HC Deb 02 March 1906 vol 152 cc1448-53

Order for Second Reading read.

SIR CHARLES DILKE (Gloucestershire, Forest of Dean),

who was received with an Opposition cry, "There is no time now," said it was true that time was short and that it would be easy for any one who desired to talk the measure out to do so, but it was his duty with all respect to the House to move the Second Reading rather than sacrifice the remaining portion of the sitting. Under the circumstances he did not propose to repeat the general arguments in favour of the enfranchisement of women. He would assume for present purposes that the overwhelming majority of the House were favourable in some measure to the removal of women's disabilities. There was a difference of opinion as to the best first step, and as to the nature of the exact proposals to be made, but as regarded the principle of complete or partial removal of those disabilities there was now very little difference of opinion left. The various proposals made to the House had been far more limited in form up to the present, but since he first brought in this Bill—with very little support—a very great change had come over public opinion on the subject. The Bill had become the law of the Commonwealth of Australia, and the franchise part of it had also become the law in the great colony of New Zealand. In New Zealand the franchise of women had been carried to such an extent that there were far more women who voted in the great cities than men. It was thought that the enfranchisement of women would make an enormous political change, but neither the alarm of those who opposed the measure nor the hopes of those who supported it had been justified. There had been no great political change, and none of the effects which were expected had been introduced. In Australia the Labour cause had derived some benefit. But the great benefits of the change had been, in the universal opinion of opponents and supporters alike, that women had been interested in politics, and had taken a part in the public affairs of these colonies that they had never taken in the past. A sudden change had been noted lately with regard to the principle on which more limited proposals had been put before Parliament. In former years the advocates of such proposals were many of them strong Conservatives who were prepared to pledge themselves, if those proposals were accepted, not to proceed with larger proposals. Now, when the smaller proposals were advocated they were admittedly advocated only as a step to lead up to the larger proposals. Before that change took place it would not have been possible to get Parliament to consent to the principle of the Bill now before the House. It seemed to him that in this matter the supporters of the measure were bound to face the facts, and were bound to make deliberately to the house of Commons those proposals which they really desired to make and which they always meant to make. The franchise could not be touched until the House was prepared to grasp this question. A great many Members were pledged to Registration reform, but when asked what they meant by that, the first example given was generally the sweeping away of the money qualification of the lodger franchise and virtually reducing the lodger franchise to manhood suffrage. They could not deal with the difficulties of our seventeen different franchise systems by means of any scheme of Registration reform. They could only be dealt with by a Franchise Bill. Up to within a few years ago a large body of the workers of this country desired manhood suffrage. At the present moment that movement was almost extinct, but it was not possible to find many of its former supporters who were not in favour of the principle which lay at the root of this Bill. If we were to have any franchise reform at all, if we were to have any large registration reform, this question must be faced, and the moment they began to face the question they could not merely stop at removing the sex disability, they must face the question of marriage disability as well. He begged to move that this Bill be read a second time.

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

LORD R. CECIL (Marylebone, E.)

said he desired to say a few words upon this measure, because he did not think that the House would have gathered any concrete idea of the contents of the Bill from the speech just delivered to the House introducing it on its Second Reading. He was glad that this measure had been introduced, because he thought when the electors of the country realised the kind of measures which the Radical Party desired to pass into law, they would begin to regret their verdict at the recent elections. He should like to have this Bill and the right hon. Baronet's speech placarded throughout the country. The Bill proposed a complete revolution, not only with reference to woman's suffrage, but with regard to every portion of the Statute Law and Common Law affecting the franchise of this country. The first clause provided that— Every man and every woman of full age, whether married or single, shall be qualified to vote at Parliamentary or local elections who resides in the area for which the election is held and is duly registered, unless disqualified for reasons other than s x or marriage by Common Law or Act or Parliament. That swept away all qualifications except those of full age and residence. The second clause proposed to empower His Majesty, by Order in Council, practically to create a complete new code of franchise law. That was a reversion to the practice of the Constituent Assembly at the French Revolution.


said that in that case the Bill followed the precedent of recent legislation where matters of this kind were dealt with by Order in Council.


said that it laid down a principle, and left the details to be carried out by subsequent legislation. A great deal depended upon the way in which these details would be settled. Under the second clause they would leave His Majesty in Council to settle such questions as plural voting, the period of residence, the place of residence, and how far one could carry their right to a vote from one residence to another. He also thought that a proposition of the sweeping character of the third clause, as to which the right hon. Baronet had said nothing at all, dealing with the University representation, should have been brought to the attention of the House more fully in the right hon. Baronet's speech. He could not conceive how any one desiring to advance woman's suffrage could include provisions which must excite so much hostility. He was, and had always been, personally in favour of woman's suffrage, but was unable to support such a measure as this. The right hon. Baronet had presented the matter as a question of woman's suffrage, but he did not in fact give any reason why he thought it was desirable that women should be enfranchised. He would, with permission of the House, say a few words upon that question. In the first place, the argument commonly used in favour of woman's suffrage was that a woman who exercised the right of a householder and paid the rates ought to have a right to exercise the franchise in the same way as a man. That argument was not a sound one. No man, in his opinion, had a right to vote; it was a question of expediency. He could not support this Bill upon that ground, nor did he think women needed the franchise because their interests had been unduly disregarded in the legislation of this country. He did not think there was any question on which women did not exercise their full influence, although it might be an indirect influence. The one ground which he did think justified their claim for the extension of the suffrage was that there were certain questions on which he believed they would support the opinions he held. Hon. Members were amused and seemed to regard that as a ridiculous assumption, but that was the only ground upon which the extension of suffrage could be granted, because his opinions must be wise opinions, otherwise he should not hold them. It was because he believed that women would support him in the questions he had most at heart, and because he believed that the cause of religion and the cause of education would be safer, that he was in favour of woman's suffrage. He had recently had some doubt as to how far that opinion was justifiable, for the reason that there were in his constituency as many as 5,000 women who were entitled to vote at municipal elections, and it had been found impossible by those who organised the elections to induce many of those women to vote, and if they did not take the trouble to exercise the franchise they had got, it was, in his opinion, very doubtful as to whether they would take the trouble to exercise the franchise which this Bill proposed to confer upon them. The fourth clause in the Bill, which would permit women to exercise any public function whatever, illustrated again the difficulties put in the way of a moderate supporter of woman's suffrage by this Bill. He moved that the Bill be read a second time that day six months.

MR. TALBOT (Oxford University),

in seconding the rejection of the Bill, said that this was practically a Reform Bill; a Bill for the remodelling of the whole of our franchise laws, yet the right hon. Baronet in the last half-hour of a short sitting, during which they had been discussing a question of quite a different nature, got up, and proposed a Bill of this character, in one clause of which he proposed to sweep away the whole of the University franchise. He thought that was not very respectful to the Universities of this country, and he complained that the proposals relating to University representation had not received more ample explanation.

Amendment proposed— To leave out the word 'now,' and at the end of the Question to add the words 'upon this day six months.'"—(Lord Robert Cecil.)

Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."


said that the noble Lord's sole ground for approving woman's suffrage showed that he had no claim to be considered even a moderate supporter of it. He was only a supporter of woman's suffrage in so far as he believed that women would support him, and any woman in this country who had any interest in politics and respect for herself would resent any support of that kind. He approved of every line of the Bill. He also believed it to be an indispensable step towards securing the object aimed at in the Bill to remove at once the sex barriers which prevented women from being citizens at all, and thus do away with a great injustice.

MR. SAMUEL EVANS (Glamorganshire, Mid.)

said the Bill was of a far-reaching character, which even contemplated that women might sit in the Chair of this House.

And, it being half-past Five of the Clock, the Debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Monday next.

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