HC Deb 19 April 1909 vol 3 cc1261-6

The FIRST COMMISSIONER of WORKS (Mr. Lewis Harcourt) in asking leave to bring in a Bill to constitute London a single Parliamentary borough, and for purposes incidental thereto, and otherwise to amend the law relating to the form of lists and registers of voters and the holding of elections in London, said: I need not apologise for the method adopted for introducing this Bill because the principle is so simple and the object of it will prove so generally acceptable that the ten minutes which by custom is allotted to me will be amply sufficient to commend the measure to the House. The sole object is to relieve Parliamentary London from certain disabilities which it has suffered in the past, and put it on an electoral par with Birmingham or with other great towns in the country. The Bill makes London one borough for Parliamentary purposes and subject to the necessary adaptation—it does no more. I admit that in this it shows a considerable want of courage for which I accept the sole responsibility. This Bill aims at one and only one of the objects which were included in the measure introduced last year by my hon. Friend the Member for North St. Pancras. I have not ventured to attempt, as he did, to enlarge the duties of overseers or alter the qualifying period, to antedate the operation of the register or to vary the hours of polling. I have not even had the courage to adopt and to include the proposal which was made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Dublin, in a Bill which, I think, he introduced in 1902, to rectify the Parliamentary boundaries of London, nor to make them coincide with the administrative county. I have not refrained from these reforms because I think them undesirable—quite the reverse—and with regard to the rectification of boundaries or hours of polling I would gladly welcome any indication which might enable me to include these matters in the Bill at a later stage, and which might be regarded as a general consent. But I have intentionally omitted them from the Bill in order to avoid the charge which might be made, that I am proposing to give advantages to London which are not now possessed by Birmingham for registration, for qualification, or for extended hours, whilst at the same time I am endeavouring to remove the reproach under which London has too long suffered, that she is in a position of electoral inferiority to other cities in the country. I have omitted the rectification of boundaries lest I should be accused of undertaking a partial or a premature registration and lest it should be said, I hope not believed, that I was attempting to jerrymander a few constituencies for the advantage of my own party.

The Bill creates the existing constituencies of London into a Parliamentary borough for electoral purposes. It retains the present boundaries and popular names of those constituencies, but there are certain essential results which follow under the existing law from the assimilation of London to Birmingham conditions. The first of those results is that there will be a successive occupation and qualification for all voters moving from one London division to another—as in Birmingham. The second result is that all divisions of London will poll on the same day—as in Birmingham—and this is an alteration which I believe will be welcomed by all those whose interest is more in business than in politics in the Metropolis. The third result will be to enlarge the radius of residential qualification. At present a man claiming a vote for business premises, on which he does not reside, in many existing London boroughs, must reside within seven miles of the boundary of that borough. There are obvious difficulties if he resides within seven miles of the outer confines of the borough of London. I retain the old 25 mile limit, which applies to the City of London alone. The fourth result is that no man will be able to vote at the same election for more than one of his qualifications within the borough of London—again as in Birmingham. This limitation of dual voting has been recognised and enacted for county council purposes by the party opposite, and it has been found eminently satisfactory both here and in other parts of the country. All these things follow from the application of the ordinary law. They require no special enactment.

In view of the fact that London registers are revised by 11 revising barristers, and not by one, as in Birmingham, it is necessary to provide for them some additional assistance for the discovery and the deletion of the duplicate qualification in division one of the Parliamentary register. The action to be pursued will be precisely that which is prescribed under the existing law, with the addition of a single revising barrister appointed for this purpose alone. He derives his information from the usual sources, but especially from the clerk to the London County Council, whose duty it will be to make inquiries in the matter. The clerk of the London County Council will be made the returning officer for the whole of London. He will act, of course, through deputies—presumably through clerks of the borough councils, as he does at present for London County Council elections. There is a special clause preserving to these town clerks all the rights and duties which they at present enjoy in the preparation of the printed voters' lists. I find it necessary to make special provision for the freemen and liverymen of the City of London. If they were left to the operation of the ordinary law they would be distributed by lot amongst all the divisions of the new borough of London quite irrespective of what their qualifications might be, as is done in Birmingham. But in view of the fact that they are not freemen of the borough, but of the City of London, and as I am sure their present members do not wish to part with them, I have inserted a clause by which all liverymen and freemen will be entitled to be registered for the City. If by this registration they become duplicate voters, they will have the existing and the usual power of selection as to where they will vote. In the absence of that selection they will be allotted to vote in the City. Though the position of the City register is very anomalous from the fact that a man may buy a vote by the purchase of his livery, a thing which is unknown in any other town in the kingdom, I have not thought it necessary or right in this Bill to correct that peculiarity. I believe that this measure will give to London as a whole redress from inequalities which it has long suffered. Remembering the great services which the City of London and its members have rendered in times past— [Laughter]—the rather distant past—to the cause of Parliamentary reform, I should be very glad to hope that I might look to its present representatives for from one of them a silent assent, and from the other perhaps more vocal assistance. I hope I have explained sufficiently to the House the single principle of this Bill. Its machinery will be very simple, and it will be better understood by the House when they are in possession of the text. In the hope that this small and useful measure may receive, as I am sure it deserves, almost unanimous assent, I beg to move.

Motion made and Question proposed: "That leave be given to bring in a Bill to constitute London a single Parliamentary borough, and for purposes incidental thereto, and otherwise to amend the law relating to the form of lists and registers of voters and the holding of elections in London."—[Mr. Lewis Harcourt.]

Sir FREDERICK BANBURY rose to address the House.


On a point of order, I wish to ask whether the hon. Baronet is entitled to speak on the Bill, not having heard the whole of the speech in introducing it.


If we could compel every Member to listen to every speech to which he is going to reply the House would be very full.


I regret very much that I did not hear the whole of the right hon. Gentleman's speech, but I think I have gathered, from what I have heard and from what my hon. Friends around me have told me, something of the purport of the Bill. In rising to oppose the Bill, I beg to thank the right hon. Gentleman for what seems to me the only good feature of it, namely, the proposal to preserve to the liverymen of London the rights which they have so long enjoyed. The right hon. Gentleman alluded to the past services which had been rendered to the cause of liberty and freedom by the Members for the City of London.


I said "Parliamentary reform."


Well, Parliamentary reform. I hope that the present Members for the City of London will still desire to do all they can to secure that. I suppose the object of the right hon. Gentleman is to secure good and efficient representation not only for the City of London, but for all the boroughs in London. It appears to me that the Bill of the right hon. Gentleman will effect the very opposite of that. As far as I can understand the Bill, it is a rechauffée of his Plural Voting Bill mixed up with the Bill of the hon. Member for North St. Pancras, which had such an unfortunate end. [An HON. MEMBER: "Was it an unfortunate end?"] I presume, from the point of view of the hon. Member for North St. Pancras, it was an unfortunate end, but from my point of view it was a very fortunate end. If the right hon. Gentleman's Bill meets the same fate, I will not have anything to complain of. The object of the Bill is to make London one borough. The right hon. Gentleman alluded to Birmingham. I think I am right in saying that the population of Birmingham is something like 500,000. The population of London is over 5,000,000. I have nothing to say against Birmingham. I respect it, but you cannot compare London and Birmingham. You cannot say that what is good for a city with a population of 500,000 is good for a city which is the centre of the Empire, with a population of 5,000,000. The real object of the Bill seems to be to abolish plural voting in London and not in other parts of the country. As one of the Members for London, I object to London being treated differently from the rest of the country. [An HON. MEMBER: "Punished."] An hon. Friend on my right says "Punished"—I presume for what they are going to do at the next election. I presume that is what is in the mind of my hon. Friend, and I should not be at all surprised if it was also in the minds of hon. Gentlemen opposite. The Government know perfectly well that they will not retain three seats in London at the next General Election, and they are bringing in this Bill in order to jerrymander the constitution of London because they know that the verdict given by London against any Government is generally followed by a similar verdict all over the country. I understand that the hon. Gentleman is going to reduce the limit for voters residing outside London from 25 to seven miles.


I specially said that I retained the 25 miles limit for the City of London.


Then I must again thank the right hon. Gentleman for the extreme kindness he has shown to the City of London. I only wish he had treated other parts of London in the same manner. I can see no reason why a person who has a qualification, say, in the City of London and a residence in South Kensington, in both of which cases he pays rates and taxes, should not be allowed to vote in both places just exactly in the same manner as a resident in Birmingham has the right to vote elsewhere if he has one necessary qualification. Why should London be treated differently in this manner? Of course, I am bound to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether, in the very improbable event of this Bill becoming law, he will recognise it as a Reform Bill, and whether the Government will go to the country upon it? I believe I am correct in saying that never has a Reform Bill been introduced altering the franchise unless the Government of the day has gone to the country upon it, because when that Bill has become law the voting power is no longer in the hands of the people who returned that Government to this House. Therefore, I think I am justified in asking the right hon. Gentleman whether, in the event of this Bill becoming law, he will follow the usual precedent? This is merely the first reading of the Bill, and I should not have risen to speak if the right hon. Gentleman had not said something about unanimous assent being given to this Bill.


Almost unanimous.


Well, almost unanimous. I admit that on this side of the House the minority is a small one, but our number is increasing, and I think I might almost say that this Bill will be opposed almost unanimously. [An HON. MEMBER: "Quite unanimously."] On that ground I rise to oppose this Motion.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill presented accordingly and read the first time, to be read a second time tomorrow (20th April).