HC Deb 25 February 1886 vol 302 cc1261-71

(8.) £2,700, Registration of Voters, England.


Mr. Courtney, I wish to ask a Question with regard to this Vote, and, in doing so, I shall proceed strictly in accordance with your ruling. I will remind the Committee that last year the sum of £40,000 was granted by Parliament in aid of the expenses of registration in counties. Of that sum £20,000 was appropriated to the extra remuneration of Clerks of the Peace and other county expenses, and the remaining £20,000 was for the extra remuneration of overseers. I am informed that the Returns were made by the counties to the Local Government Board, and that they were to receive this sum from the Imperial Government before Christmas last; but, notwithstanding that, I am informed that no sums have been received by the counties with respect to this grant. I ask the reason for this—whether it was owing to this Supplementary Vote of £2,700 being required that the delay has taken place; whether the sum asked for is for the purposes I have described; and whether the Government can name any period of time within which the counties were entitled to the payment of the expenses under the Vote of last year, and when payment will be made?


In answer to the inquiry of the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite, I may say that I anticipate that the payment in respect of the oxpenses of Clerks of the Peace and overseers, in connection with the registration of voters, will be made immediately. The accounts are made up, and I see no reason why the money should not be paid to the counties almost at once.


A few days ago I took the opportunity of addressing a Question to the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister on the subject of the amendment of the law in relation to the registration of voters. I regretted that no hope was held out by the right hon. Gentleman at the time of the matter being taken up by Her Majesty's Government during this year; and, although there are two private Members' Bills upon the subject, I fear it is very doubtful whether in the course of the Session they will be able to get passed any amendment of the Law of Registration. The principal reason assigned for not taking up this question in a Government measure this year was that Parliament had met under unusual circumstances, and that it would be better to wait until we are near the decease of Parliament than to attempt legislation on the subject while Parliament is young. But it seems to me not impossible that this Parliament may come to an end before the present year expires; and it is on that account that I venture to renew my protest against the law as it exists for the registration of voters, and to express the hope that in the interest of the people of the country the Government will deal with the question. Every election that takes place shows how unfair to the majority of the working classes is the action of the present law. With the permission of the Committee I will state what occurred with regard to my own election. I acted not only as my own election agent, but looked after the business relating to the list in the Revision Court as well. I found in the case of one particular parish the names of certain voters, working men, which were struck off the list from no fault of their own, but simply because of the default or negligence of the overseers with regard to the initials representing their Christian names, and it was with great difficulty that I persuaded the Revising Barrister in their case not to strike off the names of the individuals. It seems to me a grievance of which the working classes have to complain, that when they see their names on the Registers they should afterwards be deprived of their right to vote, as I have said, through no default on their part, but through the negligence or ignorance of those with whom the duty rests of making out the lists. I do not complain specially of the lists of last year, because it is a matter of notoriety that owing to the great amount of work thrown upon the authorities in connection with the Reform Act, it was impossible to avoid a good many mistakes; nor do I want to charge the overseers with any mala fides; but I say that when this Vote is asked to supplement the Vote originally granted for the registration of voters, it is desirable to see that the work is properly done. Then, in another case which came under my notice, the overseers did not comply with the law; and I make a very strong representation on this ground. I think it is most desirable that the overseers should discharge their duty in all respects according to law. The law requires that overseers should publish the lists of voters in a particular manner—namely, by affixing them to the outside wall or door of every church or chapel in each parish. This was not done on the occasion referred to; and although I complained to the Revising Barrister, he refused to entertain my complaint, and made some excuse. I draw attention to this because, where lists are hung up inside churches or chapels, it is almost impossible for those concerned to ascertain whether they are on the list or not. For the reasons I have given I think these are matters which Her Majesty's Government ought to take notice of, with a view to remedy the evil complained of as soon as possible. There are other matters in connection with the Registration Law about which I shall have to speak at another time, but which are not germane to this particular Vote. As we are here asked to vote large sums of money for the purpose of carrying out the work of the Registration Act, I think it is only right to call attention to the facts I have described. In conclusion, I think that the subject ought to be dealt with in the time at the disposal of the present Government, and at the earliest opportunity, because I certainly feel with regard to political matters of the present day that it is impossible to say whether or not we shall have another General Election before the end of the year.


I also have to complain of the way in which the overseers, in my own experience, performed their duties of registration. In the division which I represent (Banbury) there were whole parishes in which the voters were incorrectly described; and hon. Members can imagine the expense this would throw upon the candidates, while the voters themselves might be deprived of the privilege to which they were entitled. I remember the difficulty we had in rectifying these blunders. In some cases it was impossible to do so, the Revising Barristers saying they had no power to make the necessary rectifications. I hope the Government will not wait till they can bring in a Bill to deal with the whole subject, but that they will introduce a short Bill in which two things ought to be provided for—one is, that Revising Barristers may have power, where the name of a person duly qualified to vote appears on the Register, to insert the proper qualification; the other is, that if negligence on the part of the overseer is proved, power should be given to the Revising Barrister to mulct the overseer in costs. If these provisions were made in a Bill of a few lines, I think we might rest contented for the present; and I shall be glad to hear from the Treasury Bench whether any steps will be taken in the direction indicated. Although, perhaps, it is not so germane to the Vote before us as the question of Registration, I would ask my hon. Friend the Secretary to the Local Government Board (Mr. Jesse Collings), if he can state the total number of two-pences paid to the overseers and Clerks of the Peace, which would indicate the total number of voters on the Register?


I can support the statements of hon. Gentlemen who have just spoken on the subject of registration. From my own knowledge, I am in a position to state that thousands of the poorer class of voters lost their qualification at the last Election by the blundering of the overseers. I am of opinion that no part of our system is worse performed than the part performed by the overseers. I believe, moreover, that in many cases they have acted in the most partizan spirit, a circumstance which in itself ought to bring their conduct under severe censure. I entirely concur with the wish of the hon. Baronet the Member for Oxfordshire(Sir Bernhard Samuel-son) that there were some means by which a severe penalty could be inflicted in the case of overseers who have acted improperly.


I am glad to hear the opinions expressed by hon. Members on the other side of the House on this question of the registration of voters. There is, in my opinion, nothing more absolutely necessary for the free choice of Members of this House than the purification of the present method of placing the names of voters on the lists. The Prime Minister himself, when speaking at Mid Lothian, placed this at the very core of the subject. I am convinced that, unless some fine or mulct is placed on overseers, it is absolutely hopeless to expect a correct and impartial discharge of their duties; and, with regard to Ireland, I shall be pxepared to show not only that proper persons were not in the lists, but that improper persons, who had no political existence at all, were placed on the roll of voters. There is no doubt that if a Select Committee were granted to inquire into this matter, it would be shown that there were scores of cases of the grossest misconduct on the part of overseers; and now that a Liberal Government is in Office, I trust that some steps will be taken to procure a purification of the lists. It is not enough that a grant should be made in aid of the cost of registration; the matter should be taken out of the hands of local partizans; and I trust that the Government will see the enormous importance, as affecting every Member of the House, of performing the duty. In Ireland we are simply disgusted with the way in which this business is carried on; and I beg to assure hon. Members opposite that any steps which they may take to insure purification of the lists will have our cordial support.


I do not regret the discussion which has taken place on this "Vote, although it has occupied a considerable amount of time. I can assure hon. Members on this side of the House, and the hon. and learned Member for Derry (Mr. T. M. Healy), that, in my opinion, this question of registration has become a crying evil, and that, as hon. Members have agreed, it is desirable that the whole Law of Registration, and, what is more important, its administration, should be reformed. Hon. Members will remember that the question was carefully considered when we were engaged with the Reform Bill; but that it was absolutely impossible to deal with it then, and we allowed the existing machinery to stand as it was in view of the dissolution of Parliament and the General Election. But I think that the present Government is pledged to an alteration of the law, and I have no doubt that the suggestions made to-night, and those that may be made hereafter, will be taken into their consideration. I believe that a Select Committee has sat to consider the question of reforming the Registration Laws. I think that probably the best way to deal with the matter will be to get rid of the overseers altogether; but, of course, I cannot pledge myself or the Government to any specific mode of procedure, although I can assure hon. Gentlemen that it is a matter with which, when they have the opportunity, the Government intends to deal.


This is a question which relates not to England and Wales only, but to the whole Kingdom. I wish, therefore, to make a few remarks upon the question with regard to Scotland.


The hon. Member will not be in Order in referring to Scotland, the Vote before the Committee having reference only to England and Wales.


In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Oxfordshire (Banbury) (Sir Bernhard Samuelson), I have to state that there was an allowance of 4d. for each name placed upon the list—that is to say, 2d. for each name to the overseers and 2d. to the Clerks of the Peace. The number of voters in England and Wales was 2,546,640, which, at 44. per head, gives the sum of £42,444. The increase in the number of county voters for England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland was 1,729,300; and if we add to this the increase for the extension of the borough and service franchise, taking into account the increase of population from 1881 to the time when the Act came into force, it is assumed that it will give a total increase of 2,000,000 of voters.

Vote agreed to.

(9.) £2,000, Registration of Voters. Ireland.


After the remarks which fell from the hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. II. H. Fowler), I do not think it necessary to enter upon a long discussion of this Vote. I shall, therefore, say but a very few words upon it. I think it absolutely necessary that there should be some protection to voters in reference to this matter of registration. In Ireland, the Sheriff or the Clerk of the Peace gives out the printing of the voters' lists to the Conservative newspaper, and the Conservative newspaper, when once the lists are signed by the Revising Barrister, as we know, may put in any names it pleases. We do charge that after the voters' lists in Ulster had passed from the hands of the Revising Barrister, and were signed by him and handed over to be printed, the lists were stuffed, and that dozens and scores of persons appeared who were never on it at all, while persons who were struck off the lists appeared afterwards as genuine voters. The serious effect of this will be that there will exist in the public mind a sense of uneasiness and distrust; and even supposing that our charges are not substantial, there will still remain the belief that, under the present system, such things are possible. I say it is essential that we should have a fair Court, fair law, and honest people to carry it out. The whole machinery should be above suspicion, and then if a mistake were made everyone would believe it was a mistake; whereas, in the present circumstances, if a mistake is made the assumption is to the contrary; and there is in the North of Ireland a feeling that not only the boundaries, but the voters' lists, have been jerrymandered.


I should not trouble the Committee were it not that the hon. and learned Member for Derry (Mr. T. M. Healy) has, as usual, taken the course of making very serious charges against Members from the North of Ireland. He makes the assertion, although he did not name any instance, that the printing of the lists of voters was given only to the Conservative newspapers. There are not many newspapers in the North of Ireland representing the opinions of hon. Members below the Gangway; but I quite admit that, where there are newspapers representing those opinions, they are entitled to a share of the printing. But the hon. and learned Member has also stated that there exists a general and strong impression amongst the public in the North of Ireland that the registration of voters there has been tampered with. Now, I totally dissent from that view. There was, of course, very heavy work during the last registration, and I believe that all the officials connected with it discharged their duties with unusual labour and efficiency. A large amount of work was done in one Revising Court; and I believe, with regard to the lists, that a very great deal of trouble was given to the Revising Barrister and the officers connected with the registration by the fraudulent claims made by the Nationalist Party. One person, a blacksmith in a small village, was claimed for four times in the list, and 26 names were struck out without any attempt of the National Party to defend them. I certainly protest before the Committee against the continual repetition of these grave charges, which are made, without any specific case being given, against officials in the North of Ireland or in Ireland generally.


The hon. Member for Antrim (Mr. Macartney) has conveyed the impression that the state of things in the North of Ireland with regard to the registration of voters as described by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Derry does not exist. But the hon. Member forgets that his knowledge is confined to that Party who have power to appoint the officials in question, which, allow mo to remind the Committee, is exercised with a degree of bigotry and exclusiveness which cannot be surpassed in any country in the world. Of course, amongst his Friends no such things as we allege are possible, and, of course, when an error is made it cannot be committed in favour of them, but against them. I think, with the exception of one Province, the officials are Bitter partizans and agents of the Conservative Party. We object that these men are notorious partizans, and we say that they should have no control over these lists. The hon. Member says that no such impression exists in the North of Ireland as that the lists have been tampered with. I venture to suggest that the contrary is the case. I myself fought a close contest, and numbers of respectable people came to me afterwards and absolutely swore that such action had gone on——


I said "general impression."


It is, of course, very natural that the hon. Member (Mr. Macartney) and his Friends are satisfied with the present state of things, and that we are not. That is the whole point of the matter. We contend that whenever an error is committed it is in- variably in favour of the hon. Gentleman's Party; and we are prepared to bring evidence in support of our case before a Committee of this House. I know men who are prepared to swear as to the irregularities which have occurred as to minors having been put on the Register, &c. Now, these are the facts which destroy public confidence in the list. An hon. Member asked me the other day how a minor can vote in a matter of this kind; but I pointed out to him that the Presiding Officer had no power whatever of dealing with the matter so long as the name appeared on the Register. I have only to say, in conclusion, because the case has been very well put by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Derry (Mr. T. M. Healy), that I desire to earnestly press upon the Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. H. H. Fowler) that the Government ought not to postpone action in this matter to prevent a recurrence of such malpractices. In a very short time there may be another General Election; and, therefore, at the very next registration the lists of voters ought to be purified.


The hon. Member for Antrim (Mr. Macartney) has accounted for the partizanship shown in the distribution of the printing, by stating that Nationalist newspapers in Ulster are few in number. I do not know if that is so; but all I can say is, that the practice of giving the printing of the lists to the Tory newspapers is quite general throughout Ireland. No matter which Province it is, the practice is that wherever the responsible officer is a Conservative, the Tories get the printing of the lists. The hon. Member has charged that the Nationalist Party filled the voters' lists with double claims. The hon. Member simply shows his ignorance by making such a complaint. The practice is a necessary one and is indulged in by both parties when they know their business. I can state a fact for the information of hon. Members in regard to the way in which the lists are made up in Ireland. In the Rathmines Division of the county of Dublin, out of 500 claims put in by the friends of the hon. Member for Antrim (Mr. Macartney) not 50 were sustained. In some cases, triple and even quadruple cases were made in respect of the same person. With reference to another observation which fell from the hon. Member, I should like to say this—that my experience of the county of Dublin registration work teaches me that as gross irregularities are to be found there, within sight of Dublin Castle, as could be found in the furthest corner of Connaught. The Committee will remember that last year Dublin County was divided into two divisions specially to secure a seat for a Tory in a constituency which, taken as a whole, was overwhelmingly Nationalist. This attempt to safeguard the Empire was supplemented by the action of those who actually drew the dividing line, for it was curious to notice that voters who were believed to be Nationalist were in all doubtful cases placed on the lists for North Dublin, which was strongly Nationalist, while the contrary rule was always adopted in the case of supposed Conservatives. I know of one case in which the owner of a villa residence, who is a Nationalist, and the gate-lodge keeper, who is also a Nationalist, were put in North Dublin; while the occupier of the villa, who is a Tory, was put in South Dublin. Those who are so anxious to maintain the integrity of the Empire were guilty of the most disgraceful partisanship in making up these lists; and if the hon. Gentleman the Member for Antrim will move for an inquiry into these matters, I will undertake to give him a score of instances even more scandalous than those I have mentioned.


I think, Sir, that there can be little doubt, after what my hon. Friend has said, that whatever may be the other qualities of the hon. Member for Antrim (Mr. Macartney) he must know very little indeed of the subject of the registration of voters. He complains that the Nationalists in the constituencies with which he is acquainted claimed three times. Well, the hon. Member in this matter has found a mare's nest. It is absolutely necessary, in order to properly work the business of registration, that these duplicate claims should be made, and they are not exclusively confined to any one political Party. The fact is, that the law regulating the registration of voters is so complex and so confused that it was practically impossible for the person working it to know under what particular qualification he should make a claim. In some cases it is quite im- possible to know whether the claim should be made as a rated occupier, or an owner, or as a lodger; and therefore it is necessary to lodge all the claims, so that on one of them at least the claimant shall succeed. The last revision was the first time that special Acts of Parliament were applied in the counties of Ireland; and, having regard to that fact, it was quite important for everybody to be prepared for the way in which those Acts, as Revision Law, would be decided by the Courts. In one instance no less than 500 votes were lost in consequence of a particular decision. There is one other matter to which I should like to call the attention of the Committee—I mean the duplication of names, not on the voters' list, but on the Register itself. A considerable discussion has been raised as to the large number of abstentions from the poll in Ireland. Well, I can say that it was due, to a great extent, to the duplication of names on the Register. My attention was called to one case in which the name of one individual occurred on the Register no less than 60 times, and no less than five times on one page, the names being in close proximity to each other. I am aware that this was the case in a large number of constituencies in which no proper revision took place, in consequence of one Party being in such overwhelming force that there was no opposition made before the Revising Barrister. I certainly join in the appeal of the lion, and learned Member for South Derry (Mr. T. M. Healy) that the Government should take this matter into their consideration, and, when the proper time comes, they will, no doubt, receive suggestions from all parts of the House as to the way in which it should be dealt with. I do not mean to challenge this Vote; but I respectfully assert that there are two points on which the law ought to be amended.

Vote agreed to.