HC Deb 13 June 1899 vol 72 cc1078-86

Order for Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That the Bill be now read a third time.

MR. ELLIOT (Durham City)

I beg to move the Amendment standing in my name, which is to re-commit the Bill in respect of Clause 2, and the main object for my doing so is that I feel most strongly upon this matter. Nothing would have induced me to bring the additional trouble upon my right hon. friend the Leader of the House which this re-committal must entail were it not that, after all, we are concerned in matter of extreme importance, and had it not been that the right hon. Gentleman showed us himself that he left to the House absolute liberty to deal with this matter. He left not only one or two stages to the House to decide, but the whole of the stages which it is competent for this House to consider. A word or two will be sufficient to bring to the recollection of the House the position in which we stood a few weeks ago. After having been told that the matter would come on on the Report stage in such a way that it could be dealt with, the fact remains that it was unexpectedly brought forward, and we were taken by surprise; no means were taken to get Members to the House—I blame no one, but merely state the facts—and we did not get, I submit, the real opinion of the House. I feel it is only right to appeal to a larger House, which will better reflect the true opinion of this House than the Division which took us by surprise a few nights ago. I am not a London Member, and those with whom I have spoken are not London Members. It is as a provincial Member that I venture to urge upon this House that the clause should be re-committed, in order to consider this principle which has been so recklessly accepted—a principle which will be applied to town councils and county councils throughout the length and breadth of England. Before going into the merits, I might just say that I am not one of those who attack the other sex on the ground that they are inferior to us. I number amongst my friends and acquaintances many women of ability and capacity, whose qualities would do credit to many of my male friends—


Order, order. The hon. Member will not be in order in discussing the whole question of the right of women to sit upon the council. The motion is that the Bill be re-committed in respect to a particular clause. If the Bill be re-committed then will be the time to discuss the whole question. The hon. Member can only argue now that another opportunity ought to be given to the House to consider the subject.


I do not, of course, Sir, venture to dispute any ruling that you may lay down, but my contention is that the principle introduced into Clause 2 extends far beyond the London boroughs. It extends to town councils and county councils, and although I do not want to trespass upon your ruling one iota, I do hope you will permit me to reason that if Clause 2 is accepted the municipalities throughout England will he greatly affected. I should have thought I might take that line.


The hon. Member follows what I said; he cannot discuss the question on its merits until he has succeeded in carrying the Motion.


I feel that I am placed in a very embarrassing position, because I have taken some little trouble in this matter, and I feel now that I cannot say what I should like to say upon this occasion. I certainly did imagine that this would be an occasion when a general discussion would be taken; but if, as I understand, a general discussion may not be taken now, I must reserve what I have to say until we get into Committee, and simply move—

"That this Bill be re-committed in respect of Clause 2a."

MR. DUNCOMBE (Cumberland, Egremont)

After the ruling laid down by you, Sir, I shall also be relieved of the trouble that I have taken, and will simply second the Motion, and make any other remarks which I may have to make at another time.

Amendment proposed— To leave out the words 'now read the third tune,' in order to add the words 're-committed in respect of Clause 2"—(Mr. Elliot).—instead thereof.

Question proposed— That the words 'now read the third time' stand part of the Question.


I wish to intervene for a very few minutes to express my views on the Motion which my hon. friend has submitted for the consideration of the House. For many years, ever since I have had the honour of being a Member of this House, I have done the best in my power to oppose the grant of what are, in my opinion, erroneously called "women's rights." I have voted against the proposal with regard to the Parliamentary franchise, I have voted in the measure now before the House three times against women being councillors or aldermen; therefore I think my friend will see that my opinion on the merits of the question which he desires to discuss are entirely in accordance with his own. I do not attach the importance to this particular matter which my hon. friend does. I do not at all anticipate that if women are admitted to he aldermen and county councillors in London, that the whole system of county councils and borough councils in the United Kingdom will he affected. However that may be, the question immediately before us is whether the Bill should he re-committed. I will submit to my hon. friend some considerations which may induce him not to press the Motion. We have already had opportunities on three occasions of expressing our opinions by speech and vote upon this matter in the course of the progress of the Bill through the House; and I Cannot help feeling that anyone who is so well informed as my hon. friend on the practice of the House may feel that there are not a few Members who, though generally somewhat indifferent to the merits of the question, would be very much disposed to oppose the re-committal of the Bill now it has reached its present stage. It is an absolutely unusual course for a Motion to be made for the re-committal of a Bill except by someone who is opposed to the measure; and when the measure is one which contains so many important provisions relating to perfectly different subjects, and has been so amply discussed as this Bill has been, I think there is additional ground against making what is a most inconvenient precedent by carrying a motion for the re-committal of the Bill. My hon. friend is likely to get on this ground a very much worse division than he might on the merits of the question. I feel very strongly that there is considerable objection, as I have said, for the reasons I have given, to the re-committal of the Bill. I am confident that that view is shared by many hon. Members on this side who would be ready enough, as I should be, if the issue could he fairly raised, to vote with my hon. friend; and I would strongly urge him, from that point of view, not to press the matter further, but to let the Bill now proceed to its Third Reading. The measure will then go to another place, and we may again have cause to thank God that we have a House of Lords.

EARL PERCY (Kensington, S.)

I am not in a position to-night to detain the House by recapitulating the arguments which I have already urged at a previous stage of the Bill, but I feel I must say one or two words in support of the motion of my hon. friend, in spite of the words which have fallen from the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Sir, we all recognise the very friendly treatment which the Chancellor of the Exchequer has given to this question; but I must confess, although he is a far better judge of expediency than I am, that I do not quite understand one of his arguments, which was, as I take it, that if we re-commit this Bill it will be open to discussion on every other important question which the Bill contains Surely this question of the eligibility of women to sit on the councils can take place within the space of an hour. I am bound to say, considering the importance which many London Members attach to this point, that that is not a very large extension of Parliamentary time to ask of the Government. I know very well that it is a strong order to ask the Government to re-commit a Bill, and it can only he justified on two grounds—in the first place, that the point which we have to re-discuss is of sufficient importance, or, in the second place, that it did not receive fair and adequate treatment either in the Committee or on Report. Now, Sir, at the present stage, I only desire to say that some—in fact, the majority of—London Members are against the inclusion of women, so far as the opinion of London Members has been expressed in Committee, and that an overwhelming majority of Members think the inclusion of women will go very far to stultify the legislation of the present Bill. The only real objection which the Chancellor of the Exchequer has urged against the re-committal of the Bill is that it will be reconsidered in another place. Now, Sir, if I could be perfectly certain that the image of the lady aldermen would cross the mind of every one of the noble Lords in another place, then I might be able to rely upon the House of Lords to save us from the results of the discussion in Committee and the Report stage. But the manner in which the subject has been treated is so inadequate that I hope the House will be willing to give us another chance of discussing it. We have had several Divisions on the representation of women on these councils. We had, first, the Division which resulted in favour of the admission of women, which was taken in a thin House during the dinner hour, when almost every London Member was away. The second and third Divisions, which were unfavourable to the admission of women, were taken in a fuller House, when all the Members had returned. The result of those Divisions was summed up by the First Lord of the Treasury, when he said that the House of Commons had committed itself to an impossible and ridiculous position, and therefore must reserve the whole question for further consideration on the Report stage. Well, Sir, the Report stage was taken last Tuesday, and under conditions that entirely vitiate the conclusions at which the House of Commons arrived. The London Government Bill was put in the second place on the Paper, after the Finance Bill; and so unlikely did it appear that the discussion on the London Government Bill would be concluded before the close of Tuesday's debate that the First Lord of the Treasury expressly reserved Thursday for its consideration. Well, the Finance Bill, as it turned out, was completed at an early hour, and the question was raised for final decision at a time when most Members were taking tea on the Terrace. I do not wish for a moment to accuse any Member of the Government of any complicity in this matter. On the contrary, we recognise, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said, that no one could have regretted the result of the Division more than he did, and I can imagine that in his own mind he saw battalions of women rushing through the breaches of his own Finance Bill. I do, however, think that the Government must accept responsibility for the totally unrepresentative character of the Division; and although I am perfectly willing to take the responsibility which attaches to me or to any other London Member for any lack of foresight on our part, at any rate against that has to be set the somewhat slipshod procedure on the part of the Government. I do not really believe that the decision arrived at is of much value on the general aspect of female suffrage. I have never argued the question from that point of view. But it is a question directly affecting London, and London alone, and it is a question which has been decided directly contrary to the opinions of the right hon. gentlemen who sit on the front Opposition bench, and directly contrary to the opinions of the vast majority of London Members. It has also been decided in a sense particularly opposite to the opinion of the London vestries themselves. Under these circumstances, if the motion is pressed to a Division, I shall certainly feel it my duty to support my hon. friend.


In the few words that I shall address to the House I shall confine myself entirely to the question before us. This is not an occasion on which to discuss the details of the London Government Bill, or the advantages or disadvantages of women sitting upon the councils. The question is whether it is a proper procedure to recommit the Bill on the grounds which have been advanced in support of it. Now, Sir, I venture to think that that is a Motion which is absolutely incapable of being supported by anyone who has regard to the practices and rules of the House. A Bill on the stage of the Third Reading has to be re-committed for some definite reason justifying that step being taken by the House, and that definite reason must surely he that some fault, some hiatus, some mistake, has been discovered which has to be amended before we proceed to the final stage. It is found, perhaps, that by accident one clause is inconsistent with another, or that something has been done which it is desirable to amend. Now we are asked to re-commit a Bill for the simple purpose of reversing a decision which has been taken upon one point of the Bill. I venture to say that that is an entirely novel and almost unprecedented proposal. The noble Lord who has just sat down endeavoured to make out that the decision was arrived at in an imperfect way, and under circumstances which invalidated its effect. We have been told that hon. Members were at tea on the Terrace. We cannot help that. But I have seldom seen an occasion in which a decision was come to by the House in a more formal or deliberate manlier. I confess I am not deeply interested in the question one way or the other, but I protest against the power of recommitting a Bill being used for the pure and sole and simple purpose of reversing a decision at which the House has already deliberately arrived.

MR. R. G. WEBSTER (St. Pancras, E.)

I venture to say that the majority of the people of London have shown themselves opposed to women councillors. We have had a debate on justice to Ireland. Why should we not have justice to London? Justice is a word which is sometimes abused. We have been told that we ought to thank God that we have a House of Lords. I, for one, do thank God that we have a House of Lords. Take, for example, this question. It was decided on a snatch vote of the House of Commons, in which only 360 hon. Mem- bers gave a vote out of a total of 670. Therefore, I consider we are entitled to ask that the Bill should he recommitted. The opinion of the House on the question of whether women should be included on the new councils was taken on four occasions, and on two of those occasions the House decided that they should not be councillors and aldermen—[cries of "Divide]." Hon. Members are in a hurry to have their dinner. They shall go to dinner in due course. I sincerely hope the House of Lords will give us the opportunity of again considering the question.

MR. LABOUCHERE (Northampton)

As one of those who are opposed to women having this right, I do not intend, for technical reasons, to divide the House, and I do not see much use in further discussing the matter. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has adumbrated the idea that possibly we may have an opportunity later on. Well, Sir, I understand perfectly well what that means. I do not go so far as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and say "Thank God we have a House of Lords." In fact, I entertain rather the reverse view on that subject. But under all the circumstances I think it would he better to leave the Lords and ladies to fight the matter out.


After what the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said, it is quite clear that my object would be entirely defeated by going on with my Amendment. I look forward, with my right hon. friend, to a near and happy future, and beg now to be allowed to withdraw my Amendment.

Bill accordingly read the third time, and passed.

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