§ Order for Second Reading read.
MR. FARQUHARSON (Dorset, W.)
rose to a point of Order. He wished to ask the Speaker whether the Hill was not improperly drawn, and ought not to be therefore withdrawn from the consideration of the House. The title of the Bill read, "to enable persons to be registered for the purposes of Parliamentary, county, and municipal elections." But the first clause contained provisions for reducing the residential qualifications of electors, and for abolishing the rating qualification altogether. Sir Erskine May laid down this rule:—That with all Bills care must be taken that; they do not contain provisions not authorised by the Order of Leave: that their titles correspond with the Order of Leave; and that they are prepared pursuant to the Order of Leave and in proper form. If it should appear in any Bill that these rules have not been observed, the House will order it to be withdrawn.A clause relating to the qualification of Members was held to be unauthorised in a Bill regulating the expenses of elections. That was a case parallel to the present. There were many precedents for the withdrawal of a Bill improperly drawn; and, judging by the title of the Bill now in question, the House was not led to expect that there were to be extensive alterations in the franchise. He submitted that the effect of including questions of an extension of franchise in such a Bill might, and probably would, postpone the passage of 938 the Bill, which, according to its title, ought to be only for a more speedy registration of electors.
§ MR. T. GIBSON BOWLES (Lynn Regis)
I wish also, Mr. Speaker, to call your attention to the second clause of the Bill.
§ MR. SPEAKER
Order, Order! The question has already been fully raised by the hon. Member who has just sat down. I understand the hon. Member's point to be that, whereas the title of the Bill is "to enable people to be registered for the purposes of Parliamentary, municipal, and county elections," there is in the second sub-section of Clause 1 a provision in the sense of doing away with the lilting qualification; and the hon. Member asks whether that provision comes within the Order of Leave given to bring in the Bill. I have considered the matter very carefully, and I have referred to all the precedents since I have been in the Chair. I have come to the conclusion that all Registration Bills have been invariably very loosely drawn. They have almost uniformly included some enfranchisement clauses; and under those circumstances it is very difficult for me to say that this Bill would be out of Order, as it would be ordinarily, if its provisions were not in accordance with the title. There was a remarkable instance in 1877 afforded by a Registration of Borough Voters Bill, the title of which described it as a Bill to amend the law with regard to the registration of borough voters in England and Wales. That Bill included several conditions preceding registration, and it also included clauses relating to the qualification of lodgers which were of the widest character, and provided that successive occupation of different lodgings should have the same effect as continuous occupation of the same lodgings. So much was this the case that in the course of the Debate objection was taken by a right hon. Gentleman now in the House that the Bill was a Franchise Bill in disguise. I have reason to know that the point was raised before the then Speaker, and was considered by him; and it was held that that Bill was correctly described as a Registration Bill, though it had clauses with a distinctly enfranchising property about them. Although I admit the necessity of keeping within the strict rules of Parliament 939 tary procedure, and of giving the House and the Committee to understand by the title of a Bill what the Bill is, and what is to be done by it, I am clearly of opinion that, under the circumstances, this Bill is in Order and may be proceeded with.
§ VISCOUNT WOLMER (Edinburgh, W.)
On a point of Order, arising out of what you have just said, Sir, may I ask whether the first Amendment on the Paper in the name of the hon. Member for the Stretford Division (Mr. J. W. Maclure) is in Order?
§ MR. SPEAKER
I must apply the same rule to every subject. If the Bill is in Order, an Amendment of that kind must be in Order.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. H. H. Fowler.)
§ MR. B. L. COHEN (Islington, E.)
said, in approaching the discussion of the measure now before the House, the first question which must have occurred to many hon. Members was why had this Bill been pushed forward with such great, if not, indeed, with such indecent haste? The Government had already introduced many important measures to the House, more, he imagined, than had ever been introduced in the same time within the memory of the oldest Member of the House. He was speaking of measures of first class importance, involving, if not a vast amount of controversial matter, at any rate, creating as to details, immense and very wide difference of opinion. He was aware that the Government assumed Office after having contracted an unprecedented number of engagements, recorded in countless promises given at Newcastle and elsewhere, and perhaps they felt themselves bound, even sometimes embarrassed, by those promises. But did they imagine that promises of legislation were redeemed by the introduction of Bills which could not, and which they must know could not, pass into law. Did not Her Majesty's Ministers themselves feel, and do not they feel themselves, that the multiplying of these Bills furnished of itself the greatest, the most insurmountable barrier, to their passing into law. But at least one would have thought that this great variety of legislative proposals would have facilitated 940 their choice in selecting which should have precedence, and if they were sincere in their desire to have an industrious as well as a creditable man at the head of the Service, one would have thought that at least a leven of non-controversial measures might have been admitted to soften the aspirations which they must know had been created by at least three of the great Government measures now before the House. This seemed to him so transparent that he is driven to believe this Registration Bill was pressed on because Her Majesty's Ministers thought some such measure was indispensable to secure the passage into law of the Home Rule Bill, the Welsh Suspensory Bill, and shall he say the Liquor Bill. If that was their belief, he thought they were deceiving themselves. He did not know how far this Registration Bill would favour the prospects of the Party opposite, but he believed the Nation, to whom the Government possibly felt an appeal must be made before they could pass the Home Rule Bill, would be even more moved than it was at present, to right that ill-fated measure if they suspect that in order to promote its acceptance an attempt was made, he would not say to manipulate, but to annex the register for Party purposes. He said he was forced to the conclusion he had indicated because he could discover no other grounds for this extreme urgency. They were all agreed that the Registration Laws required amending, so that if only a Registration Bill were drawn on reasonable and impartial lines, he was sure the Government could rely on the co-operation of all parties in the House to pass it into law. It might, therefore, well have been left till after some provision had been made, say with the Liquor Bill, or with the Welsh Suspensory Bill. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, in introducing the Liquor Bill, said the measure was not only necessary, but urgent. He challenged the right hon. Gentleman to act up to his declaration. The Petitions presented to the House had probably convinced the Government that neither the necessity nor the urgency of the Bill was admitted by the people of this country, and they sought to provide by this Registration Bill the votes they had discovered they would lose by the Liquor 941 Bill. At any rate, for the Registration Bill, urgency could not be pleaded. If they expected shortly an appeal to the people, the Opposition would welcome the announcement of such expectation. If they did not anticipate that appeal in the near future, where was the urgency. The people could not vote until they gave them an election. The right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer said the other evening that the Government heard a great deal in that House of impartiality, but they saw-very little of it. He threw back this reproach to the Treasury Bench and said that they saw nothing of impartiality in this Registration Bill. Again, the right hon. Gentleman, the President of the Local Government Board, in introducing the present Bill, said, he desired to protect the Executive Government from the charge of being influenced by political motives. Was the right hon. Gentleman's own contribution towards that much to be desired end, the visiting of the appointment of registrars in the County Councils? Had the two London County Councillors elected since 1888—had the present London County Council shown itself so entirely free from political bias as to be qualified to exercise the patronage of the appointment of Registrars, a duty which the right hon. Gentleman himself acknowledged should be vested in a body possessing as nearly as possible the quality of judicial impartiality. But the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board was not the only member of the Cabinet who preached and did not practice impartiality. The right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary, in speaking at Liverpool on 20th January, said,The great metropolis of London has also urgent demands to which no Liberal Government can normally be deaf. For the Kingdom as a whole—I hope it may long continue as a whole and that the Liberal Government will at least not be deaf to this demand—there are certain turns the performance of which has been clearly laid upon us by the Constituencies at the last Election.They were not told which were the Constituencies, but undoubtedly Stock-port, and Huddersfield, and Grimsby, were amongst them, and very clearly, by certain duties in them, to which the Liberal Government might be disinclined to be deaf. And then these duties 942 were explained in the same speech as follows:—We have to make representative Gentlemen a reality, but not a sham, by shortening the period of qualification.So that it appeared this curtailment of the period of qualification was in reality prompted by the exigencies of a Liberal Government, as laid on them by certain constituencies. He entirely concurred in the necessity of shortening the period of qualification. The present law was unjust, almost oppressive, but in his judgment far greater mischief might and would ensue from making the period too short than too long. As it was, they knew many voters did not avail themselves of their right to vote. The House might be sure this would not be the case with those who possessed the qualification by an insufficient tenure. It was a well-known answer in ethics that a sin of omission was far more pardonable and far less mischevious than a sin of commission. And in fixing their period of qualification they ought to take care, at all hazards, to prevent the fabrication of fagot votes, to ensure that those who had a voice in the choice of a representative should possess by a sufficient, and he would add by an abiding interest in the locality, a knowledge of, and a conversance with, the requirements of the district in which they lived. Could the first be obtained by a period of three months? And was not the second likely to be frustated by the possible removal of the elector the very day after the return of the representative whose election he had been brought in to promote? There were other points besides the period of qualification, and the appointment of registrars and district registrars which seemed to him open to serious objection. But they were matters into which it would be, perhaps, premature to enter at this stage. He objected to this Bill because it was drawn on party lines, because it attempted to deal in a contentious spirit with an important, and a vital organisation necessary to the freedom and purity, of elections, and because he regarded it as an ill-advised effort on the part of the Government to attempt to force on the nation measures which they had already introduced into Parliament, but which they knew they could not pass into law without the artificial and objectionable 943 expedients contained in several of the clauses of this Bill.
§ MR. BILLSON (Devon, Barnstaple)
said he should like to say a few words on this subject, because, during the last 25 years, he had paid a great deal of attention to the subject of registration, and had seen a great deal of the conduct of elections. The hon. Member who had just sat down had said that if the Bill had not borne a Party complexion it would have been supported on the other side of the House. Well, judging from the reception the Measure had received on the Ministerial side, he (Mr. Billson) thought the Measure might fairly be considered as of a non-party character. The Bill affected the country as a whole. It was one of the first duties of Parliament to see that the whole of the electors were fairly placed upon the register, so that when the House was constituted it would be found to properly reflect the opinion of the constituences. This had not been the case hitherto, and he therefore thought the Government were amply justified in treating the matter as one of urgency, and in seizing the earliest opportunity for bringing forward a Bill of this kind. He had heard considerable doubt expressed as to whether the Lodger Clause in the Bill was a reasonable and wise one. It had been said that if they allowed the lodgers to register and remain on the register without requiring them to prove their claim, they would have the register stuffed full of fagot votes. It was said the squire, and the parson, and the rich farmer, would endeavour to manufacture those votes. In his opinion, however, the Bill might be improved by requiring that, in the first instance, a lodger should have to prove his claim. It might be said that the present occupying householder was not obliged to prove his claim, but the occupying householder was better known to the community around him, and was, in a sense, a public man, whilst the lodger hid behind the householder. He thought it was not unreasonable that the lodger should be called upon to clearly make out his claim, but when he had once done that there was no reason why in succeeding years he should be called upon to go through the same process. If they were told that the result of the Bill would be to admit to the register a number of men 944 who otherwise would not get on, he would say he was in favour of every capable person above the age of 21 years who lived in a house being on the register. He was not going to complain of the Bill, because it might enfranchise a number of voters who would vote against his Party. What they wanted to do was to get as many persons on the register as possible, and leave the issue as to which side they would vote for to settle itself. Lord Salisbury had raised a curious bogey to the effect that if they had a three months' qualification they would have many cases of personation. His long experience as election agent showed him there were very few cases of personation, and he had noticed that it did not occur with persons who had just come to reside in the district, but in respect of persons who had left a constituency in which the register was old, and who were only dimly remembered in the places they had left. It was on the fag end of an old register rather than the commencement of a new register that personation occurred. Somebody talked about people not getting enough interest in a place in which he had resided for only three months, but, under the new system of registering, a voter would have to be at least nine months in the constituency, and might be 15 months before he could get a vote. With regard to the appointment of Registrars by County Councils, no doubt there were County Councils and County Councils, but he did not see how the Government could doubt a great institution of this kind. The County Councils were formed with the consent of all parties in the House, and if they were to go in a County Division or into a borough to a body representing public opinion—if they wished to select wisely and fairly a body to be entrusted with the discharge of this important duty—they would not go behind the County Council. He was not insensible of the fact that sometimes these bodies were governed by political motives, but their business was transacted in the light of day, and he had no doubt their appointments would be fair and judicious. There was one improvement he should like to see made in this Bill. He would like the appointments to be somewhat more localised, for there were County Divisions which were a long way off from the place where the 945 Council met. This localisation could be secured by leaving the appointment to the County Councillors in each Division. In this way they would get publicity and an immediate opportunity of finding out who were the best men. On the whole, he cordially approved the Bill. In Committee it might be in some respects altered, but it was deserving the support of all who desired that the nation should be represented by those who appeared on the electoral.
§ MR. R. G. C. MOWBRAY (Lancashire, Prestwich)
If the Bill before them had only borne out the speech in which the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board introduced it, there would have been very little opposition to it from that side of the House. What opposition there would be extended to it would result from the fact that the right hon. Gentleman had drawn this Bill with a considerable amount of looseness, and had mixed up the questions of franchise and registration. He did not wish himself to oppose the Bill generally, and, therefore, he guarded himself by these remarks. There were several points to which he thought they might take exception. He did not now wish to labour the point with regard to the three mouths' qualification, though he thought the hon. Member opposite, who said that it would be necessary for a man to be nine months' in occupation before he could secure a vote, was in error in the statement. If he would look into the matter carefully he would see that a man would get the vote after seven months' occupation, for if he was in residence on the 25th March he would have had three months' occupation by the 24th June, and would be enabled to vote by the 1st November. The hon. Member opposite had not satisfied him that there was no danger of personation from the three months' qualification. Whatever might be done in the matter of registration, the great thing was to keep the register pure, or, in other words, care should be taken to provide that the people who went to the polling booth were the people who had votes to record. He was most anxious that they should guard against the possibility of personation, which was not so easy an offence to detect and prove as some hon. Members thought. The personation agent ran such great risks in 946 attempting to arrest any one for personation in a polling-booth that the penalties for personation were hardly ever enforced. He must say he hoped that before the Debate closed they would have from the President of the Local Government Board (Mr. H. H. Fowler) some assurance that either the penalties for personation would be increased, or that the method of preventing the offence would be improved. Another point to which he wished to allude was the one he had had most in his mind when he had said that the right hon. Gentleman had mixed up franchise and registration, and that was the abolition of the payment of rates as a qualification. He regretted that the right hon. Gentleman had abolished this rating qualification, because the fact of a name appearing on the rate book as occupier was a very valuable protection to the register. He admitted that the payment of rates and assessed taxes was a less valuable test than it used to be, but the rating qualification was, in his opinion, a perfectly legitimate one, and he regretted to see it abolished. It was said that by the maintenance of it many persons were disfranchised, inasmuch as if the rates were not paid by the landlords the tenants' names were not added to the voters' lists. He admitted that this ought not to be the case, but it was not a reason why the rating qualification should be blamed. He did not think the cure lay in the abolition of the rating qualification. What was needed was that the penalty should fall upon the right persons, and that if the landlords did not pay the rates they should be struck off the lists as voters, and not the occupiers of the houses. They heard a great deal in these days about capable citizens, but surely there was no greater proof of a capable citizen than that he was able to discharge the rates and taxes imposed upon him. When a man came and claimed to be put on the register it was not too much to ask that he should fulfil the elementary duty of citizenship in paying rates and taxes. This was his idea of the particular part of the Bill which, as he had said, dealt rather with the franchise than with registration. The other points in the Bill seemed to him to be matters of detail more to be determined when they got into Committee. He was glad the Government had introduced the Bill, and regretted 947 the late Government had not taken the opportunity of dealing with the question when they were in office. It was a crying shame and scandal that enormous sums of money should be paid by candidates in order to do that which was a public duty, and which ought to be done by the nation. He should be glad, so far as that went, to heartily support the Second Reading of the Bill, though he hoped to see several modifications and Amendments introduced when it reached the committee stage.
§ MR. T. H. BOLTON (St. Pancras, N.)
was glad to be able to contrast the speech of the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down with that of the hon. Member who had preceded him on the Opposition side of the House (Mr. Cohen). He (Mr. Bolton) could not understand the speech of the hon. Member for Islington. He had always believed that hon. Gentleman opposite were quite as willing as Members on the Ministerial side of the House to deal in a practical and sensible way with the admitted defects of the Registration Law. He had had the honour of bringing in a Bill last Session dealing with some of the matters in the present Measure, and on the back of that Bill were the names of some of the most distinguished Members of the Party opposite, as well as Members of the Ministerial side. He had been under the impression that the improvement of registration was in no sense a party political matter, but a matter which Conservative Members were as anxious as any one else to see properly settled. When the right hon. Gentleman introduced this Bill and shadowed its outlines he (Mr. Bolton) at once cordially accepted it, and he was pleased to say that the text of the Measure bore out the right hon. Gentleman's description. In the main it dealt with the difficulties of registration in a satisfactory way, and removed many of the evils connected with the present registration system. With regard to the suggestion that lodgers should be required to claim to be put on the register, he could only express his surprise that the suggestion should have come from the Ministerial Benches. Why a lodger should be required to claim he could not for the life of him understand. The only difference between the lodger and the tenement 948 occupier was that the lodger lived in a house where the landlord resided on the premises, and the other lived in a house the landlord of which lived off the premises. There was the condition that a man could not be a lodger voter unless he occupied premises of a certain value, and why that man, who was, if anything, a more respectable man than the other, judging from the character of the dwelling he lived in, should be put to the trouble of signing a highly technical form and having it witnessed and attested and having to go before the Revising Barrister he could not understand. The circumstances attending the lodger franchise were sometimes extremely grotesque. He happened to know of a ease in which a man signed a lodger claim. The claim was properly attested and sent in. Some one in court raised an objection, and the Revising Barrister adjourned the consideration of the case for the attendance of the claimant. This man was engaged at an hospital night and day, being obliged to get certain necessary work done, and he could not attend to support his claim. One of the Registration Agents in attendance applied to the Revising Barrister for an order for the attendance of the man, and he was ordered to attend. As he could not go he wrote a letter, but the Revising Barrister considered that that was not treating the Court with proper respect, and the claim was not only disallowed, but the claimant was fined 40s. The claimant applied to him (Mr. Bolton) and asked what he was to do under the circumstances, but they found that the revision being finished, the Court was shut, and the man had to pay the 40s. He (Mr. Bolton) knew that there was a certain amount of anxiety on the part of county Liberal Members. They were afraid that the result of this Bill would be that the sons of the squires and the parsons and the farmers would get put upon the Register. But if these persons were qualified to be on the Register let them be put on by all means. He had no grudging feeling in the matter. As to the suggestion of the hon. Gentleman that the lodger should in the first instance claim, he assured his right hon. Friend on the Front Bench that the Bill would be comparatively worthless in London unless they put the lodgers on the same footing with 949 tenement occupiers, and saved them from the necessity of making a claim. With regard to the provision for the repeal of the rating qualification, he had understood that hon. Members opposite quite accepted it. They had got beyond the rating qualification nowadays, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bury (Sir H. James) had pointed out when leave was given to introduce the Bill. But if rating was to be the qualification, why was it not the case in regard to the lodger; why was it not required in connection with the tenement occupier personally; but why was it necessary to have rating at all associated with the householder class? The lodger got on the Register without any proof as to the payment of rates, and the tenement occupier got on, but if the landlord did not pay the rates he was disqualified—though that did not often happen. Why they wished to retain the rating qualification he could not understand. A clause he should like to see omitted was that with reference to transfers from one constituency to another. A person who had been three months in a constituency might, 21 days after the 25th of December, claim to be transferred from the constituency he had left to that he had gone into. This would apply to only a limited class. It would apply only to the people who moved between Juno 24th and September 29th, and fewer people, probably, moved then than in any other quarter. Even supposing that the Bill applied to its full effect, it would only affect one-fourth of the removals during the year. What would happen? Why, in a constituency where there was a close majority, there would be an active canvass in the month of December in order to find out the voters who had recently come into the constituency, and if they were of the right colour they would be asked to transfer their votes. The rich candidates, therefore, would have the advantage. His own constituency, for instance, was surrounded by three constituencies, where there were Conservative majorities of between 600 and 1,000. People moved backwards and forwards from his constituency into these constituencies, and there would be an active canvass to find out what voters had come into his district of a different complexion to his own politics—more than that, 950 there would be an attempt made to get such voters to transfer their votes from the districts where they were not wanted in order to secure a vote in his district, where the vote might be of great value. In this way constituencies like his own might be gerrymandered by rich candidates who could afford to spend money on proceedings of this kind. Another point was that where a vote was transferred into a constituency in this way there would frequently be a voter on the list for the house into which the new voter went, consequently there would be two votes for one house. There would be the man who had left the constituency who would be an out-voter; if he was of the right colour he would be left on the Register by the agents of the wealthy candidate, but if he was of the wrong colour every effort would be made to strike him off, and there would be also the new voter whose vote was brought in. The clause did not enfranchise largely. It affected only a limited class, and would, as he said, be worked to the disadvantage of candidates who could not afford to spend a large amount of money on the work of registration. Then, the Bill proposed to establish an entirely new body of registration officials. He had expressed the opinion more than once that he believed, on the whole, the vestry clerks and overseers and assistant overseers had discharged their duties fairly well. The reason they had not put more people on the Register had been twofold—first, because hitherto it had not been their duty to find out all the people entitled to vote, the voter himself having been left to claim the franchise, and in the second place because they had not had the funds to enable them to make the necessary inquiries. There was no reason why they should not continue to fulfil their duties in connection with registration in the future, if it was made obligatory on them to put all voters on the Register, and they were provided with the funds to meet the necessary expenses. As to Superintendent Registrars, though it might be desirable to have them in the counties, so far as London was concerned the provision in the Bill should be reconsidered and recast. He would suggest to the right hon. Gentleman in charge of the measure that he should leave the London boroughs as they were, as electoral units, and that he should 951 make the senior vestry clerks, who were frequently professional men, and above suspicion, the registration officers. The St. Pancras' Vestry clerk was a gentleman, who some time ago was a Member of this House. In Islington there was an equally eminent and efficient vestry clerk, and throughout London it would be found that the vestry clerks of the great parishes were gentlemen who would be able to do the work most satisfactorily. By appointing them they would get rid of the objection which hon. Gentlemen opposite, not unreasonably, entertained to leaving this patronage in the hands of the London County Council. But whether the London County Council, and the County Councils throughout England had this patronage or not was not of great consequence. He would suggest that in the country the assistant overseers should be made registrars for election purposes, and nothing further would be necessary except the appointment of the Chief Superintendent Registrars to superintend the work. In London the senior vestry clerks should be ex officio the Superintendent Registrars, and they should be able to employ the parish officers, who had hitherto done the work very well. In the country the town clerks and the clerks to the County Councils might be ex officio the Superintendent Registrars. In this way they would get an independent body of men, free from anything like partizanship. In order to carry out his proposal some alteration would be required in the details of the Bill. He threw out the suggestion for the consideration of the President of the Local Government Board. He did not press the point. The Bill was so good that he (Mr. Bolton) would not take any course with regard to it that would embarrass the right hon. Gentleman. For 20 years he (Mr. Bolton) had had the management of political affairs in a London Constituency of over 40,000 electors, therefore he was not without experience in these matters. He was sorry the right hon. Gentleman had not screwed his courage up to the point of having a six months' register, and perhaps it was almost too late to ask him to recast the measure in that particular. If he could see his way to having two registers made up by the proper officials it would be more satisfactory. He knew the right 952 hon. Gentleman was anxious to avoid expense to Candidates and Members by having several registrations. He hoped the right hon. Gentleman would not listen to suggestions which had been made to have Supplemented Lists prepared at intervals of three months, or of one month. Apart from the question of the rating qualification, which was a legitimate question to raise on the Bill, there was nothing in the measure of a contentious character, and when they got into Committee the Bill would be amended where necessary, and that they would bring out a measure which would be thoroughly efficient, and put everybody on the Register who was entitled to vote. The right hon. Gentleman was wise in adhering to the main lines of his Bill, and he would no doubt carry through a measure which would be creditable to him, and useful to the country.
§ MR. R. G. WEBSTER (St. Pancras, E.)
said he did not deny that this Bill contained some provisions of a very beneficial character, provisions which some of the hon. Members on the Opposition side were quite willing to support, but there were other provisions of a very objectionable character. In the first place, he objected to the title of the Bill—"The Registration of Electors Bill"—for the reason that there was more in the Bill than its title conveyed. Looking at the longer title of the Bill, he found it described as "A Bill to enable persons to be registered for purposes of Parliamentary, County, and Municipal Elections with more speed and accuracy." He would alter that into "more speed than accuracy," considering the short residential qualifying period. Members of the Conservative Party did not object to the Government making the franchise more democratic. They admitted that as education spread more people should be allowed to exercise the franchise, but they should very carefully consider whether those who exercised the franchise were really the people who were entitled to do so. They did not object to the franchise being extended to every one who had any stake, however small or however large, in the country, but at the same time they thought it undesirable that it should be in the power of an election agent to import outsiders into a constituency, and thereby 953 to elect Members who did not represent the principles and the feelings of that constituency. The first clause of the Bill did away altogether with the rating qualification. They objected to that on the old principle, that representation and taxation should go hand in hand; they objected to it because they thought that the people who were entitled to elect Members of Parliament should have some stake in the constituency and some interest in seeing that the taxes of the country were properly spent by Parliament. Hon. Gentlemen opposite thought it was a great hardship under the present law that a tenement householder should lose his vote because the landlord did not pay the rates and taxes of that tenement. He thought a clause might be drafted under which, if the landlord failed to pay the rates, the occupier could have the opportunity of paying his share in time to prevent his losing the vote. He looked upon the qualifying period of three months' residence previous to the 24th of June, in any year, as being altogether too short, particularly in London. He did not know whether the right hon. Gentleman who introduced the Bill had made inquiries of the great changes that occurred in London constituencies even under the present registration system. The changes were estimated at from 20 to 25 per cent. per annum, and in some East End constituencies, 30 per cent. of the voters at least changed every year. Under the system proposed in the Bill, the changes would amount to about 40 or 50 per cent in the year, and if would be difficult to identify the persons who turned up at the polling booths to exercise the franchise as the persons on the voters lists, seeing that a voter who resided every three months in a constituency before the 24th of June and then left, could return and vote in any election 12 months after the following 1st of November. He asked the House to consider the qualification of a tenement householder. A tenement householder might be paying only 1s. 6d. a week, and that for the thirteen weeks of the qualifying period amounted only to £1, so that they would be incurring the great danger of putting it into the power of election agents to import 200 or 300 voters into a constituency, where the Political Parties were evenly balanced, 954 for three mouths prior to the 24th of June, and carry the constituency for their Party at a cost of about £300. That was an aspect of the question he asked the House to consider carefully. With respect to the second clause, so far from putting more names on the register, it was a retrogressive clause, and would prevent people from having a qualification if they left one part of a borough and went to reside in another. But it allowed persons, who had been lodgers, but afterwards became householders, to remain on the register, and to that extent he did not object to the clause. He admitted that anybody conversant with the present system of registration would be willing to admit that the lodger franchise was a very complicated franchise, and that it gave a needless amount of trouble to the lodger in claiming his vote. He thought it would be wise to simplify the matter, but at the same time it was desirable that the lodger himself should claim. He believed that unless that was done they would have at each revision of the lodger list a vast number of bogus claims put forward by either Political Party. The returns of lodgers which the landlords were obliged to submit to the registration officials were most unreliable. In his constituency, in 1891, the landlords returned 20 people as qualifying in one small street, 13 of whom were knocked off as being unqualified. That would show that it was desirable that the claims for the Vote should be made by the lodgers themselves. In America, in many States, and certainly in New York, every individual before he had a right to exorcise the franchise had to claim it himself. He thought that was a system it would be well to adopt in this country. There was one important matter he thought should be provided for in the Bill. It was a common thing in elections that not only those who were willing and had a right to the Vote came to the polling booth, but electors who had long since passed away were found somewhere or another, and came forward to exercise the franchise. They had to a great extent laid these ghosts in many parts of the country, and especially in North London. But deceptions of that kind would be prevented if they had a longer qualifying period, and if the 955 registrar of births, deaths, and marriages was obliged to send every three months to the Superintendent Registrar a return of the people who died in each district; and similarly it should he the duty of the vestry clerk, or town clerk, or magistrate's clerk to send in a return of the people who left the district; that would prevent personation to some extent. He found in Clause 5 a very remarkable provision. The clause set forth that the Superintendent Registrar should correct every misdirection, omission, or technical error in the lists brought to his notice, and should, in an administrative manner, without holding a Court, consider claims and objections, whether formal or informal. He thought that a bad provision. All this should be done in open court. The Superintendent Registrar should not have the power of altering the lists in private.
§ MR. WEBSTER
ventured to say that the powers of the Superintendent Registrar would be much larger than the right hon. Gentleman seemed to think. Turning to the appointment of Superintendent Registrars, he found that the proposed mode of appointment was not-popular with the Liberal Members who represented County constituencies, who imagined there might be favouritism shown, while Liberal Members who represented borough constituencies were in favour of the appointment as provided by the clause. The only suggestion he could make was that it might be possible for the right hon. Gentleman (the President of the Local Government Board) to bring in two Bills, one carrying out the wishes in this respect of his county supporters, and the other carrying out the wishes of his borough supporters. But rightly or wrongly—and he thought rightly—he believed that all the London Conservative Members objected to the County Council as the body who should appoint the Superintendent Registrars in London. They believed that the appointments of Superintendent Registrars would not be judicial if left to the County Council. Why should not these appointments be left to the Judges of the land who appointed the Revising Barristers. In the counties the appointment of these Superintendent Registrars was given to the real Local Authorities of 956 the county, and in the towns it was given to the real Local Authorities of the town, but in London they could not call the County Council the Local Authority. London was as large a place as Ireland as far as population was concerned, for it had a population of 5,000,000. The County Council might nominate five or six agents to make these appointments; two of these gentlemen might be down with influenza, and the appointments might be made for all London by four gentlemen. Speaking for himself and for many of his friends, he would say that that was one of the very strongest objections of the Bill, and he hoped that in the Committee Stage the appointment of the Registration Superintendent in London would be transferred to somebody in whom they would have absolute trust.
§ MR. HENRY HOBHOUSE (Somerset, E.)
said that he had for some years past endeavoured to push through the House a Registration Bill similar in many of its provisions to the Bill under consideration. But he found himself in some difficulty in dealing with the present Bill because there were in it two distinct portions, of one of which he should express in general terms his most distinct approval; while in the other he found much that he was bound to criticise adversely. The portions of the Bill to which he referred were the franchise provisions and the registration provisions. The Speaker had ruled that it was customary to introduce franchise provisions into Registration Bills, but whether it was in order to do so or not he contended that it was not inconvenient that they should be asked to discuss within the provision of a measure questions that vitally affected the franchise of the country—questions that were of the largest enfranchising character, and at the same time questions which they are agreed contained improvements of the technical machinery for the registration of voters. The very first clause of the Bill set out the conditions under which householders were qualified to vote. It was not a mere registration machinery. It was an amendment of the provisions of the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1885. In 1885 there were two separate Bills—a Reform Bill and a Registration Bill. The Reform Bill was the subject of 957 great Party conflict, and it was only carried into law after a severe struggle. The Registration Bill, on the other hand, was a measure that was adopted with satisfaction by both Parties, for it was never regarded as being of a Party character. The franchise provisions of the present Bill were of immense importance. The President of the Local Government Board had admitted that the provisions of the Bill would enfranchise not less than 700,000 new electors in England and Wales, and if the Bill were ex-tended to Ireland—as he heard it would be extended in Committee—it would be impossible to tell how many more electors it would put on the lists.
§ MR. H. H. FOWLER
I made no such calculation as that 700,000 or 800,000 additional votes would be created. What I said was that if every properly qualified householder were placed upon the register, the number would not be more than 700,000 in addition. But I did not admit that the effect would be to add the number to the franchise.
§ MR. HOBHOUSE
said the effect produced on the mind of the House by the statement made by the right hon. gentlemen in answer to a question put by the right hon. Member for Bury (Sir H. James), was that there were 700,000 householders disfranchised——
§ MR. HOBHOUSE
By the existing Registration system—that chief amongst the causes of their disfranchisement was the length of the qualifying period of residence and the payment of rates; and that the effect of the present Bill would be to place at any rate the greater number of those 700,000 electors on the register. He thought the House should have a further explanation from the right hon. gentlemen on that subject. The right hon. gentlemen should give them some estimate of the number of electors that were likely to be placed on the register by this Bill, for the House ought not to be asked to legislate in the dark on such an important matter. They did not want to pass under the guise of a Registration Bill what was really a great meaure of Reform. With regard to the proposed period of residence, he should say that he was in favour of a 958 substantial period of residence for qualification—whether twelve months or six months, he did not care—but three months were altogether insufficient. Under such a short residence qualification they would run great danger of having electors actually imported into constituencies where parties were equally balanced; and they would have considerable personation, which was already common enough in all large towns where the difficulties of identification were great. If the clause were passed in that form, further provisions would have to add to the Corrupt Practices Act; and the presiding officer at elections would have to be provided with a return of the electors who had removed from the locality, and the electors who had died, up to the very day of the poll. He did not think it was wise to shorten the period of residence to three mouths. Let them have a fair and substantial period of residence, and then put on the register every bonâ fide elector with as little delay as possible. Then as to the removal of the rate-paying qualification—that again was not a registration matter, but an important change of principle in the matter of the franchise. Let the House remember that the Bill not only affected the Parliamentary franchise but all the franchises on which Local Government elections were conducted. There was another Bill before the House which conferred very large powers of spending rates on the Local Government electors of the country, and he asked was it wise to couple with this increase in the rate-spending powers of the electors provisions exempting the electors from the ratepaying qualification?—was it wise to say to the electors, "You shall, on the one hand, have large powers to spend the rates your neighbours pay; and, on the other hand, you shall not be under the obligation to pay rates—even though you are able to pay—in order to qualify yourselves for the vote." That he thought was a most dangerous principle to adopt. It was not a question of Party. Indeed, none of these questions if properly regarded were questions of Party, but were questions for putting the Local Government of the country on a sound and satisfactory basis. The Secretary for Scotland seemed to justify 959 the non-payment of the rates by the occupiers on the ground that the rates were paid by the owners. But it was an unsound argument. There was a vast difference between the owner and the occupier. If the owner did not pay the rates, there was property of his that might be seized; but the occupier might be a man of straw, a mere casual visitor to the locality, who might go away without having paid rates or rents and yet under the Bill he might come back at elections twelve months after he had left, and swamp, with the aid of his fellows, the votes of the bonâ fide residents. It was, indeed, an extraordinary thing that the Party who objected to the votes of non-residents when they belonged to the upper classes, when they were qualified by property to vote in the locality, should introduce legislation which tended to enfranchise a large class of non-residents who had no stake, and might never have had a stake, in the locality in which they exercised the vote. If there was any shred left of the old Liberal principle that taxation and representation should go hand in hand, lot the House not pass this non-ratepaying clause. He thought they would do wisely to stick to the old principle that they who voted away the rates should pay the rates. He thought the Successive Occupation Clause very desirable. He should be prepared to carry the clause further, because he thought great hardships were suffered by persons who removed, not merely from one part of a constituency to another, but from one part of a county to another; but if they were going to shorten the qualifying period of residence, the clause did not appear to him to be so necessary. The effect of Clauses 1 and 2 taken together, which were the Franchise Clauses, as differing from the Registration Clauses of the Bill, would be that many casual residents, who paid no rates, and who shifted from one place to another, would be qualified as full citizens. Would it not be better, he asked, to at once establish universal suffrage? Turning to the registration provisions of the Bill, he confessed that the Bill was a great improvement on all the Bills dealing with the matter which he had seen introduced into the House. The provisions dealing with lodgers were, 960 however, open to some discussion. It was obviously right that the old lodger who was on the register should not be obliged to send in a new claim year after year; but it was open to doubt whether it was reasonably possible for the registration officer to collect the names of all lodgers without the lodgers having made personal claims for the vote. Then, as to the Superintendent Registrar, the Bill provided that there should be, as a rule, a separate Superintendent Registrar for every Parliamentary constituency. That would involve the appointment of 23 Superintendent Registrars in Lancashire alone.
§ MR. HOBHOUSE
said that anyway the Superintendent Registrar would be a highly important officer, and if anything like the powers proposed by Clause 5 were given to him, it would be of the most importance to appoint men who were absolutely above all suspicion of partizanship. He did not think the Government could have placed the appointment of these officers in better hands than in the hands of the County Councils. But he did not think that the County Councils should have power to remove these officers without the consent of some central authority. He suggested that the Superintendent Registrar should be placed in the same position as clerks of unions appointed by the local bodies with the consent of a central department, and not removable except with the consent of the central department. That would secure for the Superintendent Registrars permanent appointments, and would place them above the failings of the ordinary temporary official. He also thought these superintendents should be as far as possible diminished in number. Only one, and in large counties, not more than two or three, should be appointed, for the greater the responsibility and the larger the salary, the better the chance of obtaining good men for the positions. He thought the Government must reconsider Clause 5, because under it these Superintendent Registrars would have power to alter and manipulate the voter's lists in private without any check until they came up for revision before the Revising Barrister. That was a very dangerous power to put into the 961 hands of any officer. Any alteration made by the superintendent ought to be made in public committee in such a way that it could be checked by the agents of the Political Parties or by any elector. Such a course would prevent a large number of appeals, not on points of law, but on mere questions of fact, to the Revising Barristers. Indeed, if the change he suggested were made, they might dispense altogether with the lie-vising Barrister—though he hardly thought the Government would adopt such a destructive policy—and leave the legal questions that might arise to the County Court Judges. He also thought a person ought to be permitted to make a claim for a vote at any time. Under the existing law, which was adopted by the Bill, there were only three months in the year in which claims could be sent in, and it often happened that people forgot the period, or found it inconvenient or impossible to send in their claims during the time allowed. Then there was the question of supplementary registrations. He had been bold enough to propose in his Bill that there should be three supplementary registrations in the year; but if such a system would be too expensive they should certainly have one supplementary period of registration, for under the present system seven or eight months might elapse from the end of the period of qualification until the voter was placed on the register again. The transfer system of the Government would be very unsafe, for no provision was made for the proper revision of the transfers, and the system would make the introduction of bogus votes into a constituency quite possible. The provision for preparing the register between 6th October and 31st October could not, he was told, be carried out with the necessary care and accuracy in large constituencies. When lists had been prepared at great expense they ought to be available for all local elections, especially School Board elections. It was obvious that there were a great many defective points in the registration which would require most careful consideration in the Bill. He should have thought that the precedent of 1885 might very well have been followed in respect of the registration part of the measure, and that it might have been considered by a Select Committee, who could, if necessary, take 962 the evidence of experts. There was a clear distinction to be drawn between the franchise and the registration parts of the Bill. For instance, it was one thing to add hundreds of thousands of electors to the register, and another thing to merely register voters. He hoped that the several parts of the Bill might be treated differently and according to their respective merits. Though they were discussing a Registration Bill, they should bear in mind that it was a Reform Bill as well as a Registration Bill.
§ MR. W. AMBROSE (Middlesex, Harrow)
was sure that the House would feel very much indebted to the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down for the very able speech he had delivered, and the extent of information with which his speech had been filled. It was to be hoped the Government would give attention to some of the suggestions he had made. They must all recognise the spirit of friendliness which characterised the hon. Gentleman's observations. He must confess that he (Mr. Ambrose) approached this, Bill with a considerable feeling of disappointment. No one could be other than conscious of the necessity for improvement in the registration system. At present, if one desired to inform himself on any question affecting the registration law he did not know what to appeal to. The law was so complicated that even very few lawyers understood it. Registration agents pretended to understand it, but he did not think they did. The law was involved in so many Acts of Parliament that it was difficult to find out at any time what its exact state was. He had thought that the object of the Bill was to simplify the law, so that Parliamentary candidates and their constituencies would have less difficulty in understanding it. He was afraid, however, that the Bill would do very little in that direction. The law at present was contained in a series of statutes—he did not know how far they went back. Some of them, he thought, went back as far as the time of Elizabeth. Those statutes were collected together into a volume known as Rogers on Elections. This was a big volume, and if anybody wished to know anything about the registration law he would have to shut himself up for 12 months and study that book. At the end of the 963 12 months he would have something like a glimmering of a notion as to what the law was, but even then he would understand but very little about it. The speech of the right hon. Gentleman who introduced the Bill had induced him (Mr. Ambrose) to expect more from the measure than he had found in it, and the right hon. Gentleman was evidently conscious that he. had not grappled with the subject as he should have done. The measure should have consolidated the various statutes, so as to have presented them in one Act, in order that electors and Registration Superintendents could find all they wanted within the covers of one statute without going to section so-and-so to find that section so-and-so had been repealed, and to another section to find that section so-and-so had been amended. It was understood that the object of the Bill was to simplify the law, but if hon. Members would turn to the schedules they would find columns of matter relating to Acts of Parliament which were in part repealed, and the effect of this upon the mind of the inquirer was excessively confusing. All the existing statutes were more or less altered in the Bill. How the superintendents would be able to apply themselves to the keeping of the register and be able to deal with the various points which would be presented under this measure he really did not know. Though he had every confidence that the right hon. Gentleman who introduced the Bill would give a careful reply by-and-by, he rather doubted the right hon. Gentleman's capacity to point out how the registrars could be instructed in their work, or how anybody would be able to acquire a knowledge of the Registration Laws on this measure. As to the registrars, he had great doubts as to their ability to discharge the duty which would be cast upon them, and he had also great doubts as to the fitness of the voters who were entitled to be put upon the register, while in regard to candidates he did not think the measure would afford them any relief whatever. Instead of the anxieties connected with registration being confined to a specific period of the year—viz., July, August, and September—under this measure we should have them all the year round. The registrars were to have the duty cast upon them of 964 altering the register all the year round—it might be behind the backs of the people interested. At present they had the overseers' lists to guide them, a man who was entitled to a vote being put on the register automatically; but under the new scheme registration would be continually going on, causing great expense to candidates, Parliamentary and otherwise. He was very much afraid that, instead of effecting all that the right hon. Gentleman who introduced the Bill contemplated, the scheme would prove an absolute failure. He (Mr. Ambrose) hardly knew what to do with regard to the Bill. If he thought it could be improved in Committee he should be glad to support the Second Reading, but there were one or two questions of principle involved. The measure went beyond its title, and introduced questions of franchise rather than of mere registration. In the first place there was the proposed reduction to three months of the period of qualification. That he was bound to say he should have to oppose, although he did not know that it would be necessary for him to oppose the Bill in order to oppose that point, as they would be able to deal with it in Committee. In his view the shortest time to which they should reduce the period of qualification was six months. He did not quite understand the object of hon. Members opposite in their struggle to obtain a reduction of the period of qualification. As the House was aware, there were people who never settled anywhere—who were migratory in their character—who went into houses and left them, after a short period of residence, without paying their rent. The landlords knew this class of people perfectly well, especially landlords of small houses. They occupied a house long enough to get it into a dirty state and out of repair and then left it. These were the people hon. Members opposite were anxious to get on the register—the people who dirtied their houses, made them unfit for the tenants who succeeded them, and left without paying their rents. Hon. Members opposite seemed to have a strong desire to give people of this class a vote, and to swamp the votes of intelligent, educated electors. [Cries of "Oh!"] Yes, that seemed to him to be at the bottom of this Bill. These, no doubt, would be the 965 sort of people who would be led away by election cries, and upon whom such statements as that a Member had neglected his duty by absenting himself from divisions which involved no point of principle whatever, would be likely to produce an effect. The question was were the votes of the people of the highest intelligence and the greatest responsibility to be overborne by people of this kind—people who dirtied their houses so that they could not remain in them long, and left without paying their rates and taxes. If that was the object of hon. Members opposite let them say so. He would then agree that they were properly reducing the period to three months; but unless that were their object, he could see no reason whatever for their intense anxiety to get upon the register these people whom Mr. John Bright had described as the residuum of the population. The Government did not realise the principle that in this country electors not only voted for themselves, but also for people who were not voters. Even after the great additions which would be made by this Bill to the lists of voters had been effected, there would be a greater number outside who were not on the register than there were upon it. It was therefore all the more necessary to take care in putting people upon the register that those who were added were people likely to consider, not only the interest of their own class, but also the interest of other members of the community. The Parliament of Great Britain controlled not only the affairs of Great Britain and Ireland, but the whole Empire, and the struggle in connection with this Bill seemed to be, not to secure the highest intelligence and responsibility in the representation of the constituencies, but to secure a majority. [Cheers and counter Cheers and interruption.] He would put before the Government the enormous responsibility which rested upon those who commanded a majority in that House. It involved not only the affairs of Great Britain, but the affairs of India, of the Colonies, and, in fact, of the whole Empire. He would ask hon. Members whether these people who moved about—this migratory population—were the people to whom the decision of Imperial questions should be entrusted. Were these people better 966 fitted to deal with such matters than permanent residents who paid their rates and taxes and discharged all their obligations. If that was the opinion of hon. Members opposite well and good, but at any rate he did not think it would be the opinion of the country. As to the second part of the Bill that dealt with the question of rating. He was aware that the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Bury (Sir H. James) was of opinion that rating was an evidence of ownership and occupation rather than a qualification for the vote. With all respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman he could not accept his argument. He had always understood it to be a principle of the British Government that representation and taxation should go together. That principle had been accepted from time immemorial—from the days of the scot and lot system. When Mr. Disraeli introduced his Bill on Household Suffrage the matter was put upon the old scot and lot principle. The vote was given to the householder because he necessarily bore his part in the payment of the rates and taxes of the country. As a householder he was get-at-able. No doubt shortly after that the Compound Householders Act was passed, but the effect of that was only to make the landlord the agent of the tenant in the matter of payment of rates, and they ought still to adhere to the old principle. He agreed that when the duty of paying the rates' fell upon the landlord and he neglected to pay them that was no ground for depriving the tenant of his vote. He should be prepared to accept the principle of allowing the tenant to retain his vote under such circumstances. It was too late to refuse to accept such a principle now; and he would still maintain in the Bill the principle that taxation and representation should go together. Clause 2 professed to give a remedy in regard to successive occupation, but really when properly construed it did no more than let in the lodger. It did not. extend in any way to the person who would be entitled to vote through occupation in one Parliamentary area the right to vote in another by virtue of that qualification. On the borders of his constituency were the constituencies of Paddington, Marylebone, Chelsea, and a portion of Hampstead. The result was 967 that on one side of the street voters were in his division, and on the other side in another division. In the event of a person moving from one side of the street to the other the effect of this clause would not be at once to remove the voter from the list of one division to that of the other. He thought, therefore, the clause would fail.
§ MR. STOREY (Sunderland)
said the hon. Gentleman who had just spoken had made a very dull speech, and had only waxed eloquent and grown warm when he had directed his high and mighty scorn against the "dirty" people whom he said the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board proposed to put on the register. Without being offensive he (Mr. Storey) should like to tell the hon. Member that the "high falutin" stuff he had been addressing to the House——
§ MR. AMBROSE
rose to Order. He desired to ask whether the hon. Member was justified in applying the word "stuff" to his speech.
§ MR. STOREY
said he had no objection to withdraw the word "stuff" and to substitute any Parliamentary word which would be admitted. He would only say that if the "high falutin" speech of the hon. and learned Member was the kind of speech which went down amongst the people of Harrow the sooner they had introduced into that constituency a large number of the "dirty" people to whom the hon. and learned Member had referred the better it would be for its representation. The hon. and learned Gentleman had made one practical suggestion to the right hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill. He had proposed that instead of putting before the House the modest Bill the House of Commons was now invited to consider he should undertake the herculean task of consolidating the whole of the Registration Acts. The reply to that was that not a portion of a Session but a whole Session would have to be employed in securing that result. He (Mr. Storey) had not gathered whether the hon. and learned Member was for or against the Bill, but if he (Mr. Storey) entertained the hon. and learned Gentleman's opinions he should be in favour of the Bill. If he were a Tory and this measure were presented to him as a settlement of 968 registration difficulties he should be perfectly willing to accept it. Speaking as a Radical Member, he thought the Bill would be not to the advantage of the Radical Party but to the advantage of the Conservative Party. He agreed that the complexities and difficulties of our registration system were very great indeed. So long as they had different classes of electors and different lists of electors they could expect nothing but complexity. They had owners, they had limited owners, they had occupiers, they had Parliamentary voters, they had School Board voters, and they had Local Board voters. Common-sense would teach them that if they wanted to escape complexity some Minister must rise in the House of Commons, like Mr. Disraeli, who would take the bull by the horns and once for all put an end to complexity by making a single register, and giving every man in the country a vote. He complimented the right hon. Gentleman, the President of the Local Government Board, on the Bill he had brought in. He had known the right hon. Gentleman for years as a man who had interested himself in this matter, and when he had understood that the right hon. Gentleman was engaged in the preparation of a Bill, he was sure that, subject to the exigencies of time, the right hon. Gentleman would produce a measure which the country would regard with satisfaction. He was justified in believing that in the Bill before them his expectations were fulfilled. To his mind the object of any Bill dealing with registration should be twofold. First of all, the object of a Registration Bill rising to the height of perfection, should be to give a vote to every man in the country who was 21 years of age. His right hon. Friend did not of course attempt that, but, at any-rate, he had tried to make it as easy to get on the register as it was to get on the rate-book, and as hard to get off the register as it was to get off the rate-book. He could not say that the right hon. Gentleman had quite achieved that ideal result, but he had gone a very considerable way beyond the present law in aiming at and attaining to it. The second object of a Registration Bill should be to save Political Parties the enormous sums they now expended upon registration. In his (Mr. Storey's) 969 judgment the Bill had not been successful in that effort. He believed the effect of the Bill in its present shape would be, so far from diminishing the cost of registration, to increase it. But more of that by and bye. He was altogether in sympathy with his right hon. Friend in proposing that the period of qualification should be diminished to three months. The right hon. Gentleman would not have offended him (Mr. Storey) if he had gone a great deal further in that direction. And he was more in sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman when he boldly put an end to the rate-paying qualification and laid down the principle that the householder of the country, because he was a man, and a householder, and not because of some paltry consideration of money, had a right to take part in the election of Members of that House. The hon. and learned Gentleman had implied that a six months' qualification would be more effectual than a three months'. Probably the hon. and learned Gentleman thought that a six months' qualification would keep out more of the "dirty" men than three months' would. He (Mr. Storey) hoped the President of the Local Government Board would be no party either here or elsewhere to increasing the period of qualification in the Bill. He (Mr. Storey) had a special right to make this request to the House, because he came from a part of the country far from London, and inhabited by a people not quite the same as the clever people in the South—a dull plodding race, and very old-fashioned and conservative. [Laughter.] Yes, conservative. Every one who knew them knew that they would be the greatest Conservatives in the country if all the remedial measures they desired were passed. They had a special claim upon the right hon. Gentleman in this matter. The right hon. Gentleman proposed that the claim to be put on the register should be made on the three months ending the 24th June, and he proposed that because that marked a legal term over the greater part of the South of England. In the North, however, as he had said, they were old-fashioned, and they did not believe in the 24th June. A large portion of the people in the North wore quarterly tenants, and their tenancies ended in May, 970 August, November, and February. In the South, because the tenancies ended in June, all the tenants who had gone in and ended their occupation in June, would come, by the operation of the Bill, without any effort on their part, on the Register; but, taking the case of the people in the North, where they had moved in May, they would on the 24th June have had six weeks' occupation, and under the Bill every one of these men would have to claim. If the period of qualification was six months instead of three, the number of men who would have to claim in the North would be exactly doubled. All the February and all the May changes would have to claim, and the burden thrown on the officials or the Political Parties would be very severe indeed, and, moreover, the men themselves would be put to considerable trouble. It was for that reason, although hon. Members might think it a selfish reason, for the sake of "dirty" people in the North, that he pressed upon the right hon. Gentleman to alter his proposal from three months to six weeks, in order to meet a decided objection and difficulty in the case of the North. And now he wished to make a complaint. He thought the right hon. Gentleman had utterly failed to realise the matter of successive occupation with which he dealt in Clause 3. The right hon. Gentleman proposed only to deal with it so far as different occupations in the same electoral area were concerned. He would put the case of Sunderland, which was not the least among the thousands of Israel. Sunderland was a borough containing parishes, some parts of which were within the borough and some without. On the one side of a certain line were the borough voters of Sunderland, and on the other side the county voters of Houghton-le-Spring. If a man moved from the top of the street to the bottom, Clause 2 would deal with him, but if he moved from one side of the street to the other—from the county into the borough, or vice versâ,out of the borough into the county—Clause 2 would provide no method by which a simple transfer could be made. That was a serious matter, and one which affected a large number of residents. He put it to the President of the Local Government Board whether the aim of a Liberal Government ought not 971 to be that a Bill of this kind should apply to every bonâ fide householder or lodger who had lived in any part of the country for the qualifying period of three months. He gave the right hon. Gentleman notice that in Committee he would bring forward a series of clauses to the effect that where a man moved from one electoral area to another he should be able to get from the Registration Officer of the district out of which he had moved a certificate of transfer to the new Registration Officer, and that the two occupations should count as one, and the man be put on the Register. The right hon. Gentleman had proposed in Clause 3 that lodgers should no more claim. He would say to the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. A. J. Balfour) that upon that clause alone he might do well to accept the Bill, for he would frankly admit that the clause would be of enormous advantage to others rather than the Radical Party. He would, however, venture to put it to the hon. Members opposite that on the ground of common fairness they should not require the clause to stand as it was. The Lodger Franchise was an exceptional franchise. Every householder had a vote, but every lodger had not a vote. For his part, he could not understand why, if every householder had a vote, every lodger should not have a vote. He really thought when they were about the business they had better cut the Gordian knot. This Lodger Franchise was the creation of Mr. Disraeli, and was adopted by the Conservative Party, and he would invite the Leader of the Opposition to complete the work of his distinguished Predecessor; let them round off things, and when they had done with that Bill let them have every householder and every lodger in the country in possession of a vote. The proposal in the Bill was that the lodger should, not claim as he claimed now. At present the lodger had to claim every year, and he had to come before the Revising Barrister and to be subjected to cross-examination. He (Mr. Storey) had been a great deal at Registration Courts, and he must say that anything like the objection which many gentlemen felt to cross-examination about lodger claims he had never seen in his life. He had known 600 claims made, and then they could only get 60 to stand the racket in 972 Court. Why? Because cross-examination established the fact that there was nothing easier than to make bogus lodger claims, and the only remedy for it was to have publicity. What was the proposal in the present Bill. The Registrar was to go about inquiring curiously who was a lodger and who was not, and he alone was to put a lodger on the list. He would thus be put on without being subjected to cross-examination. If an agent objected to a claim it would be at his own peril, and he would have to go into a Court to prove a negative. This was a monstrous proposition, and they ought to retain the provision that the lodger should go into Court to establish his claim. Only in this way would it be possible to prevent bogus claims. The Bill made an enormous administrative change in the preparation of the registers. At present the registers were prepared by the overseers and assistant overseers, and speaking from twenty-five years' experience of Registration and Registration Courts, he was of opinion these officials did their work remarkably well and with great fairness. There was one weakness about the present system, and that was there was nobody to supervise the overseers until they got before the Revising Barrister, and therefore when it was proposed to add the Superintendent Registrar of each electoral area he entirely agreed with the proposal, but he was of opinion the assistant overseers and the overseers should continue to act, the Superintendent Registrar going about among them, and then without any great administrative change he ventured to say they would not have much to complain of. They did not want to increase the present cost of registration either in the county or urban districts. He believed the popular notion was that the bulk of the cost of registration was now borne by the two Political Parties. That was not the case, and in the County of Durham alone the cost of registration to the public was £5,000 a year. They certainly did not want to increase the cost. But in the Bill it was not specified who were to be the district registrars. The County Council might appoint the present overseers and assistant overseers, or on the other hand, might make a clear sweep on the business and appoint entirely new registrars, and in that case the additional expense would 973 be enormous and they would have a great army of officials created throughout the country. He would respectfully suggest that, for the purpose of avoiding a very contentious point, his right hon. Friend, at any rate, for the present, should drop the whole question of district registrars, confine himself simply to the appointment of Superintendent Registrars, and try how that would work for two or three years. He believed the effect of that would be to prevent a large administrative change; it would have a tendency to diminish the cost, and in his judgment if the Superintendent Registrars were appointed the registration work would be effectually carried on. He was afraid he had detained the House too long. ["No, no!"] The present state of registration was admittedly bad; the Bill might not be all that they desired, but if it tended to the advantage of either Party he invited the House in the public interest, and in the desire to get on the register as many of their fellow citizens as they could, to pass the Bill.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR (Manchester, E.)
The hon. Gentleman who has just sat down apologised quite unnecessarily, as I venture to think, for the length of his speech, for, although with much that fell from him I do not agree, the speech itself was not only an able speech, but a very concise speech, full of matter well deserving the consideration of the promoters of the Bill and those who are to be its critics. The hon. Gentleman and I both appear to have approached this Bill certainly with no desire to find fault with it, but to recognise, as I believe every man, in whatever part of the House he sits, recognises that the existing law with regard to registration prevents certain classes of people who, under a better law, would be voters, from being voters. This is the effect of the existing law, and any amendment of that law deserves the favourable and impartial consideration of the House. At the same time, while the hon. Gentleman and I approach this subject in this favourable frame of mind, we both appear to have come, independently and from different reasons and points of view, to 974 the conclusion that the actual proposals of the Government, however good their intentions, however estimable their objects, are not, in their present shape, at least, likely—or that they have any hope—to meet with general acceptance from Parliament. The hon. Gentleman puts in one sense a much larger construction on the objects of the Bill than I do. He asked what are the objects of a Registration Bill, and he says the object of a Registration Bill is to put on the Register the name of every man over 21 years of age.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
I thought so—that the ideal scheme should be one which would put every man over 21 years of ago on the register. In other words, the object of the Government should be to bring in a Reform Bill of great magnitude. I do not dispute that; but if you put on the register every man over 21 years of age, let us hear something about women over 21 years of age.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
I am aware of that with regard to the hon. Gentleman, and I observe with satisfaction that if this question is raised—and I gather that it is not improbable it may be raised—that he and I shall find ourselves in the same Lobby. This, then, is a great Reform Bill, not merely a great Registration Bill. It is a Bill as much modifying the constitution of the electorate as it is a Bill modifying the method in which the elector shall make good his claim. The Bill, therefore, is one of immense magnitude. I cannot claim to go over the whole ground on which discussion must be raised, but naturally criticism must proceed on the machinery of the Bill—the machinery of registration—and criticism of the reform proposals of the Bill. I shall take these two great subjects in their order, and I am bound to say that I find in studying the machinery of the Bill apart from its 975 enfranchising clauses the greatest objection to substituting this elaborate and costly machinery for the present system, whatever faults it may contain. The President of the Local Government Board has based the whole of his measure upon a particular expression in the Report of the Committee upon Registration, over which the present Chancellor of the Exchequer presided—the statement that it is the business of the State to frame the register, and not the business of a Political Party. That is a very plausible sentence, which I do not propose to quarrel with, but a sentence which is not the basis of this Bill, for this Bill does not leave it to the State. It leaves it to the locality, and not to the State. On the locality the Bill throws the responsibility, on the locality it throws the cost. I am not prepared to anticipate the discussion which will be raised by the Amendment of my hon. Friend behind me with regard to the sources from which the cost of this new machinery is to come. I leave that on one side; but it does appear to me that the Government which holds that the preparation of the register is the business of the State has no right to throw the cost, not on the State, but on the locality. But, as I have said, leaving that on one side, what are the three things which we require from any machinery for registration? We require, in the first place, that it shall be cheap; in the second place, that it shall be easy; and, in the third place, that it shall be not only fair, but that it shall be thought to be fair. In the first place, is the machinery likely to be cheap? I think not. At present there are two stages, and two stages only, in the preparation of the register—leaving out of account, of course, an appeal from the Revising Barrister on a point of law to the High Court. For these two stages you substitute three. There is, first, the preparation of the list by the registrar; there is then the preparation of the list by the Superintendent Registrar; and there is, thirdly, the appeal from the Superintendent Registrar to the Revising Barrister. Does anybody with experience of what legal or quasi-legal proceedings are, or what administrative or quasi-administrative proceedings are, for one moment suppose that a method of preparing the register, 976 which requires three stages, is likely to be less costly than the existing system, which requires only two? But apparently the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Government appear to think that by their scheme, or by some scheme analogous to it, you can get rid of the registration agent. In my belief the registration agent is essential. I wish it were otherwise, but it is not otherwise. As things are in this country, the only people who will take sufficient trouble to go through the necessarily laborious and necessarily exhaustive process of examining the register vote by vote and man by man are the Political Parties who hope to profit by the process; and the idea that by any modification of the machinery you can provide people who will take all that trouble without anybody to criticise them and without any of the ordinary inducements by which men are spurred on to undertake difficult and ungrateful toil—that supposition is itself a mark of the sanguine spirit in which the right hon. Gentleman has entered into the discussion of this difficult question. In what respect is the present system costly? It is not costly in respect of counsel's fees, because counsel are not allowed to appear before the Revising Barrister. Why is the present system costly? It is costly because the machinery for investigating the case of each elector is costly. It is costly because the duty of bringing the case of each doubtful elector before the proper tribunal is costly. Yon never can escape that cost merely by substituting a Superintendent Registrar paid by the locality for a Revising Barrister paid by the State. If the new system is likely, therefore, to be—as I am sure it is likely to be—as costly as the old system—I believe it will be more costly; at all events he would be a hardy prophet who would say it would be less costly—if it is to be as costly, or probably more costly, let us come to ask whether the new system comes to satisfy the second test which I have ventured to lay down. Is it likely to be more easy to the voter? Under the present system the claim of the voter is finally decided by the Revising Barrister, who goes on circuit in the constituency, who goes, or who ought to go, so to speak, to the door of every elector, who holds his court in every 977 village where a disputed claim is to be decided.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
On the contrary—the right hon. Gentleman is in error—the Revising Barrister does not confine his sittings to the county town. He makes it his business, or ought to make it his business, to go to the place where the voter whose claim is being investigated can conveniently come to him to have his case heard. What is to be your system under the new Bill? You are going to have an office and clerks—first division clerks, I suppose, and second division clerks, and writers—you are going to have an office paid by the unfortunate county, situated, I presume, in the county town. A voter who wishes to bring his claim before the official who sits in that office, in that county town, may have to walk 40 or 50 or 60 miles.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
Yes. You will find many constituencies in which the voter will have to go 40, 50, or 60 miles to make his claim before this official.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
Certainly there is. I will mention two which come to my mind—one in which there was a recent bye-election in which we lost the Cirencester Division—that fact is naturally imprinted on my mind; and the other the county of which the Chancellor of the Exchequer represents the county town. I believe it will be found that the measurements of these two are not less than those which I have described; and, recollect, that it constantly happens that the principal town of a constituency—the place where you must have your office, where you must have your clerks—first and second division—is at one end of the constituency, and that the county voter 978 far removed from that town will necessarily have to travel the whole of that distance in order that his rights as a citizen of this Empire may be established. But that is not all. I observe that in the Bill the voter or the agent of the political party acting for the voter who is dissatisfied with the decision—the Star Chamber decision—of this paid county official in the county town has seven days, and seven days only, in which to make up his mind whether he will appeal or whether he will not appeal to the Revising Barrister, and that seven days falls in the country districts in the very middle of harvest, and consequently in his busiest time in the whole year, you expect the county voter, living 40 or 50 miles from the county town, to get his information as to his vote being allowed, to make up his mind—under the penalty of costs if he fails—whether he will go to the Revising Barrister or not. It appears to me to be perfectly monstrous. And if I may compare in this respect—in respect of the comparative convenience to the voter, the system which the right hon. Gentleman proposes to set up with the system which now exists—I say without doubt—and I believe the House, after having heard the argument which I have laid before it, will agree with me—that the existing system is incomparably better and incomparably more likely to give that great desideratum justice, and easy justice. So much for my first and second qualifications of the machinery, cheapness, and facility. How about the third? How about the fairness of the new system? How about the power which the now system will have of inspiring the confidence of those whose political fortunes are to be decided by it? I confess that I cannot conceive how you are going to man this new tribunal which you are going to set up. At present the final authority in most cases is the Revising Barrister, and you have a very large field from which to choose competent and efficient men, because you are not confined to a locality. Under this Bill you must depend absolutely upon local talent. [An hon. MEMBER: "No."] I am sure the hon. Member opposite who said "No"—and who, I suppose, would sooner not have local talent to depend 979 upon—although I doubt if in his own county he wishes to see an adequately paid office of this kind filled by a stranger instead of by a local man—will be driven to the conclusion I have been driven to—namely, that this Superintendent Registrar who is to be our governor and the determiner of our destinies in the future will be a local man. Now where are you going in a large number of rural constituencies to get this efficient local man? By your Bill he is not to be an agent, his partner is not to be an agent, his clerks are not to be agents, of either Political Party. He is, I presume, not intended to be a partisan. You will find it extremely difficult to find such a man, for I am glad to say that in this country every man who is worth anything is a partisan. Every man who is worth anything has in Imperial and local politics made up his mind to give his support to one of the two Parties, a friend of their friends and an enemy of their enemies. I will defy you—do what you will—to find in many districts an impartial and competent man without any tie of this character. How will you find a man in any district competent impartially to carry on the work which by this Bill you will impose upon him? But that is not all. Who is going to appoint him? The Revising Barristers are appointed by the Judges on circuit; the Judges on circuit change every year. They appoint men wholly unconnected with the locality, and Parliament has provided that the man so appointed shall not be a candidate in his district for 18 months. Will any human being be audacious enough to get up and say that every appointment by every County Council in this Kingdom is likely to be an impartial one? There are a very large number of County Councils in which I believe politics do not enter in the least degree. But there are County Councils where politics do enter and where they form the dominant consideration, in which Party organisation is as highly developed as it is in this House, in which men are elected because they belong to this or that Party, and for no other reason, and in which there are Whips. I am the last person to object to that. In this House we could not do our work without Party organisation. But 980 can it be said that bodies in which Party organisation is in full force are competent to deal fairly with electoral matters? A long and painful discipline has proved to us that we are not a fit tribunal to decide whether such and such a man is or is not a duly-elected member; and it appears to me that to call upon a County Council to decide whether a man is properly elected, is at least as dangerous an experiment as has ever been tried in the whole history of electoral institutions. There is a very able gentleman in this House who made an admirable speech the other day on a private Bill. I notice it is stated in his book that he is a Whip of the London County Council—I mean the Member for the Tower Hamlets. There is nothing in this Bill which would prevent the London County Council from appointing him to be Superintendent Registrar for half the London constituencies.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
I think better of the London County Council than to suppose they would appoint a gentleman of no political pretensions. I use the term most respectfully, and, of course, I accept the repudiation of the hon. Gentleman. I only used his name to illustrate and enforce by a concrete example the absurdity of the machinery proposed for our acceptance. It shows that the Whip of the County Council, whoever he may be, whether he be a man of strong political leaning like the hon. Member or that negative substitute who, we are told, has succeeded him, could be appointed by the County Council to-morrow to superintend and determine the registers on which the whole of the 67 members for London are to be elected.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
I do not think so badly of the London County Council as to suppose that never in their whole experience have they appointed a man to an office except from political motives. All I have ventured to point out to the House is that under the Bill it would be in the power of the County Council to appoint officers in London to manage—I will not say mauipulate—the register whom they could trust, at all events, to have a gentle bias towards one Party in the State rather than towards the other. And these County Councils do not merely appoint these officers. The language of the Bill, and the language of the Bill as explained by the right hon. Gentleman, is explicit upon that subject. They appoint, they pay, and they superintend. They are to exist at the mere beck and call of those politically-elected bodies; they are to be paid by them, and it is on their favour, and their favour alone, that their continuance in office is to depend. They are "removable" in the strictest sense of the word. Now, Sir, we all know, though we may not have all considered it in this connection, the extraordinarily narrow majorities by which the fate of Governments at present is determined—I do not mean in this House, but in the constituencies. Contrive, by a little judicious manipulation, to turn a few hundred votes from one side to the other, and you decide who shall sit upon this Bench and who upon that, and that power you actually mean under this Bill to place in the hands of assemblies many of which are, and all of which may be, elected on political grounds alone. As I have already indicated, I am no enemy of Party Government. I believe that, with all its defects and absurdities, it is the one possible system on which we can 982 manage free institutions. That I accept; but do not let us introduce party elements, if we can avoid it, at the very root of our Constitution. Do not let us feel not merely that we are organised as Parties in this House and in the country, but that officials paid by us in the localities can determine, first, who is to be on the register; secondly, who is to be returned by the registrar; and, thirdly, who is to govern the country. It is too large a responsibility to place on Local Authorities. If they do not abuse it they will be suspected of abusing it, and to be suspected of abusing a power of that kind is as bad almost as to be actually guilty. The Bill abolishes for the first time in our electoral history since 1832 the qualification of rating. The hon. Member for Sunderland (Mr. Storey) said, Why should you deprive a man of his vote for a paltry question of money? I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. I quite admit that in our existing electoral system there are large classes introduced, and rightly introduced, who are not personally responsible for the payment of rates. I admit, therefore, that we cannot pretend that the rating qualification is one that is co-extensive with the whole of our electoral machinery. Do not let us destroy that. I should like to see, if I had my ideal, a franchise as extensive as you can make it, but combined from one end to the other with the duty of paying something towards the objects in which every citizen is interested. I do not ask the House to substitute a rating franchise for the franchise under which we now exist, but I hope the House will not rashly give its assent to the doctrine that the nonpayment of rates is not a disqualification for the full rights of citizenship. I do not wish to dwell at length upon a subject which in my own country excites the greatest interest—I mean the fact that if you pass the Bill in its present shape you will strike a blow at the collection of rates itself, which must hamper all the Local Authorities throughout Scotland. That is a very important question, but I leave it to be developed by others in relation to the Scotch Bill. I only say now that the Bill of the Government will have a bad effect in that direction. But my objection is far deeper rooted than that. Recollect that the payment 983 of rates is under our existing system the only direct taxation which vast masses of our fellow-subjects pay at all. There are an enormous number of electors who determine the constitution of this House, and who are to be Ministers, who determine, therefore, indirectly what the Budget is to be, but who pay not one farthing in direct taxation from year's end to year's end. Do not let us do anything to induce these people to think that the responsibility of paying this direct taxation is a small matter. And recollect that, though the rates are called local, they are largely not local but Imperial. The education rate, the road rate, the police rate, even the sanitary rate—unless a great many of the speeches I hear in this House are pure humbug—are Imperial questions. Let the ratepayer understand by your legislation that contribution to those burdens is an Imperial duty, and that unless that duty is performed he cannot expect his share in Imperial franchises. Do not be so rash as to shatter the remains, the more than remains—the large part—of that ancient system which we still have. The next two points connected with the reform part of this plan to which I wish to allude relate to transfers from constituency to constituency, and to the right of successive occupation. Let me say at once that, with regard to both of those, I sympathise absolutely with the wishes of the Government. My objection is not to the object, but to the machinery by which the object is to be carried out. The transfer from constituency to constituency, as the House knows, is to be effected in this wise. If a man has a qualification in constituency A before the 25th of June he can then come to constituency B, if he resides there three months before the 25th of December, and by collusion between the superintendents of the two constituencies he can be lifted out of one and be deposited in the other. Now, so far as I can read the Bill, there is not a single provision in it which puts any safeguard on the process, obviously dangerous and open to abuse, by which many elections in this country can be determined. I have already said I believe the machinery for framing the original register is defective, but if I thought that defective, what are we to say of the machinery for framing the supplementary register, which con- 984 tains not one safeguard, so far as I can see, although it involves questions of greater difficulty than those which arise under the first. Here is offered the most fruitful opportunity of gerrymandering a constituency which the ingenuity of the most dexterous wire-puller could devise. The same observation will apply to the question of successive occupation, but I will not deal with it in that connection now. There are still one or two other questions of transcendent importance to mention. I have yet to refer to the point of the three months' qualifying residence. The Government have adopted the three months' term in order to shorten the time required to be on the register, and I entirely agree with the object they have in view. It is a perfect outrage that under certain circumstances it will take a man two years and a half before he can vote in a constituency, though he may have every other qualification. We agree, then, so far, but no further. The first result of this three months' register is that you will give votes to an unfortunate class, a class to which you wish to entrust your destinies, that floating class of labour—against whom I wish to say nothing—who habitually, year after year, get poor relief in the winter months, but who can get on the register in the spring. None of those persons can get votes now; all of them can get it under your new system. Do the Government—do the House—desire that? At all events, let us argue it out. Do you deliberately wish to add to your register the whole of that class of the population who, not by occasional accident but habitually, and, as it were, by necessity, come upon the poor rates in the winter months, and get upon the register in the summer months. I think, Sir, nobody can desire that. The question of personation I pass by, because there are others more qualified to speak of it than I am. I will only point out that any man who devotes his common sense to the subject will admit that a voter who resides in a district only three months and desires to exercise the franchise is not likely to be identified easily, and this will only be done by closely watching him in the interval in other constituencies. But there is another point which appears to me to be very important. From time immemorial local interests have been supposed to be an important 985 part of our system; but it must be evident that by this Bill those interests would be reduced to a vanishing point. There is another point, more controversial, I am afraid, than any I have yet touched upon, though I should hope it is also more transitory. This Government, the first among Governments to do so, have taught us that we are not merely to look upon the legislation that comes before this House from the point of view of the general interests of Great Britain and Ireland, but that we must consider the relative claims of England as against Ireland and of Ireland as against England. It is manifest, whether you like it or not, that legislation has been proposed in this House of which the whole point, if it ever becomes law, will be—Is England giving too much or too little? Is Ireland asking for too much or getting too little? It is deplorable that we should have to look at legislative questions from a Separatist point of view. Whether we like it or not, that is being forced upon us, and we men of common sense cannot shut our eyes to the fact that the result of this extraordinary shortening of the time of residence will and must be an enormous addition to what is universally known in electoral circles as the Irish vote. An hon. Gentleman says that in 1885 the Irish vote was given to the Tories. I do not agree with him, but will not dispute it. What does that mean? It means that at the bidding of a wirepuller in Dublin a section of every constituency, or, at any rate, every urban constituency, is transferred from the Tories to the Radicals, or from the Radicals to the Tories, not according to the exigencies of local politics in England, but according to the exigencies of Irish politics. The result of that action is, that though these people who give their votes are absolutely qualified for British citizenship—I am not saying a word against that—they appear, or their representatives in this House appear, as the spokesmen of English opinion, whereas, as a matter of fact, they are not spokesmen of English opinion at all, but of Irish opinion. I say that when a Government, especially a Home Rule Government, chooses this particular epoch for bringing this proposal forward, they are pursuing a course not only singularly inopportune, but a course 986 which casts some not undeserved suspicion on their motives. I hope and believe that this House will always, irrespective of Party, entertain any timely proposals for dealing with registration reform; but I do not think that when Pier Majesty's Government brings forward what is a Reform Bill framed on a very great scale—a Reform Bill which will introduce many hundreds of thousands of voters, a large proportion of whom will belong to what is known as the Irish vote, voters not belonging to an English organisation, but to an Irish organisation; when they bring forward a Reform Bill of that kind at the very moment when we are called upon to decide the great claims between England and Ireland, the moment chosen is singularly inopportune. I hope the considerations are transitory. I hope the time will come when we can consider in a calmer state of mind whether it is or is not desirable to make such a modification in our electoral law, that the power which now rests with that portion of our labouring population who do not habitually and periodically change their residences should be given to those who do. I have detained the House far longer than I intended. I hope I have in a purely argumentative strain, without rhetoric and without exaggeration, explained why I, while accepting the objects of the Bill, cannot agree with its methods. It is well intentioned, but not, I think, well devised. I can only conclude by putting in my request to the Government that they will endeavour to lick it into some sort of shape before a Select Committee, which could deal with the peculiarities of the different localities, which will not be, like a Grand Committee, confined to the mere discussion of principles. I believe the President of the Local Government Board announced it as his intention to refer the Bill to a Grand Committee. Let me assure him that such a course would be unfortunate. It would be unfortunate to the Bill, and not less unfortunate to the Grand Committee. Grand Committees, as has been abundantly proved, are not instruments which can deal effectively with these highly-controversial questions. By endeavouring to put them to a use for which they were never intended you will shatter them in your hand. If the right hon. 987 Gentleman will consent to the view expressed in the Amendment of my right hon. Friend (Mr. E. Stanhope) and refer this Bill to a Select Committee, I will do my best to carry out the objects, which are, I believe, common to that side of the House as well as to this, and to turn this Bill into a measure which will destroy the hardships incidental to our present system without introducing any disastrous change.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Debate be now adjourned?"—(Mr. James Parker Smith).
§ Motion agreed to.
§ Debate adjourned till Mondey next.