HC Deb 21 November 1917 vol 99 cc1295-302

The foregoing provisions of this Part of this Act shall not apply to university constituencies, but the governing body of every university forming, or forming part of, a university constituency shall cause a register to be kept in such form as they may direct of persons entitled to vote in respect of a qualification at their university, and shall make the register available for the purpose of university elections for the constituency: Provided that the governing body may direct that a person who before the passing of this Act has received a degree, but was not entitled to vote in respect thereof, shall have no right to be registered unless he makes a claim for the purpose.

The governing body of any such university may charge such fee as they think fit, not exceeding one pound, for registration to any person who receives a degree at their university after the passing of this Act.


I beg to move, to leave out the words, "or forming part of."

I move this Amendment with the idea of a joint register for the universities which are grouped in the Schedule—the University of Durham, the Victoria University, Manchester, the University of Wales, the University of Liverpool, the University of Leeds, the University of Sheffield, the University of Birmingham, and the University of Bristol. As the Bill stands, and as I read it, there is no provision to form a joint register of these universities, which are spread over a great part of England and Wales. Many of these universities are at the present time in the habit of co-operating in the work of matriculation examinations; they act together in setting the examination papers, and the examinations are conducted in a joint manner. It is thought by the University of Manchester that it would be very desirable that a joint register should be formed so that when the time of election comes that joint register shall be in the hands of those who are interested in the university election. It is from that point of view simply that I put down this Amendment, and I have a subsequent consequential Amendment on the Paper. It may be stated that the whole of the purposes provided for by paragraph (5) of the Sixth Schedule, but the matter is one we want to be very clear about, and is one of considerable importance in this case, where the new universities have not, so far, had the opportunity or privilege of forming a register for a university election. These grouped universities stretch over a wide geographical area, ranging from Durham to Bristol, and their position, therefore, is different from that of the Scottish grouped Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and St. Andrews, and is one which requires consideration.


I beg to second the Amendment.


May I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman has had any representations from the other grouped universities, such as the Scottish universities? I have no special opinions as regards this matter, but the effect of the Amendment seems to me to be that there would have to be a joint register in which all the grouped universities would co-operate. There is no reason why they should not do these things along those lines at present, but the Amendment proposes to make it mandatory. I suggest that this important step ought not to be made mandatory until the universities have been communicated with and have expressed their views to that effect. If that opinion has not been received perhaps the right hon. Gentleman between now and the time when the Bill is in another place would take the opportunity of communicating with the universities on the subject.


It is no doubt necessary to supply these grouped universities with some efficient and proper machinery for carrying out the registration of voters and giving those voters the opportunity to exercise the franchise. I think that my hon. Friend would be tying the hands of the universities far too much if we were by this Amendment to make the matter mandatory before the universities had the opportunity of considering the position as to forming one joint register. The fifth paragraph of the Sixth Schedule says: In order to provide for election and voting in any university constituencies constituted under this Act where the election and voting in the constituency are not regulated under existing Acts, the Local Government Board shall apply thereto such provisions of any existing Acts relating to elections and voting at any university constituency in Great Britain as appear to the Board expedient for the purpose with such modifications as seem necessary. The matter is regulated in Scottish' universities under existing Acts. It would be for the Local Government Board to adapt such Acts and to take such portions of the Acts as are applicable to the new universities and to apply them, as far as they would apply, to the new universities. We have an analogous case in the group system of Scottish universities, which may afford us very profitable examples as regards the particular kinds of machinery that can be best introduced in the case of these universities. I can assure hon. Gentlemen we will most gladly receive any information which they may wish to place at our disposal or any hints as to the best possible machinery by which the newly enfranchised electors shall be best able to exercise their votes. I think this Amendment would compel us to adopt one particular system, and that it would be far better to leave the elasticity which is allowed by the paragraph of the Sixth Schedule.


May I ask whether the Local Government Board under that paragraph 5 would, in fact, communicate with the universities in any proposals. which they were considering, so that those universities might have the opportunity of putting their opinions before the Board before anything of a mandatory character was arranged?


Yes, certainly; just as we have communicated, and are still in com- munication with, the ancient universities, so undoubtedly we will communicate with these newer universities and listen very carefully to any representations they may have to make.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


I beg to move, at the end of the Clause, to insert the words "or who has received a degree before the passing of this Act but was not entitled to vote in respect thereof."

The object of the Amendment is in connection with the method of maintaining the Parliamentary register in the universities. In an ordinary constituency the cost of doing so to a considerable extent comes from the public funds, but the universities have to pay their own expenses. This Clause enables the university to charge £1 for registration to any person who receives a degree at the unversity after the passing of this Bill. In the first four or five years this Clause will be absolutely inoperative because, as we all know, the youth of the country who would ordinarily be at the universities are now in the Army. There will be no new candidates to be registered for some four years after the termination of the War. The great trouble will come with the registering of graduates in the older universities who have not hitherto taken the trouble to keep up their connection with the university. This will be a difficult matter. Unless it is possible to charge a registration fee for them, as well as for the new graduates of the future, the educational funds of the university will have to be applied for this purpose. I am convinced that nobody in the House desires that. I may also say that in my opinion it would be a hardship and a grievance, and the graduates of the future would consider that they had had to pay for the registration of past graduates who have not kept up their connection. On that ground also, even if a practical reason did not exist, I think the Amendment which authorises a fee for the graduates of the past, who have not hitherto been registered, should be imposed.


I beg to second the Amendment. The object of it is to impose a fee, chargeable for registration, and applied to anybody who seeks to be on the register after the Bill becomes law.


A good case has been made out for this Amendment. It is true that for some years to come, in consequence of the war conditions, there will be very few receipts from new graduates. Some fund must be provided. It it is not unreasonable that a fee should be charged to those who are already graduates and who for the first time become electors. Why, it may be asked, authorise so large a fee as £1 for these new electors? The Bill provides that the fee shall not exceed £1, and I have no doubt the universities will be reasonable in the matter, and make only such a charge as is necessary in order to meet their registration expenses.


I am very sorry that the Home Secretary has accepted this Amendment. I always viewed the Amendment put in on Committee stage with very serious objections. Why should we put a financial difficulty in the way of any graduate of a university becoming an elector of the university? We have put the cost of preparing the other registers upon the State. I do not see why the cost of preparing the register in the universities should not also be a State charge. It is part and parcel of the same matter. In this case, just at the very moment when we want to enlarge the electorate of the universities, because the electorates of the universities are far too small at the present time, and when the whole idea of this Bill is to enlarge such electorates as to get a great volume of educational thought exercising its power in the State through this matter of university representation, the universities step in and put what is undoubtedly a definite obstacle in the way of people getting the vote. There are many people who would not care to spend £1. There are many graduates who could not afford to spend it. We are reducing the value of what may be called the educational vote in this country by putting on this particular fee. I would rather the Home Secretary had taken the matter up really seriously and agreed that the State should bear the cost. It cannot be a large cost, for the expenses of the registration officer are borne, half by the State and half by the local authority. The same, I should have thought, might have been done in regard to the university vote. I regret very much that the Home Secretary has thought fit to put this difficulty in the way of certain persons.


Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether or not it will be open for a candidate to pay this fee? If so, I imagine it will be a very objectionable thing. Is it to be legal for the candidates to pay? Is there anything in the law which makes it legal or illegal for a candidate to do so? I certainly am not aware that the Corrupt Practices Act applies to university elections. This is a new matter.


For sixty years in the University of London a fee of £1 has been charged for registration.


That is not the point. Can the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member tell me whether it is legal for a candidate to pay the fee necessary to get a graduate upon the register? If it is legal I shall be glad to be referred to the law, which makes it legal.


In reply to the observations of the hon. and learned Member for Cork, may I say that the Corrupt Practices Act does apply to university elections, and unquestionably for any candidate to pay, or offer to pay, the registration fee of an elector would be a corrupt practice.


Under what Section?


I have not got. the Section here. I was not prepared for such objection being made, but I can assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that, at any rate, it would be a corrupt practice under the Act. One must recollect that the older universities were under their charters, in the position of ancient corporations, and it was only the corporations who originally elected Members to represent them in this House. Under the Reform Act of 1832 and subsequent Acts the right of voting was extended to those who took the higher degrees, and the universities are entitled to charge fees, and do charge fees for the higher degrees which cover the registration expenses. In the Scottish universities under the Scottish Universities Representation Act they are entitled to charge a fee of £1 for every person on the register who is a graduate in a Scottish university, and becomes entitled to vote.

Now, the object of this Amendment is to place the English universities and the University of Dublin in the same position, that a fee not exceeding £1 shall be charged for registration Under the ancient charters of Oxford, Cambridge, and Dublin, if I recollect the words, they were that the universities should, at their own expense, return to this House two members of their own body to represent them. That expense, ever since the reign of James I., has aways fallen upon the universities, and the universities have no desire whatever to be relieved of that obligation. They consider it a very great privilege and a very great honour to be represented in this House, and they are quite prepared that the electorate should bear the expense of the registration. Now the register to be brought into being under this Act will be a very expensive register. At present we have in Oxford something like 7,000 or 8,000 voters; in Cambridge perhaps about 6,000 voters; and in Dublin between 4,000 and 5,000 voters. The expense of keeping up the register was met by placing it, on the taking of the higher degrees. Under the present Bill everyone who gets an Arts Degree, or any other degree, will be entitled to vote. How is the expense of keeping up the register to be borne? It is anticipated that in Dublin there will be between 14,000 and 15,000 voters, in Cambridge a larger number, and in Oxford something like 18,000 voters. It will be very difficult to keep a perfect register, and there are not funds in the hands of the universities which will enable them to do so.

Everyone knows that the pressure of the War has very deeply struck at the universities. As the hon. Member for Cambridge has pointed out, for several years to come there will be no graduates. Everyone who has been to Oxford or Cambridge knows that the courts are absolutely empty. The same with the University of Dublin. I attended service in the chapel there last week. There were twenty young fellows there instead of several hundreds, and those twenty, the moment they obtain military age, will be passing out. How are we to meet the expense of preparing these registers? Is it not reasonable that gentlemen who have taken their degrees—and ladies, too, who have taken their degrees—should have this great privilege, which in former times cost anything from about £12 to £15 to get on the register They now are entitled to get on by merely paying £1 for the purpose of preserving their vote not annually, but for all time for as long as they live. Once you get on the university register you remain there for the rest of your natural life. I do not think that is a heavy tax. I am sure that nearly every member of the university who wishes to vote—I think nearly all of them will vote—will be very glad to meet this small sum of £1, not only to obtain the great privilege of taking a more active part in the legislation of the country and the representation in this House of the university to which they are all so loyal, but also to have the honour of appearing on the register which has been created in this great time of war, and in this time of difficulty and stress, to help to create a fund which will in the future meet the expense of keeping this register in order.

Amendment agreed to.