HC Deb 27 October 1919 vol 120 cc396-8

In case it shall appear that any incorporated society (whether incorporated by Royal Charter or otherwise) being in receipt of any assistance by way of subsidy from public funds or of free accommodation in a public building or other assistance from Government disregards the provisions of Section one hereof, His Majesty's Government may at its discretion suspend or withhold the said assistance from such society until such time as it is satisfied that such society is complying with the provisions of the said Section by admitting duly qualified women to its membership or fellowship.—[Sir M. Conway.] Brought up, and read the first time.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a second time."

I move it in the main in order to get from the Solicitor-General an explanation as to how far the words in the first Clause cover the points which I want covered. The first Clause says that persons shall not be disqualified by sex for admission to any incorporated society whether incorporated by Royal Charter or otherwise. A great many of the Royal societies consist of many reactionary old gentlemen, and I know of certain Royal societies which object very greatly to the possibility of the admission of women to their bodies. In every one of those cases admission is by election of the whole body of the society, and it follows that any small clique of fellows of a particular society can quite easily exclude all women from election by simply blackballing them, and as far as I can see there is nothing to prevent them from doing so. The Royal Geographical Society for a long time refused to admit women to its body, although it now admits them, but there are a, great many Royal societies that exclude women and have declined to alter their rules so as to admit women. The intention of this Bill, as expressed in the first Clause, is that such Royal societies should admit women, but if you get a society that systematically blackballs suitable women when they are duly proposed, how are you going to control them? The purpose of the Clause which I now have the honour to move is to meet that difficulty.


I confess I am in sympathy with the object of this Clause. I quite appreciate what the hon. Member desires, and I tried my hand to see whether I could do something to meet the point, and failed. The real trouble is this. What is "disregarding"? Is it failing to elect one woman every half-year or every year? Various views may be taken as to the meaning of that. Then it is clear that this "disregard" might be displayed over a period of time. You could not say that because they had not elected a woman at a particular election, therefore they were wilfully disregarding the Act; and once you say it is -a question of discretion, then you give rise to differences of opinion, and you have no strong ground on which you can take action. The further question arises as to the meaning of "until such time as it is satisfied that such society is complying with." What would satisfy the Government that a society is complying? Would the election of one, two, or three women? The members of these learned societies are elected because they are thoroughly qualified, and add distinction to the society; and is it possible to eliminate a wide field of discretion, and to try and lay down any hard-and-fast rule in a Section in an Act of Parliament?

The Bill is for the purpose of removing disqualification, and we have removed disqualification. It is not a Bill in which one can give a standard which all these societies ought to follow, but I think that one might say, and the Committee would be wise to record, that in the sense of this Committee they have not withdrawn this disqualification, and made it possible for women to be elected on these societies, without a clear intention, and a hope, that that should be done. I think my hon. Friend has rendered strict public service by bringing this matter forward, because I think that this Committee would wish to say that they expect some sort of careful consideration given to, and, if possible, compliance with the suggestion which is clearly made in the Bill, that women should now have the opportunity of becoming members of these learned societies. If no women are elected, if they are met by resistance and by a wilful noncompliance, then I feel sure, in the temper which the House of Commons has shown of late, they will be perfectly prepared to take appropriate action, if necessary, in a Bill for that purpose. But I think that when a society reads what has been the general temper of this Debate, the probability is that the object which the hon. Member has in moving this Clause will be secured—and will be secured in the best way—of giving women a fair opportunity to be candidates, and of being selected impartially if their merits qualify them.

Question put, and negatived.