HC Deb 21 March 1922 vol 152 cc246-50
Lieut.-Colonel ARCHER-SHEE

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to promote the wider exercise of the Parliamentary Franchise. This Bill was introduced in a slightly different form two years ago, but it did not meet with the approval of the House on First Reading, mainly on account of the fact that there was in it a provision that, in the event of persons refusing to obey the law, they should be subjected, if necessary, to imprisonment for one month. That has been altered in the Bill which I now propose to bring in, and I hope, therefore, that the House will allow me to have the First Reading without the necessity of a Division. The result at the General Election of the increase in the electorate in 1918 from 8,500,000 to 21,000,000 people was that only something like 58 per cent. recorded their votes. The total number registered was 21,390,000. If you take away the uncontested seats, in which there were 3,000,000 voters, 18,390,000 were entitled to vote, but only some 10,000,000 odd actually voted. At a time when we are asked by a Bill now before the House even to increase this number of 21,000,000 by several million more, some attention really ought to be paid to the question of getting people to express their opinions at Parliamentary elections. Surely, it is not an undemocratic thing to ask the House to pass a law to compel people to exercise the franchise at Parliamentary elections. After all, a General Election only comes once about every four years, and it is not too much to ask the citizens of this country to do their duty and say whom they wish to represent them. With an increasing electorate it becomes more important than ever.

This matter has engaged the attention of other countries. It has been raised in the United States. It is the law in Holland. It is the law in Czecho-Slo-vakia. Perhaps some hon. Members do not know where Czecho-Slovakia is, but I do, and it is a very important State. In Australia, as well, it is the law that people have to register. They are not compelled to vote, but they are compelled to register. This Bill simply says that people must go to the poll. They need not vote for either candidate; they can put a blank paper into the ballot box if they like. There are wide exceptions for illness, distance from the poll, and any reasonable excuse If they can show no reasonable excuse for not having voted, they are made liable for a first offence to a fine not exceeding 10s., and for a second offence to a fine not exceeding £1, or alternatively, seven days in the second division. Perhaps that sounds severe, but, as a matter of fact, in every Act of Parliament passed in recent years there is a penal Clause which says that if people do not obey the law they may be liable to a fine, or even to more severe penalties than seven days in the second division, which we are told by some people is merely a rest cure.

I remember very well that on the last occasion on which I introduced this Bill there was a great deal of opposition to it, on account of the fact that there was in it a penalty of one month's imprisonment, but the very next morning I received a yellow paper which, no doubt, many other hon. Members received from the Ministry of Agriculture, asking what was the exact area of carrots, parsnips, and so on grown in one's garden, and at the end it said that if you did not fill in the form correctly you might be liable to three months' imprisonment. I am not quite sure that there was not hard labour attached to it as well. In Holland something on these lines is working very well indeed. Not long ago, I had in this House, as guests, two Dutch legislators, and they said that the law worked very well. "It induces people to take more interest than before in national politics. It is no trouble to people to go and vote. It simply gets hold of people who are too lazy to vote, and makes them do so, and we get a very much better result." I suggest to the Labour party that they would probably get a very much better poll. I am told that in the constituency which I have the honour to represent, Finsbury, 95 per cent. of which is working-class, less than 40 per cent. voted at the last election, and the result is that I am here. The Bill is not at all too drastic, and it will induce people to take more interest in politics.



Does the hon. and gallant Member oppose the Bill?


Yes. It seems to me that the penalty is too drastic and too severe, although it may act very well in Holland and Europe. If my hon. and gallant Friend is really serious, would it not be better, instead of imposing a penalty of seven days, possibly with hard labour, to disfranchise the offender? Surely in this year of grace nobody is going to be forced actually to go to the poll. I do not want to take up the time of the House, but I make that suggestion.

Question, "That leave be given to bring in a Bill to promote the wider exercise of the Parliamentary Franchise," put, and agreed to.

Colonel Sir ALAN SYKES

On a point of Order. I think that you, Sir, have collected the voices.


No one challenged a Division when I put the Question, and it is too late now for hon. Members to take objection. Who is prepared to bring in the Bill?

Lieut.-Colonel ARCHER-SHEE

I was informed that it was not necessary for me to have a supporter.


The Motion must have at least one supporter.

Lieut.-Colonel CROFT

I beg to support the Bill.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Lieut.-Colonel Archer-Shee and Lieut.-Colonel Croft.