HC Deb 03 December 1884 vol 294 cc558-68

Order for Second Reading read.


in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said, he need not detain the House for more than one or two minutes in explaining the nature of the measure. It consisted of one operative clause, which spoke for itself. The object of the Bill was to extend the hours of polling in counties to the same length as they had been already extended in boroughs. It was difficult to see what were the objections that could be brought against the measure. It was impossible to conceive that this House or the other House of Parliament, or that any body of persons who were favourable towards giving the franchise to citizens on a large scale, should not also be favourable to their exercising the franchise thus given them with the greatest convenience to them. When the House considered the changes that had already been brought about in the law with regard to the exercise of the franchise, and which were in the course of being brought about at the present moment, they would see that there was more necessity than ever for extending the hours of polling in counties. One change in the law had been, made by the Parliamentary Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Practices) Act, which prevented payment for the conveyance of voters to the poll. The effect of that was that voters must find their own way to the poll; and it was a very hard matter where voters had to go considerable distances that they should have to present themselves at the poll during hours when they were very probably bound by their contracts to be at work. It was, therefore, most essential to the poorer classes of voters in the counties that they should, if it could be done, be enabled after working hours to betake themselves to the poll. There was another great and important change in the course of operation at the present moment in the Franchise Bill, which they hoped would very soon receive the Royal Assent. The effect of that measure would be to admit a very large number of voters to the franchise, a great many of whom would come under the service franchise, and would be in the position of labourers working for hire, and to some extent under the control of their masters. It was of the greatest importance that they should be able to exercise the right which Parliament had given them freely, and without the permission of their employers. He did not think it was his duty to anticipate the kind of objections that might be made to the Bill. He would have some difficulty in doing so, because he did not know what they would be. It might possibly be said that with regard to large divisions of counties it was unreasonable to apply the same rule as to boroughs, where the voters were conveniently situated together; but he submitted that that argument went in favour of the counties and against the boroughs, because it was easy for the borough voter to take his walk to the poll, whereas it was very inconvenient in the case of the county voter. They must remember that a great change as regarded counties was to be brought into operation. The extent of the county constituencies in a great many instances was to be reduced, a policy which, he submitted, after what had taken place, both Parties were equally bound to go in for. If it appeared to the House, when they got into Committee on the Bill, that it should be desirable to postpone its operation until January, 1886, he, for one, would be perfectly willing to accept such an Ameud- ment; but he could not say he regarded with any approval the Amendment of the hon. Member for Mid Lincolnshire (Mr. Stanhope). There was really nothing to inquire about. They knew the whole of the circumstances. They could express their opinions "yes" or "no;" but it would be nothing but a waste of time to refer the matter to a Select Committee.


seconded the Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. A. It. D. Elliot.)


who had on the Paper a Motion to refer the Bill, after second reading, to a Select Committee, said, he thought some hon. Members had ground of complaint at this Bill being brought on at so short Notice, because if there was one thing the Government ought to desire in this matter it would be to obtain the opinion of county Members. Owing, however, to the extreme shortness of Notice, there were hardly any of the county Members present, and whatever might be the result, the discussion must be, in some respects, unsatisfactory. There could be no doubt that when the new voters were admitted to the franchise, some greater facilities should be given to them for voting. The Opposition did not for a moment dispute that, or desire to put the smallest obstacle in their way. On the contrary, they wished that these voters should have every reasonable facility that could be given for recording their votes, and he would, therefore, support the second reading of the Bill. He thought, however, the House would recollect what the President of the Local Government Board told them last Session—namely, that in regard to the extension of hours of polling in boroughs, it was an old question which had been examined by a Select Committee, and that the facts were thoroughly well known, and everybody practically agreed on the subject; but that with regard to the counties it was a perfectly new question which had never been investigated. With regard to its application to counties, there were one or two things which escaped the notice of his hon. Friend who moved the second reading of this Bill. It would be an absolute absurdity if in all county districts the poll were kept open from 8 to 8. He did not suppose his hon. and learned Friend was aware of some remote districts in England where there were only 100 voters; and if an election took place in the winter months, every one of them would have finished his work by 4 o'clock. ["No, no!"] Well, all he could say was that in his county (Lincolnshire) they did not work after dark. The unfortunate officials who would be concerned would, under this Bill, have to stay at the poll from 8 in the morning until 8 at night. That really was not wanted. There was no necessity for the poll being open for so many hours; and he was certain that if an arrangement were made by which it would be open a certain time in the morning and a certain time in the evening, every facility would be given for every man to record his vote. He had put down on the Paper a suggestion that this matter should be investigated by a Select Committee. He believed that would be the best means of inquiry; but if the House thought there was a better he should not object to it. He contended, however, that it should be investigated, and that the county Members should have an opportunity of saying by what means the voters should best have the opportunity of recording their votes in their respective localities. With regard to the observation of his hon. and learned Friend that the Bill should not take effect until January, 1886, he thought that was a perfectly reasonable course, and he was quite sure it would commend itself to every Member of the House.


said, that when the hours were extended in boroughs there was a great deal of dissatisfaction in the rural districts because the measure was not extended to the counties. That feeling, however, had been very much lessened by the knowledge, amounting almost to a certainty, that at the first opportunity the Government would rectify an omission which was then owing solely, on technical grounds, to the fact that due Notice had not been given. The principle of the Bill was agreed to, not only for boroughs but for counties, and it was acknowledged that the same facilities should be given to rural voters as to voters in boroughs. The hon. Member opposite (Mr. E. Stanhope) had complained of short Notice with regard to this Bill; but, in reality, the whole question involved in the measure was discussed in the former debate, and was then settled. It was quite certain that unless this Bill was adopted, while they would, on the one hand, enfranchise the labourers in the rural districts, they would, on the other, disfranchise them unless this were done, because it was perfectly clear to all who knew the occupations of those in the rural districts that men could not during the day record their votes. As a rule, he admitted a good deal was gained in the majority of cases in referring Bills to a Select Committee; but in this case there was positively nothing calling for such a course. Everything had been threshed out already. This was one of the simplest acts of justice which could be imagined, if they were to give effect to the enfranchisement of the rural population. The question was one which primarily affected the county voters. Any inconvenience which was suffered by officials must be borne for the public service. He did not think the hon. Gentleman had advanced a single argument that would bear investigation against the proposal that rural labourers should enjoy the same advantages as were enjoyed, in the urban districts.


heartily accepted the Bill, and said, he was very glad that it had been brought forward, if it would come in as a complementary measure to the others, and come into operation on the 1st of January, 1886. There was no difficulty in keeping the poll open till 8 P.M., and nothing was to be gained by reference to a Select Committee. The Parliamentary Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Practices) Act had put additional difficulties in the way of the agricultural labourers, inasmuch as their employers could neither lend them a conveyance to take them to the poll nor allow them time to vote without making a deduction from their wages, without the risk of bringing themselves within the penalties of the Corrupt Practices Act. The House ought not to take away from the agricultural labourer with the one hand what it gave with the other, and unless the agricultural labourer could vote between 6 and 8 in the afternoon, he would, in many cases, not be able to vote at all.


said, he thought the object of all the present legislation was to equalize the position of voters in towns and counties. If they retained a distinction in regard to the hours of polling it would not be so, and it would debar the best of the agricultural labourers from exercising the franchise, for the best agricultural labourers were those in charge of live stock, which could not be left during the day. He saw no reason why the Bill should not be accepted.


said, he felt the force of the objections of the hon. Member for Mid Lincolnshire (Mr. E. Stanhope). In the first place, the Bill ought to be a Government Bill, and if the Government supported it, they ought to have made the Bill relating to boroughs applicable also to counties. The contemplated division of the counties into small single-Member constituencies was an argument against the Bill. The Bill was the most cruel satire on those most anxious voters, because it seemed to assume that the 2,000,000 new voters would not take the trouble to go without their dinner, or put themselves to any inconvenience, to discharge this high Constitutional right which they were told they were burning to exercise. It appeared to be very inconsistent to extend the hours of polling needlessly just after a stringent measure had been passed to keep down the expenses of candidates. He considered that no case of hardship arose under the existing law.


said, the hon. and learned Member (Mr. Warton) had expressed opinions which, he was thankful to say, were not those of the great majority of the House, judging from the present debate, in the course of which speeches had been made from the other side generally approving of the Bill. He did not think anyone would agree with the hon. and learned Member in asserting that there was no hardship under the present law regulating the hours of polling, nor could it be said that electors were unwilling to make the slightest sacrifice. It was a notorious fact that there were many electors who were unable under the existing law to record their votes, and the number would be enormously increased by the Franchise Bill, particularly among two classes in the counties—namely, agricultural labourers and suburban residents. It was in view of the special claims of the new voters that the hon. and learned Member in charge of the Bill had wisely consented to introduce a clause providing that it should not come into operation before the 1st of January, 1886. The two classes who were obviously greatly inconvenienced by the present hours were agricultural labourers proper, especially in the summer time, and the large class of suburban voters. In the whole of the Home Counties and in the counties adjoining large towns like Manchester and Liverpool there were a great number of business people unable to vote in the first hour between 8 and 9 o'clock in the morning. At present this was a time of great pressure at the poll, and the pressure would be greater with the increase in the number of the voters. He was not speaking of very rich men, but of small clerks and others employed in various ways, who had to leave for work too early to enable them to vote between 8 and 9 in the morning, and then they were not back in time to vote in the afternoon. In regard to rural voters, he agreed with the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Jesse Collings) as to the impossibility of their being able to record their votes within the hours fixed by law during the summer months. The hon. and learned Member for Bridport attacked the Government for not having made up their minds; but there was no foundation for such a charge. Opinion in the House on this subject had ripened very suddenly; at least, there was no foundation for the charge as regarded himself, for many years ago ho advocated a universal extension of the hours in town and country alike. Of course, as a Member of the Government, he had to have regard to the general feeling of the House, looking not only to his own opinion. Ho thought that last year there was a great deal of doubt as to the expediency of the extension; but the fact of having that doubt was no argument that the Government did not support the Bill. During the discussion of the borough extension, county Members did not express any strong feeling in favour of extension. There were strong speeches in favour of it from the Liberal, but very little of the kind from the Conservative side. But that day the expression of opinion in favour of an extension came from both sides of the House, and that showed how public feeling on the subject had moved along. Everybody admitted that the extension of the franchise would have an important bearing on the question, and Members, regarding the proposal in a new point of view, favoured the proposal when they did not do so before. On this ground there could be no charge against Members of the Government or anybody that they had changed their view too suddenly. On behalf of the Government he supported the second reading, and hoped it would be read without a Division, and he suggested that the Committee should be taken early after Christmas. Meantime he would try and gather opinions from county Members whether they accept the Bill in its present wide form coming into force on January 1, 1886, or whether there were limitations that would prove acceptable to a majority of the House. He would do his best to gather the general opinion, and when the Bill reached Committee he would state the view of the Government in regard to the Amendment.


said, this was no Party question. They all agreed in desiring to give all reasonable facilities to electors to exercise their vote. If this were a question of the extension of the hours of polling in counties under the present franchise he should have a good deal to Ray against the extension in what were called the agricultural counties, because in those constituencies there were hardly any voters under the present franchise who would require it. There was force in the argument of the right hon. Gentleman as to the claims of the suburban voters on account of their being detained during business hours. It would be possible, however, to meet their claims by a measure applying solely to communities containing this class of population. But the case was entirely altered by the Franchise Bill which was now under consideration; and he cordially agreed with those hon. Members who had spoken of the absolute necessity of extending the hours of polling under the new franchise in the counties. But he did not quite agree with the remarks of the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Jesse Collings) as to our paying no regard to the convenience of those who were engaged in taking the poll. It would be absurd in a district containing 100 voters to keep open the poll 12 hours, employing clerks, agents, and other persons, and delaying the declaraction of the poll merely for the sake of more conveniently recording three or four votes. That would be carrying consideration for the convenience of voters to as great an absurdity as if during harvest, when the hours of agricultural labour were from sunrise to sunset, they were to keep open the poll to 10 or 11 o'clock in order to enable men who were at work till 8.30 or 9 P.M. to vote. It was admitted they could not carry consideration for the convenience of voters to that extent, and they must have some regard for the convenience of others. It was not impossible that in some places, if the poll were open from 8 A.M. to 8 P.M., the taking of votes might be suspended for a time in the middle of the day, during which, at present, the Presiding Officer and the clerks had to sit doing nothing; and it was possible that some difference might be made between winter and summer. He agreed with the hon. and learned Member for Bridport (Mr. Warton) that legislation on this subject ought to be undertaken by the Government. The Bill of last Session was introduced by the Government. This was merely a Bill introduced by a private Member, in order to meet a special want, and it did not deal finally with the subject. From the Act of last Session constituencies counting fewer than 3,000 votes were excluded. If this Bill were to become law the few boroughs of that size left would have the old hours of polling, while other constituencies would have the extended hours of polling. That was an anomaly that ought not to be sanctioned. Let them have the same hours of polling fixed for the whole country—for counties and boroughs alike, so far as was consistent with the requirements of the population. If the Act of last Session were repealed and a Bill introduced dealing with the whole question in the light of the experience gained by its working, that would be a more satisfactory conclusion than could be effected by the passing of the present Bill.


said, the right hon. Gentleman who had just sat down had made an appeal to Her Majesty's Government, not merely to take this Bill into their own charge, but had asked his hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Elliot) to withdraw his own Bill, and that then the Government should be prepared to bring in a Bill of their own dealing with the whole question. If the right hon. Gentleman had made a more moderate request and had asked that the Government, up to a certain point, should take the full responsibility for this Bill—which, no doubt, was one of very great interest and very great importance—he would have made a request which would have met with general approval. He was able to state, on behalf of the Government and his right hon. Friend the President of the Local Government Board, who had already spoken, that, after the House met again early next year, or, at any rate, after the Motion for going into Committee had been agreed to, the Government would be prepared to take the practical charge of the Bill, and to consider with Members representing counties and rural districts what Amendments could be introduced into its provisions.


said, he was very glad to hear the remarks of the noble Lord, because he was quite certain that in regard to a Bill of this kind, taken in connection with the Franchise Bill at that moment in "another place," they ought to have a general measure for the regulation of polling hours throughout both boroughs and counties. Whatever was said about the difficulty of withdrawing the measure of last year, it must be admitted that to encumber the Statute Book with a variety of Acts on the same subject would be an unwise proceeding. The explanation of the noble Lord (Lord Edmond Fitzmaurice) did not remove the difficulty. What was wanted was one Bill to deal with the whole of the question. He was quite sure that that would be more satisfactory than having a Bill dealing in one part of the subject in relation to boroughs, and then another Bill dealing with the rural constituencies. There was another point to which he would call attention. It arose from a remark made by the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Jesse Collings), and had reference to the employers of labour giving their labourers a half-holiday on the polling day. It had been said by some that that would come within the Parliamentary Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Practice) Act; but he saw two legal authorities opposite, and he should like them to state what was the law on the point. Nothing was more common than to pay the men for Christmas Day and Good Friday when they did no work; and if they allowed the labourers to go to the poll and did not deduct from their wages the time lost, surely they would not be bribing them within the meaning of the Act. They would not ask for whom the men were going to vote; they would not make that a condition; and, therefore, it would be drawing the line a little too fine to call that a corrupt practice. Perhaps the Judge Advocate General, or the Lord Advocate, would give an answer on this point. He thought his hon. Friend (Mr. E. Stanhope) would see that it was unwise to press his Motion any further. He was, however, very much obliged to the hon. Gentleman for the point he had raised, as there were differences of opinion among the county Members on the subject. Ho had only to add that he thought it would be more satisfactory if the Bill before the House were a Government measure, dealing with the whole question.


explained that if an employer gave his workmen a half-holiday on condition that they voted for a particular candidate, that might constitute an offence under the Corrupt Practices Act; but merely to give the half-holiday for the purpose of enabling the men to vote without any condition would not constitute any such offence.


said, it should be remembered that throughout the country there were people who worked the same hours every day all the year round, and it would lead to great difficulties if the House did not extend the hours of polling in the counties. He thought that the feeling in the country in favour of an extension of time as proposed by the Bill was unanimous.

Motion agreed to.

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