HC Deb 08 March 1900 vol 80 cc403-11

Order for Second Reading read.


This is a Bill to preserve the voting qualification of those who by residence have acquired the franchise, and who for a time would be deprived, and unjustly deprived, of the advantage of that franchise, through having gone abroad in the service of the country. The attention of the Government has naturally been called to the possible disqualification which would attach to those who have in this national emergency gone out of the country to serve the Queen, and who by that means would be deprived of the franchise they have acquired. It seems very unfair that a similar protection should not be accorded to them as was accorded under the Act of 1891 to others. The Bill applies to all classes, whether in the Militia, Yeomanry, or Volunteers, who have gone abroad to serve the country, and who by being abroad might lose the franchise which they have acquired by residence, I observe that an hon. and gallant friend of mine (General Laurie) has given notice of a motion by which he seeks to include similar facilities for relief to the members of the Navy and Army. That is a very different question. I venture to remind the House that the Bill has been introduced not for those who have undertaken regular service under the Crown, whether in the Army or Navy, and who are under obligation to go abroad when their services are required. That is a very different case altogether, and cannot, I think, be properly brought within the provisions of the Bill. This is a Bill intended to apply to those who are practically civilians, and who have by residence acquired the franchise, and who would be deprived of it by the fact that they have gone out in the service of the country. It seems to the Government that that disability should be removed, and that is the simple object of this Bill of which I now move the Second Reading.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

MR. T. M. HEALY (Louth, N.)

I have some sympathy with the motion made, and also with the motion which appears on the Paper by the hon. and gallant Member for Pembroke. I rather regret that the Government did not widen the Bill in the sense in which he proposes. I think that is a reasonable and a proper thing, but I would like to call the attention of the Government to a curious condition of the law in regard to the question of disciplinary imprisonment inflicted during actual service. We had, the other day, the case of a man of the name of Daniel O'Connor, who while he was on military duty as a Volunteer—as a yeoman—was for some minor offence ordered to be, not imprisoned, but placed on some sort of parole by which he was confined in the camping ground, and the revising barrister struck him off the roll under the law that a man undergoing imprisonment cannot be retained on the register. The Court of Appeal reversed that decision of the revising barrister.


pointed out that the Bill before the House dealt with the franchise of those who had gone out of the country in the service of the country.


I am coming to that. I think that those who have been under military discipline involving punishment would be similarly liable during that time to lose their votes. I think it would be desirable to see that during the entire time those men are absent on service no disqualification from any cause should arise.

COLONEL MILWARD (Warwickshire, Stratford-upon-Avon)

observed that he was extremely grateful to the Government for introducing the Bill.

*GENERAL LAURIE (Pembroke and Haverford west)

I felt bound, believing that this Bill did not go far enough, to place on the Paper the notice which appears there. I quite realise that this is not an enfranchising Bill, but we do not ask that the soldier should, be enfran- chised. What we ask is that he should not suffer from a disability when the Volunteers, Yeomanry, Militia, or Reserve men are relieved from the process of disqualification. A Reserve man is liable to be sent abroad, and a member of the Militia is liable to be sent to another part of the country for service, and what we ask is that after this war is over all those who have gone abroad should on their return be able to exercise the franchise. Under these proposals a soldier alone would be disqualified because he had been away doing his country's work. It seems to me an invidious distinction to draw, and, that being so, I have felt bound—it is the only thing we could do—to move that the Bill be not read a second time in order to enable me to express that view.

*MR. JEFFREYS, in seconding the Amendment, said (Hampshire, N.)

I do hope some consideration will be given to the Regular soldiers. In 1891 a Bill was passed through this House allowing soldiers and sailors to go away on active service for a period not exceeding four months without becoming disqualified. Before that time, if a soldier went away for a period of three months manœuvring or on service, he was struck off the register at the next revision of Parliamentary voters. Some years ago I introduced a Bill to enable soldiers to go away for a period of not exceeding four months without losing their votes. A similar Bill was passed by the Attorney General in 1891. Now that so many soldiers are sent out in the present war, I think some consideration might be made for them. I should not say that they should retain their votes for the whole period of the war, but I think some such period as eight or nine months might be inserted. It is rather hard that men on the staff or in the medical service should lose their votes while they see other men in similar employment go out and still retain their votes. I think it would be only a gracious act to do for soldiers what you propose to do for those in the service who will get the benefit of the Bill. It is not often that the soldiers have the opportunity of recording their votes, but of course, like other people, they highly value the privilege of being able to vote for a Member of Parliament.

Amendment proposed— To leave out from the word 'That,' to the end of the question, in order to add the words 'no Bill granting facilities for relief of electoral disabilities to Militia, Yeomanry, and Volunteers who have proceeded on active service will be satisfactory to this House which does not extend similar facilities for relief to the members of the Royal Navy and Regular Army who are now employed on active service in South Africa,' instead thereof."—(General Laurie.)

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


This is a very large Bill in its essence, because it affects not only those who may be serving out of the country, and who by their absence from their habitual occupations would be disqualified, but it gives very special advantages to the classes who are affected by it. Moreover, the same amount of absence from the place of habitation is not a disability so long as the person affected is absent on actual military service. That is an enormous revolution so far as it goes in the existing law of this country—to say that during the whole of this time he shall have the franchise preserved to him although not an inhabitant or occupier. But the thing, large in itself, is made very small by the limitation to the class to which it extends. It extends only to the Reserve men, the Militia, and the Yeomanry. That sets up a very invidious distinction between the voluntary service men and the other service men. It suggests that the one is a volunteer and the other a mercenary, but the fact is that all our forces are voluntary. The fact that men are engaged in the Regular service is not a reason for refusing to them, whether in the Army or Navy, the reservation of this right. You only reserve a right which has been created by the operation of the ordinary law. Is it a reason, because the man is a Volunteer for a longer period, that he should be deprived of his vote? Marines have almost all electoral qualifications, and a great many sailors have homes in the ports where their ships go. Why should they be deprived of the privilege of voting? I think it is very reasonable and generous, at any rate, that the Secretary of State for the Home Department should make a small revolution so far as it goes in the electoral law of this country. The men who are employed in the transport service ought to be included. The ordinary fisherman taken on in the trans- ports engaged in the military service on behalf of the Grown is a Volunteer, and ought to get the advantage of this proposal; although he is an ordinary citizen, he is really employed in the military service in an auxiliary capacity. Without pledging myself as to the exact way in which it should be done, whatever arguments apply to the Yeomanry and Volunteer forces apply equally to the soldiers and the sailors, and I hope my light hon. friend will consider how he can meet the point.


It occurs to me that under this Bill there lurks a very considerable change in our representative system. For my part I quite agree that the Yeomanry, Militia, and Volunteer forces sent out should not be placed at a disadvantage, but I think that end would be gained without disturbing the electoral system by making this a temporary Act, and the proper course would be to say that this Bill shall only continue in force to the end of April next year, and by that time the war will be over and the necessity for such a structural change will have ceased to exist. I am altogether against the Amendment of the hon. and gallant Member opposite, because undoubtedly it would change the whole system if we were to extend to all military men the privilege of being qualified as long as they were absent on service. The Act of 1891 was a very considerate Act, and met the case so far as was necessary for the general purposes of justice. It was not confined to soldiers or military men, sailors, or marines, for whom the hon. Member opposite always speaks so eloquently. It contained a general clause which provided that absence on service should not be a disqualification. I do not think at this particular emergency this House is going to alter and undo what was resolved upon when that Act was passed, The sole object of the Government is to remedy an injustice to those now serving in South Africa, and that is an emergency not likely to occur again for another quarter or half a century. I trust that if this Bill does pass it will be limited in the way I suggest, and will only be a temporary measure which will cease to exist at the close of next year. For these reasons I feel inclined to vote for the Second Reading of the Bill in its present form, and probably the right hon. Gentleman may give an assurance that the suggestion I have ventured to make will be met.

MR. ARTHUR J. MOORE (Londonderry)

As the representative of a constituency a very large number of men from which are now actually fighting in South Africa, I think it is a great grievance that they should be deprived of their votes. We are not asking you to enfranchise them, but we are simply asking you not to allow their votes to be taken away because of their absence in South Africa. It is all very well to sit comfortably before a majority of 4,000 or 5,000 votes, but if you sit upon the narrow ledge of a majority of forty-three you have to account for every single vote, and every vote is a matter of vital consequence.

THE ATTORNEY GENERAL (Sir Richard Webster,) Isle of Wight

I need scarcely say that it seems to us that it would be departing from the one motive which prompted us in bringing forward this measure if we give the extension which hon. Members are asking for. The principle of this Bill is that we should not disqualify persons who are now upon the register by reason of their voluntary absence when they volunteer for service for the purposes of this war. I may say that we had originally considered the question of making it a temporary measure, and we should have no objection to considering that matter in Committee if it is thought desirable to limit the Bill to some period which is certain of covering the present war. I will give a few reasons to the House why we cannot extend the Bill. If we were to do that it would be opening a very large question. We have had an appeal for the Army. The same sort of appeal might be made for those in our merchant ships, and for the seamen who happen to be engaged on our transports. I would point out that all these persons are engaged under circumstances which will, in the ordinary course of their duty, take them away from the United Kingdom for a period longer than the qualifying period. It does not seem to us that we ought to establish for the purposes of this Bill the principle that when you become a member of a profession requiring your absence over the qualifying period you should still be enabled to keep your vote. This Bill is brought in to meet a state of facts which exists to-day—namely, that a number of persons have volunteered to go out to South Africa, and to those we desire to limit this Bill. Much as we sympathise with the others, it is not possible for us to extend the Bill; I doubt whether it could be extended, but if it could we do not see our way to do it. A mere extension of eight months or four months would not at all meet the case. The matter we are dealing with is the Volunteers for this war. [An Hon. Member: Are the Reserves Volunteers?] They are considered to be Volunteers, for under ordinary circumstances those Reserves would not have been away from their homes at all. I will deal with the point raised by the hon. Member for King's Lynn. We do not intend this Bill to be a qualifying Bill, putting persons upon the register who are not already there. We are dealing with persons who are already on the register, and who would be liable to be struck off for being away more than four months. They already possess the residential qualification, and we provide that their absence on service shall be no disqualification.


On whom is the burden of proof?


My hon. and learned friend is aware that we constantly have objections raised to a particular voter on the ground that he has been away more than four months. The man whose vote is challenged has to appear before the revising barrister and prove his claim, and if the man is away in South Africa, that fact will be easily proved before the revising barrister. I hope we have made our meaning clear, and I will consider the suggestions which have been made in the Committee stage.

MR. MCKENNA (Monmouthshire, N.)

said that the great principle laid down by the Attorney General was not carried out by the Bill—that a man qualified one year would not necessarily be qualified the next. If he had been away the whole year, to retain his qualification he would have to have retained his lodging. He was of opinion that the Bill would be of scarcely any advantage to Volunteers. As it now stood, the Bill was a rich man's Bill pure and simple.

MR. ASQUITH (Fife, E.)

agreed that the Bill was of a very limited scope. It was intended to apply only to those who were already on the register at the beginning of the qualifying year, and only to such of those persons who continued in occupation of the premises which formed the subject matter of the vote. The Bill simply removed in the case of persons who had that continued occupancy what would otherwise be a disqualification by reason of their personal absence from the place of occupation.


The families continue in occupation.


said that might be so, but inasmuch as there must be continued occupancy of the voter under the existing law, that would be ineffective without this Bill. He hoped the Government would adhere to the other principle of the Bill—namely, that it should be confined to those persons now serving in South Africa whose service was not one of the normal conditions of their employment. Unless the Bill were limited in this way, it would, he thought, be a most revolutionary departure in their electoral law.


said he quite saw the great force of what the Attorney General had said with regard to the Regular forces; but could not a compromise be made whereby, when soldiers were sent beyond the seas, their franchise should be preserved? That was a reasonable compromise, and afforded a great safeguard to what he hoped would be a temporary measure.


said that this would be a temporary measure. The suggestion put forward, however, was one which was deserving of consideration in the future if such a measure was made permanent; but the Government having determined to make this a temporary measure, the suggestion of the hon. Member hardly arose at present.


, after expressing the hope that the Government might see their way to make some modification in the Bill which would prevent any bitter feeling arising among different portions of their forces, asked leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

*MR. PARKER SMITH (Lanarkshire, Partick)

, speaking on the general question, said he did not think the Bill was of such a narrow scope as had been suggested by several hon. Members. In Glasgow alone there were over 2,000 families of soldiers who were being cared for by the Soldiers and Sailors Families Association, and of whom a large proportion, at a guess a half, would come within the scope of the Bill.

Main Question put, and agreed to; Bill read a second time, and committed for Monday next.

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