HC Deb 07 May 1886 vol 305 cc538-45
MR. T. FRY (Darlington)

, who had on the Paper a Notice to the following effect:— That, in the opinion of this House, the hours of Polling at School Board Elections in Cities and Boroughs should be from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m, said, that the only objection which he had heard to making this desirable alteration was the extra expense which would be incurred; but, on looking into the matter, he found that the extra expense would be a very small matter indeed, for all the books, the printing, and other expenses would remain the same. There might be a demand for an increase in the fee to solicitors, agents, and clerks; but even these were usually charged as full days. However, the question of expense was hardly worth mentioning, considering the great convenience to large masses of the population which would result from the extension of the hours of polling in the manner which he proposed, and also the removal of a very serious injustice, which was keenly felt, more especially by the working classes. Numbers of people were prevented from voting, especially in large centres of population, owing to the early hour at which the poll was closed in many towns, and this was especially the case in the town which he had the honour to represent. Very many railway men went to work at an early hour in the morning, and did not return till long after the hour of closing the poll, and he knew that they felt this to be an injustice from which they ought to be relieved. He had himself been a witness to a scene where a large number of men were crowding round the door of the polling station, but who, to their evident disappointment and annoyance, were unable to vote owing to the closing of the poll before they could get in. He could not see any reason in the world why the hours of polling which prevailed in London should not prevail throughout the country, or, at all events, in all the large centres of population. It had been suggested that the fixing of the hours of polling should be left to the Town Councils or other Local Authorities; but there was the objection to this that there would be no uniformity in the hours in, perhaps, adjoining districts, and there would always be the suspicion of political or religious influences being brought to bear in the matter for Party purposes. He had, therefore, come to the conclusion that it would be much the best plan to fix the hours of polling at School Board elections all over the country as they were fixed for Parliamentary elections—from 8 o'clock in the morning to 8 in the evening—a plan which he believed would remove all feelings of irritation and injustice from the minds of the working classes. He was hopeful that his Motion, not involving a Party question, but simply one which regarded the convenience of the people, might be accepted by the Government. He had received many letters from different parts of the country approving his object. The hon. Member for Portsmouth had asked him to state that many of his constituents employed in the Dockyards were prevented from voting on the last occasion because the hours were so fixed that they had not time to record their votes. As the preceding Motion had been negatived, he could not take a division; but, in answer to a Question he had put a few weeks ago, the right hon. Gentleman the Vice President of the Council said that it would not be necessary to bring in a Bill to effect the reform which he (Mr. T. Fry) advocated, but that if there was a sufficiently strong expression of opinion by the House in favour of the alteration the object could be effected by an Order in Council. He had, therefore, brought the proposal before the House in the form of a Resolution, and he hoped that the House might accept it without opposition.


said, if the Forms of the House had permitted, he should have been happy to second the Motion. He believed that this proposal, if carried out, would be very acceptable to the working men, especially in the large towns of the North, who took a great interest in School Board elections. Although they were unable to take the sense of the House upon it, he trusted that the right hon. Gentleman would give such a reply as to render it unnecessary to take further action. As far as regarded the additional expense caused by extending the hours of election for the School Boards, he ventured to say that in local government legislation, which he hoped the House would be able to undertake before very long, they would be able to simplify the system of elections, the number of which were now bringing local government into disrepute. It was a perfect nuisance that there should so frequent elections; and he trusted that the various details of local government would be entrusted to Committees of one elected Body. But there was no reason why the working men should be shut out by reason of the hours of polling being too short. He could show that many men had been shut out from voting at School Board elections, because they must vote either in the dinner hour or in the evening. But even if they cost a little more, he thought that the elections provided for by that House ought to be real elections. It was very unreasonable that working men should be shut out from voting just at the last moment, when they had not been able to vote at breakfast time, or at a midday hour of refreshment. He thought the good sense of the Motion was so self-evident that he need not trouble the House longer in supporting it.

MR. SAUNDERS (Hull, East)

said, that during a recent School Board election at Hull it was found that many working men were prevented voting by the early closing of the poll; and it would be a great convenience to his constituents if the Government could see their way to adopt the Motion. Hon. Members generally seemed to be in favour of it, and he understood that the Government could give effect to the Resolution without the passing of an Act of Parliament. It was most desirable that the public should have equal facilities in all places for recording their votes at School Board elections.


said, that as a Member of the London School Board, he was in a position to testify that it had been a great convenience to have the poll allowed to remain open till 8 p.m. As London had been made the scene of an experiment in keeping open the poll at Parliamentary Elections till 8 o'clock, which was afterwards extended to other towns, he thought the experience of London in School Board elections might be utilized for the whole country.

An hon. MEMBER

said, he regretted that the Motion was confined to boroughs and towns. There were many other populous places where it would be of advantage to extend the hours of polling. He hoped the Government would make a uniform rule all over the country.

MR. CAINE (Barrow-in-Furness)

said, he wished to call attention to the hardship of the borough of Tottenham, which was outside the Metropolitan area, and, therefore, did not enjoy the extended hours in force in the Metropolis. Large numbers of the residents were in the daily habit of leaving for town by early morning trains, and they did not return, many of them, till after 8 o'clock in the evening. At the recent Parliamentary election he found that some 700 or 800 electors were disqualified in consequence of the hour being even so late as 8 o'clock; and with regard to the School Board, he was satisfied the disfranchisement was much more extensive. The same rule applied to Liverpool, where there were generally from 8,000 to 10,000 persons employed on the steamers on the river, many of which men did not get away from their work till 7 or 8 in the evening, and it was impossible for them to get ashore in time to vote in the country districts. He was satisfied, from what he knew generally of electioneering opinion throughout the country, that it would be a most popular thing if the Government would grant the request of the hon. Member for Darlington.

MR. PICTON (Leicester)

said, he did not see why the polls should not be kept open for 12 hours even in rural districts. It was the electors, and not the officials, who had to be considered. In some quarters the working classes had a strong impression that the hours were deliberately fixed so as to exclude them from polling.

MR. E. RIDER COOK (West Ham, N.)

said, he quite sympathized with the remarks of the hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Caine), for the borough which he represented, the borough of West Ham, being, like Tottenham, outside the Metropolitan area, was limited to the shorter hours. That was felt as a real hardship by an enormous population.

MR. F. S. POWELL (Wigan)

said, that if there was a hardship with regard to the Parliamentary elections it must be still more the case with regard to School Board elections, because there the working men's children were most affected. He thought, therefore, that on the occasion of School Board elections the working men ought to have a real opportunity of expressing their opinion. In such a borough as that which he had the honour to represent, many of the working classes were occupied during the day at some distance from their homes, and it was only at the latter part of the day, when they got home, that they had the opportunity of voting. Unless there was an extension of the hours they were really excluded from the franchise. It was really a matter of great importance, in the interest of elementary education, that the working classes should be led to take the greatest interest in it, and that they should express their opinions in the most ample manner.


said, that an hon. Member had raised an objection on the ground of expense to the carrying into effect of the Motion of the hon. Member for Darlington, and other hon. Gentlemen had spoken against it on the ground that it would have the effect of making too great a tax on the energies of those engaged in taking the poll at School Board elections. He held that it was not necessary to have the energies of the officials taking the poll taxed for the whole of the day, except in populous places. In small rural parishes he considered that there might be a cessation in taking the poll at that time of the day when few persons attended to record their votes. Then the working classes would be enabled, by keeping the poll open till 8 p.m., to record their votes, without much extra trouble or expense to those conducting the elections, and there would be a cessation of taking votes during the afternoon. He desired to see the hours of polling extended, because he was anxiously looking forward to the time when there would be School Boards in every district, and therefore the hours of polling should be as late in the rural as well as in the town communities. The voters ought to be afforded adequate facilities for recording their votes, and the more interest they took in School Boards the better would it be for all concerned. He hoped that the Government would approach this matter with the object of establishing a uniform system all over the country, and that before long this would be realized.

MR. EDWARD RUSSELL (Glasgow, Bridgeton)

said that, as representing a large constituency like Glasgow, he was glad to have an opportunity of supporting this Motion. As the Vice President of the Council well knew, the School Board institutions of Glasgow were conducted on a remarkable scale of efficiency; and not only so, but they were associated with a great deal of effort on the part of the members of the School Board, who obtained an insight into the minds of the people, and did a great deal of good from day to day by bringing social influences to bear on the % people. He knew that in connection with elections the members of the School Board had the means and opportunity of exercising an admirable influence on the people, and that the more they obtained the concurrence of the people in the electoral operations the better they were pleased, and the better they found the education of the children to progress. Experience showed in Glasgow that not only could the hours of polling be extended with safety, but with great advantage, because the more the feelings of the people were enlisted in the matter the greater was the influence of the education in the homes of the people, as well as in the training of the children.

MR. L. FRY (Bristol, N.)

said, that, as the Representative of a large Western city which took a great deal of interest in the question of elementary education, he considered that the proposal now before the House would, if adopted, be of great advantage. It was not possible to take a division upon the Motion; but he hoped that the Government would see their way to accept it, because the right hon. Gentleman (Sir Lyon Playfair) would not require to pass an Act of Parliament to give effect to its proposal. There was a strong desire among the people of Bristol that every facility and opportunity should be afforded to the electors to record their votes at School Board elections.

DR. FOSTER (Chester)

said, that while agreeing with the proposal he thought its scope should be widened, as he desired to see it extended to all loca- lities in which School Boards now existed, or might be hereafter created. Public elementary schools were of such importance to the working classes that every facility possible should be given to them to influence and direct the policy of School Boards. He knew the extension of hours would be popular in Birmingham and other largo towns, and he believed it would be equally popular and advantageous in less populous districts.


said, the consensus of opinion in the House upon this subject had been very marked. It was obvious from all parts of the House there was a desire for fair play, and that there should be an opportunity for all classes to record their votes with the greatest amount of convenience. The position of the question at present was this—In London the working classes had 12 hours in which they could record their votes; in parishes and in boroughs they had seven hours allotted; but there had been a suspicion, and it was a very unfortunate suspicion, that the hours had been occasionally fixed for certain Party purposes. That probably was not true, but it had produced an unfavourable impression; and in the question of education such an impression ought, if possible, to be removed. He thought the general expression of opinion for extending the hours was of such a character as would induce the Privy Council at once to consent to a prolongation of the hours of polling. It was simply a question of expense. Hitherto, in the populous districts—in parishes especially, and small towns—the expense had been kept down to a minimum, and very small fees had been paid. For instance, £1 had been paid to a clerk for attention to the duties for seven hours. It was possible that it might be found they would not be able to obtain persons to attend at all the polling stations upon the same economical terms; but the increase of expense in ordinary cases would not be very large. Had he not heard such a general expression of opinion in favour of keeping all polling stations open for 12 hours, the suggestion which he would have put before the House would have been that at small or less populous places, where 12 hours might not have been required, the purpose might be met by limiting the hours to eight, but that the hours should be specified—say from 12 to 8 o'clock—so that the working man might vote either at his dinner hour or after the day's work was completed. He would not, therefore, give a pledge that there should be a uniform system of 12 hours all over the country, but that 12 hours might be granted where there were considerably populous places and considerable towns. In his opinion, eight hours—from noon till 8 at night — would be a better rule where the population was small, and where it was desirable not to increase the expense. If that met the view of the House, he could say that the Department which he had the honour to represent would take care that in the next Order in Council there was an extension of the hours for polling given in the sense of the views which had been expressed.


said, he was glad to hear the observations of the right hon. Gentleman, because it would be an absurd extravagance to open the poll for 12 hours in a country village where perhaps there might not be more than 100 voters on the Register. The object would be amply secured by having the poll open during the dinner hour and in the evening. Some hon. Members expressed the hope that the time would come soon when there would be a School Board in every rural parish. He hoped that time might never arrive; but if they wished to make School Boards more unpopular than they were, let them add to the expense by insisting on the absurd proposal to have the poll open for 12 hours, however small the number of voters.