HC Deb 16 March 1906 vol 153 cc1583-8

Order for Second Reading read.

MR. MARNHAM (Surrey, Chertsey)

, said that as a Member rising to address the House for the first time he asked for the kindness and consideration which had been accorded so often during the past few weeks. The fortune of the ballot enabled him to bring forward this Bill, and he asked the House to grant it a Second Reading. Its object was to remove one of the many anomalies and hardships which the present registration laws imposed. The need for a drastic reform of those laws had been proved by the many Bills which had been brought in to deal with the various hardships which the country suffered under them. There were many thousands of British workmen who were never able to exercise their right of citizenship in consequence of the present state of the law. This Bill was a very small one and he claimed that it was a non-Party measure. It was based upon the Medical Belief Act passed in the year 1885. That Bill did away with the disfranchisement of working men who were compelled by sickness to apply for medical relief. It applied to more than giving a bottle of physic or a box of pills, for it included meat, broth, wine, and anything else that the doctor in his judgment thought fit to order. The necessity for this Bill had been brought home very strongly in Chertsey, where a number of men were struck off the register because during the previous winter they had been obliged to go to the labour yard for temporary relief. The same thing happened in other parishes all over the country, and the consequence was that many thousands of honest and hard-working men were every year struck off the register. The work given in labour yards was not such as anyone would volunteer to do except under painful necessity. In the twentieth century to penalise men by taking away from them the rights of citizenship when they were driven by poverty and distress to seek relief, was a very great hardship. The preamble gave full information as to the purposes of the Bill. The second clause provided that such men as he had alluded to under the circumstances described would retain their votes for all purposes such as parliamentary, municipal or burgess elections, or any election under any statute. There was a saving clause preventing men who obtained relief of this kind from voting at the election of guardians. That provision had been taken from the Medical Relief Bill. Clause 3 was simply an instruction to the registration officers to set to work this year in time for the registration in September. Next year the county council election would take place, and he was anxious that these men should have a vote upon that occasion, when questions would arise which would very much affect the welfare of the working classes. Therefore the third clause hurried up the registration in time to enable those men to be put upon the register next year. He hoped the House would accept the principle of the measure at any rate, and any amendments which were found to be necessary could be dealt with in Committee.

MR. HAVELOCK WILSON (Middlesbrough)

said this was a very important Bill affecting the interests of labour. He remembered that in 1892, during the distress in consequence of the great strike in the county of Durham, 3,500 men were obliged to accept parochial relief at the stone yard, and the following year they were struck off the register. That was a very hard case which this Bill would remedy, and he had much pleasure in seconding it.

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

MR. C. DUNCAN (Barrow-in-Fur ness)

said it was a cruel thing that such an enormous number of men should lose their votes in this way through circumstances over which they had no control. He hoped a division would be taken, so that they might have an opportunity of showing the people of this country that they meant business in this matter.

MR. G. CROYDON MARKS (Cornwall, Launceston)

said that in the cases dealt with by this Bill the payments were made only for actual work done. Men were frequently thrown out of employment in all large centres of industry through no fault of their own, and, not being able to find other employment locally at the moment, they were given employment by the public authority in the division in which they lived, and for accepting that employment under the present law they lost their rights of citizenship. In the last Parliament doles were given to the landlords, the farmers got something, and so did the Church and other interests, and he thought it was now time that the labourer had something done to prevent his being disfranchised because he happened to be thrown out of employment and forced to accept work provided for him by the local authority. He had the strongest sympathy with this measure, and he hoped there would not be too much talk in connection with it.


said he hoped the House would bear with him while he stated some of the difficulties which he felt in regard to this Bill. The preamble spoke of "deserving workmen," and had those words appeared in the Bill he should have asked for some definition of that term. They did not, however, appear in the Bill, and therefore it was no part of the question with which they were dealing. The hon. Member who introduced this Bill spoke of it as a small measure. So it was, but it involved a very large principle. He certainly thought that before they changed the relative position of those in receipt of relief to those who were not, they should examine carefully their action upon this question in the past. This subject was of enormous magnitude, and the measure only dealt with a mere corner of it. It was extremely unfortunate that the House of Commons should be invited on a Friday afternoon at so late an hour to enter into a discussion of these questions. If a change of the law was required in this respect there were other claims for reforms which were very much stronger than those put forward in support of this Bill. The Bill exercised no discrimination in the selection of its subjects, one of the points enforced by the recent Report of the Vagrancy Committee. Another reason why the Bill should not be proceeded with now was that the point with which it dealt was one of the subjects referred to the Royal Commission at present sitting. Although this Bill discriminated in the preamble by using the word "deserving," there Was no such discrimination in the enacting clauses of the Bill. Those who knew the law in Switzerland and other countries would agree with him that there must be some discrimination How could they treat a person who was little more than a tramp or a vagrant exactly in the same way as they treated the deserving persons to whom reference had been made by preceding speakers? That to him was an aspect of the case which ought to be fully and carefully investigated. They ought not to forget that the whole of this question had been referred to a highly skilled and a most competent Commission.

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

Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER, in pursuance of Standing Order No. 3, adjourned the House without Question put.

Adjourned at twenty - eight minutes before Six o'clock till Monday next.