HC Deb 09 May 1900 vol 82 cc1148-61


Order for Second Reading read.

* MR. LODER (Brighton)

The Bill of which I now beg to move the Second Reading, although dealing with an exceedingly complicated subject, is in itself a very simple measure. It consists practically of only two clauses, and its object is to assimilate the County Council franchise with that of the parochial or new borough councils in London, and so to establish a uniform register for both kinds of municipal elections in London. The two classes of voters to which I refer are very nearly, although not altogether, similar at present, and the distinctions which exist between them have grown up accidentally, and rest on no foundation of logic, convenience, or economy. On the contrary, they give rise to numerous misunderstandings and complications, I might almost say injustices, besides making the register cumbersome and expensive to maintain. As long as the fabric of London local government remained incomplete these inconsistencies were not so apparent as they are now. Since the Bill which was passed last year, which is to come into operation this autumn, these discrepancies become utterly inconsistent and absurd. I ought, perhaps, to say at once that the Bill in no way affects the Parliamentary franchise, nor does it, properly speaking, create any new franchise. It merely enacts that voters who are at present qualified to vote for the new boroughs in London should also be qualified to vote at the elections of the County Council. The Bill is, in fact, the natural corollary of the Act of last Session. The voters chiefly affected are the lodgers and the possessors of the service franchise, who are at present entitled to vote at the election of the new borough councils, but who are not entitled to vote at the county council elections. I do not think it is necessary for me to trouble the House with any historical retrospect of how these discrepancies arose. The present County Council franchise in London was the outcome of the County Electors Act of 1888, which extended Clause I. of the Municipal Corporations Act of 1882 to London. But as far as the minor subsidiary local bodies in London are concerned they remained in the imperfect state in which they had been for the last forty years, until the year 1894, when the Local Government Act extended the franchise so as to include all those who are qualified to vote at Parliamentary elections, at the elections of boards of guardians and of vestries, therefore making a much wider franchise for the subsidiary local bodies than existed for the County Council. Perhaps I should make the matter clearer to the House if I stated very briefly the number of persons in London entitled to vote for the various local bodies and the Imperial Parliament. The figures are for 1898. There are 587,000 persons qualified to vote for Parliamentary boroughs in London, and a small number entitled to vote at the Parliamentary elections in the counties outside London—Middlesex, Surrey, Kent, or Essex; there are 712,000 qualified to vote for the School Board; there are 24,000 qualified to vote for the Common Council of the City of London; there are 596,000 qualified to vote for the County Council; and there are 690,000 qualified to vote for the parochial or new borough councils. The House will, therefore, see that there are about 100,000 less voters for the County Council than there are for the new municipal borough councils. Whatever may be said in favour of maintaining the difference in the franchise for Parliament and municipal councils, I do not think there is any argument which can be adduced for maintaining the difference between electors who vote for public bodies which have cognate duties to perform. These 100,000 voters who are entitled to vote at the parochial elections and not at the county council elections are made up as follows: Lodgers, about 62,000; service franchise voters, 20,000; ownership freeholders, 8,000; there are a small number of £10 occupiers who are entitled to the parochial vote, 1,215; then there are married women who occupy qualifying property for which their husbands do not hold a qualification, about 1,000; a very small number of occupiers in the City of London who live beyond the fifteen miles radius of the administrative county, but within the twenty-five miles radius of the City, 14. It is these voters which it is proposed to add to the county council register, and so make it uniform in the future with the register of the new borough councils. I think it is hardly necessary for me to emphasize how greatly this change would simplify the work of registration in London. I may inform the House that the London County Council, after appointing a committee to inquire into the subject, passed a resolution unanimously in favour of the change, and in the report the committee make this remark as regards lodgers— We think that the lodger who is now entitled to vote for the vestries and boards of guardians should be permitted to vote for both the school board and the county council, especially as the distinction between those who are technically 'lodgers' and technically 'householders' is unreasonable and in practice absurd. I may tell those who are not quite familiar with the subject that the difference between a lodger and a householder is so small that it depends not upon the action of the individual himself, but upon whether the owner lives on the premises or not. Of course, that is a distinction for which there is practically no defence. I will take three instances very briefly indeed. "A," an inhabitant occupying one room in a house rated at £5, has the parochial, county, Parliamentary, and school board votes; but "B," who occupies the whole of the house next door at a rate of £27, has the same votes loss the Parliamentary because he happens to live outside the seven miles radius from his qualifying property; while the third person, "C," who occupies a large warehouse and pays rates to the extent of £1,000 a year, has no vote at all except for parochial bodies, because he happens to live outside the fifteen miles radius from his qualifying property. I think I have said enough to explain the distinction which exists, and that it would be advisable to do away with it. I should like to quote from the Report of the Royal Commission of 1894, appointed to inquire into the county council question. In paragraph 8 of that Report the Commissioners stated— It is manifestly convenient as well as economical to have one register of electors for both the central and local bodies, and we think that the electorate fixed by the Act of 1894 should be taken for both, namely, the parochial register. That is put as clearly as is necessary. I may also point out that within recent years Local Government Bills have been passed dealing with Scotland and Ireland as well as with London, and in regard to both Scotland and Ireland I am informed that the franchise for the principal local authorities and the subsidiary authorities is practically identical. What are the objections to this measure? I have only heard of two. One is that if we are going to deal with the question at all, it should be dealt with as regards the whole country, and not merely as regards London. The analogy, however, between London and the country is a false one. London, although the London County Council was created at the same time as the other county councils throughout the country, partakes more of the nature of a large borough than of a county, and also the new London boroughs will be much more like parochial boroughs than like municipal urban districts. The Royal Commission of 1894, which I quoted just now, said— The recent treatment of the large area of London. …gave undue prominence to county rather than to city characteristics. London is really a great town, and requires town and not county government. I may further remind the House that in the Parliamentary franchise London is treated as a borough and not as a county. The only other objection I have heard is that the lodger does not pay rates. In reply to that it is well known that at the present moment a large number of occupiers in London do not pay rates, and therefore it can hardly be maintained that non-payment of rates is any disqualification for having a vote for municipal purposes. I am informed that nearly two-thirds of the rates in London are not paid by the occupiers at all, but are paid by the owners. Consequently the voting power and the spending of the rates is already to the extent of two-thirds in the hands of lodgers, and it is illogical that you should withhold this assimilation of the franchise on that ground. If it is said that this is piecemeal legislation I would reply that anyone who attempted in a Private Bill of this kind, or any private Member who attempted to deal with the question in any kind of comprehensive manner, would be, I think, very bold indeed. We have to proceed on the lines of least resistance. We have, I admit, dealt only with a small corner of a very difficult and complicated subject, but this particular portion of the question is one upon which all concerned are agreed, and I trust I have said enough to make out a case for the passing of the Bill. Before I sit down I ought to apologise for the fact that, not being a London member or a member of that august body the London County Council, I have yet had the temerity to submit a measure of this kind to the House of Commons. But everybody may take some interest in the good government of the metropolis, and we have all looked with wonder, and perhaps with admiration, at the efforts which have been made in recent years to make London government more representative, and to get it more in touch with the wishes of the inhabitants of the metropolis. It is notorious that the proportion of voters who vote as a whole at local elections is extremely small, and it is a startling contradiction that you should have on the one hand an apparently insatiable thirst for local government, and on the other hand a great reluctance to go to the polls when opportunity offers. There is a homely proverb that you can bring a horse to the water, but you cannot mate him drink, and so you may give the inhabitants of London the power of managing their own affairs, but you cannot make them vote. But that does not entitle you to deprive of a vote those who have a just claim to one; and although I do not pretend to be able to solve this mystery, I believe it is in some part attributable to the chaotic state of the franchise in London, and I hope this Bill, if it does nothing else, will render that system a little more intelligible, and a little more free from misunderstandings and anomalies, and thus induce those who have the power to vote to exercise the franchise in the interests of the locality in which they live. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.


Would the hon. Member just explain the operation of Clause 3?


I beg the pardon of the House. The object of Clause 3 is merely to remove the residential qualification, which otherwise would be necessary on the part of those who are being enfranchised for county council purposes under this Bill.

MR. PICKERSGILL (Bethnal Green, S.W.)

Who are they?


I enumerated them.


The two principal classes affected are the lodgers and the service franchise electors. Of course, no question of residence outside the borough arises in their eases, and therefore I presume the only case which it is proposed to affect by Clause 3 are the freeholders; is that so?


That is so, and the married women who have the qualification.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this Bill be now read a second time"—(Mr. Loder.)

MR. JOHN BURNS (Battersea)

The clear, well-informed, and sympathetic speech of the hon. Member who has moved the Second Reading of this Bill, which is certainly appreciated by no one in this House more than myself, has practically left those who support the measure very little to say. The chief argument in favour of the Bill is that, though this is not a national measure, the past history of London, with its vestry traditions, besides its enormous population, compels the metropolis to be treated somewhat differently from other urban or rural districts. The object of this Bill is to assimilate the franchise—that is, to enable everyone who now votes for the old vestry or the new borough council to exercise the same right in regard to the somewhat more important body, namely, the central governing body. What is more, this Bill will unify the registers to a great extent. It will simplify registration, and help overseers in the rather difficult task they now have of making up the register owing to the anomalous variations between the voting for one body and another. It makes uniform what is now dissimilar, and I may assure hon. Members who object to the extension of the franchise in some respects that this Bill creates no new franchise, because it does not extend the franchise to any person who is not now entitled to vote for similar purposes for some other body. It enables those lodgers who now can vote for the borough councils or the old vestries and for Parliament to vote for the county council as well, and in so far as it does that I think it is a step in the right direction. On the lines of economy, I think the Bill will save a considerable amount of money which is now spent on needless printing, in which nearly all the London vestries and borough councils indulge. I certainly think it will tend to teach the young idea how to vote. It will enable young men and lodgers— who, I regret to say, do not take the interest either in Parliamentary or in county council or borough council elections that they should—to go through their apprenticeship with greater ease than is now possible, and everything that tends to encourage young men, and some day, I hope, young women, to vote both for borough councils and county councils is a step in the right direction. Anything that adds 62,000 to the municipal vote in London is a thing to be desired. The County Council through its committee support this Bill. I believe the Local Government and Taxation Committee were unanimous in supporting the main provisions of the measure. As two thirds of the people who vote for the County Council and for Parliament do not pay rates directly, as many provincial householders are required to do, there is no argument in the view that you are giving votes to the people who have no responsibility in the matter of paying rates. While I heartily support the Bill, I am not so sure my hon. friend was wise in putting in Clause 3. There is a great deal that is objectionable in that, but possibly the Solicitor General, who knows more about the technicalities and details of electoral law than I do, will support Clauses 1 and 2, and prevail upon the hon. Member in Committee either to modify or altogether to drop Clause 3. Whether or not that is done is to me a matter of little importance. The object of the Bill is one I heartily support, and I sincerely trust the House will give the measure a Second Reading.


I confess I am a little puzzled in regard to the operation of Clause 3. The only persons who will be qualified are lodgers, service franchise voters, and certain freeholders, including married women. I have not the slightest objection to Clause 3 in this sense. I think myself that the residential qualification is most unnecessary, but what I want to point out is the very curious result which will follow the passing of this clause as it stands. The hon. Member does not propose to remove the disqualification in regard to electors who are already qualified; it is only in regard to those who are going to be qualified by the operation of this particular Bill. The result will be, for instance, that a married woman may find herself free from this disqualification, whilst her husband, who may have the same qualification in another borough, will be bound by the operation of the disqualification. You are introducing a fresh anomaly between men and women. It may be that if the ladies are going to have the franchise they ought to have additional privileges, but it is introducing a new anomaly into our registration laws, and anomalies are already quite sufficient. I suggest that the hon. Member should cut off from Clause 3, if necessary, the last line, and he would then create no new anomaly in London. I have no hostility to the Bill at all, and in any case I should support the Second Reading, but unless the hon. Gentleman can accept my suggestion I shall be obliged to move an Amendment to that effect in Committee.

* MR. WHITMORE (Chelsea)

I should like to assure my hon. friend that as regards Clause 3 we are perfectly prepared to have the clause minutely examined in Committee, and we are not bound in the least degrees by the precise wording of the clause. Our object is a very simple. It is to give the County Council franchise to two large bodies of voters who have at present the right to vote for the borough councils, but not for the County Council. Anybody who has seen anything of the working of these elections in London will agree with me that this constitutes not merely an anomaly, but also a real grievance. These voters may take an interest in the borough election, and exercise their franchise; they know the questions at issue, and form their opinions. In a few months comes an election of the County Council—the same candidates may be before them, the questions are similar, and yet, and for no reason that we can explain or justify they find themselves excluded from the franchise. It is undoubtedly in the interest of the good government of London that this practical anomaly should be removed, and therefore I rejoice to see the House unanimous in their support of this Bill.


I do not think the hon. Member need offer any apology for introducing this Bill. As a London Member I beg personally to thank him, and I hope his success to-day may encourage other Members to intervene in London questions with similar results. I am glad there is an understanding that by voting in favour of this Bill we shall not be committed to Clause 3 in the very words in which it now stands. I will only add that this Bill will obviously assimilate, and is intended so to do, franchises in London, and I hope the Government will consider the question of also assimilating areas in London. In consequence of the passage of the London Government Act of last session, and through the work of the Commissioners, the boundaries of the various divisions have been to some extent altered, and that introduces great confusion. We shall have one boundary for the new borough councils election and another boundary for County Council and Parliamentary elections. So far as the Parliamentary boundaries are concerned, of course a Bill would be required; but as I understand a Bill would not be required to assimilate the new boundaries for County Council purposes, I hope Her Majesty's Ministers will carefully consider whether it will not be well for the Commissioners to assimilate these boundaries, and for the Government to introduce a Bill to carrying the work further by assimilating the boundaries for Parliamentary purposes also.


I hope the House will consent to give a Second Reading to this Bill. My hon. friend who introduced the Bill stated its purpose with admirable clearness, and everyone can see that it is extremely inconvenient that there should be a class of electors who have votes for the borough councils but not for the County Council. My hon. friend touched upon what might be said to be an objection to the measure—namely, that the same anomaly exists throughout the whole country. No doubt it does, because, ever since the parochial franchise was introduced by the Act of 1894, you have had a larger class of persons qualified to vote for district councils than for county councils, and these two franchises have existed side by side. At the same time, it is a perfectly fair observation that the mischief as regards the metropolitan area has been brought out in a very clear way, and in a somewhat intensified form, by the creation of the new borough councils, and the very considerable dignity which attends those bodies. It certainly would be rather hard that a man should have a vote for the borough councils in London and not for the County Council. I gather from the course of the debate that the House is not disposed to regard as very formidable the objection brought forward very properly by my hon. friend. There is another point which might be raised as an objection to the measure—but this would rather be for consideration afterwards—that at present it would undoubtedly have the effect of introducing a discrepancy as to the franchise within the area of the administrative County of London, because this measure is intended to apply only to that portion of the metropolis where the new boroughs have been created. The City is entirely outside the operations of the Act of last session, and with borough councils it has nothing to do. The result of the passing of this measure as it stands would be that you would have two franchises for the County Council—one in the City and the other in the portion of the administrative county outside the City. The hon. Member for Perth referred to Clause 3 of the Bill. I must say I think that clause requires a good deal of consideration. It is so drawn that it has, as I think, been misunderstood by some very learned persons. It has been said that it was intended to do away with the necessity for residence within fifteen miles in the case of those who possess the county electors qualification. That is not the intention of the clause as introduced, and I do not think it would have that effect as it stands, because it is confined in its operation to those persons who are qualified as county electors under this Act. That is to say, it is an enactment as regards a class of persons—the service franchise and lodgers —who are disqualified for the purpose of County Council elections by this Act, to which residence within fifteen miles does not apply. Moreover, the enactment about residing within fifteen miles has no application whatever to this class of voters; it applies only to those who enjoy the occupation franchise—what is called the old burgess qualification—in respect of the occupation of buildings, or the new burgess qualification introduced by the County Electors Act of 1888 in respect of the occupation of land of the value of £10. As far as I can appreciate the effect of this clause, it means no more and no less than that a married woman having the enjoyment of the county electors' qualification, which depends upon residence, who before the passing of this Bill could not vote, after the passing of this Bill will be qualified, in spite of the impediment of marriage; she will be relieved from the necessity of residence. But I apprehend that the class which this section would reach is an extremely small one, and it may be worth considering whether such a formidable and intricate clause is desirable in the interests of the very few persons who could be affected by it. After all, these are matters for subsequent consideration, and I hope the House will consent to give the Bill a Second Reading.

MR. SYDNEY BUXTON (Tower Hamlets, Poplar)

After the remarks of the Solicitor General—may I say the Attorney General*—I rise merely for the purpose of asking whether it might not be well on the part of those who are promoting this Bill to give us some promise not only that they will fully consider this clause, but that they will withdraw Clause 3 when the Bill is in Committee. Clause 2 is very simple. It effects the removal of an anomaly which ought to be removed, and it will simplify the whole position of registration and the franchise throughout London with the exception of the City. As regards Clause 3, we have had different versions of it from different Members, and it might really be an advantage if some hon. Gentleman representing the Bill would give us some assurance that that clause would be withdrawn. Our object with regard to this Bill is not to raise any controversial questions, but simply to get rid of an anomaly which we all agree ought to be done away with; and I think the promoters would be well advised in dropping Clause 3.

MR. COHEN (Islington, E.)

I rise to thank the Solicitor General for having called attention to the necessity for an alteration in the Bill on the subject of the City. I have had the honour of being one of the members for the City on the London County Council ever since the creation of that body, and I am quite sure it cannot be the intention, at any rate of those who always advocate unification, that lodgers in the City should be disfranchised, whilst lodgers in other parts of London receive the franchise. I am glad my hon. friend says this is an oversight, and therefore I am sure that an Amendment in the direction will be made. *Sir Robert Finlay was this day appointed Attorney General, in place of Sir Richard Webster, appointed Master of the Rolls. After that assurance I have only to associate myself as a London Member with the gratitude which has been expressed to my hon. friend for introducing this Bill.

* MR. TOMLINSON (Preston)

greatly doubted whether the promoters of the Bill would be wise if they consented to omit the provision as to residential qualification contained in Clause 3. He was certain that benefit would arise, probably in London, and certainly in many parts of the provinces, if the narrow restrictions as to residence as a qualifying condition for the exercise of the franchise for, or the right to sit in local bodies were somewhat extended. At present it was not too much to say that many local bodies were placed at a serious disadvantage by reason of the fact that gentlemen who were best qualified to take part in their deliberations were disqualified by happening to reside outside the limiting radius. Travelling facilities were now so great that it was easy and often very desirable for gentlemen to live a little distance from their business, and he thought the general question of the maintenance of these restrictions was a matter deserving the immediate consideration of Her Majesty's Government.

MR. BOULNOIS (Marylebone, E.)

I should like to assure my hon. friend opposite that we do not consider Clause 3 as in any way vital to the Bill, but at the same time we do not think it should be withdrawn at this moment. As my hon. friend the Member for Chelsea stated, it will be subject to consideration and revision in any form the House may think desirable. There is the alternative suggested by the hon. Member for Perth, and there are other matters—all of which might be dealt with later on, but which cannot be dealt with at this stage of the Bill.

MR. RECKITT (Lincolnshire, Brigg)

I should like to join in the appeal with regard to this matter of the residential qualification, and the possibility of increasing the distance at which any voter may reside outside the borough area, and still retain his franchise. I have had brought to my notice more than one case in connection with the town council of Hull, where members have had to resign their seats on account of residing outside the area. The increased facilities afforded by trains and trams make it possible for people to reside ten or fifteen miles from the boroughs in which they still have a very large interest, and who ought, if possible, to be retained as members of the councils. If it is possible in this or some subsequent Bill to facilitate the retention of these members it would be a great advantage.


I wish to emphasise the remarks which have been made with regard to assimilating boundaries for the purpose of County Council elections. Unless some alteration is made there will be South Hornsey which will have the borough franchise but not the London County Council franchise. As to the Bill generally, there being practically no opposition, I venture to think that, under the circumstances, I should not be right in occupying the time of the House.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed to the Standing Committee on Law, etc.