HC Deb 09 May 1882 vol 269 cc362-74

Order for Second Reading read.

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


said, he should move the adjournment of the debate, as he thought it was not reasonable that a Bill of such importance should unexpectedly come before the House. He explained that the Government Orders on the Notice Paper, of which this was one, had not originally been fixed for that evening. They had been placed on the Paper for Monday, and had been moved en bloc on to Tuesday's Paper, in consequence of the adjournment on the previous day.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—(Mr. Gorst.)


said, he thought it was a very singular use of the Forms of the House to move the adjournment of the debate at a quarter-past 6 o'clock, especially when they remembered that the Bill before them had been before the House during a Session and a-half. It was the same Bill as was before the House during the whole of last Session, when it was made the subject of considerable care upon proposals, all of which were proposals for Committee, and not for discussion on the second reading. He had never heard anything in opposition to the principle of this Bill—["Oh, oh!"]—at least, it had never reached him. There were many points in the Bill which would have to be dealt with in the Committee with extreme care; but they were not objections to the principle. Whatever might have been the objections to the Ballot Bill when it was originally introduced on the part of many hon. Members of the Conservative Party, they had been very largely abandoned; and they were, as a whole, prepared to assent to continue the existence of the Ballot, as they had done year after year. The question awaiting discussion concerned the machinery of the Bill only. There had been no suddenness about the matter. The Bill had been in the hands of hon. Members for six weeks, and had, on several occasions, been allotted a high position among the Orders. The second reading had been proposed without a speech, because he had thought it best to reserve his remarks until he could speak in reply to the observations of those who wished to criticize the measure.


said, he had experienced many extraordinary surprises in Parliament; but he had never known a more extraordinary one than the present. How was it, he asked, that this Bill came on now, on a private Member's night? Because on Monday, under those most horrifying and appalling circumstances, which had thrilled, not England only, but Europe and the world, the House had purposely risen without doing any Business at all, without even going through the usual form of putting off Bills. The whole Business of yesterday had simply been passed en bloc on to the Paper of to-day. The idea was that yesterday the House, without distinction of Party, rose horror-struck, and in sympathy with the Government, and it virtually allowed the Government till Thursday before resuming real work. On Thursday the Business came on of which the House had received intimation. The House heard with silence and deep gratitude that the Business which was then to come on was to take precedence of all other Business. To-day, by this pure accident, there happened to stand upon the Paper this Bill, which dealt with a most important Constitutional change, which had been in practice, no doubt, for some years. But it was a great question now whether the Ballot of a few years old, or the secret voting of centuries old—the open voting of centuries old—was to be the permanent rule for elections. As to what the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs had said with reference to all objections to the Ballot having died away, did he remember a certain judgment that Mr. Justice Manisty gave two years ago, and did he remember the sensation which that caused, and the new light it threw on the question? This Bill had been announced as one of the great measures of the Session; and now the Government, by a dexterous use of opportunities, forced it on the House. Considering the circumstances and the generous indulgence which the Opposition were only too happy to extend to the Government on the previous day, he could not view the present conduct of the occupants of the Treasury Bench as justifiable or right. He thought this was a proceeding unparalleled in the dexterity of Parliamentary usage which it indicated. He would vote with the hon. and learned Member for Chatham; and he trusted the House would show its sense of this proceeding under circumstances where he should have thought wisdom would have prevented the introduction of any jarring element.


said, he thought this was a somewhat singular proceeding on the part of the Government. Though this Ballot Act was one of the important measures referred to in the Speech from the Throne, the second reading was proposed without a single word. He thought that was not respectful to the House. For his part, he did not approve of the principle of the Bill. He hated and detested the Ballot, because it led to gross corruption. The dodge by which the Government worked Bills was to tell them that they would be fully discussed in Committee; and then, when they got into Committee, they were told the principle of the Bill had been accepted on the second reading, and, therefore, they must not discuss it in Committee. They did not approve of the principle of the Ballot at all. Apart altogether from the corruption it had encouraged, the pre- sent system of secret voting made it impossible to attribute to particular classes the changes of opinion which sometimes affected the political destinies of the Empire.


said, he thought the hon. and learned Member for Chatham (Mr. Gorst) was justified in objecting to this measure being proceeded with in the absence of Members interested in it; but he was afraid that, if a division were taken on the question of adjournment, people outside of the House might suppose that the division was upon the subject of the Bill itself, and he feared that opinion would be considerably strengthened by the speech just delivered by his hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Warton). For his own part, he was not afraid of the action of the Ballot; and he thought it was quite impossible now to reverse the decision which the House came to years ago with reference to a Bill which had worked satisfactorily. He, therefore, thought they could not object to the second reading of the Bill, and hoped the hon. and learned Member for Chatham would content himself with having drawn attention to the fact that some Members of the House, who might have desired to speak on the subject, were not present.


, while objecting to the Ballot, pointed out that if hon. Members were not prepared to oppose the continuance of that measure they were really wasting time. He believed nothing had done more to debauch and demoralize and corrupt the constituencies than the Ballot; but, at the same time, if the Leaders of neither of the Parties in the State were prepared to reverse the policy instituted some years ago, he thought there could be no serious objection to the second reading of the Bill.


I do not altogether agree with my hon. Friend that if you are not prepared to oppose a Bill, therefore you ought to allow it to be read a second time. Of course, the question is whether the House has been, by the circumstances of the case, somewhat taken by surprise in the time in which the measure has been brought forward; but, at the same time, I agree with the hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets (Mr. Ritchie) that a division on the proposal to adjourn the debate might be taken as a division upon the merits of the Bill; and, as I do not intend to oppose the second reading of the Bill, I shall not vote for the adjournment. But I wish to put this point to the Government. There is no doubt that on the second reading of a Bill there are opportunities for a more perfect discussion of points in a Bill than arise in Committee. Now, the 6th clause of this Bill is one of a very important character. The hon. Baronet says the Bill will be discussed in Committee; but we never know when we shall have a discussion in Committee. I therefore think we have a right to call on the Government to undertake that, if the second reading is agreed to now, they will arrange the next stage at such a time as to give a convenient opportunity for the discussion of the Bill on the question of the Speaker leaving the Chair, so that it may be discussed in the manner in which it would have been discussed on the second reading. The Government have certainly gained an advantage which was not contemplated; and, if that understanding is come to, we shall have an opportunity of full and fair discussion. It does not at all follow that because you are prepared to continue the principle of the Ballot Act, there may not be many observations to be made on the working of the system—some of them apart from the question of the 6th clause; and an opportunity ought to be given for the full and fair discussion of those questions. Many hon. Members had not the least idea that the question would come up to-day, and others who are present may not be prepared to speak upon it. I therefore think we have a right to ask the Government that they will put the stage of Committee at such another time as will enable the House to discuss it. With reference to what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for the University of Cambridge (Mr. Beresford Hope), I quite understand that this is one of those measures that would be included in the declaration of the Prime Minister that they would not interfere with the Irish Business. But dealing with this Bill to-day does not at all interfere with the progress of the Irish Business of the Government. If it were proposed to set aside the Irish measures for the sake of going on with this Bill, I should certainly oppose such a proposal; but it does not appear to me that it will.


Sir, I am in some difficulty in understanding the position taken up by the right hon. Baronet the Leader of the Opposition. It certainly is not the intention of the Government to deprecate the fullest discussion of both the principle and the clauses of the Bill; but I cannot, for the life of me, understand why the present is not a favourable opportunity for that discussion which we understand Members of the Opposition are anxious to engage in. The point which the right hon. Baronet makes is that the discussion has come on unexpectedly; but in this House, as in many other places, it is the unexpected that always happens. Bills continually come on unexpectedly, and there is really nothing very extraordinary in what has happened to-day. The right hon. Member for the University of Cambridge (Mr. Beresford Hope), in terms to which I do not take any exception at all, has spoken of the generous conduct of the House, and of the Party to which he belongs, in accepting the adjournment yesterday under the pressure and in view of the terrible calamity which so deeply affected the mind of the whole country. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that that was a gracious act, and, I believe, entirely in sympathy with the sentiment of the country; but I do think the right hon. Gentleman has in some sort detracted from the graciousness of that act when he imputes to the Government an unworthy motive in taking advantage of that to bring on this Bill. Suppose the House had not adjourned yesterday, and the ordinary Business had taken place, what would have happened then? Nothing is more probable than that, if this Bill had not been reached, it would have been put down for to-day.


The Motion of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Gloucestershire (Sir Michael Hicks-Beach) was put down for to-day.


What I mean is, that there was nothing exceptional in the position. If not on this Tuesday, then on some other Tuesday the Bill might have been put down, and reached, by an accident, when the Business which was down before it had gone off. It has been down on more than one Tuesday already, and, on one occasion, was very nearly reached. It has been down on other nights not Government nights, and the Government have put it second or third on the Paper on more than one occasion; and hon. Members opposite, who, I suppose, are opposed to the principle of the Bill, have discussed Bills preceding it at somewhat great and unnecessary length, and prevented its being reached. I think, under the circumstances, and in the face of an opposition of that kind, we are justified in asking the House to take advantage of this opportunity and go on with the discussion. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for the University of Cambridge and the hon. and learned Member for Bridport (Mr. Warton) have complained of the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs for saying that, in his mind, the objections to the principle of the Bill had now been removed, and the general feeling of the House was in favour of the principle of the Bill. I shall not ask the hon. and learned Member for Chatham (Mr. Gorst) to withdraw his Motion, for I confess I should not be at all sorry to see a division taken; and I should be glad to accept that division as a test of how many persons there are in the House who object to the principle of this Bill. I have no doubt they would be a small but faithful band, and I think it would be interesting to the House to know in what quarter they are to be found.


The speech of the right hon. Gentleman is, I think, a most unfortunate one. The right hon. Gentleman will excuse my saying so; but he makes a charge against Members of this House which he has no right to make. He has deliberately stated that hon. Members have talked on other Bills to keep this Bill off. No such thing, to my recollection, has ever taken place. [Cries of "Hear, hear!" and "Oh!"]


I would like—[Loud cries of "Order!"]


The right hon. Gentleman (Sir R. Assheton Cross) is in possession of the House; and at the end of his address, if there is any explanation, it can then be made.


Does the right hon. Gentleman wish to know what I said? [Renewed cries of "Order!"]


The right hon. Gentleman stated most distinctly that hon. Members have talked to keep off the discussion of this Bill.


I did not say that.


Then I should like to know what the right hon. Gentleman did say?


I could not say it, as a fact, that that was their object; but I said that they had talked at what seemed to us to be great and unnecessary length on Bills preceding this Bill, and had thereby produced on our minds the impression that they were trying to keep this Bill off.


That is precisely the charge which I say he has no right to make. Is that the way in which the Business of this House is to be conducted? I had to remind the House at an earlier period of the Session that you, Sir, had to ask of Her Majesty, at the beginning of this Parliament, that the best construction should be placed on all our actions. I had to remind the House that in case certain Resolutions were passed, I thought we should not get from the Ministry the same promise as we got from the Crown. All that my right hon. Friend asks is, that as Members did not expect the House to go on with this Bill, an opportunity should be given for discussing it upon the Motion "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair." No one expected that this Bill would come on to-day, and I should have thought the extremely fair observation of the right hon. Gentleman would have been met in a better spirit than the President of the Board of Trade has shown. I hope wiser counsels will prevail, and that we shall obtain from the Government the undertaking that hon. Members shall have a fair opportunity of stating their objections to the Bill.


said, he did not think that it could be justly complained that the Bill came on unexpectedly, as he had, earlier in the evening, intimated to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South-West Lancashire that this Bill would be proceeded with if time permitted.


observed that that was true; but he only found out that the Bill would certainly come on 10 minutes before it was reached, when most of his hon. Friends had left.


said, he, nevertheless, thought the Government proposal fair and reasonable, seeing it was intimated they should expect to take some Business to-night. He might point out to the right hon. Gentleman that he had himself just got a most important Bill read a second time in the absence of those who opposed it, and without offering any explanation. On two previous occasions, when the Ballot Bill was before the House, the questions immediately preceding it were under discussion till within two minutes of half-past 5, so that the Bill was adjourned. Surely the Bill having been in operation for the last 10 or 12 years, a Bill for its continuance did not require much discussion as regarded its principle.


appealed to the Government whether even now they would not reconsider their decision, as there could be no doubt as to the fact that many Members had gone away under the impression that the Bill would not come on. If it was proceeded with, they might have an irregular or, possibly, acrimonious discussion, and the Government would only have succeeded in wasting the time of the House, because the same discussion could take place on the Motion for going into Committee, whether the Government liked it or not. But if the Government insisted on the second reading being taken then, it should be on the understanding that a full discussion would take place on the Motion for going into Committee.


said, he was sorry that the House should get into the state of feeling which seemed to exist. He felt the Government would have been open to much blame on both sides if they had not brought on this Bill on an occasion like the present. He pointed out that the right hon. Gentleman, or any other person on the opposite side, would have their opportunity, apart from any undertaking by the Government, though he thought it might be readily conceded by the Government to those hon. Gentlemen, that the Bill would be brought on in its future stages at an hour when there would be fair opportunity for discussion. But to interrupt Business because the Government did not see their way to make the concession asked for was, in his opinion, a mistake. To the Bill itself he had some changes to suggest when they got into Committee. He re- ferred to the time within which an election must take place after the receipt of the Writ by the Returning Officer. In the case of groups of burghs, the law at present allowed 15 days to elapse between the receipt of the Writ and the polling. In the case of a single burgh, again, the greatest time that could elapse was eight days. He thought it absurd, in the present time, when there were so many facilities for communication, that there should be 15 days of an interval in the case of groups of burghs, the same as it was in counties, and that a modification of the law should be made in this particular. His object in rising, however, was to deprecate any irritating discussion when they were all desirous to have a better state of feeling prevail.


said, he entirely sympathized with the remark of the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down; but the way to avoid irritation was for the Government to assent to the very reasonable proposal that had been made. Hon. Members had asked why some Members had gone? He would tell them the reason why. It was because they thought Englishmen and Gentlemen—["Oh!"]—would not at this hour take advantage of so dreadful a circumstance—["Oh, oh!"]—and the manner in which—["Oh!" and "Withdraw!"]—and the manner in which—[Renewed cries of "Oh!" and "Withdraw!"]—and the manner in which—[Cries of "Withdraw!"]—yes; it was entirely owing to what occurred yesterday that the Government had been able to bring on this Bill to-night; and he would be surprised to hear from the Treasury Bench any argument to prove that was not so. The understanding was that the Motion of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Gloucestershire (Sir Michael Hicks-Beach) should be taken yesterday and to-day, in consequence of which private Members did not put down Motions upon the Paper; and when it was known yesterday that was not to be the case, private Members still refrained from putting Notices upon the Paper; therefore, he said it was distinctly in consequence of what happened yesterday that the Government had been able to bring this question forward, when it was known to be distasteful to hon. Members on that side of the House. He considered it was an unfair advan- tage, and was not decent on the part of the Government. He hoped, however, his hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Gorst) would not press his Motion, because, from the present temper of the House, there was no doubt they would be able to snatch an advantage.


said, he was quite sure there was no Member on either side of the House who thought he would, under any circumstances, impute to him that which the noble Lord had imputed to Members on that side of the House. He had entered the House while the right hon. Member for South-West Lancashire (Sir R. Assheton Cross) was speaking, and thought the right hon. Gentleman's remarks somewhat unreasonable and ungrateful. The right hon. Gentleman had, again and again, during this Session, pressed the Government with reference to another measure—the Settled Land Bill—for opportunities to bring it before the House; but now, after getting an opportunity for his own undertaking, he was inclined to prevent the Government from proceeding with a measure of their own. The right hon. Gentleman in his (Mr. Arthur Arnold's) momentary absence had just passed through a most important stage a Bill to which he was opposed, and he deeply regretted having missed the opportunity of challenging it. But he was at a loss to understand how, with that proceeding so new and fresh in his mind, the right hon. Gentleman could have offered the observations he had just made.


stated, in fairness to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South-West Lancashire (Sir R. Assheton Cross), that he had spoken to the right hon. Gentleman with reference to the Amendment of the hon. Member for Salford (Mr. Arthur Arnold) to the Settled Land Bill, and had said, of course, if the Bill were read a second time, it would be on the understanding that his hon. Friend would have an opportunity of raising his objection on the Motion for going into Committee. The right hon. Gentleman had assented, and, therefore, they might ask him to allow the present Bill to be advanced a stage. It would be practically impossible to prevent hon. Gentlemen opposite from raising a discussion, if they chose, on the question that the Speaker leave the Chair.


said, that all that had been asked from the Government was an assurance that an opportunity for a fair discussion should, be given to the House generally on going into Committee on the Bill, and that no surprise should be possible on that occasion. He should have thought that that request would have been acceded to at once.


said, that when he brought forward his Motion he thought the Government would have agreed to it almost as a matter of course. If, however, under the circumstances, the Government deemed it right to press on their Business, they must do so. He begged to withdraw his Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Original Question again proposed.


said, that when he saw on the Front Bench opposite Gentlemen who had introduced a Corrupt Practices Bill, he thought they showed scant courtesy to the House in not making some statement to the House at once on the Ballot Act. It could not be denied that great corruption at elections had been practised under the Ballot Act. Representations had been made to ignorant and illiterate voters that they could take money from both parties, and at the same time give their vote as they pleased, without anyone knowing how they voted. This, he believed, had, to a great extent, been done; and, as a consequence, the Ballot Act was responsible for a great deal of corruption. No doubt, in Committee they would have ample opportunity of discussing the measure; but the 2nd clause, relating to polling-places, deserved serious attention, and he felt they ought to have had from the Treasury Bench the reasons for inserting that provision in the Bill. They should also have been informed why power had been given to large constituencies to vary the hours of polling. He regretted that the right hon. and learned Member for Whitehaven (Mr. Cavendish Bentinck) was not present, because he understood that that right hon. and learned Gentleman had much to say to the House on that measure. He considered it altogether unwise and impolitic to proceed at the present moment and in the present state of the House with the Bill; and when they found they were treated in this way with regard to the Business of the House, they would be obliged in the future to take more care before they granted concessions. He felt sure that yesterday, if they had asked that no Government Business should be taken today, the Prime Minister would have stated that such was his intention, and that, until Thursday, nothing should be done; for in that grave crisis in Ireland nothing should be allowed to be done in that House but the passing of measures for preventing crime and outrage. Therefore, he thought it was stealing a march on the House to go on with this Bill. At the same time, he did not think it would be wise to take a division on the second reading.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for To-morrow.