§ (1) As soon as may be after the passing of this Act steps shall be taken in accordance with the Acts relating to the registration of electors and this Act for the preparation of a new Parliamentary and local government register of electors (in this Act referred to as the new registers).
§ (2) The new registers shall come into force on the thirty-first day of May, nineteen hundred and seventeen, and for that purpose the Acts relating to the registration of electors shall have effect as if—
- (a) every period of qualification for electors and period or date connected with qualification which, under the Acts relating to the registration of electors, is calculated, computed, or reckoned by reference to the fifteenth day of July or any other day of July, whether inclusive of that day or not, were calculated, computed, or reckoned by reference to the first day of November, nineteen hundred and sixteen; and
- (b) the dates mentioned in the third column of the Schedule to this Act
1753 were (subject to any alteration by Order in Council under this Act) substituted for the dates mentioned in the second column of that Schedule as the dates for the matters mentioned opposite thereto in the first column of that Schedule, and all dates or periods were reckoned with reference to those substituted dates.
§ (3) His Majesty may by Order in Council make provision for any matters (including the appointment of additional revising barristers) for which it is necessary or expedient to make provision in order to give full effect to the provisions of this Act, and may also—
- (a) if it is found practicable, by curtailing the time for the revision of the lists and the printing of the register, provide for the new registers coming into force at an earlier date than the thirty-first day of May; and
- (b) enable persons who are entitled to be registered in pursuance of the special provisions of this Act to give notice or cause notice to be given to the overseers to insert their names in the overseers' lists; and
- (c) make such adaptations of the provisions of this Act as are necessary in order to make it conform with the registration procedure in Scotland and Ireland respectively.
§ The CHAIRMAN
I thought the best course for me to take would be to indicate at the outset the views I hold on a number of Amendments on the Order Paper, but I think that is hardly necessary now after what Mr. Speaker has said. I might just say that Amendments proposing to deal, for instance, with such questions as manhood suffrage, adult suffrage, women's suffrage, corrupt practices, plural voting, and all elections being held on one day, and similar Amendments are, in my view, outside the scope of the Bill. On the other hand, the proposals to substitute three months for the six and twelve months' periods that would apply as the Bill now stands in the case of the new register, in my view are permissible, and I propose on that subject to call later on the hon. Member for Bethnal Green (Sir E. Cornwall) to move his Amendment. I consider also that those Amendments dealing with the question of imposing the duty on the overseers and other persons 1754 to prepare the register without the usual practice of claims being made is also within the scope of the Bill.
§ The CHAIRMAN
The one dealing with the three months' qualification, which proposes to add a new paragraph (a)at the end of line 13.
§ Mr. LOUGH
As you seem to have founded your ruling with regard to several of the Amendments on the proposition which has just been stated from the Chair that the Amendments would interfere with the general law of franchise, and could not be raised, may I ask you whether you do not think that Clause 2 of the Bill interferes with the general law of franchise,. and whether it would not therefore be in order to raise those other questions to which you refer, and with which Mr. Speaker dealt? I intended to put the question to the Chair, only Mr. Speaker left quickly.
§ The CHAIRMAN
The right hon. Gentleman must not ask me to revise a decision given by my superior authority.
§ Mr. LOUGH
On the point of Order. You ruled out a number of Amendments on the same ground, and you stated that you founded yourself on the decision which had just been given. May I ask you, as a point of Order, whether Clause 2, as a matter of fact, does not interfere with the general law of franchise, and whether the other Amendments therefore would not be in order?
§ The CHAIRMAN
I do not think that follows at all. Clause 2 of this Bill gives certain special facilities to persons who, owing to the War, are deprived of their usual opportunities of getting on the register. It is impossible on that to argue the whole scope of the general franchise law.
§ Mr. D. MASON
Would not these same persons be deprived in any case? The point of my right hon. Friend is that Clause 2 alters the law of franchise. As you say, it gives power to these people. Would they not be prevented in any case during the War unless this Bill were passed?
§ Mr. ROWLANDS
I have two Amendments at the end of Sub-section (1) of Clause 1 dealing with the period of qualification. Would not they take precedence of the Amendments dealing with the same subject in Sub-section (2)?
§ The CHAIRMAN
I think Sub-section (2) is the proper place to deal with the question. The hon. Member's Amendment, moreover, is of wider scope, and is not quite clear in its terms. In effect it raises the whole question of adult suffrage. With regard to the first Amendment on the Paper—In Clause 1, Sub-section (1), at the beginning, to insert the words "For the purposes of elections to be held during the present War"—standing in the name of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for St. Pancras (Mr. Dickinson), I have some doubt whether it ought not to come on Clause 3, where I observe a rather similar Amendment set down by the Government; but, on the whole, I have come to the conclusion that it might be possible to allow it to be moved here, and that it might be more convenient to the Committee.
§ Mr. DICKINSON
I beg to move, in Sub-section (1), at the beginning, to insert the words "For the purposes of elections to be held during the present War."
The reason which you have given for allowing this Amendment is the reason why I thought it was well to put it down at an early stage. I submit that the Committee has a right to be informed as to what is to be the real character of this Bill. The Committee will remember that on the Second Reading there was a great many valid criticisms made against the Bill, and, if I may say so without offence, it was not a very strong defence that was put up for the Bill. Many Members went away under the impression that the Bill would not be further proceeded with, especially in view of the fact that a conference was about to be called for the purpose of considering the whole question of the franchise. That was undoubtedly felt outside in the country, because the party agents and the municipal authorities, who at that time were very much concerned about the prospect of a great amount of work and a great amount of expense falling upon them in the preparation of the register, were relieved, because they believed this particular proposal would not go forward. If the proposal is going forward, it ought to be in such a 1756 shape as will show that it is merely a transitory Act. In support of that, may I just read what was said by the Prime Minister on this particular point on 16th August on the Second Reading. He said:Now I come to the other point raised by my right hon. and learned Friend (Sir J. Simon). I think what he said was very just, namely, that the Parliament elected on a register of this kind ought to be of a purely temporary character, and ought to exist only as long as the term of the War, with perhaps some few additional months, I will not say how many, and which should be regarded as a transitory, passing expedient to meet an emergency, and which, when the War is over, will cease to exist. The Government are quite prepared to accept an Amendment to meet that point. This is not confined to the case of women, but includes also the case of the soldiers. They will be coming home at the conclusion of the War, and they certainly ought to be in the same position as the women, and ought to have the same opportunity, and the register ought to be shortened and treated as purely temporary in regard to both classes as, indeed, to all classes of voters"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th August, 1916, cols. 1908–9, Vol. LXXXV.]If that be the intention of the Government, we ought to know exactly, because it very materially affects the question whether or not this Bill is worth going on with at all. The Bill as it stands is undoubtedly a permanent Bill when once it is passed. As Clause 3 is at present drafted, it will go on automatically from year to year until Parliament otherwise determines. Therefore the register which is to come in force next May will go on till the following November, or whatever time is fixed, when it will be again revised, and will then go on, and so on in a permanent way. Unless something is done in this Bill, it will be the register which will operate in the most momentous election which will take place in this country after the War. I think we ought to protect ourselves against that. I asked the right hon. Gentleman to-day a question which I thought was rather pertinent to this particular point. I asked him what the view of the Government was with regard to the application of Section 3 of the Extension of Parliament Act which we passed just before we adjourned for the Recess? That Section laid it down that no Parliament elected on the existing register should exist for more than two years. The right hon. Gentleman gave me an answer which I believe is quite correct. That enactment has absolutely gone. It is of no effect whatever. If this Bill becomes an Act it will take the place of the older register, and the protection which this House, on the suggestion of the other House, imposed upon ourselves, namely, that a Parliament elected on the existing register should not last more than two years, will disappear altogether.
1757 We are therefore really faced with the fact that the Government are proposing to form a new kind of register, a special register with, as we all know, very many defects, upon which the new Parliament after the War will be elected. We ought to take every precaution before that election takes place that we have a new register based upon a totally new system. I see no reason why we should not have it, in view of the conference presided over by Mr. Speaker now going on. It is all the more important, when we are dealing with this Bill, at the very outset to make it clear that it only applies to elections taking place before the end of the War. Let us have it for by-elections during the War, and, if we are bound to have a General Election before the War terminates, let us submit to an incomplete register, but I do trust that we shall safeguard ourselves against any possibility of having the new Parliament after the War elected upon such an inadequate register as we have at the present moment. I put my Amendment down before the Recess, and at that time, of course, I had not seen the Government Amendment, but I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will not mind my moving it at this point, because I think it is essential that we should understand exactly where we are.
§ The PRESIDENT of the LOCAL GOVERNMENT BOARD (Mr. Long)
It would perhaps be convenient if I stated as briefly as I can what is the position of the Government in regard to this Bill, the whole issue being raised, as it is, by the Amendment of my right hon. Friend. So far from complaining of that Amendment, I think it is most important that the issue should be raised at the earliest stage of the Bill in order that it may be quite clear as to what is intended by the Government in proposing the Bill. My right hon. Friend, I think, really answered his own argument when he told us at the end of his speech that we ought to have a satisfactory register of a comprehensive character founded upon new lines. He referred to the conference of which he is a distinguished member, and he expressed the hope, which I welcome, that it may be possible for Parliament to deal with the question in this way and in a manner which may be generally satisfactory. Our object in proposing this Bill is only to meet the possible emergency which has been more than once referred to in different Debates in this House, and from different quarters 1758 of the House. I believe nobody at this moment contemplates an election taking place, and I believe everybody shares the view of my right hon. Friend that the consequent tremendous disturbance to the whole of our population would be a wholly unsatisfactory thing, but the unforeseen may happen and an election may be rendered necessary by circumstances which are not at the moment apparent. If so, you ought to have a register.
The Committee will remember that in the early days we suspended the registration proceedings, partly on the score of expense and partly on the ground—I think the more important ground of the two— that the demands upon the local officials who have to do the work were so heavy that it was really unfair to ask them to undertake work which, so far as one could then judge, would be performed without any accruing advantage. That cannot go on for ever. It is quite obvious that you must lay the foundations of a register. Some hard things have been said about this particular Bill, and I am bound to say that they have not been confined to other benches. Some of the most severe criticisms have proceeded from these benches. As my right hon. Friend admitted quite frankly at an early stage of these Debates, this is an extraordinarily technical subject of which very few people in the House have complete knowledge. He even confessed that he had not a complete knowledge of the subject himself, and, as everybody is aware, he knows more than most of us. Everybody will admit that it is a subject so technical that it is very difficult to get at the true facts. I submit that it is not the Bill which is so bad: it is the extraordinarily complicated system which we have already in existence, and which we want to utilise in some simple form for a special purpose. You cannot do it.
It is very easy to blame the Government. I should be the last member of the Government to seek to deprive my hon. Friends in this House of that legitimate exercise of their powers of speech, because I am one of those who believe that that is one of the main objects for which Governments exist. But still, it is not the fault of the Government that you have an extraordinarily complicated system of franchise, and a still more complicated system of registration. You have, too, a great war going on, with the consequence that you have a large number of your electors abroad; you have 1759 also a large number of electors here at home scattered all over the country in munition and other works; and you have further, as my right hon. and learned Friend has pointed out, the very flower of our people, the best of our manhood, who are fighting for us in different parts of the world, and who have lost their opportunities to come on the franchise because they have been rendering this service to their country. I admit this is a rough and ready attempt; but it is an attempt to bring into existence & register which will be incomplete, not because the Bill is bad, but because conditions make it impossible to have a complete register. It will bring a register into existence that will be incomplete, but I believe it will be the best we can produce. It will enfranchise a large number of those who are fighting for us, and in this respect I believe it meets the general requirements of the country. [An HON. MEMBER: " No, no!"] I am only expressing my own personal opinion. That is my view, and I shall be ready to justify it at the proper time.
With regard to the contention of my right hon. Friend (Mr. Dickinson) that whatever you do you have no right to let this Bill operate longer than is absolutely necessary, that certainly is the intention of the Government, and I have an Amendment in my name to Clause 3 which, as I am advised, is the proper place to introduce it, in the following terms:Provided that no register made in pursuance of this Act shall, unless Parliament otherwise directs, continue in force after the expiration of a period of six months after the termination of the present War.It is quite obvious you must have some elasticity in this matter. You must have a register in case an election is forced at a time when there is no new register. You must, therefore, have this register for a period of time. But this Amendment, I think, is quite clear and explicit as to our intentions. Of course, I shall be prepared, on behalf of the Government, to consider any criticisms that may be made upon it when the time comes, but in the meantime I can give to my right hon. Friend the most explicit assurance that there is no intention on the part of the Government to, as it were, "jump the claim," and we have no desire to make this register the permanent law of the land or to secure it for an election. What 1760 we want to provide is a register which, as a temporary measure, will meet the requirements of the country, and, at the same time, we trust that out of the labours of the conference, to which reference has been made, will come suggestions which will enable us to place the whole question on a much more satisfactory and, as we hope, a permanent footing.
§ Sir E. CARSON
I think that although the Debate has not been germane to this particular Amendment, it is convenient that at an early stage we should review the position as we now find it in regard to this Bill. A great deal of change has taken place since the Bill was last before the House. In the first place I agreed, as far as I was concerned, to the Second Reading of the Bill on the ruling of Mr. Speaker that we could raise by Instruction the question of whether soldiers and sailors as such with a qualification of service can be brought into this Bill. Mr. Speaker, no doubt on further consideration, has ruled now that his former ruling does not hold good. That alters the whole situation, and the Bill has little if any interest for anyone under these conditions. But something more has happened since the matter was before the House. Hon. Members will recollect— and really it is worth recalling—that the Government made a proposal to refer the questions of registration and franchise to a Committee of the House. But the House would not have it, and then the Government did it off their own bat, overruling the view of the House. The matter is now before a Select Committee appointed by the Government under the presidency of Mr. Speaker.
§ Sir E. CARSON
I am not so sure. I should have thought that the Government had a very considerable voice in the matter, looking at the names of the members. But there the matter stands. You have really referred the whole constitution of this country to a Committee, not appointed by this House at all, whoever else appointed it, and I think a more extraordinary proceeding has seldom taken place. If anybody likes to read the history of the great Reform Bills and the interest that they evoked in the country and the long discussions that took place upon them, I am inclined to think, with all respect for this Committee, that very little attention will be 1761 paid to its Report when we get it. The idea of referring to a Committee of this kind the question of adult suffrage and telling us how we are to vote upon it, the idea of referring to them the question of women's suffrage and telling us how we are to vote upon that, and the idea of referring to them the question of suffrage for soldiers and sailors, is, to my mind, one of the most absurd things ever attempted. But there it is. The Committee is there, and the ruling now is that all these questions do not arise under the Bill. For my own part, in these circumstances, if you cannot do anything for the soldiers and sailors fighting at the front, I really hardly understand why we should go on with the Bill. Why have the Government framed the title of their Bill in such a way that we are not allowed to raise these questions? It is because the Government are not agreed on the point whether soldiers and sailors ought to have a vote, and for this reason alone this makeshift measure is put forward.
I should like to ask this question. Why were we told when the matter was before the House that there would be a supplementary Bill to alter the Ballot Act so as to enable soldiers and sailors serving this country abroad to record their votes? There was a suggestion of sympathetic consideration, though not a promise, in regard to soldiers and sailors serving abroad being enabled to record their votes. When are we going to have that Bill? Are we ever going to have it? That is the situation at the present moment so far as I am concerned. The right hon. Gentleman said, quite truly, that with regard to the technicalities of this Bill I know very little about them. I care very little about them. It is the great principle that this House cares about—the great principle we want to establish, a principle which is practically excluded from the Bill. So far as I am concerned, I would be perfectly content that the securing a method of working the registration should be entrusted to a Committee of able and experienced election agents on both sides to work the plan out between them. Such a proposal, I think, would be worth support in this House.
The question of how long this blessed Bill is to remain, if it becomes an Act of Parliament, is the immediate subject of the Amendment. I suppose if we are 1762 to go on with the Bill we must look upon it as being some improvement on the present register. But the present register is so old now that we really have no authority at all to represent the country. We nominally represent, we legally represent it, but whether we really represent it I think is open to a great deal of doubt. No doubt we all fancy ourselves very much as representatives of the people for a considerable number of years, and we go on as a matter of convenience prolonging our own representations in our own way as long as the War lasts. Assuming the Bill is of any value at all, if and when it is passed, let me point out to my right hon. Friend that until you get another Bill you must leave this Bill as it is. What, then, is the good of saying that the Bill is only to last during the War, or six months after the War. Let us suppose that it is carried with the Government Amendment. Suppose it happens after the War is over there is an election. On what register will it take place? Are you going to have it on the register of 1913?
§ Sir E. CARSON
Are you going to have it on that register? Is that the proposal of the right hon. Gentleman who moved this Amendment? Are you going to trust to the chance of there being a new register within six months after the War? If there is, of course you get rid of this Bill. But if there is not, you have nothing but this Bill. Therefore, what is the use of an Amendment limiting the time to the duration of the War? It simply leaves you where you were, and if there is an election when the War is over —in five years, or in whatever time it may be—you will have an election on the old register of 1913. I suggest the proper way is to pass the Bill without any limitation, and when Parliament has got the Report of the Committee, presided over by Mr. Speaker—if the Government are able to agree for once—then they can bring in this great change in the constitution and settle all questions regarding the franchise for the future. Then, and then alone, will be the time at which they can deal with this Bill, and substitute a fuller one for the one now before the House.
§ Mr. PRINGLE
I agree with nearly all the arguments in the speech made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman (Sir E. 1763 Carson), with the exception of the sentence with which he concluded. As I understand his argument, it is that this is a totally inadequate Bill. He feels as much contempt for it as he felt when the Debate on the Second Reading was proceeding—indeed, his feeling is aggravated and accentuated as the result of the ruling of Mr. Speaker to-day. During the Second Reading Debate the right hon. Gentleman imagined that it would be possible, by Instruction to the Committee, to make this a Bill enfranchising soldiers and sailors quâsoldiers and sailors. This afternoon we gathered that that is impossible—in other words, that under this Bill it will only be possible to enfranchise a certain number of soldiers and sailors, and that on a highly artificial basis. In spite of this new information, the right hon. and learned Gentleman advises the Government and the Committee to go on with the Bill. I should have thought that his reasoning was so conclusive as to drive him to an entirely different result and that he would have insisted here and now that the Government should withdraw this Bill and introduce another Bill with its Title so drawn that it would be impossible for the Committee itself, if the Government did not do so, to enfranchise all soldiers and sailors who are now fighting for us. That is the only conclusion to which we can come. The right hon. Gentleman has made some reference to the Conference which is at present sitting. As I understood what he said, he did not give a completely accurate account of the history of these proceedings. My recollection of what occurred is that in the summer the Government suggested to this House the appointment of a Select Committee to consider the narrow question of setting up a register for soldiers and sailors. The House, very mistakenly I believe, decided to have nothing to do with that proposal, very largely on account of the contemptuous speech made by the Home Secretary on that occasion. I regret that decision, because I believe that a Committee of this House would have been the best body to decide the question how to enfranchise soldiers and sailors. I believe that if that proposal had been adopted we should now have been in a fair way to settle the question and should actually have a register being prepared for the purpose of giving the vote to soldiers and sailors. That decision, however, was taken. The Government then produced 1764 this wholly inadequate Bill For reasons which it is very difficult to understand, an announcement was made on a totally irrelevant subject during the course of that Debate by the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board, who said that the Government suggested that a Conference should be held of men representing all points of view on the suffrage question to see whether a solution could not be found of the problem, not of enfranchising soldiers and sailors, but the whole problem of constitutional reform in regard to the suffrage. That is an entirely different subject. It does not seem to me that the labours of that Conference now sitting have any relevance to the question we are considering this afternoon. The question we have to consider this afternoon is simply and solely the narrow question whether this Bill aotually does what it purports to do—that is, give the franchise to the fighting men. Obviously, in its present terms, it does not. In the light of the ruling of Mr. Speaker, it is not capable of doing it. The Committee is incapable of so amending the Bill as to enable the suffrage to be granted to the fighting men. In these circumstances, is it worth our while going on? Surely the obvious course to take is to call upon the Government to withdraw the Bill and to introduce another Bill so drawn and with its Title sufficiently wide as to enable us to give the fighting men the vote, irrespective of whether they had any qualifications before or were in the course of obtaining a qualification. That is the logical course which I hope the Committee will adopt.
§ The CHAIRMAN
I think I must intervene here. I allowed this Amendment, a little out of place, for the convenience of the Committee, in the first instance in order to draw a statement from the Government as to the Amendment they had put down to Clause 3 dealing with the period of the duration of the Bill. We really must not depart from that into a general review of the Bill. May we not dispose of this Amendment now or confine the discussion directly to the period for which the Bill shall operate?
§ Mr. LOUGH
On a point of Order. May I remind you, Sir, that you allowed the general discussion, as I think, quite properly, to be introduced by the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board, and my right hon. and learned Friend (Sir E. Carson), and the ' hon. Member who has just sat down (Mr. 1765 Pringle) have also made some general remarks. May I, in these circumstances, ask you whether the Committee generally has not a right to continue, at any rate, for a moderate time, that general discussion, and whether it will not tend, on the whole, to the solution of this difficult question if we are allowed some facility for a general Debate such as was indicated by the right hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill?
§ Mr. LONG
On a point of Order. I submit to you, Sir, that I did not initiate a general discussion in the statement I made to the Committee. I sought to justify the attitude of the Government in regard to this Bill with respect to the Amendment which had been moved as to the duration of the Bill. I did not raise the general question then, as I thought it would be raised upon subsequent Amendment.
§ Mr. LOUGH
Before you rule upon the point, Sir, may I say that we all thought the object of the Bill was to enfranchise the soldiers and sailors. We find to-day that that subject is ruled out. We hardly know what the Bill is for. I would appeal to you as to whether it is not possible to let us have some general discussion in order to get the matter fairly before us.
§ Mr. PRINGLE
I beg to move "That the Chairman do report Progress and ask leave to sit again."
I make this Motion in order to regularise the discussion, and to obtain a decision from the Committee as to whether it desires to go on with the Bill.
§ The CHAIRMAN
I think the Committee might proceed with this Amendment. It certainly is not my intention to rule out other hon. Members from following anything that Has been said from the Government Bench. As often happens, this comes of opening the door too wide. I blame myself for the opening, but I am not going to visit that upon the Committee.
May I say, in support -of the Motion submitted by the hon. Member (Mr. Pringle), that this sort of impasse has been reached on many previous occasions and has been got out of by allowing the Committee to report Progress. The truth of the matter is that we came down here to-day prepared to discuss this Bill under an entirely erroneous impression. It was Only at the eleventh hour, 1766 by a ruling of Mr. Speaker, that the whole aspect of the Bill was changed in our opinion. Would it not be to the advantage of the Government, as well as that of the Committee, if the hon. Member were allowed to move to report Progress, so that difficulties could be cleared up, and then, when a decision is arrived at, we could revert to the Amendment?
§ Sir E. CARSON
May I make a suggestion to the Government? Would the Government tell us now, having regard to the ruling of Mr. Speaker to-day—which is, of course, directly contrary to the ruling he gave before and is made upon further consideration—whether they intend to bring in a Bill to give the vote to soldiers and sailors?
§ Sir E. CARSON
No, no! To enfranchise soldiers and sailors—the same matter that we were told by Mr. Speaker could be discussed and brought into this Bill if the Committee thought it desirable. If we could have an assurance that the Government would bring in such a Bill, we might then proceed with this Bill as being merely the registration part of a measure to be enacted for the franchise. If that is not done by the Government, we stand in an absolutely different position, as regards the whole merits of this question, from that in which we stood when the House rose for the Recess, and I certainly would agree, if it were moved, with the Motion to report Progress.
§ The CHAIRMAN
In the circumstances, I think I ought to do so. It is for the Committee to say whether it is prepared to go on with the consideration of the Bill.
§ Mr. PRINGLE
In the speech I have already made on the Amendment before the Committee, I did, in a general way, state the reasons why I wished to report Progress. When we gave a Second Beading to this Bill, we understood that it was a Bill under which the fighting men could be enfranchised. We have had a ruling this afternoon which proves that this is a Bill under which that cannot be done. In these circumstances, it is obviously wasting the time of the Committee to discuss the attempted Amendment here, and I therefore make my Motion:
§ Question proposed, "That the Chairman do report Progress, and ask leave to sit again."
§ Mr. R. MCNEILL
There is just one point I should like to mention with regard to the proposal which has been made by my right hon. and learned Friend (Sir E. Carson). It is generally admitted that we are in quite a different position from that in which we expected to be when we came down to the House this afternoon. So far as my recollection serves me, I think I am right in saying—I have not had an opportunity of looking it up—that upon one occasion the Prime Minister stated that the Bill would be drawn in such a way as to enable an Amendment or Instruction to be introduced so as to enfranchise soldiers and sailors, as it was very well known that there was a large body in the House and in the country more anxious about that point than any other change in the law. I feel certain that the Prime Minister and the Government have done their best to carry out that intention of the Prime Minister, because not only the Government, but Mr. Speaker himself, held the view, until recently, that the Bill was so drawn that we could have made such a proposal either by Instruction or Amendment. But owing, I suppose, to some mistake on the part of the draftsman, not only the Committee, but the Government themselves, are put in a false position. In these circumstances, seeing that we have had the promise made, and the Government, presumably, are therefore just as anxious as anybody else that such an Amendment should be debated, I think that adds very strongly to the grounds upon which my right hon. and learned Friend appealed to the Government to pledge themselves now —seeing that Mr. Speaker says that it cannot be done on this Bill—to bring in as soon as possible another Bill to enable that to be carried out.
Sir H. DALZIEL
I have come to the conclusion that the Government, in their own interest, can take no other course than to accept the Motion to report Progress. The position appears to be this, that if we proceed in the present circumstances we are going to fashion a measure—no doubt a very perfect one—with the knowledge of the time, which, in all probability will never be brought into effect at all. Then we have the other alternative that the Government are going to bring in a Bill which, I understand
1768 from the discussion, will allow soldiers and sailors to be brought within its provisions, and that if they do not undertake to do that they will bring in a Bill of the same character which will enable the House of Commons to exercise its will in regard to-that matter. In addition, we have a Conference sitting at the present time, nominated by Mr. Speaker, and in the course of time they will come to their conclusions-as to the lines upon which the House of Commons ought to proceed. In view of these possibilities, there ought to be time for the Committee to consider exactly where it stands, and more particularly time for the Government to make up their mind as to the general course of procedure they intend to adopt. The President of the Local Government Board is always a very fair-minded man, and I am sure he will agree that the House is placed rather at a disadvantage this afternoon, assembling, as it did, in the expectation that it would be possible to introduce the enfranchisement of soldiers and sailors, as we were led to believe. Therefore the whole situation from the House of Commons point of view is changed, and I think he himself will agree that the Government, in view of the altered condition of things, ought really to have an opportunity of considering what course they intend to ask the House to adopt. If they do not accept the Motion it seems to me that it will be to a large extent wasting the time of the House, whereas if they take time to review the new situation the possibilities are that something may emerge not only for the advantage of the Government but also for the further progress of the general idea we have in view. I, therefore, hope the Government will not go in the face of the House of Commons, but will accept the proposal of my hon. Friend.
§ Sir J. SIMON
I desire to add one other consideration in support of the Motion. If it be right—and I believe it to be the general opinion of the House of Commons that it is right—to make special provision to secure that the votes of those who are serving us in the field should be available, plainly that must be based on the ground that they are fighting, and not that they have in their past history happened to-satisfy some highly technical tests and conditions. That really, it seems to me, is the substance of the matter, and the moment, therefore, a Bill is brought forward which says it is only if they can satisfy these technical tests that they are 1769 going to be given the franchise, and that other people who are doing exactly the same kind of work cannot get those privileges because they do not satisfy those technical tests, the real substance which we were endeavouring to secure passes out of sight. I take the view that while there ought to be such facilities offered they ought not, by any means, to be limited to those who are serving the country in the field. I am quite unable to see why war workers should be limited to those who are risking their lives or working behind the line, whether it be in the Army or in the corresponding service of the Fleet. But be that as it may, whatever the right test may be, it cannot be that the right test is a purely technical test which distinguishes between two sets of people who on all grounds of substance stand in the same position.
§ Colonel CROFT
I should like to add my voice to those who have been urging this course upon the Government. As one who helped to move the Instruction to-day, it seems to me that the whole position has been changed. When this question was considered before I was in another place, and I only read the reports in the newspapers, but I believe the principal reason then why the Prime Minister was unable to proceed with this question was because, on the advice of his military advisers, he had been informed that there were difficulties. But this Bill gets rid of that. Sere we have the Government's own Bill proving that that ic no longer the contention, as they propose to enfranchise certain soldiers at present, so that the whole question from that point of view is altered, and I think the feeling of every party in the House, if we are making any alteration in the register at present and we do not include the fighting men, is unanimous that that is a thing which the whole country disapproves. Therefore, I hope the Government will not force us to divide upon this question, but will reconsider the whole matter in the light of these changed conditions, and will give some facility at an early date for those of all parties who desire to see the enfranchisement of the fighting men placed in the Bill, and desire to get rid of this difficulty which exists in the present measure.
§ Mr. GLYN-JONES
I, too, should like to urge the Government to accept this "Motion, and I should like to put another 'reason to the President of the Local Gov- 1770 ernment Board which I think will appeal to him. This Bill is going to put additonal work on local authorties, who are already doing special work for the Local Government Board in connection with the tribunals. That may be justified in order to carry out the provisions of the Bill that the House of Commons wants. But to create all this machinery now for a Bill which the right hon. Gentleman has been told from all quarters of the House no one wants in its present shape is, I think, a great mistake. May I indicate how the matter appears to me. What is the origin of the Bill? First of all, the fear, not the desire, less there should be a General Election during the War, and soldiers and sailors and others not be able to vote. This Bill, as it stands, does not touch this difficulty. Ostensibly it is only a Bill to deal with an election arising during the War. If that be so, we are now clearly showing that we cannot by means of this Bill carry out the only object for which such a Bill was justified. I believe the borough councils and the local authorities throughout the country, who are already not only carrying on their own work with a shortened staff, but are carrying on the additional work of the local tribunals, would even be prepared to face all this tremendous addition to their work which would be cast upon them by preparing this register if it was to secure that soldiers and sailors might vote, but if it is not going to do that I hope the President of the Local Government Board will not be a party to enforcing this upon them for the purposes of this Bill. Is it not clear that since the Second Beading the whole position has been changed by the fact that we have now got a Committee which has the extraordinary advantage of having as its chairman the Speaker of this House, and whose object is to provide a way for dealing with this very evil, and with the other evils which cannot be touched in this Bill, and I should hope the right hon. Gentleman would be willing to say that that Committee might be given a few weeks in order to see whether they cannot come with some proposal which can be embodied in a Government Bill, and to scrap this Bill, which nobody wants and which everybody admits will not be effective for its purpose, and will be extremely costly. For these reasons I hope the right hon. Gentleman will not make the House take up its time now by going through all these Amendments, As he goes through them 1771 he will find that these points have to be emphasised on every one of them. They all show the same weakness.
§ Sir E. CARSON
I desire to repeat the question I put to my right hon. Friend as to whether, having regard to the ruling of Mr. Speaker to-day, the Government are prepared to put us in the same position we were in before by bringing in a Bill on which we can raise the question whether soldiers and sailors should have votes by reason of their service—to put us in the same position as we were in until the ruling of Mr. Speaker, and in exactly the same position as we thought we were in when we assembled here to-day. If my right hon. Friend is not prepared at the moment to answer that question—and it is not unreasonable that he should not be prepared, as it is a matter which requires consideration—the only way out of the difficulty is to report Progress, and, unless my right hon. Friend can give us an assurance that we shall be in the same position as we were in before by the introduction of such a measure, I shall certainly vote in favour of the Motion.
§ Mr. ROWLANDS
I sincerely trust that the President of the Local Government Board will listen to what is the evident desire of the House, and accept the Motion. I can assure him that those who have looked very fully into the composition of this Bill are not quite so enamoured of it as he is himself, even from the point of view of facilitating an easy and speedy way of registration. I believe the real value of the Bill was better expressed on the Second Reading by the Prime Minister than it was by the President of the Local Government Board. We are asking how far we are to have the power of enfranchising soldiers and sailors who are not at present on the register. This cannot be done by the ruling of Mr. Speaker on this Bill; but do not forget that in Clause 2 you are already widening the scope with regard to a section of the soldiers and also the munition workers. Having broken down the barriers so far as the existing law is concerned, you are going without any qualification to place on the register that you are proposing to bring into existence any soldiers or sailors or munition workers who may be on the existing register of 1914. I want to emphasise the point put by my hon. Friend (Mr. Glyn-Jones) as to the work you are throwing on the local authorities 1772 with their depleted staffs, in addition to ail the extra work which they are doing in a noble and heroic manner. I have discussed this point with some clerks of large urban councils and other authorities, and they simply shudder at the idea of the work you are going to throw on them under this Bill, with an already depleted staff and with the incompetent people with whom they will have to fill their staff up, not because they have not ability, but because they have not the experience of years which is necessary to do this work. I, therefore, sincerely trust that the Government will accept this Motion, and then consider whether they cannot bring in a Bill of a wide and comprehensive character. The authorities of the Local Government Board, if they give their minds to it, can also simplify to a material extent the carrying out of registration other than on the lines of this Bill.
§ Mr. EVELYN CECIL
I hope the Government will not hesitate to accept the Motion. I came here this afternoon fully intending to support the proposal that our soldiers and sailors should be given votes by virtue of their service abroad, and that would have been possible had the Speaker given a different ruling. The fact that Mr. Speaker has given the ruling that he has changes the whole situation, and almost every Member who has spoken has recognised the position we are now faced with as fundamentally different from what it was at the time of the Second Reading. I am most anxious to see the franchise extended in such a way as my right hon. Friend (Sir E. Carson) has indicated, and I trust, therefore, that the Government will give us an opportunity of registering our conviction in that respect by accepting the Motion and undertaking to bring in a Bill which will give effect to our wishes.
§ The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Asquith)
I am sorry that, through the pressure of other duties, I have not been able to be present during this discussion. I understand that a difficulty has arisen upon the ruling that the question of what is called the soldiers' vote cannot be raised under this Clause or under any Clause of the Bill in Committee. I wish to make it clear if I can—. and I am only repeating what was said by my Noble Friend (Lord Lansdowne) in another place a few weeks ago—that so far as the Government are concerned, they 1773 are most anxious to devise a means, if means can. be found, to enable not only soldiers and sailors, but munition workers, who are equally important, to take a part, and an active part—active in the sense of recording their votes—in any election which has to take place during the abnormal conditions which the War has produced. I quite agree with those who think that an election on a register from which these men who are serving their country in the different theatres of war, and from which munition workers, who have left their homes and are serving us equally effectively, are excluded—any election in which they were excluded from voting would not be, and could not be, regarded as a fair reflection of the opinion of the country. It is said, and said with a good deal of truth, that the only people who would be allowed to record their votes under those circumstances are the people who are not taking an active part in the prosecution of the War. I am quite satisfied that the country would not regard, and the world would not regard, an election held upon a register like that as an accurate or adequate reflection of the opinions of the British people as a whole.
It is a practical problem, and a problem which the Government are most anxious to solve, that all soldiers and sailors and munition workers who would be qualified, if they were not doing what they are doing, should have the opportunity in one way or another of recording their votes. That is our intention, but it has been ruled outside the scope of this Bill. Therefore no Amendment of this Bill could bring about that result. On the last occasion, in reply to my right hon. Friend (Sir E. Carson) when we were discussing this matter, and when he called attention to certain conditions under which munition workers and others, returned soldiers and so on, would be able to record their votes, I promised that by an amendment of the Ballot Act we would make provision for those cases. We are not only in that mind, but we are anxious that in that Bill, which we propose to introduce, also to make provision which will enable all our soldiers, sailors, and munition workers, who are qualified, to record their votes. Now I understand—I do not know whether I am accurate—that my right hon. Friend (Sir E. Carson) wishes, to raise a rather larger point, namely, the point that all soldiers—[HON. MEMBERS: " Hear, hear!"] —serving at the front, or serving any- 1774 where in the various theatres of the War, should be enfranchised. Am I right in that?
§ Sir E. CARSON
It is not easy to say in a word. If the right hon. Gentleman likes, I will speak now. The way the matter stands is that when it was before the House on the Second Reading of this Bill, on my application as to whether this question not merely for the exercising of the franchise, but of the enfranchisement of all soldiers and sailors—which, of course, is quite a different subject—could be raised, Mr. Speaker ruled that that could be raised as an Instruction on this Bill. Mr. Speaker ruled that last August. I myself previous to that had put a question to the Prime Minister, asking whether the title of the Bill would be such as would enable that to be done. I understood him to say that it would. That was subject to the ruling of Mr. Speaker.
§ Sir E. CARSON
By the ruling to-day, that opportunity is taken away. My suggestion before the Prime Minister came in was that, to put us in the same position, he ought to bring in a Bill, or propose a Clause or Clauses in the Bill that he intends to introduce, upon which we could raise and discuss that question. Then this would be merely the Registration Bill for people who were so enfranchised. The Prime Minister puts a direct question to me as to whether I wish to raise that question. I would point out that a Motion is down in the name of a number of my Friends, among whom is the hon. and gallant Member for Christ-church (Colonel Croft). I know that there is on this side of the House a very large number of Members, and I imagine on the other side also—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear"]—who wish to have this question decided. All we are making is really a very moderate demand, namely, that we shall be put in the same position as we would have been if Mr. Speaker's ruling to-day had been the same as it was in August last.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
I am much obliged to my right hon. Friend, and I assure him that we are most anxious to get a decision of the House on that point. 1775 The question is, what is the best way of doing it? There are two ways of doing it, quite apart from this particular Bill. I should be quite ready to do it on a Motion raising the direct issue. That is one way. Another way of doing it would be that the Bill we are pledged to introduce, which is to amend the Ballot Act, should be so framed that the question as to the qualification of persons serving the Crown in the Army, the Navy, or otherwise, should be within the scope and title of that Bill. In one way or the other the issue might be brought directly to a decision. I do not know which of these suggestions commends itself more to my right hon. and learned Friend, but I hope one or other of them will commend itself to him, and I am quite prepared to adopt it. I will leave that to my right hon. Friend and those who advise him.
§ Mr. RAWLINSON
Would not a Bill for the express purpose be more convenient? So many technicalities may arise with regard to soldiers and sailors as such. Those were the words used in the August discussion. Would it not be simpler to have a Bill for the express purpose?
§ The PRIME MINISTER
I do not care which way it is done. I would leave that rather to be suggested by my right hon. Friend and those who advise him. In one way or the other the issue ought to be raised and decided by the House of Commons. There we are quite agreed. Of course, there may be differences in regard to the universal qualification of soldiers and sailors, but with regard to the question whether or not soldiers, sailors, and munition workers who would be qualified to vote if they were not doing what they are doing should be allowed to vote there is no difference of opinion whatever.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
Yes, anywhere. If my right hon. Friend, after consultation, or at once, would suggest to us which of these courses he thinks the more desirable, the Government are quite prepared to fall in with his suggestion. In the meantime, there does not seem any reason why we should not go on with this Bill. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] This is a question of machinery.
§ Sir E. CARSON
For my own part I would prefer a Bill. That really is proper 1776 business. May I say as regards going on with this Bill meanwhile that I think that is almost impossible. There is an attempt in this Bill to set up particular qualifications for soldiers and sailors, and what are called war workers. That is in Clause 2. I think one of the great advantages of enfranchising soldiers and sailors would be that you would not want this qualification in Clause 2 at all. I do not see how we can discuss this Clause of the Bill— and I do not know how far the other Clauses may relate to that also—until we know whether, without this qualification at all, they are to be enfranchised. Therefore, I think, until we see the other Bill, there is very little use going on with this Bill.
§ Sir E. CARSON
They are all mixed up together. The Prime Minister misunderstood me. I know that they stand on quite a different footing. I have always said so myself, but you cannot go on with Clause 2 without eliminating all about soldiers and sailors, and you want to know how they stand before you can go further.
§ Sir J. SIMON
I did not catch quite clearly what the Prime Minister said, but I did not understand him to concede that war workers stand in a different position from soldiers and sailors in this matter, because that would be quite contrary to what I understood the Prime Minister to say on the Second Beading of this Bill.
§ Sir J. SIMON
Then they stand, in his view, in the same position. As they stand in the same position it is surely quite plain that we cannot go on with a Bill which proposes to make a specal register of people until we have some idea who the people are and how you define them. It seems to me quite impossible that we should say at what date the register is to be made up and at what date it is to begin to be operative when we do not know what are the conditions which are to be satisfied and who are the people to be put on the register. Therefore it seems to me that the Motion must be accepted.
§ Mr. LOUGH
I would like to appeal to the Prime Minister, who has not been here all the time, to realise the great difficulties in which we are placed if we attempt to 1777 proceed with this Bill. Take as an illustration the Amendment proposed by my right lion. Friend the Member for St. Pancras (Mr. Dickinson). Naturally I would like to support that Amendment, and especially seeing that an Amendment was put down this morning by the Government, practically accepting this principle. We are put in an extraordinary difficulty. It is generally understood that there is not to be an election during the War. The Amendment provides that at the close of the War this register ceases to be of any use or within six months after the War. The register which we are going to prepare, if we proceed with this Bill, goes out of existence at the very moment when it is possible it may be wanted. That is one of the difficulties with which we are faced. The whole position has changed since this Bill was drawn. This is a Special Register Bill, which was prepared before any Committee was set up to consider this subject. Since then a Committee has been set up, and I would suggest that the course might be taken of asking that Committee to make some recommendation with regard to this matter. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, oh!"] Why not? They might be able to grapple with the subject. At any rate, if the Government are not able to grapple with it without being advised by somebody, there is the Committee whose advice they can get. On every question, if we go on this afternoon, the same difficulty exists. The hon. Member who moved this Motion said that this was a Bill to enfranchise soldiers. I do not find that in the Bill at all. There is a sort of side attempt in Clause 2 to enable soldiers who have qualified before to exercise the vote, but it does not do anything for the soldier as such nor for the war worker. Then the Prime Minister asked, a moment ago, about the position of the war worker. This is the position with regard to Clause 2: Though he is given the qualification he is not given the power to vote. Nothing is done to enable the soldier in France or the war worker at Gretna who may happen to live in my Constituency to Tote. It is a perfect farce to try to put that into a Franchise Bill without dealing -with the greater subject. Therefore I appeal to my right hon. Friend, in view of the unanimous opinion of everybody who has spoken, to let us have a little further time for consideration.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
I cannot accept the statement that this does not 1778 effect a very large enfranchisement of soldiers and sailors and war workers generally.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
I express my opinion for whatever it is worth—I am sorry that it does not agree with that ot my right hon. Friend—that this Bill does in fact effect a very large enfranchisement of those in whom we are particularly interested, because they are doing our war work in the field or in the factory. Therefore I cannot for a moment agree that the Bill as it stands would not have that effect. But in view of all that has been said and the importance of the perhaps rather unexpected ruling which we have had from the Chair, I agree that it is desirable that we should bring this question of qualification to a distinct issue, and I shall be quite prepared to accept the Motion which has been made to report Progress with a view of devising, as I hope, in consultation with those opposite, the best and most effective means of bringing the exact point to an issue before we proceed with the mechanical part of the work which is now before the House.
§ Colonel CROFT
Before the House ceases to consider this question, may I ask that the question may be kept free from all confusing and conflicting issues? The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Walthamstow just now introduced one of those confusing and conflicting issues when he asked, in his usual manner, whether this question would not include wide sections of the public. I believe that the idea of this House is that it desires to see every man who has been on active service and who has risked his life for his country empowered to vote owing to the fact that he has been fighting for the country and saved it from disaster. When the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Walthamstow put in his aside he knew perfectly well that he was immediately raising all those contentious questions which it is hoped to settle elsewhere —questions of universal suffrage, women's suffrage, and other questions. I believe that the spirit of this House is to give as a gift to the fighting men of the British Empire this full right of citizenship, because these men have saved this British Empire at this time. I believe that I am speaking on behalf of ninety-nine Members out of every hundred. [Hon. MEM- 1779 BERS: "No!"] I could not hope to convert the hon. Member opposite (Mr. D. Mason) to the view that—
§ The CHAIRMAN
This is leading up to a Debate on a Bill which is not before the House. The Motion before the Chair is to report Progress.
§ Colonel CROFT
I would not like to infringe your ruling in any direction, but it occurred to me, as the Prime Minister had come in late and had not heard all the arguments, that after the appeal of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Walthamstow, which is an impossible appeal, because if you are going to enfranchise— [Hoy. MEMBERS: "Order, order! "] The House will pardon me for giving my reasons, but it is perfectly obvious that that would raise tremendous issues and there would be no chance of settlement. I am expressing my opinion when I say that ninety-nine Members out of a hundred would desire that the fighting* men should be included in the franchise.
§ Colonel Sir C. SEELY
I should like to express the hope that the result of this Motion to report Progress will not be to put back for a long time the provision of a new register. As I have had to deal quite recently with the register, I am aware that there is a very strong feeling in the country as to the present position of the register and the number of men who ought to be on and are now off. The register of 1914 has been mentioned, but the existing register is the one for 1913, because though the one for 1914 was prepared, it was never passed by the revising barrister. Therefore I would impress on the President of the Local Government Board and on the Government that they do not let the result of this Motion, if it is carried, have the effect of there being no new register prepared because all these other questions are brought forward.
§ Sir J. SIMON
I would ask the Prime Minister one question. When the Motion to report Progress was about to be accepted, he intimated to the right hon. and learned Gentleman opposite that he would consult him and confer with him, and as far as might be arranged with him what should be the terms of the Motion to be brought forward. I would ask him if he would not also take the trouble to ascertain the views of some others?
§ Mr. PRINGLE
As we understand the matter, it was not simply as to the terms of the Motion that the Prime Minister was to consult the right hon. and learned Gentleman; it was as to the terms of the general policy; and I think it is only fair to say that in the view of a large number of us who have taken this course this afternoon, who are anxious that the question of the soldiers' and sailors' vote should be settled in a single Bill, if you are going to proceed by way of Clause 2, and then by a second Bill, you will have double machinery for achieving a single object, and you will be casting a heavy burden on the local authorities. Obviously, if you have a single Bill for the purpose of enfranchising soldiers and sailors, qua soldiers and sailors, you will get rid of the difficulties of registration machinery.
§ Question, "That the Chairman do report Progress, and ask leave to sit again," put, and agreed to.
§ Committee report Progress; to sit again upon Tuesday next.