HC Deb 28 January 1902 vol 101 cc1208-16

(11.25.) MR. LOUIS SINCLAIR (Essex, Romford) moved as an Amendment to the Address, at the end, to add the words— But we humbly represent to Your Majesty the desirability of remedying the defects and anomalies which at present exist in the representation of the people in this House by introducing a measure for the redistribution of seats, and which will also provide for the permanent representation of the British Dominions beyond the seas in the Imperial Parliament. he trusted he would be forgiven by the House if in the course of his remarks he was compelled to go into many statistics which might be wearisome, but both in the commercial and political interests of this country it was imperative that the many anomalies in the representation in this House should be debated. They all anticipated before the last election that there would be a Reform Bill during the present Parliament, but owing to the war and other considerations that Bill had hitherto been passed over. Following as he did a debate which had given the House a most magnificent speech, he felt very much in the shadow, and trusted that he would have the indulgence of the House. His observations would not be directed to the constituency he represented, notwithstanding the immense volume of work entailed on the representative of nearly 40,000 electors, who had to deal with many conflicting interests—School Boards, District Councils, which had competing interests with, neighbouring Councils, in which a Member was called to interfere. For his part he had nothing to say against his constituency, for the majority in his favour at the last election left him nothing to be desired.

He would briefly refer to the history of this question. There was first the Union of Scotland with England in 1707, and then the Union of Ireland with Great Britain in 1801. According to the Act of Union in 1801, Ireland was to have 100 Members, which were increased in 1832 to 105, and in 1885 reduced to 103. As was said in reference to the Irish Church, during the disestablishment debates, the Treaty of Union declared that Article 5 relating to the Church of Ireland "shall be and shall remain in full force for ever." But those words were not employed in Article 4, which stated that the number to be returned by Ireland to the Imperial Parliament was 100; and therefore that arrangement was not regarded as eternal, and not meant to be a cross to be borne by the English for their sins for ever. In 1770 Lord Chatham said that either Parliament would reform itself from within, or be reformed with a vengeance from without; and in 1782 he said the same thing. In 1793, Earl Grey endeavoured to introduce a Reform Bill, but the measure was thrown out on account of the French Revolution, the political unrest at home, and the exhausting was abroad. In 1820, Lord Russell exposed the abuses in the representation of the people, but no legislation resulted. The first Reform Bill was passed in 1832, although the Duke of Wellington had said that the representations of the people in the House had previously been perfect. By the Act of 1832, it was provided that 56 nomination boroughs with 111 seats should be disfranchised, that 30 boroughs should lose one member each; the county members in England were increased from 94 to 159; the representation of Scotland was increased from 45 to 53, and of Ireland from 100 to 105. The result was that the landlords were able to coerce their employees into voting in a particular way. In 1852–4 the Bill of Lord John Russell was thrown out owing to the Russian War, and in 1859 the Bill of Lord Derby was also defeated. In 1860 the next Bill of Lord Join Russell was not proceeded with. In the Bill of 1867–8 four corrupt borough were disfranchised, thirty-eight borough were semi-disfranchised, and seven English boroughs were given to Scotland. There were also many other arrangements under that Bill with which however he would not weary the House. In 1885 a very important measure was introduced, under which a number of boroughs below 5,000 in population were absorbed in the country, and two corrupt boroughs were disfranchised. Sixteen seats went to the country, and 134 boroughs were decreased by thirty-nine. The representation of Scotland was increased by twelve, that of England by six, and the representation of Ireland was decreased by two.

He wished to mention a few of the anomalies of the existing system as they affected the House at present. The representative strength of Romford to Newry was in the proportion of eighteen to one. The average number of electors per Member in the United Kingdom was 10,183, that of Newry was only 1,800. Taking the number of electors in each country, it would be found that England had 10,897 for each Member, Scotland 9,678, and Ireland 7,144. With reference to Ireland there were in his own Division 7,000 Irish electors, some of whom voted for him and some against him; but if they had remained in their own country, the Irish members would have a larger and more equal electorate. Ireland on the basis of population was only entitled to forty-four Members and on the basis of contribution to sixteen Members. What was fair for England, Scotland, and Wales, should also be fair for Ireland. At present the six highest constituencies represented 150,000 electors each, whereas the forty-five lowest represented only about 10,000 each. The contribution of Scotland was four and a half times greater than that of Ireland, where both population and contribution were diminishing, while they were increasing in England and Scotland. He therefore concluded that Ireland would be represented well by seventy-two Members, the number given to Scotland. There was another great anomaly. Four hundred Members in the House had an electorate of 3,067,905, whereas the other 270 Members had an electorate of 3,754,680. Accordingly a majority of 130 in the House represented a minority of 700,000 electors in the country. Half of the House represented four and a half millions of electors, whereas the other half represented only two and a half millions. If the interesting figures which had been recently circulated were studied, it would be found that anomalies existed to as great an extent in England as in any other part of the United Kingdom. Statistics on the subject abounded. The elections were now just over, and most important work had to be performed by the Government. He thought also that the Opposition ought to have time to collect their thoughts, in order that they might be able to formulate another Newcastle programme for the next election. The Amendment which he proposed was not intended to have immediate effect, but was simply to draw the attention of the House, and especially of the Government, to the great anomalies and difficulties which existed in connection with representation in this House. With regard to the second part of his Amendment, which provided for the permanent representation of the British dominions beyond the seas in the Imperial Parliament, his object was not to ask Colonial Members to attend the House, but to create in the mother country an Imperial Defence Committee, composed of men like Lord Strathcona and other eminent colonials, who might consider what contribution might be made to the Imperial Exchequer, though not by way of taxation, and also to consider what might be done to render the defences of the Empire as efficient as possible. Those colonial representatives would not have to attend continually, but only at stated times. When he thought of the men whom it had been his pleasure to meet in the colonies, he considered that if obsolete vessels were sent as training ships to the colonies, there would be no difficulty in drawing from the colonies efficient men to man the Navy. It was for that purpose that he ventured to put down the second part of his Amendment, and if he had been able to draw the attention of the Government to the ever-growing necessity of attracting the colonies by fair means, and in a shoulder-to-shoulder spirit, he should have performed a part which he should not regret. He begged to move.

(11.40.) MR. COGHILL (Stoke-upon Trent)

said he had much pleasure in seconding the Amendment, but in doing so would confine himself to the first part of it. The part of the United Kingdom especially referred to was of course Ireland, where redistribution was required more than in any other part of the United Kingdom. There was a great inequality, because Ireland at the present time, having regard to her population, had an excess of representation of something like thirty-one Members. He did not in any way wish to be unfair to Ireland or to any other part of the United Kingdom, but still Ireland undoubtedly had that excess. There was another distinct inequality with regard to the present system, and that was in regard to the small boroughs. It was very unfair that one Member, like the hon. Member for Romford, should represent 31,000 electors, whereas many other hon. Members only represented a few thousands. Then, with reference to double-Member constituencies, he could never understand why one Member should represent 20,000 or 30,000 electors whereas other Members like the hon. Members for Ipswich and Northampton, should represent only 8,000 or 9,000 and why these constituencies should have the privilege of returning two Members. That seemed very unfair as far as the large single Member constituencies were concerned. There was great reluctance on the part of both political parties to touch the question of redistribution. He did not know why right hon. Gentlemen on the Treasury Bench should fight shy of it. Right hon. Gentlemen opposite seemed equally reluctant to take up the question, but as it was not possible to make the fortunes of their party worse than they were at present they might as well take up redistribution as any other matter.

He wished to make a proposal which he thought might be taken into consideration by the Government. The Government might say that they could not deal with the question until the last session of Parliament. But when was the last session of Parliament? It might be very soon. All he knew was that the Government at the beginning of the last Parliament gave the House to understand that before Parliament concluded they would deal with the question, but unfortunately, they dissolved before, if he might say so, they came to the last session, as Parliament in the ordinary course had another year or eighteen months to run. It was therefore very difficult to know which was the last session of a Parliament. He ventured however to propose a very short and simple scheme which might be adopted by the Government without dislocating the present system to any extent. As he had said, Ireland had thirty-one Members too many. The whole House had in his opinion about seventy Members too many, and could do with 600 members instead of 670. He therefore proposed to take away thirty-one Members from Ireland and also the nine University Members. He never could understand why University Members were in the House. They had no constituents and were placed in a different position from other Members who represented the mass of the people. That would make a reduction of 40 and he would further propose to take away forty of the Members representing boroughs with less than 4,000 electors. That would make a total reduction of seventy Members. He did not think that while the House remained in its present state, while they had unequal distribution of political power, that the best results would ever be obtained. He thought the Government ought to make some effort to deal with the question of re-distribution. They might at least appoint a Committee to inquire as to the basis on which redistribution should be proceeded with. That would show the necessity for taking some steps in the matter, and also the grave inequalities which existed at the present. It was not fair that Members representing an electorate of 2,000, 3.000, or 4,000, should have exactly the same power as hon. Members of Romford, Wandsworth. Walthamstow, and other large constituencies. If the present system of representation was to continue to produce good and sound results, the Government should take the question in hand, and something should be done to place representation on a fairer and more equal footing all over the country. He begged to second the Amendment.

Amendment proposed, at the end of the Question, to add the words— But we humbly represent to Your Majesty the desirability of remedying the defects and anomalies which at present exist in the representation of the people in this House by introducing a measure for the redistribution of seats, and which will also provide for the permanent representation of the British Dominions beyond the seas in the Imperial Parliament." (Mr. Louis Sinclair.)

Question proposed, "That those words be there added."

*(11.50.) MR. KIMBER (Wandsworth)

said he rose with very considerable difficulty, because for the last three days he had been confined to bed with a very sore throat and he therefore hoped he would have the indulgence of the House for a very few minutes. He did not intend to trouble the House with the past history of the question. It would be in the recollection of many hon. Members that for many years he had pressed on the attention of the House that the matter was an increasing evil which ought to be attended to, and which if not attended to, would produce the gravest results to the fortunes of the nation. In 1892 he brought the question before the House by special motion when the Liberal Government was in power, and the result was that the then Leader of the House the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Monmouth admitted that it was a matter which ought to be attended to sooner or later, and he added sooner rather than later. The evil was admitted and the figures could not be controverted. The disparity between the highest and lowest of the constituencies was then twelve to one, but it had increased until it was now eighteen to one. He would not go into details as to the admissions made by the two front Benches as to the necessity of dealing with the matter, admissions which were accompanied by promises that the matter would be attended to very soon. He would however, invite the attention of the House to the status quo. Mr. Gladstone stated on one memorable occasion that they governed themselves by the machinery by which the House was regulated, and that if that machinery went out of order, the will of the nation would be necessarily misinterpreted. From the figures which he had put before the public, and which had not been controverted or challenged, although they might have some small defects, it would be found that one-half of the Members of the House were sent by only a third of the electors of the country, and that the other two-thirds of the electorate had only half the voice of the House. That had been proved to demonstration. A very trifling number over a third of the electorate could rule the majority, and probably misrepresent the will of the nation. The exact figures were, that 335 Members were returned by 4,400,000 electors, and the other 335 Members by 2,400,000 electors. Taking it in another way, half of the electors of the country had a representation in the House of 235 Members, whereas the other half had a representation of 435 Members. Therefore unless the majority in the House were more than the difference between those two numbers, the House could not be said for certain to represent the will of the nation. Just before the South African war commenced, he received from the Leader of the House and other Members of the Government, promises that the matter should be made a Cabinet question without delay, and that, barring Cabinets especially summoned with reference to the war, it was to be taken into consideration at the very next Cabinet. The war had, however, absorbed every other question and naturally, he abstained from worrying the Government on the matter. He thought, however, that the time had now arrived when it ought to be considered whether redistribution was to be left until the last session of Parliament. Who could tell when would be the last Session. He said that the question was one which ought to be taken in hand immediately, and made the subject of an inquiry in order that the hurry and rush which were inevitable in a moribund Parliament, might be avoided. He had laid before hon. Members and the public within the last few days, a plan which he suggested. It was imperfect, no doubt, but it followed the lines of least resistance, and it would enable the Government to avoid a general Redistribution Bill of all the 670 seats, and to deal with 150 seats with very little trouble. He believed a scheme could be submitted to the House in one session, placed before the country during the recess, and passed into law in the succeeding session. If the debates in the Redistribution Bills of 1832, 1867 and 1884 were examined, it would be found that from first to last the constituencies were not consulted, and that member's seats were dealt with, without their knowing anything about it before hand. A hole and corner arrangement would not be likely to commend itself to the House. By the plan he had suggested the present disparity would be reduced from 18 to 1 to 3 to 1. That would at least remove the grosser anomalies.

It being midnight, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed to-morrow.