HC Deb 08 March 1904 vol 131 cc523-51

The subject which I am bringing before the House is a grievance which affects a great number of our citizens, but I should hardly have ventured to ask the attention of the House to it did I not believe that I can suggest a practical, though only partial remedy. So that to-night I am not merely asking the House to express the sympathy which I think all Members will feel with the disability of the bulk of the seafaring men of this country to exercise their franchise, but I hope to explain to the House a scheme by which that disability may be in many cases removed. I say that I think we all feel sympathy with men who may be on the register for the best part of their lives without ever having the opportunity, by their votes, of influencing the Government of their country. The vast majority of respectable Englishmen value very highly the power and responsibility of shaping the policy of the nation. The act of voting at an election brings home to them the fact that they belong to a self-governing nation, and in most cases (I am sorry I cannot say in all) they acquiesce readily enough in the decision of the majority, and loyally obey laws which they may themselves disapprove, knowing full well that if they can persuade the majority of their countrymen to their views these laws will be altered. The franchise is not only a great educator but also a great peacemaker. But it seems rather a mockery to grant by law a share in the Government of the country and the Empire to a large class of men under circumstances which render it certain that only a very small fraction of their numbers can avail themselves of their rights, and to do nothing by law to deal with their exceptional case. There is already legislation to meet other exceptional cases—blind, illiterates, and Jews. Taking the Board of Trade figures for 1901, the latest I can get, the total number of seamen employed in this country was 186,636, and the total number of fishermen 19,502, making a total of 206,138. Deducting 33,610 Lascars and 32,614 aliens, the figure was reduced to 139,914, which, together with 114,000 men serving in the Royal Navy and Marines, made a total of 254,000 men. It is impossible to say what proportion of these men are on the register; but if it is taken at I only one in five, that represents a constituency of over 50,000 men.

In Norway there is a law of the 5th June, 1897 (amended 24th February, 1900 and 9th May, 1903) enabling Parliamentary electors, absent from the kingdom in lawful pursuits, to record their votes in writing either before departure or from a foreign place. This law has been passed in the interests of the workers in the shipping industry. This Act is meant to make the franchise effective for electors abroad, chiefly in respect of general elections, which occur regularly every three years. Dissolutions are not legal. At election time (general or by-election) lists of all electors are published by Government officials. The agents of the candidates send voting papers (and other election literature if they choose) to as many electors as they think fit; but each elector may procure a voting paper independently. On Norwegian ships abroad the masters collect the (sealed) voting papers of those on board who are electors and send these papers to the returning officer in Norway. Other electors abroad hand their papers to a Consul for forwarding. Voting before departure from Norway is effected by handing the sealed voting paper and legitimation paper to a Notary Public, who forwards the papers to the returning officer. For seamen the Superintendent of a Mercantile Marine Office fulfils this Notarial function.

It is hardly necessary, I think, to rake up the time of the House by pointing out the virtues of the class on whose behalf I am pleading, and demonstrating the good qualities of our officers and seamen whether in the Navy or in the mercantile marine. We differ about many things, but I can hardly imagine there are two opinions in this House as to the splendid qualities of our naval officers or our man-o'-wars men. Those hon. Members who have travelled will probably agree that it would be difficult to speak too highly of the character the intelligence, and the patriotism of the officers of the merchant service of this country. British seamen may have their faults, like other classes of the community who are not exposed to the same temptations, but they have been for generations the backbone of our naval and commercial supremacy, and at least we may trust them to give, manly vote. There is no cure, as many a landsman learned three years ago in South Africa, for the cynicism and lack of enthusiasm which are the curse of modern civilisation, like that of daily contact with danger, and daily comradeship with one's fellow men in times of hardship and peril, and in this sense the seaman is always on active service when he is afloat. And I would remind the House that this proposal only affects those who are on the register, and therefore entitled to vote already, were it physically possible for them to do so, and that the seamen who are on the register are probably the best of their class, and among the most deserving citizens of the community. I regret to say that I have not been able to devise any scheme by which sailors some weeks' or months' voyage distant from this country could record their votes. Any suggestion of proxy voting would, I fear be scouted by the House at the present day I should not like to say that it was beyond the wit of man to discover a means whereby a sailor could vote at a Consulate, and have his vote telegraphed home; we might indeed, in a Redistribution Act, allot special representatives to sailors on long voyages, and a list of candidates could be telegraphed to each Consulate and each colonial port, from which list seamen who could show a certificate that they were on the register at home might by ballot select their representatives. But though I will not say that such a scheme is beyond the wit of man, I must admit that it has proved beyond the wit of this particular man who is addressing the House at this particular moment—and although I regret that many of the best and the most deserving of their class are at present necessarily omitted from the plan I am going to explain to the House, still I do feel that a man who is many weeks distant from our shores must to a great extent be out of touch with home politics and home feeling for the time, and to that extent not so well qualified to give a right decision as those who are constantly in touch with all that is taking place here. Now there are a very large number of sea-faring men who are, or at any rate who can be if they like, constantly in touch with affairs in this country, men in the Channel trade, and in the Irish Channel trade, men in the North Sea trade, men in the North Atlantic trade, men in the Bay of Biscay trade, men in the coasting trade, and fisherman. Most of these men are constantly backwards and forwards from English ports, are constantly in touch with home opinion, and can, if they like, keep themselves nearly as well posted in what is going on here as that large class of English electors who rely almost entirely upon the weekly newspapers for their information. Now many of these men, and also a proportion of long-voyage men, will be on shore for a few days or a few weeks, perhaps, during election time, whether the election be a general, or a by-election affecting the constituency in which they have a vote. They may be deeply interested in the questions or the candidates before the constituency, and fully acquainted with all the pros and cons, and yet they may be obliged to go to sea a few days before the poll takes place. Can we not at any rate do something to remedy this grievance?

I venture to suggest that a means can easily be found for enabling all mariners who are in port between the issue of the writ and the day of the poll, to exercise their votes in advance without any proxy or fantastic voting, simply by going in person to the returning officer and personally recording their votes. I attach importance to the man personally recording his vote. We ought to insist on a little personal exertion. I suppose three things are essential in any scheme which could receive the practical legislative assent of the House, and not merely its benevolent but theoretical approval. Firstly, that the secrecy of the vote should be maintained. Secondly, that there should be careful provision against the possibility of fraud in the counting of the votes. Thirdly, that where a scrutiny is judicially ordered, and votes have to be struck off, there shall be proper means of identifying any vote which is ordered to be struck off. I venture to think that the plan I propose would fulfil all three conditions. I will try, as briefly and lucidly as I can, to explain it to the House if the House will permit me to do so. In nearly all cases it is known who the candidates will be before the writ is issued. After the writ was issued, I would require the returning officer to fix an hour at which he would daily be at his office and could receive mariners' votes. At that hour any mariner wishing to vote could attend, and give his number on the register, and claim to vote—I think he should be accompanied by another householder, not a mariner, who would by declaration or oath vouch for his identity. He would also make a declaration that he would be at sea on the day of the poll. As, before the nomination, there would be no printed ballot papers with names of candidates, the returning officer would then, as in the case of a blind or illiterate elector, or a Jew on Saturday, take the voter aside and ask him for whom he voted, and would then in his own, the returning officer's, hand write down the name of the candidate chosen on the lower half of the voting paper, would let the voter see that it was correct, and then seal it up; while on the upper half of the voting paper he would write the number on the register of the elector. The votes would be produced at the counting, still sealed, but showing on the upper part the numbers on the register, which might be inspected by the candidates and their agents, as a precaution, of course, against personation. When the agents were satisfied, the register numbers would be concealed by sealing down the upper part of the voting paper, the votes would be mixed up again, and the lower halves of the voting papers unsealed, showing the names of the candidates for whom the votes had been cast. Any of these names which were those of duly nominated candidates would then be added to their score, whilst any names which were not those of duly nominated candidates would not be counted, and the papers containing them would be destroyed. The valid papers containing the names of duly nominated candidates would be kept with the other ballot papers; and, in the event of a scrutiny, the register numbers could be unsealed and examined and votes illegally given could be identified and struck off. Except in the case of a scrutiny there would be no means of identifying the voters, as the names written on them would not be in the handwriting of the elector, but of the returning officer. Of course the returning officer knows which way the man votes, but so he does in the case of a blind voter, an illiterate voter, or a strict Jew when the poll takes place on a Saturday. For each of these, the blind, the illiterate, and the Jew, an exceptional provision has been made in the Ballot Act, in the two first cases on the grounds of physical inability to vote in the usual way, in the case of the Jew on the grounds of conscientious objection, or if you like, of religious disability. I venture to suggest that the case of the sailor is as deserving of exceptional legislation as any of the other three. I hope I have shown that secrecy can be maintained, that fraud is rendered well-nigh impossible, and that unauthorised votes can be detected and struck off in case of scrutiny. I shall perhaps be met by the objection that the time of the returning officer will be wasted in recording votes for men who are not candidates. I do not fear that in practice there will be much of this. Surely in ninety-nine cases out of 100 it is known who the candidate will be at the time the writ is issued. I will ask the House to accept my assurance that there is no difficulty connected with the sealing and unsealing of the voting paper, a little envelope gum at each end is all that is really necessary. I could show the process to any hon. Member in a couple of minutes, but I think I had better not give a demonstration which would have the appearance of a conjuring trick in this House. What is the right hon. Baronet's Amendment? It is only the dear old wedge, whose thin end is always threatening our ancient Constitution. It is a surprise to me that it should come from the right hon. Baronet, whom I have always looked on as a progressive statesman, but as a confirmed Tory I am bound to treat the venerable bogey with respect and deference.

In reply to the right hon. Baronet, I am not prepared to deny that if this plan turns out to be an easy and practical way of recording a vote without a personal attendance on the actual day of the poll, it say be extended to other classes than sailors. If there appear on trial to be any grave objections to it, we may be sure that it will not be so extended, but if after trial in the case of sailors, it is found to work well and to be free from objection, what harm would its extension cause? I cannot see why any special virtue attaches to a vote given between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. on a particular day, and by my scheme I do require personal attendance upon some day between the issue of the writ and the actual polling day. There is nothing new, nothing unconstitutional, in allowing votes to be spread over several days. In the days of our fathers, or grandfathers at any rate, the poll used to last several days. And even at this day in Orkney and Shetland the poll lasts. But the right hon. Baronet need not assume that the case of sailors is so similar to that of other workmen that a privilege granted to them can be construed into a common right. With other workmen, on land, a great sacrifice of time and money may sometimes be necessary in order to exercise the franchise, but if they are willing to make the sacrifice there is no physical obstacle to debar them from recording their vote, With the sailors, so long as they pursue their calling at all, it is certain that the vast majority of them find personal attendance on the polling day a physical impossibility. The railway guard, after all, to take an extreme case, if he likes to sacrifice his employment and to submit to fines and penalties, can contrive to record his vote in person, but not even the absolute self-surrender of Japanese patriotism would enable a sailor who was a few leagues out at sea to leave his ship and reach his polling booth. There is a distinct and definite line between a moral and a physical impossibility. How often in their lives are other workmen compelled to be absent from the poll? How many times in their lives will soldiers on the register be prevented? I do not want to weary the House with details more appropriate to the explanation of a Bill than to that of a Motion, but I have felt it necessary to enter upon a few of these details in order to show the House that a serious and practical endeavour has been made to meet and overcome the difficulties of the case. If the Government could see their way to show sympathy with the Motion by granting a Committee to consider whether the practical solution of this question were possible, I have little doubt that we could convince the Committee that the difficulties could easily be surmounted. If we can, surely we ought to give this partial measure of relief to some of our worthiest citizens. Surely a maritime nation, dependent on the sea, not only for its trade and prosperity, not only for its security and immunity from attack, but for the actual existence and freedom from starvation of four-fifths of its inhabitants, ought to give to those who make the sea their calling, who do their business in the great waters, a chance to use the right, which belongs to them as well as to their fellow-citizens, of sharing in the government of their country. I beg to move.

MR. CATHCAET WASON (Orkney and Shetland)

said he felt no difficulty in rising to second the Motion. While he cordially sympathised with it, he at the same time had considerable sympathy with the Amendments which were to be moved. As regarded mariners, and still more as regarded men engaged in the fishing industry, this was a very important question. He considered it even more important with respect to fishermen in the herring fleet than to sailors. The law in this matter, as it at present stood, favoured the rich unduly at the expense of the poor candidate. It was easy for a man to whom money was no object to make an arrangement by which a vessel should call at a particular port on polling day. He had the honour last autumn to visit Argyllshire and the St. Andrews Burghs and to see what was going on at the elections, and he could testify to the intense hardships which the fishermen underwent in order to record their votes. If hon. Members only realised the situation which occurred in constituencies where there were large bodies of fishermen the prejudice against this Resolution would be much allayed. At the St. Andrews Burghs a large number of men were compelled to go back to sea to earn their livelihood, and were, therefore, unable to record their votes on the election day. He thought it would be sufficient to allow the votes to be recorded between the day of the nomination and the day of the poll. It might be said that this was not a democratic measure, but he would point out that a similar measure had been carried out in New Zealand, and had worked there without any hitch. It went further than this Motion proposed to go, for it applied to other classes who were necessarily absent from their homes on the day of the election. He had suggested to the mover of the Motion that he might slightly alter its terms so as to include other classes. The hon. Member would then have had a fair chance of getting the Motion carried by such an overwhelming majority that there would have been no voice worth considering against it. The Bill by which the hon. Member desired to give effect to the proposal in the Motion, though in the hands of some Members, was not at present before the House. He suggested that, in order to prevent disfranchisement, any person upon making a statutory declaration before a magistrate after the the nomination of candidates of inability to attend, should be allowed to record his vote before the returning officer or such person as he might appoint.


asked if the hon. Member was seconding his Motion or moving an Amendment.

*MR. MACONOCHIE (Aberdeenshire, E)

asked on the point of order whether after rising to second a Motion the hon. Member could propose an Amendment.


The hon. Member rose to second the Motion and not to move an Amendment. Otherwise I should have called upon some other Member.


I am prepared to second it.


said he began by seconding the Motion, and he was merely endeavouring to point out that the mover had better make peace with those hon. Members who might not be disposed to support the Motion in its present form. He cordially sympathised with the proposal the hon. Member had made, but it was acknowledged that there were grave difficulties in the way of giving effect to it, and he was indicating a way of securing more support for it. The hardship complained of was equally felt by engine drivers, commercial travellers, and others. He was grateful for the opportunity of seconding the Motion, as the hardship complained of affected many of his own constituents.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House is of opinion that means should be given to Seamen and Fishermen to record their Votes at Parliamentary Elections, when by reason of their calling they will be absent at sea on the day of the poll."—(Sir Elliott Lees.)


said that this was a subject of great interest in his constituency, which was one of the largest fishing communities in the world. For many years it had been felt a great hardship by the fishermen that they had been called away during an election without being able to record their votes. The matter had been frequently pressed upon his attention and that of his predecessors in the representation of East Aberdeenshire. It had been said by an hon. Member that there were only 19,000 fishermen; but there were more than that number in Ireland alone, and in the whole of Great Britain they numbered at least 100,000. He particularly emphasised this, because he believed that greater advantage would have attended this Motion if it had been made smaller, and not so elastic. He sympathised with the other classes besides fishermen who were at present unable to record their votes, such as engine drivers and commercial travellers, but he believed fishermen had the first claim on their sympathies, as the class from whom the Navy, Naval Reserve, and merchant marine were largely recruited. The Island of Lewis alone furnished 8,000 men for the Naval Reserve, and they were as fine and loyal a body as could be found throughout the Kingdom. When his constituents, numbering thousands, were away in the autumn at the English fishing grounds they felt it to be a great hardship that no provision was made for recording their votes. He hoped the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean, and the hon. Member for Derby, who had Amendments on the Paper, would support the Motion in its present form, because there would be no difficulty hereafter in extending the privilege to other classes of workers. So far as the fishermen were concerned, as it was to them we looked for strengthening our naval defence in time of trouble, it was a small thing to give to them, in times of peace, equal rights with other citizens.

*MR. BELL (Derby)

said he was indebted to his right hon. friend the Member for Forest of Dean for allowing him precedence for the Amendment he had placed on the Paper. That Amendment was— In line 2, after the word 'fishermen,' to insert the words 'railway servants and others.' And in line 4, to leave out the words 'at sea,' and insert the words 'on duty.' He fully sympathised with the object of the hon. Member who had brought forward the Motion, and his Amendment was not hostile to it. It sought simply to extend its operation to others who suffered disabilities equally with those for whom the hon. Baronet opposite had pleaded. The hon. Member referred briefly to the engine drivers who having to go on duty at a certain time, would not be able to return early enough to record their votes. He felt sure that the hon. Member was not familiar with the whole circumstances surrounding the employment of railway servants. There railways of Great drivers, firemen, guards, and the system was that practically disfranchised.

MR. WILLIAM RUTHERFORD (Liverpool, West Derby)

said, on a point of order, this Resolution was for the purpose of dealing with seafaring men who at present suffered under a disability; the Amendment was for another class and another purpose.


said that on a Motion of this kind the Amendment was in order.


said that the hon. Member who moved the Resolution referred incidentally to the fact that it was only occasionally those who were employed on railways were unable to record their votes, and he went on to make the remark that those who wished to make a full use of the franchise were entitled to make some sacrifice of time and money. But, even if these men were desirous to sacrifice time and money for the purpose of recording their vote, it would be perfectly impossible to take 18,000 men away from their work. And even if these particular men were relieved, the relieving men would still suffer under the disability. This class of employees were adults, and the whole of them were electors in the various constituencies. In the constituency of the hon. Member who moved the Resolution there were a large number of railway servants who suffered from this disability it might be to the hon. Gentleman's disadvantage or otherwise, but that was immaterial. On the London and North Western Railway and the Great Western Railway there were a great many men who ran trains on what was called the "double home job." These men ran right through, say, to Exeter, or some equally distant town, where they rested a day, and then returned in the opposite direction. It was obvious that these men could not return to their homes in time to record their votes. Arrangements could, be made to suit the convenience of these men in regard to voting far more easily than in the case of fishermen. His own suggestion for removing the disability under which these railway men at present suffered was, that the returning officer should be empowered to receive their votes on the day preceding the poll on production of an order from their employers to the effect that their work on the trains would take them away from their homes on the polling day itself. He claimed that if there was to be an extension of this privilege to any class, those in whose behalf he spoke were entitled to it. He believed that his sympathies with the seamen and fishermen were as extensive as those of anyone in this House or out of it. He had demonstrated that on previous occasions, when he had endeavoured to have these people included under the Workmen's Compensation Act. It had been said that seamen and fishermen who were much at sea were out of touch with the topics of the day; but those for whom he spoke were very much in touch with the topics of the day, attended meetings, talked with candidates, and only desired to have an opportunity of recording their votes before they left home with their trains. For these reasons he thought the Amendment which he had proposed ought to be acceptable to the mover and seconder of the Resolution. The hon. Member who seconded the Motion suggested that the men might bring an order signed by the magistrate to the returning officer, but that would be an impossibility in the case of 18,000 railway servants.

*MR. LEVY (Leicestershire, Loughborough)

seconded the Amendment. He said he was not enamoured with a desire to alter the system of election by ballot but he thought that if any change were made it would be unjust to exclude the great body of railway men. There were also men employed in the engineering trade who had similar difficulties in voting, and many workmen in London who had to leave home before the hour of polling to go long distances to work and returned after it was too late to vote. It would be unfair in the extreme if the House legislated for one particular class of voters alone. He felt that fishermen did suffer some disadvantages, but if any alteration was made the railwaymen and others should have the same advantage as the fishermen. If railwaymen remained away from their duties to exercise the franchise on the days of election, they would disorganise the whole railway traffic of the country, whereas if fishermen remained on shore to vote probably the only result would be a slight increase in the price of fish. He had very great pleasure in seconding the Amendment of his hon. friend.

Amendment proposed— In line 2, after the word 'fishermen' to insert the words 'railway servants and others.'" (Mr. Bell.)

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


supported the Amendment. He did so not from any feeling of hostility to the Motion, but in order to secure for it a better basis of support. He had had two opportunities of forming a judgment on this question. In Hull the seamen and fishermen had been greatly disappointed on many occasions because they had been unable to return to record their votes; and he had known at any rate one case in which the result of an election had been determined in a large measure by that inability. The franchise was not only a personal right and privilege but it was a right which should be exercised in the interest of the State. While supporting the principle of the proposal he did not think they ought to underrate the difficulties which surrounded it, and that was a reason for obtaining a general instead of a class support. The extension of any privilege of this sort, however, would entirely fail of its object if accompanied by complex, dilatory, or expensive conditions, its only justification would be that the process should be simple and easy in operation. He represented a constituency largely composed of railway servants, large numbers of whom were at present prevented from exercising the franchise. His hon. friend and others seemed to think that seamen particularly were entitled to consideration, but surely what they had to consider was more the compulsory performance of public duty which rendered absence necessary. That included the large class to which he had referred, and he was surprised to hear his hon. friend say that railway servants could leave their employment in order to vote, and defy their employers. Although he sympathised with the object of the Motion he hoped, if it was carried into practice, it would be made to include all these other workers who in the performance of their duty were practically compulsorily deprived of their right to vote.

MR. CROMBIE (Kincardineshire)

said this was a subject in which he had always been interested. Twelve years ago he introduced a Bill to carry out the very purpose of the hon. Baronet opposite, but his Bill did not pass. His interest in the subject arose from the fact that there were many fishermen in his constituency who did him the honour of voting for him at the election, and when the election arrived and the fishermen were not there it gave him considerable trouble and he set himself the task of attempting to find a remedy. But while he was quite ready to vote for the Motion of the hon. Baronet, at the same time he fully admitted the principle of the Amendment. He saw that there were very great difficulties in the way of making a distinction for one class, but he understood at the present time policemen had some special privileges. He thought that in order to meet the case of the different classes affected there should be some relaxing of the rigidity of the present rule as to the day of the poll, which might be extended so as to allow these fishermen and railwaymen a further opportunity of exercising their right to vote. Whether the Amendment was carried or not he should vote for the Motion.

MR. LLEWELLYN (Somersetshire, N.)

said he thought that the object which hon. Members had in view could only be carried out by a careful examination before a Select Committee. There were so many difficulties surrounding this question that the only real solution of it was to refer it to a Select Committee. What the hon. Member for Derby had said was absolutely correct and no one wished engine drivers and guards to lose their votes. He did not want a single man to lose his vote, but he saw great difficulties in the way of the application of the principle of the Motion, and he hoped that the Government would consent to refer the whole subject to a Select Committee. There was one class of seamen who had not been alluded to which he was sure the House would be sorry to forget—he referred to the class of men round the coast who acted as pilots. There was no class upon whom public safety was more dependent than the pilots. They were men who did not take long voyages, but they were at the call of all steamers coming towards our shores, and they had to go when called upon. They were not wanderers and they had homes on shore, and most of them were ratepayers, and they ought to have some consideration. He could not vote against the Amendment, because he had the greatest sympathy with the railway men in this matter. He would press upon his hon. friend who was in charge of this matter to consider whether it would not be the best plan to thoroughly thresh the subject out before a Select Committee.

*MR. JOYCE (Limerick)

said he represented a seaport, and was more or less interested in this question. For a number of years he was a seaman himself. He thought the House ought to be in full sympathy with the hon. Member who had proposed this Motion. He did not see why men who had to work hard for their living and who knew as much of what was going on in this country as those who lived on shore, should be deprived of their votes. When he was in the habit of going to sea he was as much interested in local and national questions as he was now. He should like this Motion to embrace a wider class, for in its present form it was rather narrow. He thought the pilots were a most deserving body of men, and he suggested that instead of being confined to seamen and fishermen the scope of the Motion should be extended to those following a seafaring life. While he thought that legislation giving the rights of citizenship to seamen and fishermen should be passed, he did not think the hon. Member would be forwarding his cause if he refused to accept the Amendment of the hon. Member for Derby. Probably, if this Motion was adopted, a Select Committee would be appointed to go into the niceties of the question.


said that with regard to the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Somerset, to refer this question to a Select Committee, that was a matter upon which it was not possible for him to give an answer, and it was a question which ought to be addressed to the Prime Minister. With regard to the Amendment before the House, he was sure the hon. Member for Derby did not wish to use the claims of one class of workers to injure the claims of another class; and yet that would be the effect of the Amendment. Seamen and fishermen did not often get the chance of bringing their grievances before the House of Commons, and when they did it was hard that they should be met with an Amendment which would defeat their claims without advancing any others. It would be difficult enough to give practical effect to the Motion before the House, but it would be beyond the wit of man to draft a Bill which would meet every possible case covered by the Amendment. If the privilege of voting by proxy were given to those who were on duty, why not to those who were on business or who were detained by urgent necessity or sickness? The result of trying to do too much at once would be that the seamen and fishermen would lose their chance. He would suggest to the hon. Member for Derby a better way of getting what he desired. He was entirely unprejudiced in this matter, and if he had any leanings they were in favour of the railway men, who were a very responsible body of men, and Members of Parliament owed much to them, for they were a conspicuously sober, intelligent, capable, and respectable body of citizens. He would not say one word against their rights. No doubt the public owed a great obligation to the railway men, who were a most deserving class, and they ought to be given every assistance; but the railway companies were anxious to give their men all reasonable facilities for voting, and the cases of hardship must be getting fewer. The surest method of getting a change in the law was to deal with the most obvious cases of hardship first. The household franchise had been reduced gradually, and he suggested that this was the way to proceed now. If it was found practicable to draw a Bill to carry out the desire of the hon. Member for Birkenhead, he thought that it would not be found to have the evil results predicted. If it was found possible to give these classes the power of voting by proxy, then would be the time to make the extension. Personally he was in favour of giving every voter in the country every facility to vote, and he considered it to be the duty of the State not only to help men to vote, but to encourage them to vote, and under certain safeguards to compel them to vote, not only in Parliamentary elections but in local elections. The proportion of seamen who went to the poll was less than the proportion which prevailed among the general electors of the country. A landsman was not hindered in these days of cheap and easy transit from voting, but the seaman might find himself hundreds of miles from shore. The landsman might have to forfeit some portion of his day's wages on the day of the poll, and he was sorry that this should be the case. Seamen, however, if they stayed on shore to vote, might sacrifice the fruits of a whole voyage or the share of a season's catch. If the House wished to make this a practical proposal he hoped that the hon. Member for Derby would not consider it necessary to press his Amendment to a division.

MR. HEMPHILL (Tyrone, N.)

confessed that he could not see why the Government should have any difficulty in referring this subject to a Select Committee. The question was what course I they proposed to adopt in regard to the Amendment.


said it was the Amendment which caused the difficulty.


said there surely could be no difficulty in sending the whole question to a Select Committee. It was a matter of considerable importance, and he was glad to think that the hon. Member at least approved the principle of the general Resolution, which opened the door to the consideration of the larger question involved in the Amendment. He thought that railway men had a grievance as well as seamen and fishermen. If it were right for seamen and mariners to have this privilege, it would only be fair to extend it to all who were physically debarred from casting their votes on the day fixed for the election. Already special provision had been made for the blind and the illiterate. It might be suggested; that railway men could leave their work for the polling day. So, too, could mariners; but why should they incur that loss and run the risk of losing their employment. He once contested a constituency—Hastings—where a great number of fishermen who were anxious to vote for him could not do so, because they had to be out at sea from five in the morning till after eight at night. Let them do equal justice all round in this matter. All the difficulties could be dealt with in Committee, but let the House now lay down the principle that any citizen disabled from any cause from giving his vote should be no longer disfranchised thereby. He should support the Amendment.


said he agreed that the privilege ought to be extended to railway men, and no doubt if his proposal were carried it would eventually be. But he held that it would be bad Parliamentary tactics if the hon. Member for Derby pressed his Amendment, as it might endanger the prospect of removing the grievance of seamen and fishermen. Still, if there were a division on the Amendment he should feel it impossible to vote against it. Let them, however, proceed step by step, because he believed that if once they got the matter referred to a Select Committee, it would be easy to devise a practicable scheme for removing these disabilities.

MR. BLACK (Banffshire)

was glad note the sympathetic reception given by the Secretary to the Local Government Board to the general proposal now before the House. He disagreed with the mover of the Motion that this was a question of tactics. The question of tactics would be easily disposed of if they got an undertaking from the Government that, if a Bill were introduced dealing with the case of seamen and fishermen, they would give it their support. It would certainly in that case become law before, the next general election. He would like particularly to emphasise the position of the men engaged in the herring fishery. Theirs was a hard case, for they were now employed all the year round away from home.


Order, order! I think it would be desirable first to dispose of the case of the railway men, which is the subject of the Amendment.


said he would, in that case, content himself with asking if the Government would support any Bill carrying out the proposals both of the mover of the Motion and of the hon. Member for Derby.

MR. WEIR (Ross and Cromarty)

also asked for an assurance from the Government that they would take steps to deal with this question, as it affected railway men as well as fishermen. Would the Government support any Bill having that for its object?


asked to what extent the word "others" in the Amendment would affect Government employees, such as soldiers, postmen, policemen, and especially sailors of the Royal Navy. He pointed out how when the Channel Squadron was off Spithead the Devonport men among the crew had no chance of voting, while, if it were off Devonport, the Portsmouth men were similarly debarred. Could not some scheme be devised to enable these men to record their votes?


suggested that the word "others" was capable of a wide interpretation, and might leave the door open to a great many malpractices. Hs thought the Amendment should be modified in this respect, so as to make it clear that the privilege was to extend only to them who were absolutely prevented by the nature of their duties from recording their votes on the polling day.

MR. CUMMING MACDONA (Southwark, Rotherhithe)

said he intended to vote for the Motion, because he represented Rotherhithe, whers there were three and a-half miles of sailors. What applied to Rotherhithe applied also to every port in the kingdom. He saw no reason why the Amendment should not be accepted and incorporated in the Motion, for in his opinion railway men were just as much entitled to the privilege as sailors.


hoped the Amendment would not be persisted in, not because he had not a great deal of sympathy with railway men, but because he believed its acceptance would simply lead to the passing of an impracticable Resolution. If, on the other hand, the Motion were adopted and the Government saw their way to give facilities for legislation on the subject, and a Bill were passed, there would be an unanswerable case afterwards for railway men and others to come in and have their grievances remedied. He remembered an occasion at Liverpool on which 300 men who had to leave the city by an early morning train were prevented recording their votes because they were delayed on the return journey and their train did not get in till eight o'clock. How were they to deal with such a case? He appealed to the hon. Member to withdraw the Amendment.

MR. SHACKLETON (Lancashire, Clitheroe)

said he should support the Amendment not only because it included railway servants but because it included others. He instanced engineers and workmen engaged in the building trade as classes of voters requiring special facilities for voting. They often left home by the first train on Monday morning and did not return until Saturday, and they, in his opinion, were as much entitled to the privilege as any other class. What course did the Government propose to take in view of the fact that the mover of the Resolution was not prepared to challenge a vote on the Amendment? Were the Government prepared to accept the further suggestion that the whole question, as affecting all voters, should be referred to a Select Committee, so that the many difficulties surrounding the subject might be threshed out, reported upon, and definite legislation introduced as early as possible? Seeing the House was so unanimously in favour of this extension of voting power, he thought the Government might very well agree to appoint a Select Committee to consider the whole question.

SIR FREDERICK BANBURY (Camberwell, Peckham)

did not agree that the House was unanimously in favour of the original Motion being passed. So far as the Amendment was concerned, if the matter went to a division he would support the hon. Member for Derby, because he held that railway servants were as much deserving of consideration as the other classes who had been mentioned. At the same time, he thought the original Motion was impossible and illogical, and when the Amendment had been disposed of he would have something to say on the main question.

MR. TOMKINSON (Cheshire, Crewe)

hoped the Amendment would be carried, as it seemed to him that railway men were more entitled to the proposed extension than fishermen, being less free agents. Their duties absolutely compelled them to be absent from the polling booth, whereas a vast number of fishermen were able to please themselves.

MAJOR SEELY (Isle of Wight)

asked whether, after the Amendment had been disposed of, it would be in order to move the reference of the matter to a Select Committee.


said that when the Amendments to the Motion had been disposed of it would be competent to propose the addition of some such words as "and that it is desirable that the matter should be referred to a Select Committee," but a proposal actually to appoint a Select Committee was one of which notice should be given. All that the House could do now was to express a desire that the matter should be so referred.

Amendment proposed— To leave out the words 'at sea,' insert the words 'on duty.'"—(Mr. Bell.)

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


said that, while the great majority in the House appeared to be agreed that it was desirable that steps should be taken to enable those who enjoyed the franchise to exercise that privilege, there was a grave difficulty created by the Amendment now proposed. He could not accept the Amendment on the understanding that it pledged the Government to further action in the matter, inasmuch as the language used was so vague. It it was desired that there should be an examination of the existing disabilities of those who were entitled to vote but were prevented from doing so by their occupations, that might form the subject of inquiry by a Select Committee; but it was obvious that, the terms of reference to such a Committee would have to be very carefully considered by the Government. If the House desired to deal with a practical difficulty in a practical manner, he would suggest that the proper way would be to withdraw alike the reference to seamen and those on duty and to refer the whole matter to a Select Committee, the terms of reference to which Committee should, as he had said, be very carefully considered. While the Government did not intend to offer opposition to the Resolution as it stood, they could not be responsible for carrying into effect a Resolution so vague as the present Motion would become by the insertion of the words now proposed.

*SIR CHARLES DILKE (Gloucestershire, Forest of Dean)

supported the insertion of the consequential words now proposed, but he could not help thinking that the speech just made on behalf of the Cabinet, to use the famous Treasury phrase, "opened a very serious door." There were Gentlemen who possessed sixty votes in different parts of the country. If the suggestion was that anything should be done to encourage the adoption of a plan by which such Gentlemen or even fagot voters might be assisted, he was sure that that was not the intention of the supporters of this proposal. By voting for this Amendment the sense of the House would be expressed on the subject.


pointed out that, by refusing to insert the words "on duty," the House would make nonsense of the Motion, for it would then refer to "railway men…at sea."

Question put, and negatived.

Words "on duty" inserted.

Main Question, as amended, proposed.


said the question now at issue was an extremely important one, and he was surprised that the Government, having expressed their general sympathy with the proposal, should have left it to the chance of a private Members' night instead of introducing a sensible measure on the subject. It was well known that such Motions seldom led to any practical result, and to deal with this question by Resolution was only away of evading the practical difficulties which would be apparent on any attempt to legislate. In a practical measure every class with the same grievance would have to be included, and the result, as had been admitted in the debate, would be the introduction of a revolutionary system. It was an extra-ordinary thing that the Government should assist a revolutionary proposal by assenting to a Resolution of this kind. The present law of Parliamentary regis- tration was arrived at after Amendments made during a long course of years, and one essential feature had always been recognized the presence of the voter on the polling day. Under such a scheme as had been outlined in the debate, that feature would be done away with, as also I would the secrecy of the ballot. The change, amounting almost to a revolution, now proposed was one not to be hastily adopted. Following his hon. friend's description of the system to be followed it was obvious that it would greatly add to the returning officers' expenses, already considered much too high by hon. Gentlemen opposite. In the case of the blind and illiterate it was physically impossible for them to record their vote. Up to the present they had had no discussion on the Main Question which had been limited to the speeches of the hon. Member who introduced the Motion and the seconder. Therefore he thought it was quite legitimate for him to discuss the Main Question. He felt sure that the secrecy of the ballot would be broken by the proposals which had been put forward and there would be a new principle introduced, namely, that the returning officer would have to keep the polling places open for many days longer. In this way they would be returning to the old condition of things. He thought one day was sufficient for the polling stations to be kept open. It was an extraordinary thing that a suggestion should now be made to go back to the old system. The hon. Member had pointed out a very serious difficulty in the fact that a voter might record his vote and then go to sea and the candidate he had voted for might afterwards change his views. If some hon. Member would show him how this measure could be brought in, and could be acted upon in an efficient and proper manner, he should be much obliged. The hon. Member who introduced the Motion said it passed the wit of man to carry out his suggestions in a proper way, and it was because he believed that the only thing this proposal would do would be to give more work to lawyers that he should oppose the Motion.

MR. CHARLES McARTHUR (Liverpool, Exchange)

urged that the Motion and the Amendment should be withdrawn in order that a Select Committee might be appointed to deal with the whole subject. He did not think it would eb practicable to keep the polling booths open from the day on which the writ was issued to the day of the poll, but it would be practicable to keep it open from the day of nomination to the day of the poll. Railway men who, owing to their calling, could not attend on the polling day, were entitled, equally with sailors, to consideration. Although he thought the sailors had a prior claim because they were practically disfranchised, at the same time he thought the case of the railway men stood almost upon all fours with the case of the sailor. It seemed to him, however, that it would be unwise to refuse the offer made by the President of the Local Government Board. This Resolution would come to nothing, but if it was withdrawn they had a pledge from the Government that the whole subject would be inquired into by a Select Committee.


agreed that they should take great care not to facilitate voting in the shape of fagot votes. He did not think this Resolution, as it stood, could be regarded as complete, because it dealt with working men only, and although he was in favour of the Motion being carried into effect if possible, he was of opinion that if I any change was made in the law it should be of such a character as to embrace other classes than those referred to either in the Motion or the Amendment. He thought the professional class who were of necessity away from home on the polling day, and those employed in the Civil Service, who were often absent from their homes on public duty, and others whom he might mention, should be included.


said the hon. Baronet the Member for Peckham had made a most statesmanlike speech, although it had been received with jeers from the other side. He thought a distinction should be drawn between those persons who were absent on private affairs and those who were absent on official duties, and it should be made feasible for Civil servants to record their votes when they were away from home on duty.

*MR. RENWICK (Newcastle-on-Tyne)

said he represented a seaport, and during the elections he had never heard the question mentioned as to whether railway men or other officials required better facilities for recording their vote. He had, however, frequently heard the question raised that seamen should be allowed special facilities for voting. This Motion asked the House to give seamen and fishermen better facilities, and yet Gentlemen opposite—[OPPOSITION Cries of 'Divide."] Did hon. Members opposite object to being called gentlemen? [OPPOSITION Cries of "Divide, divide."]


rose in his place, and claimed to move "That the Question be now put;" but Mr. SPEAKER withheld his assent, and declined then to put that Question.


Surely time will be saved if hon. Members will allow the hon. Gentleman to finish his remark. At the same time I must say that the hon. Member was wrong in addressing such observations to hon. Members opposite, and he should address the Chair.


said if he had said anything wrong he would withdraw his remarks. He hoped the House would accept the offer of the President of the Local Government Board to refer the matter to a Select Committee. The fishermen and seamen were not there to speak for themselves, and he hoped both sides of the House would accept the offer which had been made.

Resolved, That this House is of opinion that means should be given to Seamen and Fishermen, railway servants, and others to record their votes at Parliamentary elections, when by reason of their calling they will be absent on duty on the day of the poll.