§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That leave be given to introduce a Bill to amend the Parliament and Registration Act, 1916, and to extend the Elections and Registration Act, 1915, with respect to elections of local authorities and other bodies, and the revision of jurors' lists in Ireland."
§ The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Asquith)
In asking leave to introduce the Bill which stands in my name, I may remind the House that the present position as respects election and registration is as follows: First, the life of the present Parliament has been prolonged until the end of next month—September. On that date, unless further provision be made, Parliament must come to an end and a General Election must take place. And in the next place, the Register of Electors, which came into force on the 1st of January, 1915, remains in force. Under the Elections and Registration Act of 1915 and the Parliament and Registration Act, 1916, that register remains in force until Parliament provides for a special registration being made, or otherwise 1448 directs. Two conclusions follow from those premises. In the first place, unless statutory provision is now made, on the expiration of next month the present Parliament will expire, and you will have to face the necessity of a General Election on a register which is now nearly two years old. The Bill which I am now asking leave to introduce proposes to prevent that possibility by further extending the life of the present Parliament for some additional months. We suggest, following the precedent of the last extension, another eight months—that is to say, the 31st of May, 1917. The second conclusion that follows from what I have stated is that it is clear that provision should also be made in the meantime for bringing into existence some kind of register of a fresher and more representative character than that which now exists, which can be resorted to for the purpose of an election when the extended life of this Parliament—to whatever date this House sees fit to extend it—comes to an end. Provision for the purpose of that register forms no part of the Bill which I am now asking leave to introduce, but would be the subject of another Bill which I hope will be presented at the commencement of business to-morrow.
The two matters are so intertwined that I thought it right, in answer to questions and appeals addressed to me last week and the week before in introducing this Bill, though it is not strictly relevant to the purposes of this Bill, to state in short, general summarised form the nature of the proposals which we intend to make in regard to registration. I say at once, and I think that I shall carry with me universal assent on this point, at any rate, that it is not possible in existing conditions to do more than construct in the way of registration a rough and ready makeshift to meet an unprecedented emergency. I need not dwell at any length on the anomalies of the present situation. The register which is now in force, and which, if an election were to take place next month or the month after, would control the qualifications of the electors and describe those who were and those who were not entitled to vote, is a pre-war register. It came into force, as I have said, on the 1st January, 1915, but it embodied qualifications the latest of which must have matured before the beginning of the War—that is to say, in 1449 the month of July, 1914. I am therefore accurate in describing it as a pre-war register. What has happened since that register came into force, or at least since it was compiled? The War has caused the greatest displacement of population in our history. Some millions—I am not exaggerating when I say some millions—of our best men are out of the country, fighting abroad in the various theatres in which operations of war are carried on, and they are fighting on land and sea—some in France, some in Egypt, some in Mesopotamia, some in East Africa; there in hardly a quarter of the globe in which they are not to be found.
But that by no means exhausts the extent of degree of displacement which the War has involved. The country has appealed not only to its sons to join the Army and Navy, but to undertake necessary war work here at home; and we have, in consequence, in our munition factories, and in other forms of war employment, an enormous shifting of population from the homes and districts in which they were domiciled at the commencement of the War, and which, though it may be temporary and transitory and not a regular removal, involves a very large displacement of old lines and old conditions. Everyone must be anxious, and no one is more anxious than I am that, as far as possible, men should not be disfranchised, should not be disqualified from voting because, in this supreme crisis of our history, they have responded to the call of the country, whatever form that call may have taken. I think we are all agreed about that. But when you come to face the problem at close quarters the difficulties and complexities of the practical solution, even of a temporary kind, are almost innumerable. As far as the Government are concerned, I can say for them that they have been devoting for months such time to the consideration of these difficulties as they could spare from more urgent matters connected with the actual daily conduct of the War. The Government resolved to invoke the assistance of the House of Commons, whom the matter more especially concerns than it concerns themselves, and we asked the House to appoint a Select Committee to go into the whole matter. I very much regret—I do not go back upon it—that the House did not see fit to comply with that request, but, for good or bad reasons—I do not want to discuss them—our in- 1450 vitation was not accepted, and we had therefore to reconsider the matter for ourselves, and to arrive at such conclusions as we could, and present them, as I do to-day, to the House. That is the starting point—in some ways not the most important point—of the whole matter. We do not propose in the Bill which will be presented to-morrow to ask Parliament to alter the qualifications of the franchise. There is a simple, drastic, and, I might call it, heroic proposal which at first sight appeals to everybody—to enfranchise at Once all our soldiers and sailors who are fighting for their country.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
My hon. Friend puts it in a nutshell. The practical difficulties, especially in a measure of that kind, are enormous. There is the question of age. The franchise has never been given to people who are under twenty-one years of age. Are we to take a lower limit? Then there is the question: For what constituency is a man in France, or in Egypt, or in Mesopotamia to vote? [HON. MEMBERS: "Where he was born!" "Where he was registered!"] I am only pointing out the complexities. For what constituency is he to vote, and how is he to give it? Then you cannot differentiate between the soldiers at home and those who are in France, those who are in Egypt, and those who are in still more remote quarters. You cannot differentiate between them; they have all served the country with equal gallantry, and have all shown willingness to serve it. You cannot discriminate—it would not be fair to discriminate—between the men who are abroad and between the men who are for the time being at home as to their title to vote, and the means of giving effect to that title. I need not point out what is obvious from the point of view of the military authorities: There are the gravest difficulties and the most serious objections—
§ The PRIME MINISTER
I am speaking of the opinion of the military authorities. There are the gravest difficulties, the most serious objections, to holding anything in the nature of a General Election outside the United Kingdom among people who are engaged at the front in fighting our battles. I think the common sense of this 1451 House and the country will agree with that. That is a contingencey which a responsible Government ought not rashly to face. We, all of us, feel that we should like to do it; there is no difference amongst us in regard to that, and if I raise practical objections it is in no spirit of disparagement, but I want the House to face the situation as it actually is. We all agree that we would like to have it if we could. But that by no means exhausts the difficulties of the case. If you were to create a new, or what I may call a military and naval franchise—that is, that a special right to vote be granted to those gallant men who are serving their country on sea and land in all parts of the world,—you would have to give a voice to all the other men. Take the munition workers. They have left their homes at the invitation of the State in large numbers; they have severed their old family ties and their old residential ties, and have gone into places hitherto unknown to them, and crowded there in enormous numbers, and I do not hesitate to say that, after the appeals addressed to them on behalf of the Government and the State, they are rendering equally important and effective service in the conduct of the War as are our soldiers and sailors.
And, further, the moment you begin a general enfranchisement on these lines of State service, you are brought face to face with another most formidable proposition: What are you to do with the women? I do not think I shall be suspected—my record in the matter is clear—that I have no special desire or predisposition to bring women within the pale of the franchise, but I have received a great many representations from those who are authorised to speak for them, and I am bound to say that they presented to me not only a reasonable, but, I think, from their point of view, an unanswerable case. They say they are perfectly content, if we do not change the qualification of the franchise, to abide by the existing state of things, but that if we are going to bring in a new class of electors, on whatever ground of State service, they point out—and we cannot possibly deny their claim—that during this War the women of this country have rendered as effective service in the prosecution of the War as any other class of the community. It is true they cannot fight, in the gross material sense of going out with rifles and so forth, but they fill our munition 1452 factories, they are doing the work which the men who are fighting had to perform before, they have taken their places, they are the servants of the State, and they have aided, in the most effective way, in the prosecution of the War. What is more, and this is a point which makes a special appeal to me, they say when the War comes to an end, and when these abnormal and, of course, to a large extent transient, conditions have to be revised, and when the process of industrial reconstruction has to be set on foot, have not the women a special claim to be heard on the many questions which will arise directly affecting their interests, and possibly meaning for them large displacements of labour? I cannot think that the House will deny that, and I say quite frankly that I cannot deny that claim. It seems to me, and it seems to all my colleagues—although I do not profess for a moment that we are in agreement on all these points as to whom ought or ought not to be enfranchised—that nothing could be more injurious to the best interests of the country, nothing more damaging to the prosecution of the War, nothing more fatal to the concentration of the national effort, than that the floodgates should be opened on all those vast complicated questions of the franchise, with an infinite multiplicity of claimants, each of whom can make a perfectly plausible if not irresistible case for themselves, and that at this stage of the War that that should be thrown on the floor of the House of Commons, and into the arena of public discussion outside, and that we should be diverted from that which ought to be our supreme and sole purpose to what is practically a review of the whole basis of our electoral constitution.
It is on those grounds, without prejudging any of these questions, which of these various categories either men or women workers are entitled to the franchise, or ought to be considered as claimants—it is on these grounds that the Government have come to the conclusion that they ought to present to Parliament, for the purpose of framing a register, a Bill that does not in any way modify, either by way of enlargement or contraction, the qualification for the franchise. That is our starting point. At the same time, as I said at the commencement of my remarks, we fully realise that the peculiar conditions of the War have led, 1453 without any tampering of the qualifications, to large disqualifications which ought to be put right. What we propose, therefore, is this: First, that there should be no alteration in the franchise itself. Secondly, that provision should be made for the alteration of registration procedure so as to bring into force the new register on the existing basis of qualification by the 31st May next, and for that purpose we propose that the period of qualification should be postponed from the 15th July, as it is at present, to the 1st November, so as to make the register as fresh, actual, and vital as it can be.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
It is not relevant at this moment; and now I come to the point which I was discussing, namely, how we are to deal with the artificial disqualifications which the War has produced among those who have gone out to fight and those who have gone to work in munition factories. To meet that we propose that such provision as is possible should be made for preventing persons who have left their homes for purposes of war work—I will say what I mean by war work in a moment—from being disfranchised. Before I outline these provisions, let me say what we mean by war work—war work undertaken since the 1st October, 1915. We give as wide a definition as possible to that expression. War workers will include not only those who are in the Army and the Navy—it includes them—but persons who, though not in the Army or Navy, are engaged in work such as mine-sweeping, the laying of cables, and other work under the direction of the military or naval authorities. That is the first thing. Secondly, ambulance work. Thirdly, prisoners of war, and interned civilians and soldiers and sailors in hospital or on sick leave. Further, persons who have been compelled to change their homes—I am sorry to say this is not an incidental class—owing to the destruction of their homes by hostile bombardment, or works carried out in home defence; and finally—this is a very large category—persons who have left their homes in order to engage on munitions work elsewhere, munitions work being defined by reference to the interpretation Clause of the Munitions of War Act, 1916. All these classes of persons will be deemed for this purpose to be 1454 war workers, persons engaged in war work. What is the provision we propose to make for them? The House is familiar with the very limited provision in that direction made in the early days, I think the first week of the War, by the Electoral Disabilities Removal Act, 1914. We propose to extend the prevention provided by that Act of disqualification attributable to absence on military service of persons in the Army or Navy to war workers. The effect of that will be that where persons have kept their qualifying premises they will not be disqualified owing to want of residence.
That, however, does not go far enough, as it does not include the great number of those who have given up their qualifying premises in order to be soldiers or sailors, or to take part in munitions or other war work. We therefore propose further that soldiers and sailors and war workers of all classes who are on the existing register shall be placed on the new register whether their qualifying premises are retained or not, and that persons who are in course of qualification, at whatever stage, and however early in the stage of qualification, and whose course of qualification was interrupted, necessarily interrupted, by their leaving home in order to engage in war work, are entitled to be registered as if their course of qualification has continued its normal progress.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
Yes, we take the law as it is—lodgers, occupiers, owners, whatever the particular qualification may be. We take it as it is. The provision, which I think is a wise and excellent one, is that a man who has begun his qualification, however early the stage in that period of qualification may be, and then in responding to the call of his country has left his home and qualifying premises, the course of qualification will be deemed to have attained its normal end, and he will be entitled to be registered.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
No, no! We take the present qualifications as they are, and make no alteration of any kind. I believe we are told—it is a very speculative and conjectural thing—we are told by 1455 the best authorities, by my right hon. Friend the President of the Local Government Board, who really knows more about it than anybody else, that this will have the effect of preserving the qualifications of a very considerable proportion of our soldiers and sailors and munition workers. It is intended with that object, and, of course, when we come to the Committee stage of the Bill, the House will be able to see how far it is attained, and how far it is possible, consistently with the object and purpose of the Bill, to extend and enlarge it. But that is our purpose; and, given the governing principle with which I started—that you cannot at a time like this, with the Government and Parliament preoccupied as they are, undertake a course of constitutional revision and a general reconsideration of the question of the franchise—we believe that the plan we are now proposing not only proceeds on the lines of least resistance, but offers a very large safeguard against what we should all deprecate, and in the highest degree deplore, the disqualification of those who in any form of war work have responded to the country's call. I must apologise for taking up so much time on what is not really relevant to the Bill I am now discussing, but this Bill I have out lined will be presented to-morrow, and I am going to make a suggestion to the House which I hope—it is very desirable, if we can, that we should agree about these things—may command something like general assent, and that is that when the Bill is presented to-morrow it shall be put down for Second Reading the next day (Wednesday) for this reason: we shall then be able to see, the House having had time to read and consider it, whether or not—and it is practically a one-Clause Bill—one operative Clause—
§ The PRIME MINISTER
I was coming to the point. We shall then know on the Second Reading of this Bill whether or not it is desirable to make it into what I call a franchise Bill—that is to say, to extend or make admissible other forms of qualification—or whether the House, having regard to the provisions and special necessities of the case, and the urgency of getting a register of some kind in operation at the earliest possible moment, and the supreme importance that the time 1456 of Parliament and the Government should not be occupied for months to come, instead of being concentrated on war, in discussion on franchise problems—whether the House will not be ready, however much some of us might have wished to go further in this direction or in that, and willing to take this Bill as it stands, not as a settlement, even a provisional settlement, of questions of franchise, or even of questions of registration, but as an emergency measure designed to supply, if and when the occasion arises, a register upon which a General Election can take place
§ Sir F. LOWE
Will the Bill contain any provision for enabling soldiers and others who are still away on active service to record their votes in other ways than by returning home?
§ The PRIME MINISTER
No, that would open the whole question. My hon. Friend will see how complex and difficult that machinery must be. We tried our very hardest to deal with that problem, but we have found it so far insoluble. What I am going to ask the House now is, first of all, to allow me to introduce this Bill for the prolongation of the life of Parliament, which everybody agrees to be necessary; then to-morrow we will present in the ordinary way a Registration Bill on the lines I have laid down, and on Wednesday, when we come to the Second Reading, we shall see what is the attitude of the House with regard to its enlargement or extension. If the House, on consideration, thinks that this is the best way, without prejudice to other questions, of dealing with the immediate situation, I should not despair of our getting the Bill through all its stages before we adjourn. I shall not press that, but we are all anxious to get away.
§ Sir J. SIMON
Is it the intention to get the Registration Bill printed and circulated in the course of to-morrow?
§ The PRIME MINISTER
No; the Second Reading will be on Wednesday. The Bill will, I hope, be in the Vote Office to-morrow. It is a very simple Bill. There is no complexity of any kind about it. I do not think I have kept anything 1457 back. The House knows perfectly well now what the Bill will contain and what it will not contain. It will be in the Vote Office to-morrow, and I think we might take the Second Reading discussion on Wednesday. We shall then know what the state of opinion in the House of Commons is, and we shall know whether or not to proceed with it before the Recess, or to hold it over until after the Adjournment. The Bill for the prolongation of the life of Parliament must be passed before the Recess, otherwise this Parliament will come to an end at the end of next month.
One final word. In my judgment, and I think in that of all my colleagues, although we take very different views—we always have done in the past, and I am sure we hold the same views now—about the suffrage and the conditions on which it ought to be given, we are all agreed upon this—and I hope that the agreement which exists between us will be shared practically by the House of Commons—that this is not a moment, these are not the conditions, in which we can prudently or reasonably undertake the revision of our franchise law. In regard to this registration Bill, if in the judgment of the House it were thought desirable or necessary to extend it so as to cover that larger domain, I can only say that I do not think that my colleagues and myself could possibly give the time to the conduct of such a measure through the House of Commons. We are occupied every day and all the day with the most urgent problems connected with the War. The War has reached a stage now—I think it is a happy, a promising stage—which more than ever requires the absolute concentration of those who are concerned with its daily conduct. If we are to sit in the Cabinet or in Committee discussing differences of opinion amongst ourselves, discussing this or that point in regard to the electoral franchise, and the thousand, or, I might say, ten thousand questions which arise and must arise when you are presenting for the consideration of Parliament anything in the nature of a revision of our franchise law—if we are to do that we must give up altogether our primary duty. I would say the same in regard to the House of Commons. This House has to keep a vigilant regard on the progress of the War. It would be equally bad for the House of Commons as for the Government that we should be plunged at a time like this into this inextricable and interminable tangle of contro- 1458 versial matters. Therefore, I venture, not in the name of the Government only, but also in the name of the country, to appeal to the House. I do not pretend that this is a logical or in itself a complete or satisfying measure. It is a measure deliberately adopted for the purpose of meeting a special emergency. I do appeal to the House most strongly, without asking them to-day to come to a definite decision, to look at the matter from that point of view, and to see if we cannot provide a register which, though not perfect, though omitting from its columns and pages many men who well deserve to record their votes in any election that may take place, is yet the best substitute that in the circumstances of the time can be provided. That will leave the Government and the House of Commons free to direct their undivided energies to the supreme purpose which we all have in view.
§ Sir E. CARSON
Considering the strong statement of the Prime Minister that nothing but a simple Registration Bill, as he told us, is possible or feasible under existing circumstances, I am more than ever at a loss to know why, in the first place, this Bill has been postponed month after month, and week after week; and I am still more puzzled to know why, if it was impossible to solve the many questions that come up for consideration in relation to the franchise, it was ever proposed, at a time when we ought to be directing our every attention to the War, to appoint a Committee of this House to solve those questions which the Prime Minister has told us to-day ought not to be solved, or attempted to be solved at the present time. But I pass that by for the moment. I shall consider that question when I speak about the register. The Bill before the House at the present moment is simply one for the extension of the life of this Parliament. I am afraid there is no alternative open to us but to extend our own life at the present time. An election without a register would be a farce, and the postponement of the new register by the Government up to the present day has rendered it impossible for us to take any other course than to extend the life of the present Parliament. Not that I am saying that even if we had a register it would necessarily follow that there ought to be an election. My own view is the other way at the present moment. But I am perfectly certain that we ought always to be ready with a register if the occasion should arise on which an election might 1459 take place. This would be, in my opinion, an extremly unfortunate time to have an election. The War is advancing, I am glad to say, with great vigour, and I am sure that whatever was the condition of feeling when the last Bill of this character was introduced, we all now see a great deal more daylight over the European Contiment that we did at that time. It certainly is not a time to interrupt our war measures by any appeal to the country, or by any dissipation of our forces in the country in considering political questions. But I think the Government are asking too much in asking us to give them eight months. I see no necessity for it. The next eight months may be fraught with questions of vast importance to the whole body politic. All the questions may arise during those eight months which will affect the lives and interests of the entire community for ages to come. This is not the time to elaborate that, but I hope my right hon. Friend will not lay clown that period of eight months as a matter to which the Government absolutely adhere, but that it will be open to argument either on the Second Reading or the Committee stage of the Bill.
I come to the question of the register. This particular form of register was promised us as far back as December, 1915, when my right hon. Friend the ex-Home Secretary was introducing the measure of that year for prolonging the life of the present Parliament. I really fail to understand what it is has compelled the Government to keep back this Bill until the last stages of the Session, or the last few days before the Adjournment. Upon the very face of the last Parliament Bill it was undertaken to prepare a special register. That was in January last, and all that we have had from that day to this have been vague promises to bring in some register. And now comes a register—I think an important register. I think everybody in the House and in the country will agree it would be a monstrous thing that men who had gone to serve in the War, or who had moved about in this country for the purposes of carrying on the War, were to lose their qualification for voting by reason of their performing their great public and patriotic duty. But I doubt very much whether the more general proposal to which I will refer, and which has been strenuously argued against by the Prime Minister, would have created anything 1460 much more difficult in making a register than what the Prime Minister himself is proposing. The difficulties in carrying out the present Bill will be enormous. As I understand the Prime Minister, you are going to put upon the register every soldier or sailor serving abroad who has left his residence from which he took his qualifications, and every lodger who was on the way to have a lodger qualification by having taken a lodging even for a limited time. How are you going to trace these people? There is no more difficulty in enfranchising soldiers and sailors than there is in doing the very thing that you say you are going to do in this Bill—none whatever! I understood the Prime Minister to say that he was going to guard the rights of prisoners. I think he is quite right to do that. But is there anything more difficult in enfranchising soldiers and sailors than in guarding the rights of prisoners? The right hon. Gentleman says that the soldiers and sailors, if they were enfranchised, cannot vote. The same objection applies to those people whose qualifications you are now retaining, if you leave the Bill in its present form and do not make an effort to enable them to vote. But he is also going to guard the rights of interned subjects. I do not know what he means by that. Does he mean that men in internment here because they are a danger to the State are to have their votes preserved?
§ Sir E. CARSON
Oh, interned in Germany! I quite agree. But that adds again to my argument. How is it any more difficult to get your soldiers and sailors to vote than to get the interned men in Germany to vote? There is no greater difficulty at all. I am bound to say that I think we are doing a grave injustice to the soldiers and sailors serving in this War in refusing, even in the middle of a war, to consider whether or not they ought to have the franchise.
§ Sir E. CARSON
Certainly. I refer to all ages. If a man is good enough to fight for you, he is good enough to vote for you. Let me say this—you may or may not agree—I say that as regards these various classes of voters who are held up, as against this proposition, as a bogey to try and prevent us putting forward this claim 1461 on behalf of the soldiers and sailors, that you can draw no comparison between any person claiming the franchise and the man who is risking his life and health in the trenches, and who is daily rendering himself liable to be shot on behalf of this country. I do not believe there is any comparison between that and, say, the women's franchise question. The question of whether females should or should not be enfranchised is a question apart; it has nothing to do with this question, nothing whatever.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
The hon. Member can put his point afterwards. Hon. Members are not entitled to put their points in the middle of a case which is being made against them. They must wait until they have heard the case.
§ Sir E. CARSON
The Noble Lord opposite gets very excited about the women's question, because he has bound himself by a pledge; but I am entitled to assert my proposition. I say that the men who, either voluntarily or through the laws of this country, are ordered out to present themselves to be shot, and suffer what they do suffer in war, have a claim paramount above everybody. What I should like to show further is that we are not, in relation to these men, basing it at all upon anything like a property or residential qualification, but simply and solely upon the fact that they are the men who are preserving the lives and property of the people of this country.
§ Sir E. CARSON
The right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister says that if you raise the question of the soldiers and sailors you will have necessarily to raise the other question. I do not agree with him. It only shows either that the Cabinet do not approve of this system of enfranchising soldiers and sailors or that they are disagreed. I suspect they are disagreed, and, therefore, they do not bring it forward. But if anybody tells me that you are forwarding the cause of the women 1462 —to whom we would all wish to pay a tribute for the work they have done and the splendid patriotism they have shown in the course of this War—if anybody will tell me that you are forwarding their cause by suggesting that they are coming forward and saying, "We will not allow the sailors and soldiers who are fighting for us to be enfranchised because we cannot be considered at the same time," I say that they are putting a bar to their own cause which they will find will have a considerable influence upon the question. The Prime Minister, as I understand, put forward tentatively this kind of offer. He says, "We will bring in this Registration Bill to-morrow, and we will put it down for Second Reading the next day." That I quite assent to as a reasonable thing to do. But then the right hon. Gentleman, as I understand him, says, "If you wish to take the Bill as it is, well, then, you can have it before the Recess; if you do not, it must go over." That is a matter upon which I should be sorry at the moment to express any particular view. My own inclination—though I do not like to put forward my own view as of any real value in the matter—would be to push the claim of the soldiers and sailors. At the same time I can see that we are arriving at a very critical stage in the War, a stage in which we may, and I hope can, anticipate happy developments—in some respects, at all events, even in the near future. And I am certainly very anxious to get the register. I am very anxious, should these circumstances arise, that the whole weight of the country, so far as it can be represented, should be represented upon the register; that the whole weight of the country should be behind us, and should have the power of expressing itself when we come to deal with future and difficult matters which are to be the result of the War. I do not know why my right hon. Friend says that the register has only to come into force in May. Surely he does not anticipate that if we get the Bill through before the Recess that it will take till May to carry out the framing of the register in the form in which he puts it. I should have thought that was unreasonable.
§ Sir E. CARSON
I should have thought that the moment the register was prepared it ought to come into force, whether 1463 for by-elections or any other. It is impossible, I think, to say more until one sees the Bill and until one has considered the offer that is put forward by the Prime Minister. But I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman this—because it enables one to come to a conclusion in the understanding of the matter—if the Registration Bill is left over till after the Recess will it be taken immediately after the Recess?
§ Sir E. CARSON
Then we will wait and see—at all events, so far as I am concerned. [Laughter.] I shall wait and see the Bill. I am quoting a very great man, and I do not see why it should cause amusement in the House. Above all things, I believe that the country desires to have the register as full as possible and as soon as possible. I believe, at the same time, it will cause great disappointment that now, at what I may call the eleventh hour, we are informed by the Government that the position of soldiers and sailors cannot be taken into consideration. We in this House ought to express an opinion upon that matter, but it is one which must wait for further consideration. For my own part, I doubt very much whether it would be any use trying to obtain a vote in this House upon that point before the Recess. The House is a very thin House. There are very few Members at present in attendance. Above all, I think it will be necessary in a matter of the kind to have back in the House the Members of Parliament who are serving in the Army and Navy. When we see the Bill, and when we have considered the matter further, the House, I have no doubt, will show whether they will have the register before the Recess or will later raise the bigger question.
§ 5.0 P.M.
§ Mr. WARDLE
I desire to say only a very few words on the present occasion. The right hon. and learned Gentleman who has just sat down has raised the larger question of the franchise in connection with this Bill. I am afraid if he proceeds with the point he has raised 1464 in regard to the soldiers and sailors he is bound to raise the whole question of the franchise in every shape and form. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will, no doubt, remember that on the last occasion when this matter was before the House I, to some extent, supported his point of view. I was sanguine enough to think that this old question of the franchise might have been settled by agreement amongst all classes and all parties. This is a time of national crisis. But there seems to be no disposition and no possibility of such agreement. Therefore, we are driven, in my view, to the question of taking the register largely and almost entirely upon the question of the old qualifications. I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman is a little too sanguine about the speed with which even the present proposed register can be got together, printed, and brought into operation. On the last occasion I pointed out that there were very many questions in regard to this register of very great difficulty. There was the question of labour. There was the question of paper. There is the question of getting the facts and knowledge together. The present proposed register, in my opinion, will in itself be an extremely complicated proceeding, and very, very difficult to bring into operation. For that reason, I am not sure that the right hon. Gentleman is not asking too much if he wants to cut down the time during which it might be prepared. I am quite sure that immediately it can be prepared and put into operation it ought to come into operation, however soon or however late that may be. I only desire to say, as one who has supported, and still supports, every extension of the franchise in the direction both of adult males and females, that I am very sorry, indeed, we cannot get a settlement of this whole question at the moment, but I think it would be folly on the part of this House to plunge the country into a controversy of which no one could see the end unless there was some disposition on the part of all parties to come to an agreement at the outset.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill ordered to be brought in by the Prime Minister, Mr. Long, Sir George Cave, and Mr. Hayes Fisher. Presented accordingly, and read the first time; to be read a second time To-morrow, and to be printed [Bill 90.]