HC Deb 12 February 1891 vol 350 cc549-58

Order for Second Reading read.

(9.49.) SIR R. WEBSTER

Sir, I beg to move the Second Reading of this Bill. The House will remember that two or three years ago the public were some what surprised at a decision of the Court of Queen's Bench, which laid down that compulsory absence—if I may use the expression—even for one night, even though the voter was in all other respects qualified, prevented him from being placed on the register. In fact, to take an extreme case, supposing a man to be two nights absent in a Volunteer camp doing Volunteer service in obedience to the orders of his superior officer, he is thereby disqualified. I have received representations from Revising Barristers and others asking me to get the matter put right, and I have the satisfaction of knowing that when the subject was debated during the last two Sessions everybody was prepared to say there was no justification for the existing disqualification. It was then pointed out that there might be other cases of temporary absence where by a voter would be disqualified by being sent away, and that there was no reason for such a person losing his vote by reason merely of absence in the discharge of duty. Some limit, however, must be adopted, and as four months is the period of absence which disqualifies in the case of ordinary residence, a similar limitation has been introduced into the present measure. Last year objection was taken to the Bill On the ground that I did more than was necessary to cure the evil, by introducing the section relating to police officers. Whatever may be thought as to desirability of that alteration of the law, this year I have thought it better to do no more than simply cure a mischief which has been largely felt in various parts of the United Kingdom, and therefore I have confined the Bill to the simple provision that a man shall not be disqualified from being registered— By reason only that during part of the qualifying period, not exceeding four months at any one time, he has, in the performance of any duty arising from or incidental to any office, service, or employment held or undertaken by him, been absent from his dwelling-house or lodgings, or not resided in or within the required distance from such county or borough. I hope the House will consent to the Second Reading of the Bill.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

(9.52.) MR. CAUSTON

This Bill is of a very different character to the last. This is really a Registration Bill, and we have been told by Her Majesty's Government over and over again that they do not like tinkering with registration. No more tinkering Bill has been introduced in this Parliament than the present, with regard to registration. I quite admit that the Bill deals with a grievance, but is it the only grievance in reference to registration? Why should only soldiers, sailors, and petted persons be selected for the purpose of being relieved from a grievance? Why do the Government not deal with the grievances of the lodgers and occupiers? Why do they not do what the learned Solicitor General suggested on the 2nd December, 1889, in the Westminster Town Hall, when he said that— When Parliament had made up its mind as to the particular class of persons who should enjoy the Franchise, it was their duty to see that it was rendered as easy as possible for every individual belonging to that class to obtain and keep the privileges. Is this Bill intended to carry out the view of the Solicitor General? I hope that a stand will be made against this Bill—not that I object to getting rid of any disqualifications, but because I think we have great reason to complain of the tinkering policy of Her Majesty's Government. We all know that Her Majesty's Government are very much divided on this subject of registration. Almost at the time that the Solicitor General was speaking in Westminster Town Hall, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was speaking at Hull. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Grimsby was urging the Chancellor of the Exchequer to deal with the subject of registration; but he was told then by the Chancellor of the Exchequer that it would mean a new distribution of political power—one more tinkering with the Constitution. He said— I think we may say for sometime now we may look to the results of past experiments, without attempting once more to pick our Constitution to pieces. That is what the Chancellor of the Exchequer thinks we shall be doing if we give these men, who, as the Solicitor General says, had the franchise extended to them, the opportunity of having their names on the register. We all know, whether the Conservative Government deals with this question or not, that it is the intention of the Liberal Party to do so at the earliest possible moment, and I hope we shall deal with it in a thoroughly practical way—one man one vote, three months' occupation and six months' register, or something even better than that, and then we shall be carrying out the view which the Solicitor General so earnestly expressed at Westminster. I say we have to deal with the occupiers and the lodgers. It is well-known that if a man moves out of Southwark to Lambeth on the 16th July it takes him two years and five months before he can get a vote. Yet the Government come down and make a proposal to deal with volunteers, militia officers, and so forth; but they have no regard for working men and for those who are just as much entitled to vote as the classes for whom they are pleading now. The original Bill was called "The Electoral Disabilities, Naval, Military, and Police Bill;" this is called "The Electoral Disabilities Removal Bill," which I suppose is to apply to gentlemen's servants and coachmen taken out of town by their masters. I hope that the scope of the Bill is now sufficiently wide to enable us in Committee to deal with other disabilities. Last year, Mr. Speaker, I think you would have ruled the hon. Member out of order who had put down such an Instruction as this which I put down— That it be an Instruction to the Committee that they have power to make provision in the Bill for the removal of the disqualification of occupiers and lodgers by reason of change of their constituency or occupation. I do not know whether the scope of this Bill is sufficiently wide to enable us to deal with occupiers and lodgers; if it is, we shall have an opportunity of dealing with their grievance—and the Attorney General says he is anxious to do away with their grievances—in Committee. I do not allow the Second Reading to pass without entering my protest against that which is a one-sided and tinkering Bill.

(10.0.) MR. JEFFREYS (Hants, Basingstoke)

I am glad that the Government have thought it right to introduce this Bill; hon. Gentlemen opposite talk about "one man one vote," and all I can say is we shall be very glad to give every qualified man a vote, but a great many—especially soldiers—are now deprived of that right, for although his name appears on the register yet when a soldier is sent on duty—on a flying column for instance—for two or three weeks he thereby loses his qualification. Coast-guardsmen are treated in a like manner, and by going out for their annual training lose their votes. Surely under these circumstances hon. Members opposite will not oppose this Bill which, after all, only does tardy justice to a deserving body of men. It does harm to nobody; it only enables people already on the register to record their votes, and prevents their disqualification through having to perform official duties.

(10.2.) SIR WALTER FOSTER (Derby, Ilkeston)

We on this side of the House have no desire to keep any man off the register, and our chief complaint is that the Attorney General has not taken this favourable opportunity of doing away with many other anomalies in our electoral law. His chief argument in favour of the Bill was that it was only a small measure; well, from time immemorial such an argument has been treated as no argument at all. The hon. Member who has just spoken has complained of the disqualification of soldiers, but surely it is an equal grievance that the service franchise does not apply to County Council, as well as to Parliamentary elections. County Councils in several parts of the country have petitioned in favour of this extension of the franchise, and surely the anomaly might have been got rid of by this Bill. Again, many of a very deserving class of men seem likely to lose their votes this year. I mean the agricultural labourers, who through the recent severe weather were driven to accept parish relief, through circumstances over which no human being could have control. Again, I say our chief regret is that the Bill is not a larger one, and is confined to doing justice to one class of the community instead of to many, that are also deserving of consideration.

(10.3.) MR. CONYBEARE (Cornwall, Camborne)

I cannot agree with the hon. Member for the Basingstoke Division that this Bill does no harm to anybody, although I recognise with satisfaction the pronouncement he has made in favour of the principle "one man one vote." I hope that when the time comes in the not distant future when that principle is embodied in a Bill it will have his active support. Now, I do not at all oppose this measure in so far as it tends to give a man a vote. We want a universal suffrage, therefore any proposal that gives an individual a vote will have our support. But I do desire to point out to the Attorney General that the Bill will inflict a very great hardship on men who have to go away from home in search of work. It will disfranchise a good many miners in my own constituency; and although I have a majority there which I am not afraid will be diminished materially, still I am sure the sense of fair play which the hon. and learned Member possesses will induce him to say that no humble citizen should be disfranchised by inadvertence. In my constituency the miners have to go from one part of the country to another in search of employment, and I think the limitation of four months' absence might very well be extended. May I point out that when these men go away from home to work they keep up their homes in Cornwall and send home their wages for the support of their wives and children, and I therefore think they are entitled to keep their names on the register of voters. Yet by passing this Bill as it stands you will be disfranchising hundreds of them. Cannot the Law Officers of the Crown see their way to modifying this provision, and extend the period from four months to six or nine months. If they do not do so I shall have in Committee to propose an Amendment on that point. I am sure they will recognise it is very unfair to take from one class of men a privilege which they are by the same Bill conferring on another body. I wish they would have the courage to bring in a larger measure, and not to give us reforms in these homoeopathic doses. Still we must not, I suppose, look a gift horse in the mouth.

(10.10.) MR. JAMES ROWLANDS (Finsbury, E.)

The first thing on which we have to congratulate ourselves is the departure which the Government have taken in this Bill. Those who took part in the Debate upon the last Bill before the House must at least be pleased that they have gained so much by action which was then termed obstruction, for the Government have now seen their way to very materially alter the scope of the Bill, and the measure is not likely to be defeated from this side of the House. I, at any rate, do not intend to oppose it; but I do join with my colleague in protesting against the manner in which its operation has been limited. The Bill itself shows distinctly how much amendment is required in our Registration Laws, and that the Government should have merely proposed to deal with the grievance of only a small section of those who are disqualified under the present system is a matter of very great regret to us. I can quite understand the enthusiasm for this Bill displayed by the hon. Member for the Basingstoke Division—a constituency in which there is a large military vote—but it should be borne in mind that there are many electors who are disqualified from voting by equally unfortunate circumstances. In my own constituency at the present time those who live on one side of a street and who were at the last election qualified to be upon the register, are now unable to vote, not through any default of their own, but simply because the landlord of the houses omitted to pay the rates at The qualifying period. I think the Government ought to deal with a grievance of that nature, and not allow the disqualification of voters for no fault of their own. I hope, indeed, that the Government will seriously consider this matter before the next registration, and see if they cannot bring in a small Bill dealing with that particular grievance. I know there are many other grievances in connection with our registration system. For instance, take the case of a lodger on the register. He finds he is prospering, and is able to take the house in which he had been lodging, but immediately he does so he loses his vote as a lodger, and has to go through the whole probationary period as an occupier before he is qualified to again have his name on the register. Surely that is a small reform which the Government might take in hand, and it is one of many instances of our present ridiculous system. I think that when they are dealing with the matter of registration they might attempt a thorough reform, and not take up the time of the House by a tinkering little Bill like this. If they would only bring in a more comprehensive measure, or give facilities for a private Member to push forward one of the measures which have already been introduced this Session dealing with such matters as successive occupation, I think they might rely upon active support, for they would then be doing justice to deserving classes of the community.

(10.18.) MR. PICTON (Leicester)

The hon. Member for Basingstoke will, I think, be reminded pretty frequently hereafter of his declaration in favour of the one man one vote principle. He has, I think, a little understated the true Radical doctrine. That doctrine is not merely one man one vote, but it is every man one vote, and we say that no man ought to be left off the register if he has the least claim to be on it. But if there is any class of men whose claim to a vote is weaker than that of any other, it surely is that class who depend for their daily bread on the favour of Government officials. I do not go so far as to say that soldiers should be left off the register, but I say that their claim is weakened by their acceptance of Government employment. I think we have already a great deal too much official influence in this country, and a good deal might be said in favour of a law which deprived of their votes all who necessarily come under official influence. This Bill is intended to make a very striking exception in favour of one particular class of the population. There are tens of thousands of men subject to disabilities far more unjustifiable than those dealt with in this Bill, but the class now to be relieved comprises simply those who are known to be under Governmental and official influence. They are to be relieved, whilst others are to be left out in the cold. I remember myself that when on being elected a Member of this House I was compelled to change my residence, and I was left off the register for two years, and had no vote simply on account of that enforced change. Now, this disability is inflicted on hundreds and thousands of citizens year after year, and no effort is made by the Government to remedy an anomaly of this kind; but because Tory Members think that their principles are likely to be supported by those who are in the pay of the Government, and by the liveried servants of the rich, this special exemption is made in their favour. Who does not know how rapidly the register changes? In the course of a year probably one-third of a constituency is altered chiefly through changes of residence of the voters. Now we feel that every British citizen who has once been recognised as a voter should retain his right to vote in the future, unless disqualified by disorderly or criminal conduct. My hon. Friend the Member for Camborne has shown how this Bill is likely to affect his constituents, and how desirable it is that they should be relieved. Therefore, although I have considerable hesitation whether I ought to vote for the Bill, I shall support the Second Reading on the ground that I do not like depriving any one of his right to vote. Still, I think every adult man is entitled, as a citizen of the British Empire, to have a vote, and that preference ought not to be given to those specially subject to Governmental and official influence.

(10.23.) SIR CHARLES RUSSELL (Hackney, S)

I see according to the title of the Bill it is one to remove certain disabilities by reason of absence. Will it at any stage be open to the House to enlarge the scope of the Bill by moving the omission of words "by reason of absence"? I take it that it would not be competent while these words remain in the title to deal with any other disabilities.


It would not. The whole scope of the Bill is compulsory absence by reason of duty.


There is no reference to compulsory absence in the Bill.


I think the hon. and learned Member will see that the Bill deals with compulsory absence.

(10.25.) SIR G. TREVELYAN (Glasgow, Bridgeton)

I agree with every word which has been uttered on this side of the House with regard to the short comings of this Bill. It is, indeed, a wonderful thing that in this nation, which is supposed to be a model of self-government, there should be at least half a million of people deprived of their votes by a bad system of registration, while half a million of people have a vote which they ought not to possess, and yet the only Bill introduced to remedy the evils of that system is the small Bill before us. Notwithstanding all that has been said against the Bill, with every word of which I agree, we cannot, as Liberals, holding the principles we do, vote against it. We are bound to support the Bill also on the ground that it refers only to genuine inhabitant occupiers, who ought all to have a vote. The Bill ought to go a great deal further than it does, but so far as it goes it is framed on right principles. It is much too partial in its application, but we accept it as part of a larger measure which will assuredly some day become law.

(10.28.) COLONEL HUGHES (Woolwich)

I wish to remark, with regard to the protest that this Bill does not go far enough, that the question of successive occupations has been a grievance for 30 or 40 years. For example, a lease holder buying the reversion of his lease hold and becoming a freeholder has to begin his period of qualification over again, and the same applies to a lodger becoming the householder of the house in which he lodged. But why is the Conservative Party to be attacked for not remedying that state of things when the Liberal Party, having themselves, had the opportunity of doing so, took no advantage of that opportunity to give effect to the principles they profess to hold? Over and over again they might have put their professions into practice, but they have never redressed the grievances of which they are now complaining. I therefore do not think they are justified in their present loud complaints.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read the third time, and passed.