§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ *(10.50.) THE PRESIDENT OF THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT BOARD (Mr. RITCHIE,) Tower Hamlets, St. George's
The House will, no doubt, remember that the elections of County Councils should have taken place in the month of 648 November next, but it having been represented to the Government, almost unanimously, by the various County Councils, that there would be a difficulty, if not an impossibility, in arranging for the election at that time, we introduced a Bill some little time ago altering the date of registration, in order to enable the registers to be got ready before the time they are now prepared, so as to be acted on by the 1st November. As the House will recollect, some objections were raised to the alteration we proposed, and it was suggested in the House that instead of the dates for registration being altered, the date of the elections should be changed. There were two or three suggestions in regard to dates made by various speakers in the House. Some recommended January, and others recommended March. It was the intention of the Government only to ask the House to consent to an alteration of the date from November to January, but we have received a large number of representations from the County Councils, urging that March would be a very much more favourable month for the elections than January, and I may say, in order to show the strength of the opinion with regard to this question of date, that one-half of all the County Councils in England and Wales have represented to the Government individually that March would, in their opinion, be preferable for many reasons to January. In addition to that, a deputation waited on me, composed of Lord Thring, Sir R. Paget—an hon. Member of this House—and Mr. Andrew Johnston—conveying the unanimous opinion of a Committee of the County Councils Association appointed to consider the subject that the month of March should be adopted. As this is a matter in regard to which we desire to consult, as far as possible, the convenience of the County Councils and the electors, the Government have departed from the date which they had originally proposed, and have adopted a day in March, according to the unanimous opinion of the County Councils. We have taken advantage of this Bill in order to ask the House to enact that the Mayor shall be the Returning Officer in boroughs. This we arranged by means of general powers given us in regard to the first election under the Local Government Act. Those powers exist no longer, and 649 it is therefore desirable to make this alteration, which I think will meet with the support of all hon. Members who represent boroughs in the House. These are practically the objects of the Bill I now ask the House to read a second time. I hope the measure will meet with favourable consideration at the hands of the House.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Ritchie.)
§ (10.55.) MR. STOREY (Sunderland)
I quite admit that some change is necessary in the law, inasmuch as at present it is impossible for the officials to get the registers ready. But I cannot say I regard the proposal to alter the date of the elections to March as at all a proper and convenient one. The right hon. Gentleman knows that municipal reformers want very much to make as simple and uniform as possible the law with regard to elections and municipal matters. What is he proposing to do by this Bill? While leaving municipal elections still to take place in November, the right hon. Gentleman is going to have county elections in March, and Parliamentary elections held when they may be. The elections are to take place on registers, one of which is to come into operation on the 1st of November, and the other on the 1st of January. I am not going to oppose the Second Reading of this Bill, but I am going to put before the right hon. Gentleman some reasons why I think he has made a mistake in choosing March for the elections. He urges that the County Councils have almost unanimously suggested March. I do not wonder at that. Since the days when triennial Parliaments made themselves septennial by a stroke of the pen, I have never known a Public Body seek to shorten its own existence, and inasmuch as the present County Councils will get three months more by the proposed change, I do not think it wonderful that they should be favourable to it. The month of March is inconvenient for four reasons. In the first place, in our part of the world it is undoubtedly the coldest and most unpleasant month in the year, and, therefore, very unsuitable indeed for electioneering. It is worse with us than November or January, and I should think that the ex- 650 perience of other Members of the House will agree with my own in that. This change will cause the County Council elections to take place on a comparatively old register. The municipal register comes into force on the 1st of November, and the elections are held on that very day. Everybody who has had anything to do with registers knows that there is a very great leakage month by month in consequence of persons moving about from place to place. I think experienced electioneers say you cannot put this much under 2 per cent. per month. [An hon MEMBER was understood to say 1 percentage was greater.] I know London-is extremely exceptional, and hon. Members for London must speak for themselves. I am speaking for the counties, and I think I am putting it at the lowest figure. The proposition is that the register in the counties should come into force on the 1st of January. The people must have been in their houses in the preceding July, and, therefore, the Government proposition is that nobody shall vote for a County Council election except those who have been in their houses since July, and they shall not vote in any case until the following March. The complaint has always been that the space between July and November is too long, because in that period many people move away and cannot vote. The Bill makes confusion worse confounded, because it fixes the election for the 8th March, thus practically disfranchising a large number of persons. January is a worse month than March for an election, especially for agricultural labourers, who are busier in March than in January, and are unable to vote. If we cannot have November or December, I submit that we might have January. A fourth reason I would submit is this: that about 200 Members of this House are connected with County Councils, and are they to leave Parliament in the busy month of March to take part in the County Council elections? Or, if the Easter holidays fall in that month, are they to leave the toils of Parliament for the joys of those elections? I submit that I have shown arguments against the changes proposed. I do not object to the Second Reading, but in Committee I shall give effect to my views.
§ (11.7.) CAPTAIN BETHELL (York, E.R., Holderness)
I think hon. Members will 651 agree that the change proposed is not a very great strain upon the nation. The hon. Member (Mr. Storey) has overlooked one great advantage of the Bill, that it makes the elections conterminous with the end of the financial year. It is extremely inconvenient at present that a County Council should be called upon to prepare estimates which will have to be carried out by the newly-elected County Council. I think this one advantage outweighs the various advantages named by the hon. Gentleman, and I hope the Government will adhere to their proposals.
MR. PICKBRSGILL (Bethnal Green, S.W.)
No mention has been made of the London County Council, whose position is exceptional. The London County Council has to introduce its Money Bill into this House, and one of two things must happen: either the expiring body will have to arrange the work of the incoming Council for the year, or the incoming Council will have to prepare its own programme in a very few days and with inconvenient haste. I would like to know whether the right hon. Gentleman has fully considered that, so far as London is concerned? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the London County Council have rescinded their resolution that the elections on the 1st day of March should take place, and that they now say it should not take place later than November?
§ MR. PICKERSGILL
I have been refreshing my memory, and I think the right hon. Gentleman will find that it was the 1st of March. As the conditions are materially altered, I hope we shall hear from the right hon. Gentleman how he proposes to meet the difficulty, which undoubtedly has been raised on behalf of the London public.
§ *SIR J. DORINGTON (Gloucester, Tewkesbury)
As one concerned in County Council administration, I can vouch for the fact that an election in November would have presented insurmountable difficulties. I am very much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for changing the date from January to March, and on behalf of County Councils in general I think I may with safety repudiate the unworthy suggestion that they are desirous of sitting three months longer.
§ *SIR J. DORINGTON
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman withdraws the insinuation. The hon. Gentleman has spoken of removals, but I think that objection would equally apply to the month of January, in which month we would be in nearly as bad a condition with regard to the register. I am certain we could not hold the elections in November, unless we fixed the dates of registration further back, so as to allow sufficient time to elapse before that month. I made a suggestion to the right hon. Gentleman, which I am sorry he has not adopted. It was, instead of fixing upon a particular date in the month, to decide upon a particular day. Now, the 8th of March falls on a Monday, a very inconvenient day for an election, and one which, moreover, involves preparation on the Sunday. That will be very inconvenient, and I would suggest that the first Wednesday or Thursday, instead of a particular date in March, should be adopted. Such a concession would be of great importance, and would not materially interfere with the date of election.
§ *(11.15.) MR. CAUSTON (Southwark, W.)
I object to the London elections being postponed to so late a date as the 8th of March, because if they are postponed to so late a date as that a very large number of the London electors will be practically deprived of the franchise in consequence of their having removed from one residence to another. As it is, the London Register comes into force on the 1st of January, and I think about the 15th of that month would be a very convenient date for taking the elections in the Metropolis. I do not wish to interfere with the convenience of those who reside in the country districts, but I certainly do not see why there should not be a difference as between London and the country in the dates for taking the elections. It is said that in the country the removals are about 2 per cent. per month; but in London they are at least 3 per cent. per month. I hope, at any rate, as regards the right hon. Gentleman, if he cannot fall in with the view expressed by the resolution passed this day by the London County Council, not to take the elections later than the end of November, he will 653 adopt my suggestion to hold them about the middle of January.
§ MR. JEFFREYS (Hants, Basingtoke)
Reference has been made in this Debate to what takes place in the country districts. I may state that no more agricultural work was done in the beginning of March than in January or February; but the later month had the advantage of longer days. Therefore, March would be a better month for the elections in the rural districts, as the labourers would be able to poll with greater ease. Either Saturday or Monday would be a most inconvenient day for the elections, and I hope the suggestion of the hon. Member for Gloucestershire will be carried into effect in Committee.
§ *MR. HENEAGE (Great Grimsby)
I should like to say a word or two in support of the proposal of the hon. Baronet opposite. I think it would be very desirable to fix a particular week rather than one particular day in the month for these elections, and probably the first week in March would be the most convenient. In considering the convenience of the agricultural districts, the markets must be taken into account. Whatever may be said in regard to the Metropolis, I trust we shall adhere to the month of March as the month in which the elections shall take place in the country, because it is impossible for the labouring classes to vote in January. If we are to put off the elections until the New Year, March is certainly the most convenient season that could be selected, although, for my part, I think it would have been better to have had the elections in November, and regret the opposition to the Acceleration of Registration Bill.
MR. J. BRYN ROBERTS (Carnarvonshire, Eifion)
I think it would be very much better if some provision might be introduced into the Bill to render it unnecessary to treat every election in every district in a county as a separate election, necessitating a separate notice of election and separate attendance to receive nominations and objections to nominations. The principal market town should be the place at which nominations and objections should be made for all the districts served by that market town. Or the town at which the Petty Sessions are held might serve for the Petty Sessional District.
§ MR. LABOUCHERE (Northampton)
It appears to me that this is somewhat of a disfranchising Bill, and therefore I am not surprised at the Government bringing it in. A person will now have to reside 20 months in the same place in order to vote for the County Council. It has been said that the change is good for rural districts, but the Bill is also applicable to large towns and counties, like York and Durham, where the people move more easily than an agricultural population. Members on this side of the House will not let a Bill which disfranchises a large number of their fellow-citizens pass through Committee without a considerable number of Divisions.
§ *MR. ROUND (Essex, N.E., Harwich)
I agree with the right hon. Member for Grimsby that the month of March would be more convenient for the elections than January; but I rose to offer the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Ritchie) the suggestion that it would be preferable to name one week in the Bill for holding the elections, and then to give each county the power of choosing the day on which the election should take place.
§ MR. RITCHIE
In reply to questions that have been put to me on this subject, I have to say that if the feeling of the House is in favour of the day of election being a moveable one within certain limits, or a day of the week, I need hardly say that the Government desire to meet the wishes of those best able to judge. As far as London is concerned, I understand that they have deliberately chosen March as the month of election. It is a better month for the purpose than November in every way, and the difficulty with regard to the register ought not to stand in the way. I should be extremely loth to name one day for one county and another for another county.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read a second time, and committed for to-morrow.