HC Deb 30 March 1922 vol 152 cc1637-46

Order for Second Reading read.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This is a very small Bill, but it requires explanation. It deals, first of all, with the date of the qualifying period and the publication of the register. The provisions of the Act of 1918 gave three months for the preparation of the register after the qualifying period. It was found by experience that three months was insufficient, and invariably, by Order in Council, since that time four months has been allowed. That has been done after consultation with returning officers, political agents and all the authorities and those chiefly interested. The Bill provides new dates for the qualifying period and the publication of the register. The question arose whether, in order to arrive at the four months, you should ante-date the qualifying period by one month or post-date the publication of the register by one month. It was found that the municipal elections which take place on 1st November must of necessity be voted upon on the 15th October register. Therefore it was not possible, if you were, going to have the municipal elections upon the now register, to post-date the date for publishing the register. The Bill provides that the qualifying period should be ante-dated by one month, so that instead of the qualifying period ending on 15th January, it will end on 15th December, and instead of ending on 15th July it will end on 15th June.

The necessary changes in dates have been worked out in close conference with all the parties interested. They appear in Part I of the Schedule for England and Wales, in Part II for Scotland, and in Part III for Northern Ireland. They are practically the same periods as have been successfully in force for the last two years. The second provision is a provision that when you are calculating the amount of election expense which any candidate has incurred, no matter that he has paid the additional cost of postage, his postage for the purpose of calculating his election expenses and finding whether he has passed the margin or not, is to be taken at the postal rates of 1st January, 1919. It has all along been felt that it was unfair to candidates to treat the expense of postage at the higher rates, and at the same time it was highly undesirable to bring in any legislation to increase the amount that might be spent by candidates. As long as the postal rates are above what they were on 1st January, 1919, the excess will not be taken into account. As soon as the rates are reduced once again to the 1919 limit, the Act becomes inoperative. The next provision is one to save expense. When, under the Local Government Act of 1888 it is desired to alter the boundary of any electoral division of a county, it will be possible to avoid the expense of an inquiry where an inquiry is not necessary. In certain cases, if any alteration is to be made an inquiry is obligatory and all the expense has to be incurred, but the Bill provides that where the parties are entirely at one and the Secretary of State is satisfied that that is so, the inquiry may be dispensed with and all the expense may be saved. All the provisions of the Bill have been found necessary through experience.


The right hon. Gentleman stated that in the calculation of expenses we could revert to the postal charges of January, 1919. Is that only in cases where an attempt is made to find out whether the actual legal charges are being exceeded or is it permissible in calculating the expenses of a candidate in the ordinary way?


The candidate will still have to pay out of his own pocket the higher postal charges, but supposing someone were attacking his election, then the amount spent on postage would be calculated on the basis of the 1919 postal charges.


That Concession is really for the purpose of preserving a man from having exceeded the legal limit of expenses, and it does not give him any concession upon his own personal expenses.




Is not that providing a loophole for getting round the original Act? Is there anything to prevent a man putting down any excess he might have spent above the legal maximum? I do not see any advantage in the change proposed.


It has the advantage that it enables the candidate a use of the Post Office equal to that he had in 1919. Without this provision it would not be possible for a candidate to have such use of the Post Office as he would have had for the price in 1919. He gets the same amount of use of the Post Office without exceeding his limit.


Will not the effect be something like this? If the election addresses are posted at the present rate the candidates for Parliament will have less to spend on their propaganda. In other words, it is a diversion of the money which is presently spent on elections for propaganda purposes through the Post Office. The schedule of the Bill alters the dates. Will it apply to the coming year? As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there may be a General Election before many months are over. Will these changes become law before that election or after it?


That depends entirely upon this House and upon the date when we can get the Bill. If the House will meet me and get the Bill through quickly, we may be able to bring it into effect at once. The hon. Gentleman knows a great deal more than I do about the date of the General Election.


I think the Bill should not be passed without more careful consideration of its effect. As far as I can see, the main effect will be to make it easier for the rich man to get into the House, compared with the poor man. The poor man cannot afford to send a lot of propaganda stuff through the Post Office, but the man with unlimited means can do so. That is the object underlying the provision in the Bill. Even at present the laws against extravagant expenditure at election times are practically a dead letter. I can see certain parties driving coaches and fours and motor cars through every Clause of all these Acts. The paid agents of one of the parties in the State are like a plague of locusts, and how they get round the Corrupt Practices Act I do not know. I would not make it easier for these people by a flood of extravagance to run candidates. The facilities for getting stuff through the post are quite sufficient now for those people who do not want to exercise through the power of money any undue influence on the electorate. The rich man has a much better chance in the race than has the poor man. The Bill has to be considered very carefully, especially the part with regard to the postal charges, and I am surprised at a Liberal Home Secretary supported by a Liberal Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury coming forward here and proposing this Bill. He should have left it to his Tory colleagues who used to be more associated with that sort of thing than the Liberal party. But evil communications corrupt good manners, and I am afraid my right hon. Friend is falling from the high estate in which he was when he was a Member of the pure and undiluted Liberal party. On these grounds, the House, even if they pass this Bill, ought to consider it even more carefully. It should be made less difficult for every class of the community to get into the House of Commons, and I am sorry—I say it more in sorrow than in anger—to see my right hon. Friend bringing forward a Bill of this class which is so Tory. In fact, the Tories of the Coalition are more Liberal than its Liberals. There are Conservative millionaires of the old type—I do not mean the bloated war type—who object to this sort of thing.


I can quite understand the sorrow and indignation of my hon. Friend, sorrow to find two of his late colleagues departing from the traditions of the party he so worthily upholds. I cannot understand the right hon. Gentleman bothering about finance, because I understand that my right hon. Friend is free from the embarrassments of finance. There is no charge on the Government or on the Exchequer, and I am somewhat surprised that the Geddes Committee did not report to the House that at least there was some members of the Government who ought to have some commendation. I cannot understand the real reason for bringing this Bill in now. Is it really the result of the recent by-election successes of our party? Is there any connection between them? I do not see why it should be introduced at the moment. With regard to the increased postal charges, they have not been increased during the last few months, but long before. One can only conclude that in the Cabinet discussions they reviewed the recent by-election results. They first asked themselves if their failure was the result of the Die-hard policy, or was it the result of the absence of any policy at all, or was it due to the waning influence of my distinguished fellow countryman?

Having calculated the whole situation, they came to the conclusion that they had failed in the recent by-elections because their candidates had not been legitimately able to spend sufficient money, and then they proceeded to reason on that basis. They said: "We cannot very well go down to the House and introduce a Bill that would propose a general increase that would meet both our desires and our candidates' purses." They therefore ruled that out. They said: "We must devise some legal means, and must have the advice of the Lord Chancellor and of the Law Officers of the Crown in this case." Then they trotted out this innocent, simple Bill. Taking a constituency like Derby, with 56,000 constituents, they said: "We have no possible chance of a fair fight in Derby. We know at least the difficulties of the Labour party with finance. They have no difficulties as far as unity of purpose is concerned, or as far as policy is concerned. They do not require resignations to pull them up to scratch. They have no die-hards. In fact, the only thing the Labour party suffers from is the absence of money." Therefore, they said: "We must get over this difficulty. How can we do it by the camouflage which has characterised our legislation since our accession to power?" So they brought on this simple Bill in an empty House at a quarter to eight, when everybody thought they were going home. They said: "We will be able to develop this because we will be able to rule out candidates, when the ordinary test would be brains and ability, by saying: "We have considerably increased the expenses of the election, and we can only have rich men now." That is the sum total of this innocent little Bill. They, in short, having failed to convert the people of this country either by their consistency, their policy, or their legislation, now proceed to bribe them by the rich candidates they will have.


The only discussion so far seems to have turned on the Clause with regard to postal expenses. I should like to say a word as to the alteration of dates, because any Member, who has had to fight an election, and has taken care with regard to the registration in his division, knows the very serious inconvenience which this Clause is to try and remedy. The Bill has this advantage also, in that in Clause 3 there is a little economy in trying to do away with these public inquiries where they are unnecessary. I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether it would not have been possible to have made this Bill a very much greater Measure of economy, and one which would have thrown even less expense on Parliamentary candidates. The right hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Thomas) will no doubt appreciate that if it could be so arranged as to have only one register, a considerable amount would be saved. I am not quite sure whether it would be possible under the title of this Bill so to amend it, but the right hon. Gentleman, in answering a question the other day, seemed to intimate that it was a point on which the Government had not yet made up their mind. If the Government made up their minds on that point, they could possibly include it in this Bill, and it would be an economical reform which would certainly meet with very great approval, not only among the immense majority of Members of this House, but also among those who work for us in the constituencies. The right hon. Gentleman seemed to be unaware of the fact that as long ago as November, 1920, there was sent up to the then Leader of the House, at his request, an expression of opinion in favour of this Report, which was signed by a very large number of Members, more than the Leader of the House thought was necessary, including Members of every party in this House. Would the right hon. Gentleman give us some indication as to whether the Government would accept an Amendment to that effect in this Bill if it were possible to introduce it?

Colonel Sir C. YATE

I beg to support what has just been said. I see Northern Ireland has only one annual register. Why should England be given a spring register and an autumn register? Our agents are always worried with registration work. They are not free to do anything, for there is nothing but a continuous struggle preparing these registers every six months, and I ask the Home Secretary whether he will now, before it is too late, agree to bring in an Amend- ment to this Bill to put England, Scotland and Wales on the same footing as Northern Ireland. What is the reason for having two registers when Northern Ireland has only one? I can see no reason.

8.0 P.M.


I hope the House will not give a Second Reading to this Bill. It is a Bill, the effect of which can only be to undo an action which this House took when it passed the Representation of the People Act, 1918, and when it sought within certain limits to put the wealthy candidate and the less wealthy candidate to some extent on equal terms. As I apprehend the Bill, the candidate who chooses to spend a portion of his election expenses in postage has to pay the postage at the increased rate. It does not allow the candidate two free postages instead of one, for that would indeed, to some extent, put the candidates in the same position. The candidate is called on to pay the additional postage, but the amount of excess is not reckoned against him when the question whether he has exceeded his amount comes up for consideration. A wealthy candidate who can afford it is enabled, under this Bill, to spend something like £100 additional in a one-member constituency, while in a two-member constituency such as is represented by my right hon. Friend one candidate might spend something like £200 in excess of the other. That is entirely moving away from the object of the Representation of the People Act, 1918, which sought to establish more equal and more democratic conditions. It seems to me that the fair course would be that every candidate should be allowed two free postages instead of one. That would place them on equal terms, but it is an Amendment which, as far as I can see, cannot be moved to this Bill. The Bill seems to be so drafted as to exclude the possibility of Amendments which would be satisfactory to the less wealthy candidate. I suggest, if the matter is to be dealt with in a fair and reasonable way, that it should either be assumed that the cost of postage is the same now as it was prior to this increase of charges in this way, and that the Post Office is not entitled to make a higher charge on the candidate, or that free postage ought to be given to all the candidates alike. I would be satisfied to regard these as Committee points if I can be assured that they could be raised in Committee, but it appears to me that that cannot be done—that the Committee must either accept the Bill in its most objectionable form or reject the proposal altogether. In those circumstances, the House would be well advised to reject this Measure. With regard to the point which has just been urged on my right hon Friend by previous speakers, it appears to me that that is a matter where the suggestion made might be discussed in Committee. If the view indicated to-night should prevail in Committee, then we shall be marching far back indeed to the position of things which existed before 1918. If we are to have the register only once a year, and people, because they have moved their residence, cannot qualify until 12 months have expired, then a great deal which was secured by the Act of 1918 will have been lost.


This is a graver issue than seems at first sight. I am sorry the right hon. Gentleman should have seen fit to bring it on at this time, when few hon. Members realised that it would be brought up at all. It is an important issue, and we should have a full House so that it could be adequately discussed. It cannot be discussed under the conditions ruling to-night. We are entitled to learn from the right hon. Gentleman the reason why he has thought fit to bring in this proposal contained in Clause 2. Has anyone ever asked for it? Who has asked for it? Is it from the Conservative Whip's office? We should be able to hear from the right hon. Gentleman who it is that has prevailed upon the Government to adopt this reactionary proposal. It has been suggested to me that it might have been the cabin boy, but I am not sure who he is. The Lord Chancellor seems to know, and I think, perhaps, that as a Member of the Government, the Home Secretary would know too. What does Clause 2 propose to do? It is to increase the legal maximum which may be spent at elections, but the point is that it is not going to increase the maximum for everyone. It is only going to increase the maximum for a select few—that is to say, those people who have the money and those people who particularly go into propaganda through the medium of the post. What kind of propaganda is it, too? All these are important questions which we ought to have threshed out on the Floor of the House. The right hon. Gentleman, it seems to me, is trying to steal a march on the House of Commons by taking the Bill at this time, when there is a thin House, when no one ever dreamt that it was going to be taken, and now when adequate discussion cannot be given. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will see fit to withdraw it, and, at any rate, give adequate notice that it is going to be brought up.


The remarks of the two previous speakers justify some of the opposition put forward to this Bill. There is not the slightest doubt that the House would have been better filled had hon. Members been aware that the Bill was coming on for review. We have only to look round to see the hon. Members who are already in the House, and as one is not particularly anxious to count the House out, I think we could venture on that line if we thought it desirable—

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present; House counted; and 40 Members being present


It is advisable that people should be made aware how hon. Members are having to deal with such important matters. I happen to have done a little to return to the House a man who has done something to justify our selection, and I remember the attempts made by the opposing parties to counteract the efforts we were making. I can see, under a Bill of this sort, how the rich classes of the community can utilise their wealth to defeat those candidates who may be cast on one side—no matter how sincere are their aspirations to do good—simply because they have not been able to accumulate that amount of wealth out of someone else's labour, which many other people in the country have been able to get. I cannot help but admit that there is an ulterior motive behind this postage question. I should have liked to have seen the whole of the postage returned definitely by those in authority, so that the people should know exactly what has been spent. A man in a similar position to myself would only be able to have one postage. My right hon. Friend smiles, but he knows the benefits in this Bill. I venture to say that where we are able to get only one postage in, you will be able to get two or three postages, to the detriment of the working class representatives of this House. What would be the sort of propaganda that would be utilised in the post? There are constituencies in this country that are being flooded with literature—literature of a foul character. What would be the effect, not so much on the industrial centres, but on those constituencies that are in the counties? Take the large villages. I have the honour of representing the inhabitants of something like 94 villages. Look at the amount of value that can accrue through the post. It would be impossible for us to do the necessary postage to compete with the friends of my right hon. Friend. I am anxious that we shall have justice done to us in this direction. We do not ask for any preferential treatment. We do not want to get behind any postage rates, but we want the people to know the exact amount, fair and square, that is paid by candidates in order to be returned to this House. I was anxious to develop the argument as to the sort of propaganda that is flooding into the constituencies through the utilisation of the post—

It being a Quarter past Eight of the Clock, and there being Private Business set down by direction of the CHAIRMAN OF WAYS AND MEANS, under Standing Order No. 8, further Proceeding was postponed, without Question put.