HC Deb 22 December 1915 vol 77 cc529-36

(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of December, nineteen hundred and sixteen," in Section three of the Elections and Registration Act, 1915, are hereby repealed.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, at the end of Sub-section (2), to insert,

"Provided always that where an assessor in Scotland is appointed under the Lands Valuation Act, 1854, and subsequent enactments, and where as part of his duties the registers of electors are made up by him, nothing in this Act shall be construed as affecting the power of the appointed local authority to pay him not only such annual salary or. emoluments under the terms of his appointment as assessor to which he would be entitled if this Act had not been passed, but such payment shall be taken into consideration in dealing with any claim in connection with the preparation of any special registers required by Parliament in place of the ordinary registers."

I have not proposed the Amendment in the form it stands upon the Paper, as it has been suggested to me that the altered form is an improvement. I assume, and please God I am right in assuming, we shall never again see the necessity for freezing the register. [An HON. MEMBER: "What is that!"] Suspending the register. I hope that this Bill is to be the last of the series of these Bills. I take it for granted that if the payment is made in the ordinary way, then, for work done on a special register, it will be within the power, authority, or approval of the Scottish Office to take such payment into account. Really there is not very much difference, except that my Amendment is now proposed on lines rather more elastic.


I beg to second the Amendment.


I want to be clear with regard to this altered phraseology. I am quite in agreement with the principle of the Clause as proposed by the hon. Gentleman opposite, but this difficulty suggests itself to me, that it might enable the authority which has to pay the assessor in the ordinary way for the ordinary work which he will not be required to do at the present moment for any special register, and that special register might be very much more expensive.


Oh, no!


It might be more expensive, and that would mean a greater expenditure by the local authority, if you gave it permissive power in that way. I want to be quite clear upon this point, and perhaps the Home Secretary can elucidate it. The assessor might get from an indulgent authority his regular allowance for the ordinary register and, in addition, payment for the special register, and that, of course, in the present circumstances, would be a waste of public money. If that is safeguarded against and if the authority can be made to understand what is the real distinction I shall, of course, withdraw my objection at once, but as my hon. Friend knows, when a change of phraseology is made at a moment's notice, it is difficult to see how far it extends.


I think the difficulty which my hon. Friend raises very naturally is easily cleared away, if it be kept in mind that the function which the assessor performs towards the ultimate production of the roll of electors consists only of extracting those names from the valuation roll which he thinks prima facie are the names of those entitled to vote. He does not actually make up the voters' roll, and his function will be exactly the same, neither more nor less, whether the roll is the annual roll or whether it is an extraordinary roll. Therefore, I think that the difficulty which my hon. Friend naturally raises will never arise, so far as the assessor's part of the function of making up the roll is concerned.


I should be sorry to take part in the Debate on this matter which is actually a Scottish matter if I did not find such agreement amongst Scottish Members in all parts of the House. I have inquired of the Scottish Office and have ascertained that they think the Clause in the form in which the hon. Baronet has now moved it is satisfactory, and really meets the necessity of the case. I understand also that the statement of the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite (Mr. Clyde) does meet the point raised by my hon. Friend behind me (Mr. Hogge). I trust, under the circumstances, we may take this Clause without a long Debate, as if there should be any necessity to revise it there will be an opportunity of doing it. I believe, in its present form, it will be found to be satisfactory.

Question put, and agreed to.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the third time."—[Mr. Walter Rea.]


I should like to give a word of warning to the Government at this stage. I admit they have not always profited by my warning, but I venture to hope that they will take notice of this. Some of the old Parliamentarians hold the view that the passing of this Bill will inevitably lead to a loosening of the bonds of discipline, and to greater freedom of expression by Members. I venture to predict that that will be the case. The Bill definitely prolongs the life of this Parliament. It is not an extraordinary thing to do, because we live in great times. I differ from my hon. Friend (Mr. Cowan) in the fact that I willingly vote with the Government. I see nothing else for it at this particular moment. But that may go on again and again. I am not at all with certain of my hon. Friends who think that by passing this Bill we are placing any additional power in the hands of the Upper House. I thought that was a very feeble point to make. I do not see how anyone could make it at this stage. It would not have been made now by anyone in touch with general feeling in the House and the country. I have not hesitated to take part in the controversy with the other House in the past, but that it should be threatened now is repulsive to the great majority of Liberals as well as to everybody else in the country. It was a partisan argument, and I want to repudiate it in the name of the main body of Liberal Members of this House. We are not looking forward, when this Parliament terminates in next September, either to having another party conflict or any conflict between the two Houses. Even if, happily, the War comes suddenly to a termination, there are many grave problems which cannot be settled between now and September and which will keep us united. We do not want to be divided on any old controversy of the kind.

I venture to submit that, in opposition to leading articles in some of the newspapers which it is my duty daily to read, they have laboured a point which I say is a false one and cannot be made. The case was put in the "Daily Chronicle," to my great surprise, that we were giving some point away to the other House by passing this Bill with the five years and eight months in it. It was suggested that we were giving them some kind of power to force a Dissolution. If they have the power of forcing a Dissolution by declining to renew this Bill, I would just as soon have it next September as this Christmas. If we are to have a precipitate election forced upon us, I think we should have it next September rather than on Christmas Day. I do not trouble myself about these things. There is not the remotest evidence that anybody in this House or the other is anxious to precipitate a party conflict. I would point out to the Government that this Bill is brought in by a Coalition Government, not by a National Government. The speeches that have been made to-day have not been made by Members of a National Government such as I wished to see established. They have been made rather by members of a Coalition Government, never forgetting that they sit in the Cabinet on different sides, and with the possibility being present in their minds of an ultimate appeal to this House which is going to divide us into sections. I protest that I am not going to resume a party vote at the bidding of any one of my old leaders while this crisis is on for any consideration whatever. I believe there are many others who take that view.

As one who suggested that the Prime Minister should gather in his Cabinet Members of various parties, I was bitterly disappointed by their treatment of this Bill and by their speeches. They show that they have not hitherto realised what the country wants. The country does not want a mere Coalition Government of two sides bargaining about a Bill like this and considering themselves as representing two parties. I am sure the House will feel greatly disappointed to hear that point of view put forward again to-day. We hoped that nothing of that kind would have taken place. It ignores entirely the position of the Labour party. All through the discussions on the Bill in this House there has never been a recognition of anything else but that there were two parties from the two Front Benches who formed the Coalition. That is not true. Three Members were taken from the Labour Benches, and an offer was made to the Nationalist Member opposite. Why should we consider that this Parliament Bill is a matter of bargaining and compromise between only two political parties? I do not wish, at this stage, to introduce an apple of discord. I mention it so that we may not run the same risk in future. We have run, as we have seen, a very great risk of being split up into sections in this House, not because of anything Members were doing or because of anything demanded by the country, but because the Cabinet could not agree. They were postponing the matter week after week, because they could not agree upon the exact terms of the measure before the House. I venture to warn them. It may be that on this occasion they will not take my warning. They did not do so before. It may be that I shall prove just as true a prophet as I was before. I venture to suggest that when any democratic House like this deliberately legislates for its own continuance and practically decides that it will not go out of office by the mere effluxion of time, but has the power in itself to prolong its life, the only effect will be, when the shadow of dissolution is taken from it, that Members in all part's of the House will exercise greater freedom. I am not suggesting that I shall —probably I shall. I am perfectly certain that cautious observers will see the effect upon this House I warn the Government that in passing this measure they must keep it in mind that their own future is not secure. They cannot be as secure if this measure is put on the Statute Book as they have been in the past. They can be secure by a vigorous prosecution of the War, which is a subject into which I cannot enter now; but if they fall slack, as I hope they will not, I feel sure that the direct result of enacting this legislation will be a greater freedom of criticism, a greater freedom of organisation and of combination among men in all parties, and the development of the formation of groups which has already occurred, and therefore the weakening of any appeals to us on Party grounds. By passing this measure, they can only appeal to us on patriotic and national grounds, and not on Party grounds. I think the lesson will have been fruitful.


Having moved the rejection of this Bill on the Second Reading, I feel that I ought not to allow this stage to pass without reiterating my protest. I know that in the action I took I was not supported by the general opinion of the House. Nevertheless, I felt it was my duty to make my protest. I was a voice crying in the wilderness. [HON. MEMBERS: "No, no!"] I was almost alone in the view I took, but before now minorities —even very small minorities—have been proved to be right, and, judging not by the feeling in the House, but by the feeling which I know exists, and the growing feeling which exists, in the country, I am persuaded the time will come when it will be recognised that the protest was a proper one to make, and that in extending its own life by its own action, this Parliament took a course fraught with grave dangers to the State and to the authority of Parliament itself. I can only hope that, as the House has supported the Government, the Government will rise to the height of the occasion by showing greater foresight and energy in the conduct of the War. That would enable even me to rejoice that it had this opportunity in its further tenure of power. But I am bound to give notice that, in the event of a further extension of this present Parliament being proposed under similar circumstances at the end of the eight months' term, I shall again renew my protest, with a confident hope of at any rate getting more support. I regret, perhaps more than anything else in this connection, that the Government have not made any provision in this Bill for the preparation of a new Parliamentary Register. I recognise the immense difficulty of doing so. I admit the force of what was said so well by the President of the Local Government Board two days ago, but in spite of all the difficulties, it seems to me that the thing ought to be done. No Government can guarantee us that we shall not be forced to fight a General Election in the course of the present War. If we should be obliged to do so, is it not better that we should have a new Register, however imperfect, than a stale Register? Is it not better that we should make some attempt to enable the country to record its voice and indicate its real wishes? I will again appeal to the Government to take what steps they can, during the few months allocated to them, to put us in the position of being able to ascertain the opinion of the country on the basis of a new and up-to-date Parliamentary Register. I cannot add anything more. I am in a minority, a very small minority. I await with confidence the day when the opinion of the House and the country will be with me.

Question, "That the Bill be now read the third time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read the third time, and passed.