§ MR. ROWLANDS (Kent, Dartford)
said it was his privilege to submit to the House a Resolution which he had submitted to it and which he was successful in carrying twelve years ago. Since he last had the honour of speaking in this House many changes had taken place, but no change had taken place in regard to the subject matter of his Resolution. The Resolution which he now proposed was one that raised a very clear issue indeed, namely, the conditions under which hon. and right hon. Gentleman came into this House. He wished to know why a candidate for Parliamentary honours should be put in a worse position than a candidate for any other public office in this country. There were a number of positions of honour and importance in this country, and for every one of those positions the candidate who submitted himself to the electorate was held free from any charge whatsoever for the cost of the machinery necessary for the election. He might be told that that was only one portion of the question, but he contended that what a candidate chose to spend himself within the limits of the Corrupt Practices Act was his own affair. In this case the candidate was penalised by having to pay the expense of taking the votes. He wanted to know why, of all the candidates who submitted themselves to the electorates of this country for election to positions of honour, the candidate for Parliament 389 alone should have to bear the whole of the official expenses of the election. His Resolution contained two distinct propositions; the first half was—To call attention to the official charges of returning officers at Parliamentary elections, and to move that in the opinion of this House the returning officers expenses and all other j official charges in connection with Parliamentary elections should be defrayed out of public funds;and the second half dealt with the scale of charges contained in the Act governing the elections, the Parliamentary Elections (Returning Officers) Expenses Act, 1875. What he desired to get from this new Parliament was the opinion of the House upon the question of whether or not a candidate ought to be relieved from these charges. The question of whether the Consolidated Fund or the rates was eventually to bear the expense could not be settled by any abstract Resolution of this description. Should the Resolution, however, be carried and the Government of the day think proper to bring in a Bill to relieve the candidate of these expenses, it would be for the Minister in charge of the Bill to say whether the expense was to be borne by the Consolidated Fund or the rates, and it would then be in the power of the House to say on which fund the expenditure should be charged. When this question was before the House in 1894 three very important speeches were made in support of the Resolution by three eminent gentlemen who at that time held very different political opinions and represented different sections of the House. Sir Henry James, now Lord James of Hereford, said—His hon. friend spoke of putting the charge upon the Consolidated Fund, but he protested against that. If the burden were to be removed it ought to be cast upon the locality.The present Secretary of State for India (Mr. John Morley), who spoke on behalf of the Government of the day, took the same view as Lord James of Hereford. He said—The question is upon what public funds the charges should be cast; and the view of the Government is that they should be cast upon the locality.The third speech was made by one who at that time adorned this House, Lord Randolph Churchill, who said—It was the greatest object the State could achieve to get a complete representation of all 390 classes in Parliament, whether they were labour representatives, representatives of the middle classes, representatives of literature, or science, or art, or law, or even of the landed interest; and therefore it was right that to achieve that end there should be a contribution from the Consolidated Fund.Notwithstanding the strong difference of opinion among those right hon. Gentlemen as to the fund which should bear the burden, all three supported the Resolution, and the position they then took up justified him in trying to get a clear issue before the House—an issue the terms of which would not prevent any hon. Member voting for the Resolution because he might differ as to the particular fund that was to bear the burden. After all, the burden was not very heavy, whichever fund had to bear it, as was proved by the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for India, who, in 1894, calculated that if these charges came out of the rates the extra rate necessitated would be half a farthing if the election took place every four years, or one-eighth of a farthing annually. The present amount that had to be paid by candidates to returning officers was, he believed, entirely unjustifiable and illegal. The history of this question was very simple. These charges grew up under the old system when very little machinery was necessary. The first time that any real machinery came into existence was with the passing of the Ballot Act of 1872. It was then necessary to have complete machinery for the gathering in of the votes of the community. At that time there was no limit to the charges of the returning officer. Those were the halcyon days of those gentlemen, but that state of things was found to be so detrimental, that in 1875 Lord James of Hereford and Sir William Harcourt took the matter up and piloted through the House of Commons the Act of that year. It might seem to hon. Members in these days that the task of getting the Act of 1875 through the House was not a heavy one, but he remembered that Lord James of Hereford in 1894 made use of some very strong expressions as to his experience of forcing that Act through the House. The noble Lord, then Sir Henry James, said—In those old days very heavy charges were made against a candidate as the right of the 391 returning officer to make such charges was almost unlimited. No matter how preposterous the charges might be, the candidate was always advised to pay them, as otherwise he would make himself extremely unpopular in the constituency. He recollected well that in 1875 there was a strong feeling in the House in favour of these over charges. Members who supported the Bill were subjected even to personal abuse and it was charged against them that they were men of narrow spirit who were trying to deprive the returning officers of their vested interests in elections.They had gone a long way since then, and he hoped they would go still further and get rid entirely of these so-called vested interests which penalised not only representatives of the working-classes, but men of intellect and small means whose ability would be of great service both to this House and to the nation. It might be said that if this anomaly were done away with it would detract from the dignity of the candidate. But they had elections to the county councils and other public bodies at which Peers of the Realm stood and had their expenses paid, without its in the least detracting from their dignity. A few years ago there was an election in Stepney for the county council. The hon. Member for Central Finsbury was one candidate, and the Hon. Member for Stepney was his opponent. The election took place and the official expenses were paid. A week afterwards both hon. Members were fighting a Parliamentary election in respect to which they had to pay the whole of these expenses. What he desired those who opposed this Motion to do was to point out what metamorphosis had taken place which necessitated that while a man fighting a county council election had his expenses paid the same man when putting up for this House had to pay them himself. He himself was asked to put down on his nomination paper no less than £450. It was there! The amount that he and the right hon. Gentleman he was fighting had to put down on that Saturday morning was £900, and they had to find it in order that 20,000 citizens might have the opportunity of using their right of citizenship to go to the polling booth and register their vote, and to express their opinions upon the great Imperial and national questions before the country. He wanted that justified if it could be. The community had accepted a representative system, 392 and, that being so, it was only fair that they should bear the cost. He had heard a good deal about the burden not being heavy upon the candidates, and he would, with the permission of the House, just give the grand totals of the cost of the elections since 1895. The total cost of the election in 1885 was £235,906; in 1886 it was £138,937; in 1892 £197,542; in 1895 £156,741; and in 1900, £150,278. With regard to the election of 1906 the figures were not yet available, but he had struck an average for that of £200,000, which he thought was well within the mark. Since 1885 the candidates had paid £1,080,406 as their share of the cost of setting up the machinery for the Parliamentary elections. To show how it affected individual cases he had taken the trouble to extract from the Parliamentary Returns the cost to four Gentlemen who sat in the House through five general elections—the hon. Member for the Wansbeck Division of Northumberland, the hon. Member for Mid. Durham, the hon. Member for Rhondda Valley, and the late Mr. Pickard. He found that the total official expenses for the five elections of those Gentlemen was £4,114 4s. 2d., while the other expenses amounted to £6,82617s. 5d. and that the official expenses were 38 per cent, of the entire sum which these Gentlemen had to find for the elections. That was a very heavy penalty indeed for anyone to pay for coming into this House, and it was one which the House would be glad to see removed. It might be said that if they attempted to deal with these charges they would find one or two difficulties in their way. What, for instance, were they to do with bogus candidates? In that regard he had always expressed himself as being in favour of a Second Ballot. But it might be said that that would not entirely kill the bogus candidate; if it did not they would not object to a legitimate penalty in the shape of a sum to be paid down in the first instance, to be forfeited by the candidate if he did not poll a fair percentage of votes. The position was this—these charges were either justifiable or unjustifiable. If they were justifiable why was there a differentiation between the position of a candidate for this House and the position of a candidate for a county council? He thought they were entirely unjustifiable, 393 that they were the last ditch of the property qualification for entry to this House. Hon. Members knew the kind of argument used in times gone by as to what would happen to the House if they extended the suffrage. They knew what was urged against their friends when they were trying to get rid of the old property qualification in 1858. Then they had some outspoken criticisms, but they were honest. Mr. Drummond said—Suppose they had no qualification, suppose they were all paupers, what would they get by that? If they divorced property from political power it would be impossible to preserve the framework of society. They had heard some little hints as to what those Gentlemen who really desired reform meant to do when they got it. It was to throw the whole burden of taxation upon that Uptopian society called the 'rich,' and then they would soon have the happiness of being reduced to an uniform level of pauperism.All he could say was that the abolition of the property qualification in 1858 had operated very slowly in throwing the burden upon the "Utopian society," and that we were not yet reduced to the uniform level of pauperism. Another speech from which he would quote was that of Mr. Bentinck, who said—He opposed it on principle because he believed that a property qualification was an essential ingredient in the constitution of that House.It was urged that such proceedings would open the door to bankrupts, spendthrifts, and paupers—and he had heard nothing to invalidate that argument.It was true that from time to time undesirables did find their way into this House, but an exclusive franchise or the property qualification, the payment of official expenses would not have kept them out. Those were persons who came here for the deliberate purpose of using their position in this House for their own ends, and not for the dignity conferred upon those who were sent here as representatives of the people. That was the argument in favour of the first part of the Resolution.
The second part dealt with the material reduction of the expenditure for Parliamentary elections. He wanted it to be known as widely as possible, and he believed a debate in this House immediately after a general election, when 394 Members were face to face with the returning officers' expenses, would have a good effect, that the accounts of returning officers were, according to the law, to be taxed. The returning officer under the law as it at present existed could not make a profit out of his services. Under the Act of 1875 he was allowed to charge his own fees, but so far as the other expenses he was put to were concerned he was the trustee of the candidate and must conduct his business as a trustee in the best possible manner, and give a voucher for every penny of expenditure. When Lord James of Hereford and Sir William Harcourt performed the great work of getting the Act of 1875 through the House they inserted a scale of charges which was to be the maximum. That, as he understood, meant that the scale was not to be exceeded, but that had now been construed by the returning officers to mean the normal charge. Some of those gentlemen had had a terrible awakening and others would have a terrible awakening later. Some returning officers charged 5s. each for the hire of ballot boxes, and that was a very lucrative thing. He had before him the advertisement of a firm of law stationers in which boxes were offered at 8s. 6d., 10s. 6d., and the best quality at 16s. 6d. These boxes could be turned into deed boxes until they were wanted again. When these charges were fixed by Lord James he had no idea that they were to be used in this way. As to the question of mileage he remembered Admiral Field stated that he knew a case where 1s. a mile was charged for twenty-four miles by railway, though the distance was only nine miles by road. Ballot papers were charged at the rate of 30s. per thousand. His hon. friends opposite would wish that the workmen should get a fair proportion of the 30s. They did not want the workmen concerned in producing ballot papers to be sweated, but they protested against the sweating of candidates by returning officers. Something had been done to amend the law in relation to election expenses in the case of county council elections. The Local Government Act of 1888 gave county councils power to draw up a new scale. He had 395 taken the trouble to get together several of the amended scales which had been adopted by county councils throughout the country. These new scales showed a very marked difference in the charges. The London County Council, which was very generous, allowed a sum not exceeding 17s. 6d. per thousand for ballot papers; and they allowed presiding officers two guineas a day instead of the four guineas allowed in counties at present. He wanted to tell the House how this affected a candidate. He knew of a case where there was a dispute in regard to the expenses of the returning officer. The returning officer asked how much was wanted back. The reply was that £100 was wanted, and that amount came back. Lord James, speaking in 1894, said he thought it possible that the whole scale then in existence might be reduced by at least one-third. If that reduction could be made it would be of great advantage to candidates, and to the community in case they had to pay. He did not believe it would be possible for returning officers to make the charges they did if their accounts had to undergo an audit by a public body. In his opinion, all this expenditure was not at all necessary. The reform he suggested—and it could easily be effected under the Ballot Act—was that there should be in the hands of one of the local authorities a complete set of election machinery which could be loaned at a fixed sum to other authorities as they required to use it. In that way the whole of the expenditure now incurred could be swept away.
He was waiting to see the amount of the charge in the recent election for the City of London. There had been no case there since 1892 where the charges could be compared as between a Parliamentary and a county councilelection. Inthatyear, when there were both, he found that the County Council election cost £364 9s. 6d., while the Parliamentary election cost £732 19s. In 1895 a county council election in Camberwell cost £169 6s. 6d. and a Parliamentary election cost £273 8s.; in Dulwich a county council election cost £183 14s. and a Parliamentary election cost £333 3s. He could give many other instances of the same kind 396 where the areas and the polling places were identical. He sincerely hoped that the Government would now follow the precedent of 1894. At that time a similar Motion was submitted to the House, but political events prevented the Government from carrying it to a practical result. He sincerely hoped that the Government would not only accept the Resolution, but would embody it in an Act and place it on the Statute book.
§ MR. FENWICK (Northumberland, Wansbeck)
congratulated the hon. Member for the Dartford division on his return to the House, and on the ability and clearness with which he had presented the Resolution. Whatever might be thought of the broader question of the payment of Members, there could be no difference of opinion as to the claim that such official expenses as were incurred in the interests of the general public and in compliance with statutory regulations should be paid from public sources. Under the present system every general election seemed to be regarded as a fitting opportunity for fleecing the various gentlemen who submitted themselves for election to serve the public interest in Parliament. These expenses had always seemed to him unjust and excessive, and yet they had a tendency to grow from election to election. That, no doubt, was partly the consequence of the growth of the population and the addition that was made every year to the electorate in the various constituencies. He contended that these expenses ought not to be borne by the individual candidates, but by the community at large. When he was first elected the official charges amounted to £542, distributed, of course, between his opponent and himself. Twenty years had intervened since then, and at the election just over the expenses amounted to £783. He had gone through six contested elections in these twenty years, and on each occasion a charge had been made for the use of ballot boxes and stamping apparatus. The House knew well that he did not personally pay the election expenses, but his friends who supported his views had had to pay them, and long ere now they had acquired a vested interest in the ballot boxes and stamping apparatus, and yet he found 397 that at the last election a sum of £30 was put down for the use of them. He pointed out the inequality of sacrifice in the case of a candidate in a county as compared with a candidate in a borough. Of course, they might be told that the borough area was more compact and necessarily less expensive to work than the county, but that was small comfort to the candidate when he had been mulcted in official expenses to the tune of £150 or £200 more than his neighbour just over the imaginary line which divided the county and the borough constituencies. At the election of 1900, in the Wansbeck Division with an electorate of 14,179, the official expenses were £685, while in the East Bradford Division with an electorate of 14,189, the expenses were only £286. At the same election in Battersea, with an electorate of 14,420, the official expenses were only £334. These inequalities ought not to be tolerated by this House or the country. There were nine representatives of universities in the House, and their official costs in contested elections were practically nil. In 1886 his hon. and learned friend the Member for North Louth introduced a Bill the object of which was to reduce the official charges in Ireland. That Bill passed through all its stages in this House. In Committee an Amendment was carried which abolished the whole of the official expenses so far as the representation of Ireland was concerned. That Bill went to another place, and as the gentlemen there were not accustomed to submit themselves to constituencies for election that Amendment was struck out. He was sorry to say that before this House had time to consider the Lords' Amendment Parliament was dissolved, and they were face to face with another election. He thought his hon. friend who moved the Resolution was pretty accurate in estimating that the cost would be about £200,000 if these expenses were thrown on the Consolidated Fund or the local rates. General elections took place on the average every four or five years, and, that being so, he did not think that was an enormous sum to throw on the Consolidated Fund or the local rates. Those who objected to the cheapening of elections often said that the abolition of 398 official charges would lead to unnecessary and factious contests. But even under the present arrangement they did not get rid of such contests. In the six contested elections he had gone through his average majority in the first four was 3,160. At the khaki election in 1900 it fell to 1,191, because of the vigorous stand he made in opposing what he considered to be an unrighteous war. At the recent election it rose to 7,176, and no doubt if he lived he would have another contest at the next election. He sincerely hoped that the Government would accept the Resolution.
§ Motion proposed, "That in the opinion of this House, the returning officers' expenses, and all other official charges in connection with Parliamentary elections, should be defrayed out of public funds, and that a material reduction is possible in the present scale of charges allowed under the Parliamentary Elections (Returning Officers) Expenses Act, 1875."—(Mr. Rowlands.)
§ MR. WILLIAM RUTHERFORD
said the Motion before the House seemed to divide itself into two parts. The first part was a declaration that the expenses which were charged against candidates by returning officers should be cast upon the public funds, and the other, which seemed to him to be an entirely different subject, was a declaration that the amount of these charges was excessive. He entirely agreed with the proposer of the Motion with regard to the first part, but entirely differed from him with regard to the second. Personally he had had the advantage of having served in practically every capacity that was possible at an election. He had been canvasser, poll clerk, presiding officer, returning officer, and candidate. Therefore, he had had the advantage of making these charges and paying them. He hoped he had earned them by doing the work properly, because none of the elections in which he was concerned had in any way gone wrong The House ought to be grateful to the proposer of the Motion for pointing out the difference of practice in the matter of official expenses at municipal and Parliamentary elections. He could assure the hon. Member that in a good 399 many cases the charges made by returning officers were not excessive and that the amounts were earned by the work done. Four-fifths of any returning officer's charges were in the nature of payments which had to be vouched and were subject to taxation. Therefore it was absurd to suggest that returning officers, who had been held up to a little contumely and upon whom a little reflection had been cast, were bloated plutocrats, drawing improper remuneration out of the pockets of Members of this House. He was convinced that the charges ought not to fall on the candidates. They ought to be paid by the counties and the boroughs. In the case of municipal elections these expenses were paid by the boroughs. If that was a right thing to do in the case of municipal elections, the same practice ought to be introduced with respect to Parliamentary elections. His experience in municipal elections had shown him that the absence of any deposit or penalty had tendency to create bogus candidates—men got nominated for the express purpose of advertising themselves. He understood the proposer of the Motion to suggest that a small deposit should be exacted from each candidate, and that it should be returned if a certain reasonable proportion of the electorate voted for the candidate. There was no doubt that the House of Commons to-day was more democratic than it ever was in days gone by. It was not only more democratic in membership, but also, he believed, in its ideas and instincts, and regard should be had to these ideas and instincts. Then, further, in all countries which had legislative assemblies those charges were paid by the State. He was not one of those who habitually contended that because other countries adopted some practice this country should do the same. He thought that argument was absurd; but there was this to be said for it, that we were not the sole depositories of wisdom, and when we saw other countries almost universally adopting a particular practice it afforded a reason for examining into the subject. The next reason was that the fact of candidates having to pay those charges, which were sometimes very excessive, tended to make membership of this House the exclusive privilege of the 400 rich. He was one of these who thought that to-day the rich had not the exclusive privilege of education, intelligence, common sense, ability, or devotion to the general interests of the community; and therefore any barrier which tended to keep the membership of the House to the rich ought to be swept away. There should be no distinction between Members who represented the scattered constituencies, where the charges were very high, and Members for boroughs where the charges were comparatively moderate. He had much pleasure in supporting the Motion.
§ MR. WILLIAM REDMOND (Clare, E.)
said that this was one of many matters in which this House might follow the example set by some of the colonies. He had recently been throughout the length and breadth of Australia, and had found after inquiry that the public expenses at all election contests were borne by the State, and with the very best results. In some of the Australian States candidates were required to make a certain deposit to show that their candidature was bona fide, and this deposit was returned if the candidate polled a reasonable number of votes. Bogus candidates were few in the Australian States; the elections were conducted in a proper way, and the result had been most satisfactory. He had listened with interest to the hon. Gentleman who seconded the Resolution when he gave the House figures showing how the number of electors in his constituency had continually increased. He regretted to say that he had an exactly opposite experience, as had also some other Irish Members. When first elected to the House the constituency he represented contained some thousands more electors than now, and therefore he had not to complain that the public expenses of an election had increased. They had decreased, but that did not in the slightest degree do away with the ha dship and injustice which the present arrangement inflicted on poor men. It enabled a candidate who possessed a great deal of money, and absolutely nothing else to talk about, to give a great deal of trouble and annoyance to another candidate who had every other qualification in the world except money. By way of illustrating how 401 the thing worked he would state the case of his own constituency in the county of Clare. In 1885, in a constituency of 12,000, the opponents of Home Rule were in a small and insignificant minority. The policy of those who opposed the Nationalist Party was, if they could not succeed in defeating the Nationalist candidate, to do the next best thing. They ran a candidate simply to deplete as far as they could the treasury of their political opponents by compelling them to spend large sums of money. Both divisions of Clare were contested, and the Conservatives did not succeed in polling more than one vote for every pound they had paid the returning officer. At the next election, in 1886, the same course was pursued by the Conservative party, although they knew that they could not poll more than 300 or 400 votes, and the man who could command a majority of 6,000 votes was obliged to pay £300 for returning officer's expenses. On the day of the election the candidates opposed to the Nationalist Party jeered and boasted, "We know we cannot win, but we will make these poor Home Rule candidates pay out their money, and they will get tired of that." That was a state of affairs which could not be permitted to continue. So far as they in Ireland were concerned they had the utmost sympathy with the suggestion of the hon. Gentleman who had moved this Resolution, and if it was necessary to do so they would support him on a division. However, he hardly thought that anyone at this time of day would oppose a suggestion so obviously fair and wise. He had been somewhat astonished to hear the free and democratic expression of opinion from the representative of a Lancashire constituency on the Opposition benches, and he hoped that when a certain exalted personage who wanted to copy other countries in other things returned to the House he would not change his opinion. He was certain that this measure would be supported by every Member who wished to see fair play, and that no man should be excluded from the House for want of money.
§ MR. STUART (Sunderland)
said it seemed that there was not to be any opposition to the Resolution from the 402 Conservative side of the House, and he believed that in this Parliament many other measures would be passed which met with opposition from the Conservative Party on former occasions. He trusted that the House would not stop at passing the Resolution, but insist on its being embodied into law by the present Parliament, and on the Government taking up the question. One or two points had been raised as possible difficulties in the way of the payment of the returning officer's expenses. One was that it would induce bogus candidates to come forward, but he believed that that was a bogus difficulty. He had had experience of six general elections for the London County Council, and many bye-elections which had been conducted with the vigour and the energy of Parliamentay elections, and he was not able to recall any instance of a canditature which was not justified by the results. Therefore he was not afraid of bogus candidates, and he welcomed a proposition which would open a door to every citizen to enter Parliament.
§ MR. CLAUDE HAY
said that what he and others on the Conservative side of the House had felt somewhat keenly in their experience was that in their candidature they were confronted with an expenditure of hidden wealth by the Party opposite. This matter of election officers' expenses did not apply alone to Parliamentary elections. AIL increasing burden was thrown year by year on those who took an active part in municipal elections, There was a growing opinion that the expense involved in county council and borough elections had become so great that it should be borne by the public at large rather than by the candidates It was idle to think that this was a Party question. His hon. friend near him had shewn that this was a matter which had developed as education had developed, and that there was now a keener interest taken in all elections than was formerly the case. His own opinion was that the cost of the elections should not be thrown on the candidates or on the local authorities, but that the burden should be put upon the people as a whole.
§ MR. AKERS-DOUGLAS (Kent, St. Augustine's)
said that he had considerable experience in electioneering matters, and he would like to express his view to the House. The debate had been marked by great unanimity, and he did not propose to utter a discordant note. The hon. Gentleman who had moved the resolution had chosen a most appropriate time for doing so, because hon. Members had had recent experience of the payment of election expenses, and were therefore in a frame of mind to listen with a favourable ear to the eloquent appeal which had been made to them. The hon. Member had pointed out that he desired a clear issue on this matter, and had therefore put down his Motion in a form of words not associated with any other question. The hon. Member was wise, for there were Gentlemen who sympathised with him in his Motion, but who would not have given that sympathy if it had been associated with the subject of payment of Members. Then the hon. Member in drafting his Resolution stated that the charges were to be cast on public funds; he did not ask the House to say that they were to be cast on the rates. He himself was in favour of a Motion of this character, but he could not support it if it was proposed to cast returning officers' charges on the rates. He was one of those who thought that the rates already imposed an intolerable burden on the ratepayers, and therefore he contended that the burden of these charges should fall on the Imperial taxes, more especially as the candidates sought to be elected to the Imperial Parliament. The hon. Member for the Wansbeck Division had used somewhat harsh language in regard to the returning officers, and talked about candidates being fleeced. He himself had had a more happy experience than some hon. Members seemed to have had, for although he represented a county with 16,000 electors he had no grievance against his returning officer for the charges he had made. He thought that too much had been made of the cry in regard to bogus candidates. He did not think any large number would be forthcoming; but if the House came to the conclusion that those charges should be placed on Imperial funds, it 404 might be necessary to ask the candidates to put down a substantial sum in the way of caution money which might be forfeited if it was found that the candidature was a frivolous one. That would meet the objection which many Members held and prevent candidates coming forward for the mere purpose of advertisement. As to the second part of the Motion, he thought that some reduction in the charges could easily be made. Though he was not sure that it would be possible or desirable to reduce in a large degree the fee of the returning officer there was no doubt that some of the other charges were excessive. For instance, there was the outrageous charge of seven guineas for fitting up a polling booth, and a charge for hiring ballot boxes. There were also other charges which might have been reasonable at the time the Act was passed, but which were now shewn to be excessive. The returning officer himself had very anxious and responsible duties to perform. He was responsible for the expenses of both the candidates, if the election was found to be invalid. A returning officer was recently mulcted in the sum of £4,000 because the printers employed failed to deliver the ballot papers in time for the opening of the poll. This showed that there must be a responsible man chosen as returning officer and that it was reasonable that he should have a fair and reasonable fee. But there were many charges which ought to be reduced. The local elections to which we had become accustomed since the Act of 1875 were carried on for lower fees. These included elections for parish council, district councils, and county councils, He should like to see more machinery for voting, in the shape of polling stations, placed at the disposal of the electors than was afforded at the present moment. If the electors were given the privilege of voting, they ought to b3 enabled to exercise it without travelling long distances. This subject might be said not to be cognate to the discussion on the Resolution, but he thought it was, because if they reduced official expenses of elections—and now a competent presiding officer could be obtained for much less than four guineas—there would be less objection to an extension of the number of polling stations which was 405 much desired. He would conclude by expressing his opinion in favour of the Resolution, though he could not support it if an extra charge was placed on the rates.
§ THE ATTORNEY-GENERAL (Sir JOHN WALTON,) Leeds, S.
said he was sure they had all listened to the right hon. Gentleman with pleasure, because they were anxious to have some authoritative statement from the Opposition on a subject upon which the House appeared to be unanimous. A caustic historian had said that the House of Commons was never so absolutely wrong as when it was absolutely unanimous. They might, he thought, retort that it was never so absolutely right as when it was unanimous. They might regard without suspicion the unanimity which had characterised this debate. The difficulty of dealing with the Motion arose from the fact that it was almost impossible to discover any argument against it. Allusion had been made to the desirability of demanding some money qualification from the candidates for membership of the House. That system would not even have the advantage of the old property qualification, which guarded in some measure access to this House, as it demanded that the candidates should be possessed of land or heritable property. The theory was that then the candidate possessed a stake in the country and that in the Member who possessed a stake in the country they had a patriot. But the requirement that candidates should find a certain sum of money did not ensure their having what was called a stake in the country, because their money might be derived from some other country. There seemed to be a tendency in these matters to revert to old constitutional methods. The Motion had some historic interest, because in olden days a constituency, in order to obey the writ issued to it, had not only to secure the return of a Member, but to bear the cost of his maintenance while he discharged his duty to his constituents. In later times candidates became volunteers and offered inducements to constituencies to elect them. Now there was a tendency to return to the earlier idea that the duty of the constituency was to provide for its 406 own representation, and that the cost incident to that provision should fall upon the area which sought representation, and, in obedience to the writ, provided it. A good deal had been said as to the amount of the expenses cast upon candidates under the existing law. It was not unimportant to observe that the schedule which determined the amount of the expenses was now entirely out of date. In 1872 the Ballot Act was an experiment, and it was thought that the machinery in connection with the Act could only be worked with very high-class professional assistance. Now the services of competent officials might undoubtedly be obtained at a very much lower rate of remuneration. Even, therefore, if the question whether any expenses should be cast upon the candidate were not dealt with, there would be a strong case for entirely altering the schedule. But if the burden were cast upon the constituencies, he thought the constituencies would take care that unnecessary expenditure was not incurred. He would suggest to the House that the true way of approaching the Motion was to approach it constitutionally—to consider that if the duty rested on the constituency to secure its Parliamentary representation, the expenses incurred in the discharge of that duty should be borne by the area represented. That duty was already recognised in connection with local government. Logically the burden was a local burden, and ought to be borne locally. But that need not prevent the House taking a course similar to that which it had taken in other instances, and making a grant in aid of local taxation to an amount equivalent to the burden cast upon the local area. If the matter were made a local burden the expenses would be kept to as low a limit as possible. He did not know that it was necessary to discuss the question of the undesirable candidate, but a fine might be exacted or there might be a second ballot. That, however, was a matter for future consideration. At any rate it was clear that the machinery which it was proposed to abolish ought not to be used for dealing with the matter. The Motion was regarded with the utmost sympathy by the Government, and he did not use the 407 phrase in any emotional sense; by sympathy he meant practical sympathy.
§ SIR JOHN WALTON
I was just going to deal with that question. Perhaps my right hon. friend will think there are sufficient measures indicated in the King's Speech for this session.
§ SIR EDWARD CARSON
The reason I asked the question was that a similar measure was brought forward before and not proceeded with.
§ SIR JOHN WALTON
said his right hon. friend would remember Mr. Bright's warning about trying to get too many omnibuses through Temple Bar, and there was no need to add to the measures which the Government had undertaken to pass. There was no immediate necessity with regard to this reform. [An HON. MEMBER: By-elections.] There might be a few by-elections, but the grievance in regard to them was relatively small. The main grievance was connected with general elections. The House might, without taking any very sanguine view with regard to the life of the Government, come to the conclusion that there was sufficient time for the measure to take the shape of a Bill and be submitted to the House.
§ SIR CARNE RASCH (Essex, Chelmsford)
said he had some little experience in this case which might possibly interest the House. Some time ago he contested South East Essex against Mr. W. H. Wills—that gentleman was a peer now, but he could not remember his name, they fought the bill of the returning officer, and the judge, His Honour Judge Abdy, knocked off 200 guineas. He did not blame the returning officer, whose own charges were fair and correct. They did not get all the money, because the lawyers got most of it, but they got more 408 than the returning officer. If hon. Members opposite were to take the bull by the horns and put their fists in the face of the enemy they would do better than they did in present circumstances. Candidates were required to pay 5s. for the use for twenty-four hours of each of the wretched old biscuit-boxes into which the ballot papers were put, whilst if the whole lot were sold they would not fetch a sovereign with the returning: officer thrown in. Another expensive item was the furnishing of the polling booth, which meant placing two chairs and a table in a wretched rabbit-hutch, where the intelligent voter put his cross generally against the wrong man. The cost of these was four or five guineas, while the value would not be 10s. All these things were relics of the time when a candidate was regarded by half the constituents as a milch cow and by the other half as a public enemy. He was glad the hon. Member had brought this question forward, and if he went to a division he should vote with him.
§ Resolved, That, in the opinion of this House, the Returning Officers' Expenses, and all other official charges in connection with Parliamentary Elections, should be defrayed out of public funds, and that a material reduction is possible in the present scale of charges allowed under the Parliamentary Elections (Returning Officers) Expenses Act, 1875.—(Mr. Rowlands.)