HC Deb 23 June 1892 vol 5 cc1834-44

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House, at its rising this day, do adjourn till Monday next."—(Mr. Ritchie.)

(3.37.) MR. LABOUCHERE (Northampton)

I do not quite see why we should adjourn to Monday. I presume we have to adjourn over one day because we have to wait for certain Bills to come to us from the Lords. But, as I understand, the House of Lords will finish these Bills on Friday; consequently if we have a Sitting on Saturday, instead of adjourning from now to Monday, the Dissolution Councils could be held on Monday, and the Writs issued the same day, and then Saturday, about which day there has been some little dispute, would be included in the permissible days on which polling might take place. Now, we fully understood that as soon as the necessary business was disposed of the Dissolution would take place. At the same time we were no doubt informed—in fact, we know—that a certain time would have to be allowed to the House of Lords to discuss and pass certain Bills sent up to them from this House. We allowed the House of Lords ample time. We passed—I think we were urged to do so—the Agricultural Holdings Bill before Whitsuntide, and we anticipated that the House of Lords would pass the Second Reading of that Bill before Whitsuntide. But they did not do that, and they also took two days extra holidays for their Whitsuntide Recess beyond that we thought sufficient for ourselves, although our labours are more exhausting than those of the House of Lords. On Monday they passed the Second Reading of the Agricultural Holdings Bill, and then they absolutely adjourned it for three days and only took the Bill in Committee on Friday. Now, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Midlothian (Mr. W. E. Gladstone) told us to keep a special eye upon the House of Lords to see how long those noblemen sat each day, and I have kept an eye upon their proceedings. On Monday they adjourned before dinner, at seven o'clock. On Tuesday they adjourned important matters they had under discussion shortly after seven o'clock, and then amused themselves for some time discussing some question in relation to the Earldom of Mar, which can scarcely be said to be of great public interest. On Wednesday, of course, the House of Lords does not usually sit; but I think under the pressure of business, and to further the desire in the country for a Dissolution as early as possible, they might have stretched a point and sat on Wednesday, but they did not. But, Mr. Speaker, anxious as the noble Lords seem to have been to adopt a dilatory policy in regard to the Public Business of the country, they have not the staying power some of us have in this House. Do what they would they were unable to extend what they are pleased to call their labours up to Saturday. So it becomes clear they will finish on Friday, and if we have a Sitting on Saturday we can have the Dissolution on Monday. Generally speaking, and I think almost always at the end of a Session, Saturday is taken to expedite business and bring the Session to an end; and I must say it seems somewhat strange that the Government should now refuse a Saturday Sitting, not only to bring the Session to a close this week, but to expedite the Dissolution. Yesterday I asked the First Lord of the Treasury whether he would consider the expediency of meeting on Saturday to finish the business of the House, and the only reason the right hon. Gentleman could urge against adopting that course was that he had given an assurance to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton (Mr. H. H. Fowler) that the Dissolution would not take place before Tuesday. But, Sir, I am authorised by my right hon. Friend to say that he will entirely release the right hon. Gentleman from any pledge he has given on the subject. It may suit my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, and perhaps others in the House, that the arrangement should not be altered in connection with the elections; but my right hon. Friend feels that he ought not to stand in the way of what he considers the desire and wish of a great number of electors, and I need not say that at the present moment we are all anxious to please the electors. Therefore, perhaps, it will remove any difficulty the First Lord of the Treasury may feel as to his having given a pledge, that my right hon. Friend entirely releases him from it. We do not—and I cannot urge this too often—for a moment ask that all the elections shall take place on Saturday. The First Lord of the Treasury said that Saturday would be a disfranchising day, because small traders could not leave their business to vote, and Jews could not vote on that day. But the small traders are in the habit of voting in the morning. We know perfectly well that they can and do vote then, when they have plenty of time, because their business does not begin until the evening. As regards Jews, they, no doubt, are in considerable numbers in some constituencies; but in other constituencies they may be said hardly to exist as electors. Where they are in large numbers the returning officer no doubt will take the fact into consideration and appoint a day other than Saturday; but in other places the returning officers would comply with a strong feeling that Saturday is the most convenient day for the great body of the electors. All we want is that Saturday shall be a permissible day for polling. But what do we find? That the House of Lords have gone out of their way to prevent Saturday being available, but when the efforts of the House of Lords have failed, and when Saturday can be included in the available polling days, this recourse is had to the expedient of adjourning from Thursday to Monday, and the First Lord steps forward and jokingly says he would be happy to do what is desired, but he has given a pledge he must adhere to. I think we ought to make this perfectly clear to the electors, that a great many of them are to be disfranchised by the action of the Government. In saving this I do not pretend to be quite free from Party considerations. I have no doubt that all electors are ready to sacrifice some portion of their time and even a certain portion of their salaries to perform their duty in voting, and many of them will be the more induced to do this when they detect what I cannot help calling this shabby trick to defraud them of the constitutional rights given them. I am glad to see the Attorney General in his place. I asked him yesterday whether he confirmed the view of the First Lord with regard to the issue of the Writs by post on the day of the Dissolution Council. I asked the First Lord whether it would be possible for a returning officer to send an accredited messenger to receive the Writ, and the Attorney General confirmed the view of the First Lord that this could not be done. The Attorney General was perfectly right, but I have obtained an opinion on this matter which perhaps the House will allow me to read, showing that it is perfectly practicable with a little goodwill to bring Saturday within the polling days. This is the opinion of an ex-Attorney General who is unable to be present to day, the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for South Hackney (Sir Charles Russell). He cites the different Acts which apply, and this is his conclusions:— It would apparently be illegal to deliver the Writ to a special messenger who would be an agent appointed by the Sheriff. It must be conveyed to the Sheriff's office or the General Post Office, as the case may be, by the officer appointed by the Lord Chancellor. The Statute, 58 George III., is imperative that a messenger of the Great Seal shall forthwith—[forthwith is underlined]—carry such of the Writs as are directed to the Sheriffs of London and Middlesex to their respective offices, and by the third section this direction is enlarged so as to include any Sheriff who shall hold office within the Cities of London and Westminster or the Borough of Southwark, or within five miles thereof. It seems clear, therefore, that in all London, in the wide sense, Writs must be delivered by the officer performing the duty of messenger to the Great Seal at the office of the Sheriffs on the day on which the Dissolution takes place. I suppose the Attorney General accepts that?


That is well understood.


Well, if the Council is held at some reasonable time, and if the Writs are issued immediately to the Sheriffs of London and Middlesex, and they are at their offices to receive them, then three clear days will bring us up only to Friday, and an election can take place when it is desired and when it is so determined by the Sheriff on the Saturday. Therefore, I ask the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board, who for the moment is Leader of the House, whether we are to understand that all due speed will be made at the Writ Office to forward the Writs immediately to the Sheriffs of London and Middlesex, so that it may be possible to include Saturday within the permissible days for polling?


The hon. Member has again brought forward a subject which has been fully discussed more than once within the last few days—the question of including Saturday as a polling day—and he has frankly admitted that he has brought it forward to-day to serve his purpose in regard to the coming General Election.


No, I did not say that. I think that is the right hon. Gentleman's inference.


It is the natural inference to be drawn from what the hon. Member said. I do not propose again to go into the reasons why, in our opinion, Saturday is not that advantageous day for polling, so far as the great mass of the electors are concerned, which the hon. Member professes to think it is. Instances have again and again been given within the last few days to show that in cases when the polling has been fixed for a Saturday the poll has been smaller in the same constituency than when the polling has been on another day; and we know also that when Saturday has been within the available days for polling, it has rarely been availed of, just because it has been felt not to be a convenient day. As a fact, the selection of that day would dis- franchise electors of the Jewish religion, and, I think, a large number of small shopkeepers. The hon. Member does not think the latter class would be affected, and there is our difference of opinion. I am convinced that in the East End of London to fix the polling day for Saturday would disfranchise a large number of this class. I do not say they could not vote. Of course they could, but you would call upon them to do so at a considerable sacrifice of their business interests, which perhaps many of them, not such keen politicians as the hon. Member, would not be prepared to make. It is admitted that, so far as Jews are concerned, Saturday would be a disfranchising day for them. To say that the working classes do not have sufficient opportunity for voting on any day but Saturday is to ignore the facts of the case. The hours of polling have been extended to enable the working class electors to record their votes, and I do not think there is the slightest evidence of value to show there is any difficulty whatever in that respect. So we have by a Saturday poll one class certainly disfranchised, and probably a considerable portion of another class, and I find no evidence that anyone would gain by the Saturday poll. But the hon. Gentleman insists upon Saturday—


Saturday being included in the possible days.


I was about to say insists upon Saturday as our final day for sitting prior to the Dissolution; that we should adjourn to Saturday instead of Monday. Well, the answer to that has been given, and it is absolute. My right hon. Friend, as the House knows, was unwilling to name an absolute day for the Dissolution. He stated that, so far as he could foresee, it would not be later than Tuesday or Wednesday in next week; but the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wolverhampton insisted upon a day being named absolutely. It is all very well for the hon. Member to say that the right hon. Gentleman will release my right hon. Friend from that undertaking; it was far more than a personal promise. Does the hon. Member imagine that only the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wolverhampton is interested in the decision arrived at? Is the hon. Member not aware that the fact that Tuesday was fixed was at once made known all over the country, and arrangements have been; made to carry out the necessary preliminaries in accordance with that fixture. Though the hon. Member and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wolverhampton may be quite willing, it is quite impossible now to alter the arrangement. Even if it were possible and desirable, I think the hon. Gentleman underrates the difficulties in the way; he thinks the measures now before the House of Lords, in which possibly Amendments may be introduced, could readily be dealt with.


We will pass them all.


The hon. Member is complaisant as regards Amendments he is not aware of. But I am informed that even if the House of Lords proceed with the greatest rapidity in carrying out the duties which devolve upon them, it would not be possible to ensure a Dissolution before Tuesday. We do not think it is desirable that this House should be asked to meet on an extremely inconvenient day when no practical effect will be derived from so meeting. We think it is not possible to depart from the arrangement made; it is not practicable and it is not desirable. The hon. Member has remarked upon the House of Lords disposing of business at an early hour, and he has argued that they have no right to take up so much time with Bills now before them; but let me point out it is not a matter of so many hours each day. Bills have to go through certain stages; and although each stage may not occupy a long time in a Sitting, still it is necessary that Bills should go through the stages. It is no answer to say they can be disposed of quickly. Then the hon. Member asks if, so far as London is concerned, the Writs will be delivered on Tuesday. I do not know whether the hon. Member is aware of the fact that Writs must be delivered to the returning officer before four o'clock in the afternoon. There will have to be two Councils held on Tuesday—one for Prorogation and one for Dissolution—and I can quite conceive that the difficulties will be very considerable in arranging all that is necessary in order that in due course of law the Writs for London may be delivered to the returning officers before four o'clock.

*(3.59.) MR. CREMER (Shoreditch, Haggerston)

I think the hon. Member for Northampton is justified in pressing this question again and to the last moment, though I have little hope that we can induce the Government to give way. We should, however, be neglecting our duty if we did not give expression to what I know to be the feeling of large masses of the electorate of London in this matter. It is a very simple matter we ask—that among the days on which the polling may take place Saturday shall be included. If hon. Members opposite think their prospect of being returned to the new House of Commons is improved by the polling being held on any other day of the week, we are willing they should have the opportunity; and no doubt the returning officers will meet their wishes in this respect. There are some constituencies in which Saturday polling is absolutely necessary. I do not speak of my own constituency when I say this, because I do not believe it will affect me very seriously whether the polling takes place on Saturday, Monday, Tuesday, or any other day; but I am satisfied that there are constituencies, especially in the East End, in which numbers of electors will be practically disfranchised if the polling takes place on any other day than Saturday, because many of them are not able to return from their work till nine or ten o'clock at night, except on that day. I do not think the people of London or of the country generally will be deluded by the statement that it is impossible for the House of Lords to get through its business in time to enable the Election to take place on a Saturday. We have seen Bills rushed through this House by suspending the Standing Orders in cases of emergency, and the same course could have been adopted in the House of Lords. Their Lordships cannot sit for a few hours longer when it is absolutely necessary, but they can find time to disport themselves at Ascot. I do not mean to say that I envy them: they are welcome to go there if they like to do so; indeed, I should not mind if they stopped there altogether.

*(4.3.) MR. SPEAKER

These constant references to the House of Lords and the tone of the hon. Member are out of Order.


We have been told that it is impossible for the Bills now before their Lordships to be advanced in a more rapid way.


I was referring to the tone in which the hon. Member spoke of the Members of the other House of Legislature. It is necessary that Members of this House should treat their Lordships with respect, and the hon. Member has not treated them with respect.


I am sorry to have shocked hon. Members—


Order, order!


I will not repeat the expression I used just now. I will only say that we have instances on record in which Bills have been advanced various stages in a rapid manner through both this House and the House of Lords, and that what has been done before could have been done again, if there had been any desire on the part of the Government to have had the polling on the Saturday. I suppose it is of no use to appeal to the Government at this stage to allow the electors to poll on Saturday in those constituencies in which there is a strong desire to do so; although it must be seen that the convenience of a large number of voters in some London districts would be met by arranging that the Election should take place on that day.

(4.9.) SIR WILFRID LAWSON (Cumberland, Cockermouth)

I think we have a right to protest against this delay, as well as against the convenience of the whole country being subordinated to that of a few individuals. I We do not wish to lay down any hard-and-fast rule as to when the Election should be held, but we think that the returning officers should be allowed to choose the day which would be most convenient for the polling. I consider that the Government have, by their action, shown a want of confidence in the returning officers. The Jews and the small shopkeepers now appear to be the only hope of the Tory Party.

(4.11.) MR. CAUSTON (Southwark, W.)

I waited to see whether any of the hon. Members on the other side of the House who represent London constituencies would rise to protest against the Election not being held on the Saturday before I rose to speak on the question. It appears to me that the Government have been struck with the remarkable results of the County Council Elections in London, which were held on a Saturday. The right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board has stated that it was a small poll; but I would ask him to compare it with the polling which took place at the previous County Council Election. He would then find that there was a considerable increase of the numbers polled this year, as against those who voted at the last election. It is perfectly clear that Saturday is the most convenient day for the working men of London to record their votes. In those districts in which there is a large Jewish population another day could, of course, be selected for the Election. The small shopkeepers would suffer no inconvenience from having the Election on a Saturday. I consider that the case set up by the First Lord of the Treasury has altogether broken down. It was well known to the Government that there was a general desire for a Saturday polling, but in spite of that they have done their best to make it impossible. Therefore I utter my protest, and I think some of the London Tory Members should do likewise.

(4.15.) MR. LAFONE (Southwark, Bermondsey)

I should like hon. Members who plead for a Saturday polling to come down to my constituency and to air their opinions on the subject in the quarter frequented by the costermongers. There are many similar constituencies throughout London and in the country. It would be found that if the polling were to take place on the Saturday it would practically mean the disfranchisement of the whole of the costermonger class. The costermongers could not vote on a Saturday, because they go out early in the morning and do not get home until ten or eleven o'clock at night. Saturday is really their harvest day. If the hon. Member for Northampton would come down to my constituency, I would take him into the costermonger quarter, and if he did not there learn a lesson I should be very much surprised.

Question put, and agreed to.

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