§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ The CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER (Mr. Bonar Law)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a second time."
As the matter now stands, unless fresh legislation is carried, the present Parliament will come to an end on the last day of this month. In the present circumstances, I should be surprised if there is any single Member of this House who would not think it a misfortune to contemplate the idea of an election between now and the end of July. It seems to me, therefore, the only question is a question as to the length of time to which this new Parliament should extend. This Bill is in identical terms with other measures of the same kind which have been introduced. It is the fifth Bill and, if it becomes law, the present Parliament will have the right to continue until the end of January next year. That is to say, its life will then have consisted of eight full years. It is quite unnecessary for me to dwell on the considerations which come to all our minds in connection with this matter. Everyone knows, on the one hand, and feels how serious—and, if it is to be avoided, how undesirable—it is that at a time such as we are now going through, the energy of the nation should be directed to what might he more or less political objects. On the other hand, we cannot 67 disguise from ourselves that the longer the period continues beyond the ordinary life of a Parliament the further the Members are removed from the source of power which alone justifies them in speaking in this House. But hitherto it has also been true that, owing to the fact that the register was not continued, the lapse of time made it increasingly difficult by any means to obtain a correct view of the feeling of this country. The Bill I now propose to ask the House to read a second time will, as I say, make it possible for Parliament to continue till the end of January. Of course that does not mean that it must necessarily continue for that length of time. But this, I am sure, will be present to the mind of every Member of the House. It is a very invidious thing for anybody to prolong its own life. The Members of the House of Commons must feel that, and must therefore desire that the period should be of such a kind that there could be no suggestion that we are acting in our own interests in this matter.
But there is more than that involved. After all, the House of Commons has the power at any time to terminate the existence of Parliament, but we ought not to be entirely judges in our own case, and it is for that reason that it must always be considered that, in asking the House of Commons to agree to a Bill extending its life, the period should be limited. On this occasion the period which I ask the House of Commons to agree to is six months. It is the shortest, I think, which has appeared in any of the previous Bills of this kind, and I feel sure that it will commend itself to the House as in all the circumstances reasonable. The House will understand that, in making this proposal, the Government are not in any way prejudging any question which may be involved by the passing of this Bill. We have never considered as a Government—and we are unlikely to consider it—whether or not an election might or might not be desirable. That must depend on circumstances beyond the control of the Government. All we are doing now is to ask the House to assent to the continuance of this Parliament for a further period, and the period which I suggest, and which I hope will meet with the approval of the House, is six months.
§ Mr. ASQUITH
I only wish to say, in a sentence, that I think the course the Government has taken in introducing 68 the Bill is absolutely necessary. This Parliament was elected under the Septennial Act, and its term of existence, therefore, if not previously interrupted by the vicissitudes of political life, would have come to an end in January of the present year. This Parliament, which was elected for seven years, by an act of rare self-sacrifice, determined prematurely to terminate it at the end of five years. That would have happened naturally, no doubt, but for the War. The five years expired a long time ago. We, therefore, from time to time had these temporary extensions of the prolongation of our life, and this, I imagine, must be very nearly the last time. At any rate, the effect of this will be that Parliament will have exceeded by only one year the term fixed by the Septennial Act. That, of course, is open to the obvious objection to which my right hon. Friend has alluded. It may be said that it has exceeded its mandate, and is no longer in contact with the electorate, and that it is devoid of the authority which, under our Constitution, every House of Commons ought from time to time to have renewed. The answer to all that is the exigencies of the War. We are not our own masters in the matter. We are driven by the force of circumstances to a course which is repugnant to all of us; but in the circumstances I think His Majesty's Government has taken the only course open to it, and I hope it will be unanimously accepted.
§ Mr. PRINGLE
I do not desire to eriticise the attitude taken up by either of the right hon. Gentlemen. I think, under present conditions, an extension of the life of Parliament is inevitable. At the same time, I think most people will now regret that the course was originally taken of extending the life of Parliament and of suspending registration. There is, however, one part of the Bill which is now before the House to which neither right hon. Gentleman made any reference, and that is the second Clause. Listening to the speech of the Leader of the House, one would have thought that this Bill had no effect on local elections at all. Now, the second Clause suspends local elections for a further year, and thereby extends the tenure of office of all the members of these local authorities by about a year. It has been indicated in both speeches that this is probably the last extension of the life of this Parliament. Consequently, we may take it for certain that this Parliament will either expire on 31st January 69 or in the month or two immediately preceding that date. If that be so, why should not a similar provision apply to the local authorities? If it is going to be possible to go through all the machinery of an election in the month of January at the latest for the purposes of this Parliament, why should it not be possible in the month of November, when the register is ready, to allow all the local authorities—certainly the municipal authorities—to have their members re-elected?
I think the considerations which make it undesirable that this House should continue further apply with equal force to the local authorities. Not only have these local authorities the ordinary duties which fall to them in time of peace, but other functions have been devolved upon them in the course of the War, and you have this situation, that those very difficult and delicate functions are now being discharged by local authorities who have no representative character whatever, and who have no contact with the people whose administration their daily life constantly affects. I think, in view of the new situation indicated by the speech of the Leader of the House, that this House has no right for a further year to suspend local elections. I know that in many parts of the country there is a considerable feeling as to the desirability of fresh elections for all these local authorities. I wish to put it to the Leader of the House and to the Government that it is desirable to reconsider this matter. Certainly, when the Bill goes into Committee, I shall feel it my duty to move the rejection of this Clause, and to take a Division upon it, so that the feeling of the House may be tested. In the meantime I enter this caveat, and make an appeal to the Government in the hope that they will reconsider this important subject.
§ Mr. GILBERT
I do not rise for the purpose of opposing the Second Heading of this Bill, but in view of questions which were asked to-day, and in view of the knowledge some of us have of the way in which the new register has been prepared, and as I see the name of my right hon. Friend the President of the Local Government Board on the back of the Bill, I hope I shall not be out of order in asking him if he can give the House and the country some information as to what the Local Government Board propose to do as regards preparing a register if this Bill is carried, and the election is put off till next January. The qualifying 70 time for the present register was April last. If this Bill is carried, and the election is put off till next January, the qualifying time in the Representation of the People Bill will be October next. I do not want to labour the point, because the question was put to the right hon. Gentleman to-day by my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries, but I think it is current knowledge, particularly at any rate in London, that a great many people have been left off the first register. I think it would be very helpful if the President of the Local Government Board would tell us if he proposes that between then and January the second register shall be prepared, and, if that is to be the position of the Local Government Board, can he give the House any information as to whether it will adopt a better method in preparing a second register to that in which the first has been prepared?
He must know from information he has received that there is a great deal of dissatisfaction with the way the register has been prepared, especially in London—I have only the right to speak for London. I would, therefore, respectfully suggest to him, and the Government, that if a second register is to be prepared, we should have some undertaking from the Government that they will make the rules for local registration officers much more stringent than the rules they have already put out, so that the house-to-house canvass which was promised when the Representation of the People Bill was before the House may be carried out. Those of us who take an interest in the matter understood that it was to be an effective house-to-house canvass, not to be simply a calling at the house and leaving forms for the people to fill up and send back. If the President of the Local Government Board will undertake that on the second register an effective house-to-house canvass shall be made in order to get everybody on the register who is entitled to be there, and in order that the people who should have been on the first register and were left off, put on, this would prove a very great source of satisfaction to the new electors.
The second point I have been asked to put to the House on this Bill I do at the request of the London County Council, of which I am a member, and in the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for South Paddington, who generally puts the case for the county council before this House. 71 It refers to a matter which somewhat differs from that in the speech to which we have just listened from my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Lanarkshire. When the county council knew that this Bill was going to be brought in they held a meeting last week of the local government committee, which deals with these matters. This meeting was held on Friday. The local government committee passed several resolutions, which I will read—(a) That, inasmuch as the Representation of the People Act, 1018, makes no special provision for enabling persons on war service or absent on war work to be registered as local government electors, or to vote at elections of local government authorities, and as there would be serious practical difficulties under prevailing conditions in holding such elections, and of inducing suitable persons to stand as candidates therefor, the County Council is of opinion that the statutory elections of county councillors and guardians due in March and April, 1919, respectively, should be further postponed for a year.(b) That the foregoing Resolution (a) be sent to the Local Government Board.(c) That the Parliamentary Committee be instructed to seek an Amendment of the Parliament and Local Elections Bill, 1918, to provide that the next statutory elections of county councillors and guardians in England and Wales, due in March and April, 1919, respectively, should be further postponed for a year.The London County Council does not meet until to-morrow, so that these resolutions which I have read will technically not be effective resolutions, seeing they will not be carried till to-morrow. But there has been a meeting to-day of the general purposes committee, which is one of the largest committees of the council, and they have unanimously adopted the resolutions, which, again, were unanimously adopted last Friday by the local government committee. The reason the county council put forward these resolutions is because of Clause 2, Sub-section (2), of the Bill. Here is a special proviso which says:This proviso shall only apply where the next statutory election, whether a postponed election or not, would take place before the first day of March, 1919.Reading that in conjunction with a previous paragraph of Clause 1, it means that the borough council elections which would take place in November, the same as the municipal corporation elections in the country, are to be postponed under this Bill if passed in the way it has been drafted; but that the county council elections and the guardians' elections, which are local elections in a similar way to 72 borough council elections, and which are held after the 1st of March, will have to be held. Therefore, on behalf of the county council, I put these resolutions before the House on the Second Reading, and I have no doubt Amendments will be moved in Committee on behalf of the county council. May I also put before the House one other fact as regards county council elections? Last week I asked a question of the President of the Local Government Board in relation to a matter to which he has given some consideration. The question had relation to the great increase of the expenses of these local elections, especially in London. Under the Municipal Elections Act in every municipal election there was a limit of the amount that might be spent——
§ Mr. GILBERT
Well, Sir, if not out of order, I only desire to introduce what I have said as a further reason why the county council elections should not take place next March. I will put the point very briefly.
§ Mr. GILBERT
Very well, Sir, I will not pursue the matter further. I had to put it before the House in view of the resolutions passed by the London County Council which I have read to the House, and they do, I think, raise a good many points for the consideration of the House. I trust when the Bill is in Committee that the House will favourably consider any Amendments that may be put down in this connection.
§ Mr. HOLT
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Fife (Mr. Asquith) that this measure is necessary. It is necessary because the register is not in a sufficient state of forwardness to enable us to hold an election when this Parliament comes to an end. I would like, however, to remind the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board that on the Committee stage of the Bill, previous to this Bill extending the life of the Parliament, I asked him a question as to whether he thought the register would be ready in time—that is by 31st July—and he told me, while not giving me a definite assurance, that he hoped that that would be the 73 case. I venture to hope that we may have a very definite assurance from the Government this afternoon that the register will certainly be ready, and available, before the life of Parliament, as extended by this Act, expires. Though it may be necessary on this occasion to extend the life of Parliament, it is a very objectionable necessity. Under the new Act we have brought on to the register a very large number of persons who have never voted before. It does seem to me that those persons are entitled to have a voice in the election of Parliament at the earliest possible moment in which they can be allowed to record their votes. It is, of course, a very great inconvenience to have an election during the continuance of the War, but I submit to the House that there are very many almost as grave, or more grave, inconveniences arising from not having an election. Are not these new electors entitled, if possible, to have a voice in the return of Members? It appears to me that at a very early date it may be necessary to consider what are, or what ought to be, the terms of peace.
Surely it we are doubling the electorate, and, it may be, by the Act that we have passed that millions of people who have never before been entitled to be electors are now entitled to a voice in the government of the country, we ought to give these people, at the earliest possible opportunity, the chance of expressing their views at the, possibly, most momentous election likely to happen in their lives, dealing with, as I say, the terms and conditions of peace, which we shall sooner or later have to make with our enemies! For these reasons, I submit that this ought really to be understood by everybody to be the final extension of the life of Parliament. I ask the Government to give us something like an undertaking to do their very best to hold a General Election before producing another Bill of this character, provided it is necessary so to do. I want to draw the attention of the President of the Local Government Board to another matter which it appears to me arises out of this Bill. What is the position of the local authorities—that is to say, of the authorities in the provinces instituted under the Muncipal Corporations Act, and who return one-third of their members every year? Is it possible for them to hold any election whatever? Is it not necessary to make some provision for 74 altering the character, at all events, of the first election after the Suspensory Act comes to an end? Is not that necessary in order to hold elections at all? Unless something of that kind is done to enable them to elect the whole authority en bloc, what is the position? Perhaps the President of the Local Government Board can tell us whether it is possible to have some further Act for these authorities to proceed to the re-election of their members. If it is not, will he give some assurance that at an early date a Bill will be introduced to make it possible to hold elections in the provincial boroughs?
I only wish to call attention to one point. At Question Time I asked a supplementary question as to whether the right hon. Gentleman was aware that tens of thousands of people were being left off the register who were entitled to be on it in London? When the Representation of the People Act was before the House, hon. Members will remember we urged upon the President the desirability of having genuine house-to-house canvass, as in many of the boroughs of London the only house-to-house canvass we could hear of was merely leaving forms for those concerned to fill in and take back to the Town Hall. In many streets where investigation for the purpose of checking took place it was discovered that the officials left the voter off the list, though he was residing in the place. The Act was passed in order when the next election came the people who were enfranchised by it, and intended so to be, should have their say in the election of a new House of Commons. If the work of the registration has not been effectively done, then these people are being deprived of the right which the House of Commons intended should be conferred upon them. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will endeavour to accelerate the work in connection with the second register. I suppose the work of registration will be done, or commenced, in October, so that normally the new register would come into operation in January. There will be no need to go over the ground again, or over the whole of the ground, for the experience gained in the preparation of the first register should have its effect, so that we may have a genuine and not a bogus register on which to have an election at the end of the period which this Act will no doubt fix. I would urge upon the right hon. 75 Gentleman, if he wishes to remove the grave dissatisfaction felt by persons who expected to be enfranchised, and to have an election which will give a true expression of the voice of enfranchised persons throughout the country when the next election takes place, to do his very utmost to push forward the second register, so that we may have an effective one.
§ Mr. SHERWELL
We are at some disadvantage in a Debate like this for several reasons. Opposition is necessarily discounted and handicapped owing to circumstances the importance of which we all recognise. But I must say that I cannot, within any near period of time, anticipate a set of circumstances which might not, on the face of them, appear as unanswerable against a General Election as are the circumstances at the present time. Incidentally I may say that one finds support for that from the statement made under a sense of grave responsibility by the Prime Minister this afternoon and by the Leader of the House a few nights ago. The only change in the circumstances that may be possible in six months is that you will have a new register. The absence of a satisfactory register is really due to the fault of the House of Commons. If we had not gone out of our way to interrupt the work of registration at an early day in the War we should have had a register which, although not as complete as the new register under the new Bill will be, would have been adequate for the purpose of a General Election. I have never altered my own view that the gravest possible injury to the House of Commons and the country was done when the first extension of the life of this Parliament was made. May I suggest that while I agree with the observation made by the Leader of the House that this House has grown remote from the mandate of its constituents, I would go further and say that not only is this House out-of-date with electors, but it is really an irresponsible House? The House to-day acts without responsibity; it almost automatically registers any decree or appeal from the members of the Government.
May I suggest that while the right hon. Gentleman makes his appeal for the confidence and support of the House, he and his colleagues should accept the reciprocal obligation that while the House itself is 76 remote from the opinions of the country, it is obvious that the Government which leads and represents the House must itself be remote from the opinion of the country? What do we find? Week after week the Government, through its Ministers, commits itself and the country to declarations foreshadowing, or rather announcing, decisions on matters of policy not connected with war circumstances, but appropriate or inappropriate to conditions after the War. One could give numerous illustrations. I was startled when the President of the Board of Trade visited Manchester and announced to the dye users that the Government had decided that for ten years after the War there was to be prohibition of all imports of dyeing-stuffs except under licence.
That really has nothing whatever to do with this Bill. The hon. Member appears to be using this Bill as an instrument by which to chastise the Government for the policy which they have expressed in regard to imports after the War.
§ Mr. SHERWELL
I was not going to commit myself in regard to the merits or the demerits of that question, but I wish to suggest to the Government that while they ask us to pass this Bill, acknowledging at the time that we have no mandate from the constituencies and that we are remote from the mandate which sent us here, they are equally remote.
§ The PRESIDENT of the LOCAL GOVERNMENT BOARD (Mr. Hayes Fisher)
The Government are proposing an extension of the life of Parliament, and I believe, with a general consensus of opinion, they have chosen the best date, namely, January 31st next year, as the time to which the life of this Parliament should be extended. I will give an assurance, so far as I can, that the new register will certainly be operative before the 31st January, 1919. I can give that assurance with the utmost readiness and a promise on behalf of my Department that we shall be able to fulfil it, and even if the hon. Member antedated his request by three months, I should be equally ready to give him that assurance. I have been asked whether this new register is going to be adequate, and the suggestion has been made that some thousands of persons will not find themselves on the register. [An HON. MEMBER: "That is the fault of the local authority!"] I do 77 not think there is any substance in that contention. So far as the information reaches me, although the lists have not been published by a date fixed, undoubtedly there are means now of getting voters upon the register if they can satisfy the Court. I have no patience at all with voters who will not take the slightest trouble of any sort or kind to get on the register. I am confident, however, that the register is going to be an immense one, and it will contain double the number that were on the last register. [HON. MEMBERS: "More than double!"] Very well, more than double. I believe it will contain most of the soldiers and sailors who ought to be on, but as to whether in the proxy areas the soldiers and sailors will be able to vote, that depends upon when the election is held. I believe, however, that most of the soldiers and sailors will be placed upon the register.
With regard to those who have found fault with my Department as to registration, I ask hon. Members to recollect the great difficulties we have laboured under. Take the question of the soldiers and sailors. We fully expect that we shall be able to locate the voters by means of postcards sent to them on the battlefield in France. On the last occasion for registration purposes, when millions of postcards were issued, it happened to be the very moment when the great push took place, and the officers in charge said, "Really, our chief business now is fighting, and not bothering about elections. We must hold your postcards back and we cannot give them out now." The result was that a good deal of delay took place, and this caused a great deal of information to be withheld from the registration officers which would otherwise have reached them. How have we met the situation? We have issued an order that these postcards shall be regarded as claims, and if they arrive after the register is published they will be regarded as claims on the part of the soldiers. Every order and every suggestion we make is always in favour of giving the benefit of the doubt to the soldiers and the sailors, and not in favour of keeping them off the register. I believe it will be a very full and abundant register, very truly representative of the interests of the country, and, although I have not the slightest doubt at the second time of asking we shall be able to make a better register, yet, 78 considering all our difficulties with the printers, many of whose men went down with the "flu" at the last moment, I believe we shall be prepared to circulate by the middle of October a very full register of the people who ought to be on it.
§ Mr. FISHER
I think what I have already said shows that that is not necessary. Anybody who takes any trouble to get on this register will get on it with the exception of some soldiers in distant parts. With regard to the local elections, I quite understand that hon. Members may think that while we are extending the life of Parliament, we ought at the same time to consider the local elections for municipal boroughs and the Metropolitan boroughs. You will have your register ready, and there is not the same reason for this. On this matter, I think, we are entitled to ascertain the opinions of the local bodies themselves. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] There are various reasons to be adduced. The first reason is that the staffs of the borough councils are already working up to their very maximum capacity, and when every single new duty is to be put upon those staffs they naturally shrink from having an election put upon them as well. They also advance the argument that the local authorities are doing very valuable national work at the present time, and that you might dislocate those committees and break them up and remove from them men who have acquired very valuable experience. There are two other arguments that appear to me—the first is that some of us are not able to vote as absent voters at local elections, and the soldiers will not be able to take part in those local elections. As they will be elected for three years, it is obvious that the soldiers could not take any effective part in those elections.
Will there be any need for any alterations in the Municipal Corporations Act in consequence of the elections taking place on the 1st of November?
§ Mr. FISHER
These local authorities say, "You have taken many of our representatives for military service." That will also apply to a great many local gentlemen who desire to stand as candidates, and they will naturally say that they have had no chance for three years, simply because they were away doing national duty.
§ Mr. FISHER
Just now the hon. Member who has interrupted me was asking me to sweep away the one-third rule.
§ Mr. FISHER
Those men look at the law as it stands. This would certainly be the case in the Metropolitan boroughs and many of the other boroughs, but not in those places where only one-third retire. I think I have now said enough to justify the postponement of the General Election. The county council elections will still take place next March, but all these matters we can discuss in Committee. I think I have now indicated the main reasons which have guided the Government in postponing the November elections in addition to the main Clause prolonging the life of Parliament until the 31st of January next year.
§ 5.0 P.M.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
I am glad the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Holt) has raised the constitutional question, which apparently has been overlooked both by members of the Government and Members of the House. We are asked to prolong the life of a Parliament which was elected for seven years, which on its own accord reduced its life to five years, and we are now being asked to prolong its life by another six months, which makes altogether a prolongation of three years. We are told that this is necessary on account of the War. Supposing that that is so, is it necessary to bring in Reform Bills, and then deny to the new electors the right to say who are to represent them in Parliament? It has always been the custom, so far as I know, since this Parliament was created when there was a Reform Bill that the country should be at once consulted. Never has Parliament, not even in the days of the Long Parliament, brought in a Reform Bill followed by a measure prolonging the life of Parliament. There is only one other alternative, and that is to have no legislation except that 80 which is connected with the War until you get the authority of the new electorate. Supposing this House and another place agree to the prolongation of the life of the House for another six months, will the Government, in view of the fact that the electorate which elected this House Seven and a half years ago is no longer the electorate of the country, give an undertaking that they will not bring in any new legislation until a new House representing the new electorate has been returned—I mean no legislation except in the interests of the War—because otherwise we shall be doing a great injustice to the new electorate? What is the use of doubling the electorate if at the same time we deny the electors the right which we have given them? What is the use of having a new register if at the same time we prolong the life of Parliament and do not give the new electors an opportunity of expressing their wishes? If this Bill is introduced on account of the necessities of the War, then we ought to have an assurance from the Government that nothing will be done except the business of the War. I see a smile upon the face of my right hon. Friend (Mr. Hayes Fisher) which is not reflected upon the face of the Leader of the House, and the Leader of the House being unable, as I am sure he is, to answer my arguments, which are quite unanswerable, I hope that he will get up and say that as long as we agree to extend this Parliament he will see that no legislation not connected with the War is introduced.
Mr. LLEWELYN WILLIAMS
I am sure that there is nobody in the House who is prepared to oppose this measure, but I confess that I feel rather puzzled, especially after the speech of the President of the Local Government Board. He said that it would be unfair to hold the local elections next November, because, presumably, there would be so many soldiers still abroad unable to vote. He, therefore, proposes to postpone those elections till at least next November twelve months, and I agree that is the proper thing to do. But what happens with regard to Parliamentary elections? The Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition seemed to imply that this would be the last extension of the life of this Parliament, and that, therefore, a General Election for the purposes of electing a new Parliament would take place next January. Are we then to suppose that our soldiers are to come back by 81 January? The President of the Local Government Board has implied that they will not be back by November.
§ Mr. FISHER
There is no machinery by which soldiers can vote as absent voters at local elections. They will be able to vote at Parliamentary elections as absent voters, and, if they are in distant theatres of war, they will be able to vote by proxy.
Assuming that to be so, the right hon. Gentleman has said that one of the reasons of the delay in preparing the register is the difficulty of getting our soldiers at the front in a time of great stress to fill in the application for registration. If this tremendous delay has occurred, and quite properly occurred, because our soldiers have other work to do, is there not the same objection to a General Election? How can you set up machinery to enable these men who are now sacrificing their all for their country to elect a new Parliament? It has been tried, I know, in the case of Australia and Canada, but, after all, the Australians and Canadians only form a small part of an immense number of British troops, and it is conceivable that they might be able to have opportunities of voting which would be denied to the British soldier at an election next January. Supposing this is not the last prolongation of the life of Parliament and supposing next November we are asked again to postpone the General Election for another six months, in spite of the fact that by that time the new register will be complete, if there is a by-election in January, is that by-election to be fought on the new register or on the old register? I am uncertain which it will be. If it is fought on the new register, there will be some Members of Parliament elected upon a perfectly new register, three or four times as many in numbers as the old register. If it is fought on the old register, you will have the old evil of elections taking place on a stale register carried on for another six months.
I do not wish in any way to appear to be in opposition to this Bill, because in the present circumstances of the War it is absolutely necessary, but I see great difficulties in the way of a General Election in January, and I also see great objections to postponing it further. On the whole, I hope that the Government 82 will adopt a policy which will give us the voice of the new electors properly represented at the next election. I do not think that the Government or anybody realised what the Reform Bill meant. In my Constituency, whereas the electors in the two towns that I represent numbered less than 8,000 at the last election, the total number of the electors in one town alone now, so I was told last week by a gentleman who is preparing the register, is 20,000. The accretion of electors is far greater than anybody anticipated when the Reform Bill was passed. It is therefore not only necessary to extend the life of Parliament, because of the difficulty of getting the new register, which is far greater than anybody anticipated, but I very much question whether the Government, with all the good will in the world, will be able to get that new register ready, as was intimated by the President of the Local Government Board, by the end of October, or, indeed, by the end of the year. I think it will, therefore, be necessary to ask for a further prolongation of the life of Parliament.
I quite recognise the inevitable character of this Bill, but, at the same time, I think we are slipping into the habit of prolonging our own lives too easily. I shall not be at all surprised if we have to do it again, and the frequency with which we do it is really no excuse for thinking the matter of small consequence. Each time that it is done it really becomes a graver matter. The Government are inclined to overestimate the dislocation which a General Election would cause. With the new legislation that has been passed, the General Election, in the first place, would not take so long, and the dislocation which would be caused would not be so great an evil as that in the greatest crisis that this country has ever been through the House of Commons should not adequately represent the country. Everybody will admit that the House of Commons is stale, is tired, and is, to a certain extent, stunned by the events of the last four years. You have only to turn to the gigantic Votes of Credit and note the attendance of Members during those Debates to realise not how apathetic, but how unable the House is to rouse itself, and very naturally, to the full height of the importance of the circumstances. 83 Another matter which is regrettable is the way in which the House has been rather got round by the Government. We were told the other day that 288 Members of this House, since 1910, have received office, or decoration, or promotion, or a place of some kind or other. That is a gradual corruption of the House, and the only way for the people of this country to feel that the grave situation in which we are placed—whether it is the issue of War or the issue of peace—is being adequately dealt with, is to have, as soon as possible, a fresh House of Commons really competent to deal with the business, and its competence rests not upon the character of the individuals, but upon its representative character. I agree that after the passing of a Reform Bill it is necessary to have an election at the earliest possible moment. If that has been true in the past, it is very much more urgent and important after the Reform Bill that has just been passed, because it is one of the greatest, most comprehensive, and far-reaching measures that has ever passed through this House. We have an entirely new electorate, and, although there are a good many people who indulge in prophecies with regard to certain seats and certain Members of this House, I think there are going to be a great many surprises. However that may be, I do not think the Government ought to dwell so much upon the dislocation that a General Election would cause. The country is anxious to have a new House of Commons to deal more competently with the present situation, and I should like to have an assurance from the Leader of the House that they do intend within the period fixed by this Bill to have an appeal to the country as soon as the lists are ready. I think that would satisfy people more than leaving the possibility of a further prolongation of our lives.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I do not know whether I might appeal to the House to let us come to a decision on the Second Reading now. I think we are all agreed about the necessity of doing something in this matter and such points as have been raised can be dealt with more easily in Committee. There is a great deal in what the hon. Member who has just spoken (Mr. Ponsonby) has said. I think it was 84 the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sherwell) who said that, seeing it is admitted that under existing circumstances the House of Commons is far from being in touch with the electorate, the Government ought to be humble. I am all in favour of humility, but, if that means that the Government ought to be timid, then nothing could be more fatal than that in a national crisis like this there should be a Government in such a position. With regard to what has been said about the Government giving an undertaking that there will be an appeal to the electorate, of course it would be quite wrong for the Government to prejudge a necessity of that kind. It must depend upon the circumstances at any given time, and you have to weigh the disadvantages of the political excitement which an election causes against the obvious disadvantages of a House of Commons not adequately representing the feeling of the country. There is one thing about which I am absolutely certain. A war like this could not be carried on for a week by a Government which did not have in all essential matters the complete support of the House of Commons. In the same way, I say it without the smallest hesitation, in a War like this it would be impossible to carry on for a single day unless it was quite evident that the people of this country were behind it. All that must weigh with the House of Commons and with the Government, and I am perfectly certain that if the circumstances seem to indicate that there is any doubt about the Government representing the people of this country in the policy which they carry out that must be set at rest in the only way possible, which is an appeal to the country.
§ Captain CARR-GOMM
I have no wish to delay the Second Reading of this measure. While I am in agreement about the need for a new House of Commons, it seems to me that the point raised by the hon. Member for Islington with reference to the conditions of the new register which is being prepared, and by which the next House of Commons can be elected, is one of the utmost gravity. I think the right hon. Gentleman, in answering the point raised by my hon. Friend, brushed it aside rather lightly. The right hon. Gentleman, as we may well appreciate, stands out for the local 85 authorities when he declares that they have done everything that is possible to make this register a good one, that they have had many difficulties to contend with in the preparation of this gigantic register and that there are bound to be mistakes. But I venture to point out to him that the inequalities existing between the register in one division as compared with another is a very serious matter indeed. I appreciate, of course, that it is chiefly the duty of the local authority to control its own officers, but at the same time, from evidence which has been brought before me, I venture to think that if the right hon. Gentleman had laid down certain rules for the officers acting for the overseers in preparing these lists many of these discrepancies and mistakes would have been avoided. It is easy to say that the prospective voter has the matter in his own hands and that he has only to claim his vote. Surely that is exactly what the House of Commons was trying to avoid when it passed the Bill, namely, that the voter should be put to the trouble of claiming his vote and using the local machinery. Surely the average man or woman would in the long run have to take advantage of the local party agent, and that is exactly what we wish to avoid. It is the fashion nowadays to blame and cast aspersions upon the party agents.
This is not the time or the occasion for discussing the whole question of registration. That is within the administration of the Local Government Board, and the matter would come properly on the Local Government Board Vote.
§ Captain CARR-GOMM
I will only say that, in comparing the new list by which the next election can be held, there is information in the hands of Members, which they receive from time to time, indicating very great inequalities in the majority of boroughs, and certainly in London. May I point out that as a test case in one borough, in comparing the new list, a canvass was made by a party organisation, and in three streets——
This is all matter which is not the least relevant to the Bill. All the matters which the hon. and gallant Gentleman is raising are quite relevant to a discussion of the method of administration on the Representation of the People Act, but they are not relevant to this Bill.
§ Captain CARR-GOMM
I only wish to impress upon him the point raised by the hon. Member for Islington, to assure him that they are well supported in various parts of the House, and to urge upon him that this matter should be carefully considered before the new registers are finally printed.
§ Mr. HANDEL BOOTH
I am afraid a wrong impression will go forward after the speech of the hon. Member for Carmarthen Boroughs. He stated that a by-election taking place next Christmas would be under the new register; but I submit that this Bill makes no provision for that, and I do not see how it can be possible, even if there was a further prolongation of the life of this Parliament, to indicate that a by-election could be under the new Bill. I say this because the new Bill makes different constituencies, and one has only to think of the by-election proceeding in Finsbury to appreciate this, because if that by-election were going on under the new Bill there would not be any constituency in existence at all. I do not see how it would ever be possible for by-elections in connection with this Parliament, whether we extend it now or again, ever to take place under the new Bill or the new register, because there would be a vacancy, but in a great number of cases it would not fit in with the new Bill. I do ask, in view of the statement which was made by the hon. Member for Carmarthen Boroughs, and which was not challenged by the Government, that the President of the Local Government Board will say at once that any by-election which takes place before the term of this Bill expires—that is to say, up to the 31st of January next—must be upon the old register.
§ Mr. FISHER rose—
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House for To-morrow.—[Mr. Pratt.]