HC Deb 07 May 1909 vol 4 cc1395-406

Order for Second Reading read.

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


There are many persons admirably fitted for work on provincial borough and county councils who do not possess the voting qualification, and are, therefore, disqualified. This Bill provides a remedy in a very simple and well-known manner, that is to allow residence to be a sufficient qualification to serve on these councils. It may be asked whether there is any precedent. To get on any metropolitan borough council you only need a residential qualification—exactly the same qualification that this Bill would give for the provincial borough councils. Also, if you want to select a person to sit on a board of guardians you do not ask whether he has a voting qualification; you simply ask whether he has resided in the union, and that is the only qualifi- cation needed. For urban district councils, you again ask whether the person to be selected has resided within the urban area for twelve months. In regard to provincial borough councils there is only the voting qualification, and there are many persons shut out, who are admirably fitted for administrative work. All the married women are shut out because the husbands have the voting qualification, and many admirable ladies, daughters and sisters, will be shut out because some other person has the voting qualification for the house in which they live. This Bill clears the ground and enables residence alone within the electoral area to be the qualification. I am sure the House would wish as far as possible to extend the area of the choice of persons to do administrative work. We do not want to put a barrier in their way. We want to use as far as we can the fittest and best persons to do that work, whether men or women. The Bill applies, of course, equally to men and women. I beg to move.


The hon. Member who moved the second reading of the Bill has been in many ways fortunate, because he has succeeded in obtaining third place for this measure on a Friday after- noon. In nine cases out of ten the Bill would not have come on. The consequence is that hon. Members who are opposed to the Bill have not had any opportunity of preparing to meet the arguments which have been brought forward by the hon. Gentleman, and which have not been emphasised or supported in any way by hon. Gentlemen who sit behind him. Possibly also it may be thought that this Bill is not so detrimental as it looks, because the name of my Noble Friend the Member for East Marylebone is on the back of it. I have great respect for the Noble Lord. I admire his talents and his intellect, but sometimes, like all great men, and especially great intellectual men, he goes astray. He is led sometimes to take up subjects which he had better have left alone. I am not quite certain what is the object which my Noble Friend has in taking up this particular Bill. I, of course, like many others, did not expect that this Bill was coming on. Possibly the object of my Noble Friend has been to obtain some advantage for that class whose claims he always advocates with such efficiency, namely, the ladies. I fancy that this is in some kind of way connected with the subject of woman suffrage, and that it is an insidious measure to put women on governing bodies to which up to the present time they have not been appointed. We have very great difficulty in knowing what the real object of the Bill is. The hon. Gentleman who introduced it did not give us any information on the subject. He dealt in vague generalities for a very few moments with the qualification period, and, so far as I gathered, his argument was that all that was necessary at present to enable a person to sit on a parish council was a certain residential qualification, and because of that he desired to extend the same principle to county councils and borough councils.


That is quite right—the residential qualification now exists for boards of guardians, parish councils, and metropolitan borough councils.


Metropolitan borough councils.


Yes, Metropolitan borough councils.


I am not quite sure if that is correct, but I do not like to contradict the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board when he say it is so. That only shows the disadvantage which arises when a Bill comes on unexpectedly. It is desirable to know when Bills are coming ort in order that hon. Members may have an opportunity beforehand of looking into the proposals. The existing qualification with regard to county councils and municipal borough councils is as follows: An elector must have, 12 months prior to 15th July, been in occupation, jointly or severally, of a house, warehouse, counting house, shop, or other building, or during the same period has been an occupier, an owner or tenant, of some land or tenement of a net yearly value of not less than £10. Joint occupation under A qualifies in respect of the value of the premises, and also under B the value is sufficient when divided to give £10 for each occupier. Then it goes on to enumerate the further qualifications, but what I have read is the principal qualification; and a person is qualified to be on the council provided that every person shall be qualified to be an elector of and to be elected to a county council who is at the time of the election qualified as an elector of the council, which last-mentioned qualification of being an elector shall not take away any other qualification. Now, it seems to me, that is sufficiently wide to allow any person who wishes to be a councillor to be elected. There is a qualification which is a very important one, which, so far as I know, will be removed by this Bill. At present a person cannot qualify for a vote, and, therefore, cannot be elected if he has been in receipt of outdoor relief. But this Bill says: "On and after the passing of this Act, residence within the county or the borough respectively during the whole of the twelve months preceding a county council or a borough council election shall be a sufficient qualification for being elected, and being a councillor or alderman of a county council or of a borough council." The effect of that would be that any person who has been in receipt of outdoor relief, or is actually in receipt of outdoor relief, but who has resided for twelve months in any constituency previous to-election may be elected as a councillor or alderman of a county council or a borough council. It is absurd to suppose that the House of Commons can come down to the level of saying that a pauper, a person in receipt of outdoor relief, should be qualifid to be elected as an alderman or a councillor. The hon. Member nods his head in approbation as if he were only too pleased that paupers should be elected to these positions.


That is not so, but I do say this: why should we interfere with the power of any electors in the country if they chose to elect such a person?


Let me refer to the qualification:—"An elector may be a man or a woman, but must be of full age, not subject to any legal incapacity, and must not within 12 months prior to July 15th have received parochial non-medical relief." As the qualification stands now a person who has received parochial relief is not qualified to vote; but he is qualified to sit.


Who says that? How do you know that?


The hon. Member has made his speech.


I apologise.


This person who would be empowered under the hon. Member's Bill to become an alderman or a councillor is not empowered to vote for the election of an alderman or a councillor. That is to say, while he cannot vote, he may sit to spend the money which he does not contribute to and cannot contribute to. We have had a great many complaints during the last few years of extravagance on the part of county councils and municipal councils, and I have always hoped that this House would do what it could to check it. Instead of doing that, here comes the hon. Member—and I am sorry to say, so far as I can see, with the approval of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board—to propose that we should put such persons in the position of aldermen of county councils. Take the case of the Yorkshire County Council, where very large sums of money go through the hands of the aldermen and councillors, and the people who are asked to take part in this administration are the very people who have been unable to manage their own affairs. These are the people whom the electors are supposed to put on these bodies, simply because they cannot manage their own affairs, but who, therefore, are considered capable of managing the affairs of others. Of all the foolish Bills ever brought forward in this the most foolish of Parliaments this Bill leads the way. First of all, it seems to be absolutely unnecessary. There has been no demand for it, unless the gentlemen who have been in receipt of outdoor relief have demanded it. Why should we go and pick out gentlemen who have been in receipt of outdoor relief in order to give them this privilege? We hear a great deal about encouraging local spirit. I remember when the Local Government Bill was introduced in 1888 Lord Rosebery talked about encouraging local self-respect and local enterprise. I recollect reading an article in "The Times" pointing out how citizens should exercise the duties of citizenship, and be prepared to undertake the responsibilities of office as a step, a preparatory step leading to the mother of Parliaments. Does the hon. Gentleman wish to bring to Parliament these people who have been in receipt of outdoor relief?


They can do so now.


At any rate, they do not come. I do not want in any kind of way to facilitate this measure. All distinctions, if this Bill is carried, will be done away with. I refer again to this most valuable book; that "an elector may be a man or woman." I remember the case of Lady Sandhurst, I think, in which it was held by the courts that she could not sit as a county councillor. I am not quite sure, as it is impossible to keep pace with right hon. Gentlemen, whether that decision has ever been altered. My impression is that it is not. [An HON. MEMBER: "Oh, yes."] On both a municipal council and a borough council? [An HON. MEMBER: "Not on a municipal council."] Again, I am sorry to say, I was right. My Noble Friend, having gone on in his campaign towards the entry of women into this House, having gained that on the county council he wants to extend it to the municipal boroughs, and so on, until we shall find that we shall all be returned by women. I have no doubt my right hon. Friend below me would, but I am not quite certain whether I should occupy the position I occupy now. It was bad enough to have perpetrated one atrocity on a Friday afternoon without after attempting to let the pauper in to let the woman in.

I see the Member for Montgomery Burghs present. I remember his eloquent speeches on this subject. I see a flash of his eye which leads me to suppose I shall find some support on that side of the House from the hon. Member. I would venture to suggest to the hon. Member that having by accidental circumstances at a quarter-past four in the afternoon managed to be in a position to move the second reading of his Bill, that when I sit down he should move the adjournment of the Debate. That will have two advantages. It would not prevent the Bill coming later on if the hon. Member could persuade anybody else to support it. It will have the advantage of a different point of view, because it will give the House of Commons an opportunity of considering the Bill. I really do not think that the hon. Member could suppose that on a really very important question like this, which would alter entirely the qualification of municipal boroughs and county councils, that this Bill would be allowed to go through. I should be almost inclined to assume that the two Members of the Government present would be in favour of the adjournment of the Debate. Unless this is done we shall be in danger of passing on these Friday afternoons legislation which nobody wants, which hon. Members do not know is even coming on, with the result that possibly Fridays may be taken away from private Members. I should be surprised if there is a single Member present, with the exception of my Noble Friend, who is prepared to get up and support this Bill. I appeal to my hon. Friends to support me in opposing this most pernicious piece of legislation.

I doubt whether there is a single Member on this side in favour of allowing women to appear on these bodies. I cannot see that it would be any advantage for women to do so. I know what fighting an election in a populous constituency is, and I do not think that women are fitted to go through such an ordeal, or to conduct the business which comes before borough councils. What is the business of a borough council, and why should women be specially qualified to undertake it? Not very long ago, when a Bill was introduced to give extended powers to borough councils, I rather provoked the anger of the promoter of the Bill by saying that the primary duty of borough councils was to attend to the sewers, drains, and lighting of the municipality, he apparently thinking that they had a far more exalted sphere. I am not at all sure that these useful occupations and duties, if well done, are not as great a tribute to a man's capability as anything else. The faculty of administration is one of the rarest gifts of human nature. It is easy enough to bring in Bills which are supposed to be going to do all sorts of things, but which do nothing of the sort, and often effect the exact opposite of what is intended; but the art of administration is one of the most difficult in the world. From my experience in the City I should say that a man who has the gift of administration—and that is what is required on borough councils—is almost certain to make his mark in the world. Have women that faculty of administration? I do not believe they have. I am not behind my Noble Friend in attributing many excellent qualities to women, but I do not consider that woman is fitted to manage matters like sewers—


If I may interrupt the hon. Baronet, may I remind him that women are already entitled to sit both on borough and county councils.


That is an alteration, of the law that I did not know of. Is my Noble Friend certain of it? Because I understood from the interruption which the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board made that women were not entitled to sit on municipal councils. My hon. Friend talks about a woman having been elected Mayor of Leeds, or some other place—


The Mayor of Aldeburgh is a woman.


It is a most excellent place, I am sure. Supposing, however, it is very doubtful as to whether women are already included in previous Acts, and whether this is not a further concession to women and an extension of their rights, there still remains the question of the pauper. My Noble Friend will agree with me there? I am afraid that the result of this Bill will not only be, as I have said, a waste of money, but it will add to the cost of municipal life and the cost of local administration. It will increase our local indebtedness which we, at any rate, on this side of the House have for the last four or five years deplored. The figures of local indebtedness have risen during the last 10 or 12 years in a most extraordinary degree. What we—no, the whole House—for after all efficiency and good administration in local matters is a subject common to everybody in this House—on both sides— what we should do is to endeavour to prevent this great growth of indebtedness, If the hon. Member had brought in a Bill which provided that no one should be elected as a councillor or an alderman who had not shown by his previous life that he was a good and economical administrator, then I would have voted with him. He has not done that. He has actually done the reverse. He has put a Bill before the House which would only have the effect, without doing anybody good, of increasing the burden of the rates. I would appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to support me in opposition to this Bill. The position of the right hon. Gentleman himself, and of the many hon. Gentlemen behind him, is not too secure at the present time in the country. They have put greater burdens on the people, and I venture to say that if the ratepayers know that hon. Gentlemen opposite are supporting a Bill, the only result of which will be that their burdens will be increased, and the prospect of hon. And right hon. Gentlemen returning to this House, which are—if I may say so—extremely remote, will suffer a greater blow than has been given to them up to the present time. For all these reasons I fear I should not be doing my duty to my Constituency if I did not oppose to the uttermost of my power this most iniquitous Bill. I trust that I shall receive support from my hon. Friends here, and that we shall adjourn this afternoon—[An HON. MEMBER: "Hurry up."] I do not know that that is a very Parliamentary expression, but the hon. Member is a new Member, and I would not for one moment call in question an expression which he might use, but I would point out it is that insane desire that is at the bottom of all this evil; it is because hon. Members opposite have taken the idea into their heads that some particular thing is good without really weighing the consequences, without knowing what effect this particular idea or fad would have, they say, "Hurry up, let us do it." When it is done the result may be entirely different from what they believed, and great burdens and trouble may be thrown upon the country. It is a very mistaken idea. You ought to be prepared to consider the views of both sides. [Cries of "Question."]


Order, order. The hon. Member is really getting beyond the limits of the Bill.


I have just done.


I consider this a very reasonable measure to bring our local authorities up to date. The hon. Member must know perfectly well we have been latterly improving our local legislation in this respect. When the County Councils Act was passed we had not done so, it is true, and, therefore, the county councils and the borough councils have the disadvantage of having these restrictions put upon their elections. In 1899 the Metropolitan districts got this advantage and the elections there were open to all residents. That is exactly what this Bill now asks should be given to the county and borough councils. We have had the parish councils, and no such restrictions exist with regard to them. Residence for 12 months is the qualification for parish councils and urban councils. The hon. Gentleman opposite objects on the ground that this Bill, if passed, would allow those who receive outdoor relief to be eligible for election. I appeal to him and ask him whether there has been a single case where it has been shown that any disadvantage has occurred for allowing people to choose whom they please without any restriction. We have had this system in connection with boards of guardians, parish councils, in the metropolitan district by the Act of 1899, and we also have it for this House. A candidate for Parliament is not asked where he resided for the previous 12 months. A man could go down to any Constituency without having resided there, and get elected if he could. I hope this will not be made a party question at all, because both parties assented to the principle already.

Viscount MORPETH

I do not quite agree with the speech which has just been made by the hon. Baronet who represents the City of London. I think he was somewhat mistaken when he said that women were not eligible, because I believ they are eligible for county councils and borough councils under the legislation passed three years ago. They are only eligible supposing that they are on the register, and this Bill is intended to speed up and put pressure on local authorities to get women elected on local bodies by providing that instead of only being on the register they should be eligible simply by residence. This House deals with national affairs and local authorities with purely local affairs, and it is very important that those dealing with local affairs should have as a qualification some knowledge of the locality, and ought to belong to the locality. To my mind, this Bill introduces the principle that strangers may be eligible, because, as far as I know, residence may mean simply that the person who desires to be elected may take a house or a room and leave his luggage there, and he will thereby be qualified. If he has to be a ratepayer, however, it is certain that he will have to belong to the locality.

Let me say a word or two about the point raised with regard to the pauper disqualification and outdoor relief. It is quite true that, according to the present system, the pauper and recipient of outdoor relief is debarred from voting for members of county councils and town councils, but he is not debarred from voting for members of boards of guardians, parish councils, and, I think, district councils. I do not think anyone will assert that parish councils are very important bodies, and when we come to boards of guardians we have quite lately had a report from a very important Royal Commission, which proposes to abolish boards of guardians altogether. Without casting any reflection upon the men and women who have been doing very arduous and difficult work for a very long time, and much of whose work has been very admirably done, yet we find it set forth in the Report of the Royal Commission that great dangers and scandals have arisen from the fact that pressure has been put upon the guardians by those voters who were themselves recipients of outdoor relief, and that pressure has very often brought about lax administration, and has caused a larger grant of outdoor relief. Whatever we may think with regard to the reform of the poor law system, every man in this House is desirous that a state of things should be created which would remove every breath of scandal.


I think that the hon. Gentleman who moved the second reading has now realised that the scope of his Bill is greater than he at first realised. There is a great deal to be said in favour of his arguments. He said, with some degree of force, that we now admit a large number of women to sit on these bodies, but there is a larger class of capable women who do not sit on them. I am not going at this stage into the respective merits of the woman who is married and the woman who is not married. If I did so the passions of this House might be roused to a fever heat. All I can say is that the hon. Member who moved the second reading has my earnest sympathy. We know how rates are going up every day, and great danger arises from the fact that a large number of those who are responsible for such a state of things are not ratepayers. There are men on local bodies who have no stake in the counties, and who do not feel the burdens which they impose upon others. I wish to say—


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 the Question,

And, it being Five of the clock, the Debate stood adjourned. Debate to be resumed upon Monday next.

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

The House adjourned at Two minutes after Five o'clock till Monday next