HC Deb 25 April 1890 vol 343 cc1422-35

(3.10.) Order for Second Reading read.

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

MR. M. HEALY (Cork)

I wish to point out that the Government, in the present Bill, are dealing with a very small part of the question. The Registration Laws at present are in an anomalous condition, and a good many strange decisions have been given by the Courts in Ireland regarding them. In one instance it has been held that a man fined for drunkenness who was sent to prison for nonpayment of the fine had forfeited the franchise. It seems to me, therefore, that the Government have selected a small grievance as a ground for amending the law. I cannot see why these particular classes of the electorate should be singled out by the Government for special treatment on this point; and I invite the Member of the Government in charge of the Bill to be kind enough to tell the House what is the meaning of its provisions.


The Bill is not a Registration Bill at all, but is a Bill really to give effect to the provisions of the Act of 1885. I think it is a Bill which has been more than once read a second time. Its object simply is to take away from soldiers and sailors that peculiar disability which they alone labour under, by reason of their being obliged to absent themselves from their homes, and the Bill simply provides that the absence from home of a soldier or a sailor, upon the orders of his superior, shall not be held to deprive him of the franchise. I hope this explanation will satisfy the House.

MR. STOREY (Sunderland)

The right hon. Gentleman laid special stress on the fact that the Bill deals with soldiers and sailors. But it deals with the police also.


Yes, certainly.


I have no objection to enabling soldiers and sailors to vote, or even that the police scattered over Ireland enforcing coercion should be enabled to vote. But I cannot see why the Bill should not include the sailors in merchant vessels—a larger and more important class altogether than those serving in the ships belonging to the nation. Under all the circumstances, I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time upon this day six months.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question, to add the words "upon this day six months,"—(Mr. Storey,)—instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the word "now" stand part of the Question."

*MR. WHITMORE (Chelsea)

While I am sorry that the Bill does not follow the lines of my Bill, and include such persons as railway servants, merchant sailors, clerks, and others, I cannot support the Amendment. I should be only too glad, however, to move Amendments in Committee.

SIR W. LAWSON (Cumberland, Cockermouth)

Let me point out that the hon. Member would not be in order in going outside the title of the Bill.


Then I shall endeavour to effect my object, and to remove this artificial disability altogether, by moving an Instruction to the Committee. I consider the opposition to the Bill unreasonable.

MR. HOWELL (Bethnal Green, N.E.)

I feel strongly that this Bill ought not to be read a second time, and will, therefore, support the Amendment. I have no objection to the most complete enfranchisement of the people of this country, and have worked for it for a great number of years; but I do not think it is desirable to extend the franchise to those classes of the people alone who are under the influence of the Crown. There are a great many anomalies in connection with our Electoral Law, and I should prefer a measure which dealt with the whole of them. What will the House think of a case of this kind? A man is unable to find employment where he lives, and he goes elsewhere to seek it. While he is away an election takes place, and he finds himself disqualified. The sole object of the Bill is to increase the voting power of the Military and Naval Forces and of the police.


This Bill is a remedy for an injustice which has been found to exist during the last few years, notably during the celebration of the Jubilee. Soldiers who were removed to Aldershot for only a week or 10 days were, nevertheless, held to have lost their votes, and the same law will apply to Volunteers who were away on military duty at Easter or Whitsuntide, or in the summer. It is unfair that men who are serving their country should be disqualified in the same manner as if they had been confined in the county gaol. I hope that both sides of the House will agree to remedy the injustice that now exists, irrespective of the way in which the votes given will be exercised.


I am unwilling to vote against a Bill for removing disabilities in the exercise of the franchise, and I only do so because this Bill makes distinctions between one class of electors and another. If the Government will give an assurance that they will accept a Motion for an Instruction to the Committee to extend the Bill to every class of persons under electoral disabilities, I will support the Second Reading of the measure.


I wish to express my cordial agreement with the views which the hon. Member has just expressed. I hope that Her Majesty's Government will accept this Instruction to the Committee, so that all anomalous disqualifications to which various classes of persons are subject may be removed by the Bill.

(3.28.) MR. SEXTON (Belfast, W.)

I beg to support the Amendment of the hon. Member for Sunderland (Mr. Storey), as I think there is a strong case for the postponement of the Bill. I object to the Bill as a political measure of an unfair description. Other classes of persons as well as servants of the Crown suffer under disabilities, and there is no reason why the Government should not bring in a Bill including them as well as Crown servants. Why should sailors in the Mercantile Marine not be included as well as sailors in the Royal Navy? Great dissatisfaction is caused in my constituency by the Militia losing their votes. The Superior Courts in Ireland have held that a man who is imprisoned for seven days for drunkenness because he is unable to pay the fine loses his vote. In dealing with these franchise questions the position and claims of Irish electors must not be left out of view. In Ireland if a man happens to be charged with drunkenness and fined, and in default of payment suffers imprisonment for an hour, he is forthwith struck off the roll. I would recommend the Government to withdraw this Bill, and in dealing with a matter of this kind, to include the many other anomalies and disqualifications that now exist. The present state of the law is such that if in West Belfast a person professing Nationalist opinions is convicted of intemperance, he is thrown off the register; but if he is an adherent of the Government, then it somehow happens that his identity is never discovered, and he remains on the register. For my part, I cannot consent to proceeding with the Bill, which tends simply to increase one political force. To a proposal to deal fairly with all anomalies and electoral disabilities, I am ready to give every consideration; but I shall vote against the Second Heading of this partial, insufficient, and politically unfair Bill, and shall be prepared to offer it every opposition on its future stages.

(3.32.) SIR J. GORST

I do not think it is decent in this House to speculate too confidently beforehand on the mode in which people who are justly entitled to the franchise will exercise that franchise when they get it. It is an extraordinary doctrine of the hon. Member that a Member of Parliament ought not to advocate the removal of grievances in which his own constituency is specially interested. To state the doctrine is to show its absurdity. The hon. Member has clearly not read the Bill when he says that it does not specify the Militia, because it expressly says "Naval and Military Service shall include service in Her Majesty's Auxiliary Forces." As to the question of the hon. Member for Dundee, Her Majesty's Government will certainly give their support to any Instruction which may be moved on going into Committee which would have the effect of extending the exemptions given to naval and military and police voters to those other classes who were comprehended in the Bill brought in by the hon. Member for Chelsea last year.

*(3.35.) MR. BRADLAUGH (Northampton)

After the declaration of the Government, which I understand to mean that they will include seamen of the Merchant Service in the provisions of the Bill, I have no hesitation in voting for the Second Reading. It is a great pity that time should be wasted upon a matter that is made quite clear.

(3.35.) MR. STOREY

As Mover of the Motion, I may, perhaps, be allowed to say that I heard, with great pleasure, the suggestion of the hon. Member for Dundee. My own desire is to have as many people included in the franchise as possible. I have listened now to the promise of the right hon. Gentleman, and I shall be glad if he will inform me if I am correct in assuming that to be a promise that all other classes who are at the present time under similar disabilities to soldiers and sailors of the Crown should be brought under the Bill on a Motion which will have the support of Her Majesty's Government? I do not want to state whom it shall include. I want to include all classes. But there is another and more important question to which I should like an answer. I do not think the hon. Member for Northampton would have been in such a hurry to promise the Government his support if he had read the 3rd clause of the Bill, and seen what the Bill does for soldiers and sailors of the Crown, without being previously sure——


It is quite clear that the acceptance by the Government of such an Instruction will involve Amendments to the clause which will hare to be moved in Committee; this is not a Second Reading question.


Yes; but let me point out to the hon. Member, who seems to think that everything is well——


I said nothing of the kind.


I said, seems to think. May I ask attention to Clause 3, which provides that should a soldier, sailor, or policeman be sent away on duty for four months, or a less time, in the case of a police constable he shall be allowed to go to his chief constable and get a certificate, under which he may vote in any polling district in the borough? Now, I put this case, and must press it. A disability rests now upon a workman who, living at one end of a town may be——


I must remind the hon. Member that he has exhausted his right to speak.


I desire only a word of explanation in reply to a question which I will put in the briefest form. I wish to know whether the declaration is equivalent to a promise on the part of the Government to put all disqualified classes on an equal footing, so that a workman in a large borough or city should be permitted, on a certificate, say, from the Mayor, to vote in the nearest and most convenient locality?

(3.40.) SIR HENRY JAMES (Bury, Lancashire)

Before the right hon. Gentleman answers may I point out that the principle involved in the Bill is a very distinct one, namely, that exemption is founded on involuntary absence? I think the principle might fairly be recognised in the case of sailors in the Mercantile Marine and other persons who, in the pursuit of their legitimate trade, and not for the purpose of getting votes elsewhere, break their occupation. The Government, while accepting that principle, should not give a pledge as to the exact wording of the Instruction at the present stage.


Perhaps I may he allowed to answer the question and describe the intention of the Government, which has been accurately put by the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I have not been able to obtain a copy of the Bill of the hon. Member for Chelsea which was before the House last year; but I may say that Her Majesty's Government are prepared to accept any Instruction to the Committee which will have the effect of extending the operation of the Bill to those other classes which were included in the Bill which the hon. Member for Chelsea introduced last year.

(3.43.) MR. LAWSON (St. Pancras, W.)

Of course I attach importance to the concession, but at the same time I must regard it as wholly inadequate to meet the needs of the case. The Bill ought to include the cases of workmen who are absent under contract. [A gesture of assent from Sir J. GORST.] Then I understand that workmen will be placed in precisely the same position in this respect as merchant seamen?


Hear, hear.

*(3.44.) SIR JOSEPH PEASE (Durham, Barnard Castle)

If the claim arises in respect to seaman away on service there is certainly an equal claim on the part of engineers and others who, under the terms of their engagement, are required to go out to various parts of the world and superintend the setting up of machinery contracted for in this country. This sometimes involves an absence of many months in distant countries, and, of course, the occupation of residence is broken. These men are in every way qualified to exercise the franchise when they are at home, and certainly I think the Bill should be widened in its scope to include such cases as these.

(3.46.) MR. M. HEALY

The concession offered is not quite clear, and the point raised by the hon. Baronet shows the necessity for a little explanation before the Debate terminates. It seems to me the Bill proceeds on wrong lines, and I do not think the concession will meet the points raised unless the Government will agree to go back to what was the old principle of constructive occupation. Formerly the Courts were content to consider the voter had fulfilled the condition of occupation if his wife or family continued to occupy the qualifying premises, even though the voter himself should have boon absent for considerable periods. Without going into petty distinctions the Bill should proceed on this general principle, and the question of a man's exercising the franchise should not depend upon his having been absent from home for a day over or under four months. One other point has been referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for West Belfast. The Irish Courts have decided that a man convicted of drunkenness and imprisoned in default of payment of tine shall lose his vote. Will the Government carry their concessions so far as to cover cases of this kind? It is a decision that would never be enforced in England, that a man should forfeit his right to vote simply from inability to pay a fine.

(3.55.) MR. ILLINGWORTH (Bradford, W.)

I have a copy of the Bill of the hon. Member for Chelsea last year which we may take as indicating what is intended to be the general scope of the present Bill, and certainly I think the readiest mode of proceeding would be to withdraw the present Bill and start again de. novo. The whole scope and very title of the Bill will have to be altered. If we assent to the Second Reading now, it must be with the distinct understanding that we remove as far as possible all technical disqualification arising from break of occupation. Thus, if a man is absent in fulfilment of a contract for work undertaken, he should not be under disability, nor would it be fair to disqualify a man when he has been absent seeking work. Surely, also, the question of a day over four months' absence should not decide against the vote of a man otherwise qualified.


Instances have been given in which men, by reason of their being away at work, would lose their votes; but the Bill has been introduced to meet the case of soldiers, sailors, and constables who are held to be disqualified even when their absence is an involuntary one. It was pointed out at the beginning of the discussion that the Bill, if it is passed, will confer a benefit only upon certain classes of public servants; and it was said that the Government, and particularly certain Members of the Government, are specially interested in the removal of this disqualification. An appeal was thereupon made to the Government, which was supported by the Member for the Stirling Burghs and the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Bury, that the Bill should be extended so as to apply to the case of persons who are away under contract from their homes during the qualifying period, and where, although to return home would not, as in the case of soldiers, sailors, and constables, be an offence, they cannot practically come back whenever they like. It was suggested that the Bill, as drawn, will exclude merchant seamen and a number of valuable workmen who are sent abroad for a limited time in pursuance of their avocations; and it was proposed that the Bill should be amended in that respect. The Government will accept that Instruction, so that there is now no longer any reason for quarrelling with the Bill on the ground that it refers only to a limited class, having a special interest, because, in its amended form, it will refer to all persons who are away during the qualifying period under contract for a temporary purpose. Under these circumstances, I hope there will be a unanimous acceptance of the Bill by the House, which, I believe, is extremely anxious to admit to the franchise people who have been away in pursuance of duty under contract. If the Member for Sunderland looks at the 3rd section he will see it only applies to constables on duty on the day of election.


Will engine drivers be included?


There is no such provision in the Bill; but that would give ground for the hon. Member, if he thinks fit, to propose an Amendment in Committee.


Will the Government agree to such an Amendment?


I cannot answer that question now. It is most unusual to ask if the Government will, in regard to a Bill which is not in Committee, accept an Amendment which is not on the Paper, and the terms of which they have had no opportunity of studying. My acquaintance with the law of franchise in Ireland has not informed me that if a man does not pay his fine and goes to prison for the night for drunkenness he loses his vote. That, however, has nothing to do with the Bill. The Bill has for its object the securing to persons who, by hypothesis, have a right to vote, but who are often, in consequence of being employed away from their homes, deprived of the opportunity of exercising the franchise.

*SIR J. SWINBURNE (Staffordshire, Lichfield)

I should like to know whether it is intended that the word "contract" as applied to the Mercantile Marine shall be interpreted strictly or not, because I believe that sailors employed in the coasting trade do not enter into technical contracts. Contracts are confined to seamen who sail for foreign ports in the Merchant Service.

*MR. CAUSTON (Southwark, W.)

The Solicitor General said just now that he desired to remove disqualifications from all men who ought to have the right to vote. I am in favour of removing all disqualifications, and last year I was present when a similar Bill which the hon. Member for Chelsea (Mr. Whitmore) introduced was read a second time, and I cordially supported the Second Reading. Later, the same evening, the Second Reading of my Voters' Successive Occupation Bill was moved; but that was objected to by hon. Members opposite, whereupon I gave notice of a Motion to extend the scope of the Bill of the hon. Member for Chelsea. When the Motion came before the House, however, it was opposed by the Attorney General. I hope we are not going to be misled by any Government promise with regard to the extension of the operation of this Bill. I quite agree that soldiers, sailors, and policemen ought to have the franchise, but so ought all working men. The Successive Occupation Bill simply provided——


The hon. Member is referring to a Bill which is on the Order Book.


I will only add that if we are going to remove disqualifications from soldiers, sailors, and policemen, we ought also to remove the disqualification from others. There are hundreds and thou-sands of men in London who are disqualified from voting, simply for the reason that they remove from one division of London to another, or change from lodgers to occupiers. Soldiers, sailors, and policemen go away to do duty in other parts of the country, and so do many working men, and because they happened to be compelled to remove so as to live near their work, they are, under the present law, disqualified for perhaps more than two years. I hope we shall have an assurance that if the operation of the Bill is going to be widened, it will be widened in a way that will prevent men being disqualified for the reasons I have stated in future. The Tory Party professed that it was always their desire that the working men should have a vote; but it seems to me, whenever it is possible, obstacles are placed in the way of their exercising the franchise.

MR. JEFFREYS (Hampshire, Basingstoke)

I hope the House will allow this Bill to be read a second time. The scope of the Bill seems to be somewhat misunderstood. The Bill docs not extend the franchise to soldiers and the coastguards, because they already possess it; but it merely provides that when they are qualified to be on the register of voters, they shall not be disqualified by reason of being called upon to do duty at some other place. There are many officers, sergeants, and others at Alder-shot who have quarters given to them by Government; but if one them is required to servo, say, for three or four weeks elsewhere, he thereby breaks his occupation, and loses his vote The passing of this Bill would merely be an act of justice to such men.

MR. J. ROWLANDS (Finsbury, E.)

All of us on the Opposition Benches are pleased to find this great desire on the part of right hon. Gentlemen opposite to get rid of disqualifications with regard to voters; but in listening to this debate I have been struck with the fact that it leads to much difficulty to bring in a little Bill to deal with a large question. I am glad the Government have agreed to extend the scope of the Bill, but still I want to emphasise the fact that unless we get rid of all idea of contract, so far as the working classes are concerned, a large number of men will not receive the benefit it is intended they shall receive. Working men who temporarily leave their homes to follow their occupation do not do so under what is legally understood as a contract. I should like to hear whether the Government can give any heed to the argument put forward by the hon. Member for the City of Cork (Mr. M. Healy) with regard to the question of constructive occupation, be- cause, if they can, they would widen the scope of the Bill very materially. I also think the Government ought to give attention to the point put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark (Mr. Causton). It is a well established fact that a vast number of the working classes in London are debarred from exercising the franchise because, owing to the exigencies of ther employment, it is necessary they should so frequently remove. You admit the difficulty surrounding the exercise of the franchise by the working classes, but this Bill only goes a little way towards meeting the difficulty.

*(4.15.) MR. G. GRAHAM (Lanark, N.W.)

I merely wish to press the Government for a more definite answer than they have yet given us. The experience I obtained some two years age, when the Mines Bill was under discussion, does not convince me of the expediency of leaving questions which the Government have promised to deal with by means of amendments unsettled. Perhaps that may be because I have not that infantile or elephantine faith in Governments which the junior Member for Northampton (Mr. Bradlaugh) seems to have, and because, unlike the hon. Member, I am not engaged in swallowing my life's convictions, and, putting myself up to auction for a place in either of the two Governments, and because I have no great joy in grovelling before those who kicked me and kept me out of the House—[Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order, order!]—who chucked me out at the hands of their ushers.

*MR. CREMER (Shoreditch, Haggerston)

I am not, generally speaking, in favour of giving votes to those who live upon taxes. If men choose to go out and play at soldiers, I think they ought to be prepared to take the risks which they necessarily incur. They, of course, do it with the full knowledge that they will be deprived of some portion of the rights of citizenship. What appears to me to be an extraordinary anomaly as regards this Bill is that the Government propose to give the right to vote to men who go out and play at soldiers while they deprive of the vote the working man who, in order to keep his family, is compelled to be away from his home following his occupation or in search of employment.


The statement of the learned Solicitor General was that the man who left his home for the purpose of following his work would not, according to the existing law, lose his vote.


I am very glad to hear that. It shows that we are getting on. It is an admission of a very equitable and sound principle. I have made a series of efforts for the last three years to bring the question of the removal of disabilities under the notice of the House and to get it dealt with in a fair and comprehensive manner. The Government having now opened the door, I hope it would not be closed until the whole question has been discussed and dealt with in a satisfactory way.


I feel it to be my duty to vote against this Bill. I cannot see why a soldier or a sailor is to be entitled to exercise political influence by means of voting. People learn how to give votes by attending meetings and consulting others.


The hon. Member's remarks are beside the question.

(4.23.) MR. GROTRIAN (Hull, E.)

I am glad the Government have done something in the direction of the removal of disabilities, and that they are going to take a further step in the same direction. It is exceedingly pretty to hear what great interest hon. Members opposite take in the removal of disabilities. Perhaps it would not be in order to move an Amendment giving a vote to members of the Royal Irish Constabulary. If Members below the Gangway opposite are really in earnest in this matter, I hope they will take the first opportunity of conceding the franchise to the Irish Constabulary. I am especially glad that the Government are going to allow members of the Mercantile Marine to be included in the provisions of the Bill; and I should like to ask whether the term "sailor" will include firemen and fishermen?


The promises given by the Government are so satisfactory that I beg leave to withdraw my Amendment.

*(4.25.) MR. H. J. WILSON (York, W.R., Holmfirth)

I have been in communication with the hon. and learned Member opposite, and understand that the Bill will practically remove disabilities from everyone. If so, I shall heartily support the measure. I wish to know, however, whether a man who is working away from home without being under contract will obtain the benefits of the Bill?


Such a person would not want it, because he would not be disqualified.

(4.27.) MR. PICKARD (York, W.R., Normanton)

I should like to know whether this Bill will include miners working at a distance from home?


No; they would not come within the scope of the Bill.

*MR. T. H. BOLTON (St. Pancras, N.)

I shall support the Bill, because I think the disabilities of soldiers and sailors should be removed, and because I understand the Government will extend the Bill in the direction of removing disabilities from private individuals who are under contracts which compel them to absent themselves from their constituencies. Without expressing any definite opinion how, under the Ballot system, it would be practicable to provide for such cases, I may say that at the recent election in my constituency there were 150 or 200 railway men who were unable to vote because they had to be absent in the discharge of their duties.

MR. LYELL (Orkney and Shetland)

I wish to know whether it will be possible to allow fishermen to record their votes in the same way as constables?

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for Tuesday next, at Two of the clock.