupier. Not only would this inhabitant occupier in Timbuctoo remain upon the register, but if the person actually occupying the house claimed to be rated under the occupation clause of the Act of 1832, he (Sir Charles W. Dilke) believed that the under-tenant could get on too—though it was not clear—a direct violation of the principle that the same premises should not confer the franchise upon two people, which was laid down by the Proviso at the end of Clause 3 of the Representation of the People Act, 1867. There were so many difficulties that occurred to him with regard to this Bill that it seemed almost idle to raise the whole of them before the House; but he was of opinion that perhaps the greatest of them all was that of how to attain a knowledge of the length of time during which houses were let. Take the case, which was not uncommon, of a man who let his house for short periods several times in the course of a year. Who was to keep watch and to add these periods up and discover to how many months they amounted on the whole? Were the overseers or the Party agents to establish and to pay for the necessary spy system? He repeated that there did exist hardships in connection with the law of qualification, and he proposed to remove them upon an intelligent principle, hoping that the Government would some day see the necessity of dealing with them as a whole by a Bill carefully considered by the Law Officers of the Crown.


offered to make the term "four" months instead of "six."

Amendment agreed to; word substituted.

Bill reported; as amended, to be considered To-morrow.

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