HC Deb 20 December 1915 vol 77 cc87-93

(1) The parliamentary and local government register of electors and any register based on the same in force at the passing of this Act, shall remain in force until Parliament provides for the substitution of any special registers or otherwise directs; and the words "but in no case after the thirty-first day of December, nineteen hundred and sixteen," in Section three of the Elections and Registration Act, 1915, are hereby repealed.

(2) Until Parliament provides for the preparation of special registers or otherwise directs, no steps shall be taken in connection with the preparation of a new parliamentary or local government register of electors or any new register based on the same, subject to any directions of the Local Government Board to the contrary as respects information of deaths or any other statistical information, and, subject to any such directions, the provisions of the Acts relating to registration of electors, so far as respects the preparation of new registers, shall not be carried into effect.

(3) In the application of this Section to Scotland, "the Secretary for Scotland" shall be substituted for "the Local Government Board," and "the County Council and Municipal Registers" shall be substituted for "the Local Government Register of Electors."

In the application of this Section to Ireland, "the Local Government Board for Ireland" shall be substituted for "the Local Government Board."


I beg to move, in Sub-section (1), to leave out the words "and local government."

I move this Amendment in order to raise a point of considerable importance, and to ask a question upon it. The Clause leaves in complete uncertainty the position of assessors, particularly in Scotland, who are a very special class of officials, and who, in the Bill of my right hon. Friend the President of the Local Government Board (Mr. Long) last year, had an assurance of protection with regard to their position. They were assured that their position would not be in any way interfered with. I want to know whether that holds good. In England you have what are called revising barristers, and these appointments will not be made; but in Scotland the position is entirely different. We have regular assessors, of whom twenty are Government officials. They perform a very important and essential function in the interest of local government in Scotland, and it is most desirable that they should be protected, particularly when one realises that there must be a special register. If it were understood that they were to prepare that special register without any further allowance, then of course the one thing would square the other.


My right hon. Friend the Secretary for Scotland is present, and I speak with great trepidation in his presence, but I am able at once to tell the hon. Baronet that the words of this Clause are,. I believe, exactly the words to be found in the Bill of last July. I quite understand that the postponement of the making of registers sometimes raises questions of finance as regards particular sets of officials, and there is the sad case of the revising barristers. I understand the position in Scotland is not the same. The hon. Baronet will not expect me to give him an assurance straight away on an Amendment which is not on the Paper, and which, so far as I am concerned, I heard for the first time a few minutes ago; but I will make it my business to make inquiries, and I have no doubt that the Secretary for Scotland will be very sympathetic about it.


There is an Amendment on the Paper dealing with officials somewhat of the same class in Ireland. I do not know how it is proposed to deal with them, but the case in Scotland is even stronger, and I hope, if necessary, that an Amendment will be introduced on the Report stage.

Question, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Clause," put, and agreed to.


I beg to move, in Subsection (1) at the end, to add the words "and there shall be substituted there for the words 'but in no case after the thirty-first day of December, nineteen hundred and seventeen."

Looking at Clause 2 of this Bill, I have been a little puzzled to understand why certain words in Clause 3 of the Elections and Registration Act, 1915, are repealed. I have come to the conclusion that the Government desire to relieve themselves of any obligation to introduce a Registration Bill or to make any preparation for a new register. I presumed that the Government would take such measures, or introduce such a Bill, at such time as would seem most convenient, but as it was considered desirable when the Bill of last July was introduced to fix a date before which such provision should be made I conceive it is not unreasonable to suggest that some date should be inserted in the place of that which is the subject of the words repealed. I suggest the substitution of 31st December, 1917, because that is exactly twelve months later than the date given in the Act, but as Parliament is only to be extended for a term of eight months it is not very material from my point of view what the date is, although I do think, in view of the fact that those who most strongly hold the opinion that Parliament should be extended again admit that there can be no certainty that circumstances will not arise making a General Election during the War a necessity, it is desirable to make provision for a better and more live register than that which would be in force if these words of the Elections and Registration Act were repealed and no other date substituted. I suggest some date, not too remote, prior to which the Government must make some provision for Registration, make some effort to create a new register, and presumably introduce a Registration Bill. There is no doubt that a promise to introduce such a Bill was given when the Elections and Registration Act was introduced last July, and although it may be a difficult thing, during the War, when so many electors are absent from the country, to provide for a new register, still the difficulty must be faced, and the difficulty will be greater if no new register is provided. I therefore suggest the substitution of "31st December, 1917," for "31st December, 1916," and that the Government should be invited to introduce a Registration Bill taking into account, so far as possible, the conditions of that time.

It seems to me there is another suggestion that the Government might very well be asked to consider. In place of the many rather complicated and even conflicting residential and other qualifications which are now required to enable a man to be placed upon the Parliamentary Register, they might as far as possible substitute the one qualification that a man has served his country in this War, that he has seen active service in the field, or has served the State in the munitions factories. That mere fact should entitle him to be placed on the register. A register based on that principle could be prepared during the War, and, at any rate, be in readiness for an election after the War. I do not suggest what steps should be taken to prepare the best possible register to be available during the War if an election is fought, but I do suggest that some provision should be made and that some such words as those of my Amendment should be added to the Clause in order to make it quite clear that the Government do intend to deal with this matter.


I confess I am not quite clear what the object of my hon. Friend is in moving this Amendment. He has apparently a deep-seated mistrust of the Government. He fears that they will endeavour, for some mysterious reason, to depart from what they have said on previous occasions. He made a suggestion to the Committee at the end of his speech that a register should be prepared which will enfranchise all those serving the King in any capacity on sea or land in connection with this War. If that suggestion were a practicable one the Government would be the last to object to its adoption, because we are all agreed, without question of party or any other division of opinion, that all those men who have served or are serving their country should be electors when an election takes place. But my hon. Friend forgets that, before a man can exercise the franchise he suggests—the new franchise of service to the King—he must be attached to a particular constituency. We have a very large number of men—I cannot say how many; my figures on that point may be inaccurate—but we have an enormous number of men abroad. Some few of them have got the qualification, but as the Committee knows the majority of the men who had the qualification before the War have now lost it. If they are unmarried men obviously they will no longer get the qualification by reason of their lodging or residence, while if they are married men in a very large number of cases their wives have left the houses in which they were living before the War and have gone elsewhere, and therefore in no case, except in the very few instances where the qualification is the same, can you put these men on the register.

My hon. Friend suggests we ought to produce the machinery. There is no difficulty about machinery. The machinery is ample. It is there. It might probably have to be added to if it were necessary to produce the ad hoc register in such a time as is usually allowed to prepare a register, and a certain number of extra officials might have to be employed. There is no difficulty in that. There is no difficulty in putting in force the ordinary machinery. But there is a difficulty which is insuperable. Either you must have an election in the trenches, which nobody would suggest, or else you must have an election from which the great majority of those who are fighting would be excluded. If it is desired to have a new register of electors at home, it can be prepared in a very short time. But the real difficulty which has to be overcome is to provide for the men, the soldiers or sailors, the great majority of whom either have had no qualification or have lost it, and to give them an opportunity of voting. While they are abroad they cannot be placed on any register. If my hon. Friend's suggestion were adopted you would qualify automatically all the men who have served or are serving the Crown. You would then put them into different constituencies. Is it conceivable that any Government should be expected to undertake such an impossible task as to allot these men to different constituencies throughout the country?

I can assure my hon. Friend there is no need for this Amendment. The Govern- ment want no spurring to induce them to prepare a Registration Bill or to produce one. We ourselves should be very glad to do so at once. But the real practical difficulty in connection with this proposal, and in everything in which an election plays a part, is the War, and until the War is over and the men can take up their residence here, either in barracks or in their new homes, whichever it may be, until that time comes you cannot have a register which will include them in the electorate. This House would not desire to have a register which would contain only the names of people here at home. That is the real difficulty with which we are confronted. We have seen elections taking place in other countries where the Army is mobilised, and we know that in those cases the soldiers have been unable to vote. We do not want that to occur here. We desire when an election comes that the men who have fought for us and worked for us shall be qualified to vote, and I can assure my hon. Friend and the Committee there will be no delay on the part of my Department or on the part of the Government. We are ready with the ordinary machinery. But the Bill does not settle this most difficult question, and it cannot be settled until the men return. Therefore, if we did produce a measure now, it would not be worth the paper on which it is printed. To everything I have said on previous occasions I adhere. There is no intention on our part to depart from any promise we have made and nobody will be more pleased than we shall be when, at the termination of the War, we have the return of these gallant men and we give them that to which they are so richly entitled, the right to vote for Members of the House and to exercise all the privileges of citizenship which they have done so much to preserve, not only for themselves, but for the rest of the citizens of this country.


I am glad my hon. Friend proposed this Amendment, because it has elicited the very admirable speech to which we have just listened. Many of us have been rather disappointed in regard to this matter, but my right hon. Friend's speech, pointing out the absolute absurdity of having any election when millions of electors are in the trenches will be quite sufficient to assure us that, whatever date is put into this Bill, there can be no election while the War is going on. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the support which his speech affords to that which I believe is the general desire.

Amendment negatived.


The next two Amendments in the name of the hon. Member raise, I believe, the same point.


Yes, they are consequential.

Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.

Clause 3 (Short Title) ordered to stand part of the Bill.


With regard to the new Clauses, the first, standing in the name of the hon. Member for Leith (Mr. Currie), raises a very interesting point, but I am afraid it is beyond the scope of the Bill.