§ Order read, for resuming Adjourned Debate on Question [30th April] "That the Bill be now read a second time."
MR. J. LOWTHER (Kent, Thanet)
asked if it was not the case that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Bristol had given notice of his intention to oppose this Bill?
§ SIR W. HARCOURT
replied, that it had been understood the Bill would be treated as a non-contentious measure,
§ * SIR C. W. DILKE
said, he might take it upon himself to assert, for the information of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Thanet, that the Member for the West Derby Division of Liverpool was anxious that the Motion for the Second Reading of this Bill should be gone through on the last occasion the measure was before the House, and it was entirely by inadvertence that he spoke past 12 o'clock.
MR. J. LOWTHER
said, he had nothing to do with the attitude of the hon. Member for the West Derby Division. All he wanted to know was whether the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Bristol—who spoke with quite as much authority as the hon. Member for the West Derby Division—had given notice of his intention to oppose the Bill? He might add that he himself certainly intended to oppose it.
§ Question again proposed.
§ Debate resumed.
MR. J. LOWTHER
said, that no doubt the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer was quite accurate in saying that when this matter came on for discussion in connection with the Local Government (England and Wales) Bill it was intimated by the Leader of the Opposition that it would be treated as non-contentious, but a good deal had happened since then. On the occasion of the discussion on the Report stage of the Local Government 916 Bill, he pointed out that there was very little to be gained, and much risk was incurred, by the adoption of the suggestion of the Government for accelerating the Register. He pointed out that the amount of time saved would be almost infinitesimal, and he suggested the Government would be well advised if they allowed the ordinary law to take its course. The period at which the Register would come into operation under the ordinary law would be January 1, 1895. At most a couple of months would be saved by the acceleration of the Register. No doubt at the time of which he spoke the proposal of the Government was, comparatively speaking, received without disfavour by those Members who sat on the Conservative side of the House. But what was the position now? The Bill, so far from carrying out the intentions of the Government, had already been recognised as failing to do so on one or two important points. Some time since he received from an experienced public officer who had had the management and control of one of the largest Local Government administrative districts in the country, a letter pointing out that the amount of-additional labour thrown upon the various officers employed, and the difficulty of ensuring accuracy in the preparation of the lists, rendered it extremely undesirable to attempt to hurry matters too-much. That view would no doubt be endorsed by all who had had experience in registration work, and probably representations to that effect had been conveyed to the Government, which evidently had come to see that it would be impracticable to have the Register accelerated as much as was at first intended. The Government had, in fact, found out that he was right in warnings which he had given them on the authority of an experienced County Council officer. In consequence, in the first clause of the Bill it was now provided that the Registers should be completed not by November 8, the date at first named, but by November 22. Thus nearly one-fourth, of the time which it was at first hoped to gain by this Bill was given up, and the advantage which the Bill was intended to secure was still further reduced. In fact, the Register would only become operative at the fag end of November. Having regard to this fact, he was more than 917 ever inclined to press on the Government that, so far as this Bill was concerned, the game was hardly worth the candle. A Bill of some kind might be necessary, but that it should be framed with the definite object of getting the elections this year was surely undesirable. The sole object appeared to be to enable the Government to say that the Parish Councils were brought into operation in the same year in which the Local Government Bill was passed. The House knew very well that in the country districts the holding of elections in the fogs of November and December was strongly deprecated. In the scheme of county government carried out by the late Government, the original intention was that the elections should be held in November. But the House would recollect that afterwards an amending Act was passed for the purpose of enabling the elections to he hold in the Spring—he believed in March. That, bethought, was the period in which the elections were now held, and he submitted that with this precedent before them the Government should Reconsider their proposal to accelerate the elections for Parish Council purposes, and to hold the elections at a period of the year which experience had proved to be most inconvenient. He trusted that this Bill would not be further pressed upon the House.
§ SIR C. W. DILKE
said, that the matters concerned in the present Bill were so highly technical and difficult that it was not easy to make them clear to the mind of anyone who had not bestowed upon the details a good deal of attention. The right hon. Gentleman who last spoke asked the Government to drop the Bill.
MR. J. LOWTHER
No; what I suggested was that they should abandon the proposal to bring on the registration prior to May next.
§ * SIR C. W. DILKE
said, he gladly accepted the correction. The right hon. Gentleman would admit that some Bill was absolutely necessary in the present case to prevent an infraction of the law. His objection to this measure ran in a direction opposite to that indicated by the opposition of the right hon. Gentleman, who seemed to think that more time should be allowed public officers in which to perform the new duties to be 918 imposed on them. Well, he held that where the time was most needed was in the earlier stages of the preparation of the lists. In his view, it was not necessary to allow more time for printing the Registers. The original intention of the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for India was, that the Register should come into force on November 8. Now it was thought that about a fortnight longer should he allowed. He failed to see why this extension of time was required. The whole of the borough Registers had to be got ready by November I, and he did not see why the other Registers should not be ready at the same time. These Registers were to be printed only in the shire towns where adequate means were available for printing them promptly. There was no need to print them locally in the various parishes. Although in some counties the revising barristers lists were edited by the county clerks and others—in the case which he had in his mind corrections were made in the presence of the agents of both Parties after the revising barrister had passed the lists—there was no legal authority for such a practice, and he saw no reason why time should be allowed to do it. This being so, the time allowed by the present Bill would be entirely thrown away. In some parishes there would be new divisions for different purposes, and, if time were to be allowed at all, it should be to enable the County Councils to put the revision of the ownership lists on a secure footing. He would ask his right hon. Friend the President of the Local Government Board what was the meaning in the Bill of the phrase "county lists." Strictly speaking, they were all parochial lists. The greatest difficulties would occur, not with the occupiers' lists, but with the new lists—the ownership, lodger, and service lists—and principally with the ownership list. He wished to know how the Register was to be made this year? for this was a subject of great importance, and one upon which Local Authorities differed sharply. The joint committees of County Councils were now engaged in creating wards and altering the boundaries of parishes. These changes would not be completed until too late for the purposes of the Register about to be drawn up, and consequently very considerable difficulties 919 would arise in connection with the new lists. He feared that the Circular issued by the Local Government Board on the subject of registration this year did not efficiently deal with these complications. Some county clerks were directing the Overseers to revise the lists, whilst others were telling them they must not do so, as they could not do so under the existing law. He had no doubt that the latter were right, as the law gave no power to the Overseers to revise the lists. He would suggest, in face of the difference of opinion that existed amongst county clerks and, he believed, amongst Assistant Overseers, it would be well to issue an Order in Council dealing with this matter, or else to call a Conference of County Authorities to consider it. One or other, in his opinion, must be done. He had seen that in some counties they were issuing the old precept and the old list without the slightest change. In other counties they were issuing letters. From one county he had a circular they had issued to the Assistant Overseers, which said—For the purposes of the election of Guardians it will be necessary that all the lists, including the ownership list, should correspond to the wards into which your parishes are divided. For that purpose you will have, in effect, to make out new ownership lists.Now, there was no legal power to do that. Although he believed his right hon. Friend could promote an Order in Council to give that power, there was no power to do so at the present time, and some of the Assistant Overseers had already refused to carry out the orders of the county clerks. This had occurred in one of the most important counties of this country. He was not aware whether the right hon. Gentleman was aware of the complexity of this matter, but he would put the case of a township in the division of Manchester represented by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition. In this case the parish was in 15 wards for the election of Guardians, two wards for the parish, and one polling district for the county. There the list of owners was a very large one; and there would have to be alphabetically one list, in the same order two lists, and in the same order 15 lists. These would have to be made up by someone in these different forms; they would have to be placed on the church doors, and revised in all those forms. Therefore, the right hon. Gentle- 920 man would see that in some cases the matter was one of extraordinary complexity and importance. He thought, under these circumstances, there would be a great deal of trouble to the Local Authorities with regard to bringing the electoral Register into force this year, and ho did not think that merely taking the course of suspending the election until next year would improve matters unless they set back the dates, because the difficulties that arose now would arise at any other time unless more time were given which would not be given by merely postponing the election. He would therefore ask his right hon. Friend whether he could see his way either to call a Conference of the county clerks or else to issue an Order in Council dealing with the difficulties that had arisen?
§ THE PRESIDENT OF THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT BOARD (Mr. SHAW-LEFEVRE,) Bradford, Central
said, he had already thought of the matter, and with regard to the important point raised with respect to the legality of altering or revising the ownership lists, all he could say was that he would give it his most serious consideration. He did not, however, understand his right hon. Friend to object to the Second Reading of the Bill, but to admit that something was wanting because the Bill of last Session provided that these parochial electors were to come into existence in the present year. The appointed day was the 8th of November, or any later day the Local Government Board might determine which gave a discretion as to the exact day to the Local Government Board. His right hon. Friend opposite said he did not care for the understanding come to by the Leader of the Opposition and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for India. He had in his hand a Memorandum signed by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition on that occasion, in which were these words—It is desirable the Bill should come into operation as soon as possible.The Memorandum then went on to speak of the additional expense that would be incurred, and with regard to that he (Mr. Shaw-Lefevre) would point out that that expense would be thrown upon the Treasury. Under these circumstances, 921 he hoped the House would allow them to take the Second Heading of the Bill.
§ MR. STOREY (Sunderland)
said, he scarcely thought the right hon. Gentleman fully appreciated the seriousness of the objection which his right hon. Friend had raised. It might be that the objections were raised to points of detail, but they formed such an aggregation that they went to the very centre of the principle of the Bill. He wished his right hon. Friend the Secretary for India had been in his place this afternoon that he might have had the pleasure of saying to him that upon this very point they had previously stated the main difficulty would be a difficulty as to the Register. On that occasion the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for India said—"Register, I do not know what my right hon. Friend means." The present President of the Local Government Board, however, did know what it meant. They were very much disposed to help the Government out of a difficulty, but the right hon. Gentleman would not make the difficulty less by assuming it was small. He (Mr. Storey) would like to point out that it was so serious that it could not be got over except by a special Register for Local Bodies—that was, if the elections were to be secured within the time desired. His right hon. Friend the Member for the Forest of Dean (Sir C. Dilke) considered there must be a conference of county clerks, and he (Mr. Storey) ventured to interpolate "it is too late for that." But as he had said, his disposition was to make the best of a bad job and get the new elections as soon as they could. He could not conceal from himself that under the circumstances of the Bill as it stood, and within the limits of the time allowed, it was impossible for the county clerks and Overseers in many parts of the country to produce a fitting Register in the time. That was a serious state of things. He believed that every Member in the House was desirous, now that the measure had been passed, to have the elections as soon as possible; but he was of opinion—he might be wrong—that unless they had special registration this year for local purposes, to overcome the difficulties which some of them had pointed out, they would have no election at all; and to put the thing off to another year would have no better result, because next 922 year the elections would have to be on the Register made this year; therefore, if the Register could not be made in this year there would be no election at all. He was quite willing to discuss the matter in Committee with his right hon. Friend, but what his right hon. Friend should do was to permit the ordinary Register for Parliamentary purposes and borough and county purposes to go on. Considering the complexity of the lists that must exist where they had parish, district, and county fists, which were for different purposes than the Parliamentary lists, he thought of necessity the Government should make a special registration with a special Court for the purpose of fixing the lists.
§ THE CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER (Sir W. HARCOURT,) Derby
said, that as there was no intention of opposing the Second Reading of the Bill nothing could now he gained by discussing the details; the proper time for that would be when the Bill was sent to a Committee, when, if necessary, the Bill might be modified and the difficulties removed. Everyone, he understood, admitted there must be a Bill of some kind or other. The right hon. Gentleman opposite objected to certain portions of the Bill, and if those objections were well founded they would have to be dealt with; but as it was necessary there should be a Bill, he hoped the House would now allow the Second Reading to be taken.
§ MR. BARTLEY (Islington, N.)
must say that he considered this was a most peculiar way of carrying on the business of the House. They all agreed there must be some sort of a Bill, but it was a most extraordinary thing for the Leader of the House to get up and say, when it was pointed out by one of his own followers that the Bill would not work, that it should be sent to a Committee for them to so alter and amend it as to make it a workable measure. Those who understood anything of registration were of opinion that the Bill as it stood would not answer the purposes required; it had been prepared in a hasty and haphazard way, and unless materially changed in Committee it would not carry out the views of the Government or the wishes of the House. He thought the Bill should be withdrawn and some proper Bill introduced. The 923 Government themselves acknowledged the Bill would not do what they wanted. [Cries of "No, no!"] At all events, all the followers of the Government who were acquainted with registration—the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Forest of Dean (Sir C. Dilke) and the hon. Member for Sunderland (Mr. Storey)—said it would not work, and as, in his view, it would not carry out what the Government wished, he thought it an extraordinary arrangement to give the Bill a Second Reading simply to send it to a Committee; therefore, the proper plan would be not to pass the Second Heading, but to withdraw it, so that the Government could bring forth a Bill that would contain provisions that would carry out the intentions Parliament had in view when they passed the Bill of last Session. The Chancellor of the Exchequer himself had said that if the Bill did not carry out what was required that the Committee would have to alter it; that was to say, the Committee was to frame a measure the Government were supposed to father. He objected to such a course, and if a Division were taken he would vote against it.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read a second time.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Bill be committed to the Standing Committee on Law, and Courts of Justice, and Legal Procedure."—(Mr. Shaw-Lefevre.)
MR. J. LOWTHER
thought this was a matter in which a Select Committee would be preferable, on which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Forest of Dean (Sir C. Dilke), the hon. Member for Sunderland (Mr. Storey), and others might be placed. If the Bill were referred to a Grand Committee it would have to be re-discussed on the Report; therefore, no time would be saved.
§ SIR W. HARCOURT
said, he found upon inquiry that there were a number of very heavy and important Bills before the Grand Committee; and as; it was desirable the Bill should be dealt with as soon as possible, he agreed that it would be better to send it to a Select Committee.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Bill committed to a Select Committee.