HC Deb 28 March 1928 vol 215 cc1228-48

Question again proposed, That this House asks the Government to give consideration to the question of taking steps to restore some measure of disqualification of recipients of poor relief for voting at elections of boards of guardians."—(Mr. G. Harvey.)


I was saying that I hope that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will not lend a favourable ear to the proposal contained in this Motion. Many of the reasons which appeal to me have already been admirably stated by the hon. Member for Exeter (Sir R. Newman), and by the Noble Lord the Member for West Derbyshire (Marquess of Hartington), who addressed the House a few moments ago. I believe that it would be difficult to work this proposal. Let me remind the House of what occurred on the last occasion when it was discussed in this House. The Representation of the People Bill left this House in 1917 containing no provision for disqualification of persons in receipt of Poor Law relief, but it was Returned to this House by another place with amendments, one of which introduced this very suggestion. That Amendment was rejected by the then Home Secretary, on the ground that it would be too difficult to work. He pointed out that you would have a register encumbered with a new lot of hieroglyphics to distinguish those who had been disqualified, and that it would entail a great amount of work on the part of those who had to administer it. Therefore, the proposal would create considerable administrative difficulties.

I am willing to admit that it might be well to incur some additional expense and inconvenience if it were really desirable that this change should be made. I think, however, that it is highly undesirable for two or three reasons. First, it would be unfair to a number of people. Some hon. Members, speaking in favour of the Motion, seemed to suggest by the phrases that they used, that all the persons who receive Poor Law relief are wasteful, and should no longer be considered as worthy of the rights of citizenship. It is true that there are a number of people in many districts of that description, but it is equally true that many of those who draw Poor Law relief are persons who in every way should he entitled to the full privileges of citizenship. In some eases, as has already been pointed out, it is not their own fault. Perhaps the trade to which they belong, especially if it be one of the heavy industries, has been under a cloud for so long that they have exhausted their savings and have had to seek public assistance, often very much against their will, in order to exist at all. Those people are in a very unfortunate position. Many of them still cling very strongly to the idea that they are citizens of a great country, and hope at some time in the future to continue decent work, and to take away from them some of the duties as well as the rights of full citizenship would he to drive them, or help to drive them, into the ranks of that other class of persons whom we describe as wastrels.

Further, I think this is a wrong way, in fact, a futile way, of grappling with this particular difficulty. What is the difficulty? The difficulty with which hon. Members who support this Motion are concerned is that in some areas guardians are paying out money to undeserving people, and paying out too much money. They seem to be starting at the wrong end. Who is it who is to blame if this abuse goes on? Who are the real culprits? Surely not the people who vote, but the guardians themselves. For a long time we have reckoned it a virtue in our public life, both in local government as well as in Parliamentary government, that people can always be found who are ready to stand for election, and when elected, are prepared to use their judgment intelligently on the problems which face them when they come into office; in many cases probably, in fact, I venture to say in all cases, very different problems from what they expected when they were elected. If there was any evidence that that virtue was breaking down on a wholesale scale, we should have to consider the whole system of democratic government. If that were the case it would not be a question of tinkering with a few electors of the boards of guardians, but with the whole system of government. I suggest there is no evidence to show that this virtue is lacking in the country to-day, save, possibly, in a very few exceptional cases, and for those exceptional cases we have a weapon which is being used, I am -glad to say, by the Minister of Health. He is tackling not the voters, who are not the people to blame, but the guardians who are abusing the position to which they have been elected. If hon. Members wish to reform this abuse, where it exists, instead of tackling the unfortunate voters they ought to tackle the guardians.

Finally, I object very much to the principle which this Motion, as I see it, asks us to introduce, and that is taking away-the votes of people because we do not like the way in which they vote. If we are once going to start on that, sort of thing it will be a very dangerous precedent to hon. Members opposite, and I can see no reason for doing it. It would be a retrograde step. In a system of democratic government we have to take the bad with the good, and until that system breaks down we have to try to work it. I hope my right hon. Friend will not listen to those who proposed this Motion.


I am very glad to hear the remarks of the hon. Members who have just spoken, because it shows that there are a few sensible men still left in the stupid party. If the Government were to put on the Whips in support of this Motion it would, from our point of view, be a very good political move on their part. I was struck by the Mover of the Motion excusing himself for making so short a speech by saying that public speaking was not his job. If it is not his job he has no business in this House. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Public speaking is a necessary qualification in this House.


What the hon. Member said was that he did not make his living by public speaking.


The burden of all the speeches in support of this Motion is that the local rates have gone up by leaps and bounds because, it is alleged, of the enormous increase in local expenditure due to the relief given to the poor, constituting one of the chief burdens on industry to-day, with the implication that this increase has been due to extravagance on the part of boards of guardians. The hon. Member who moved the Motion did not define what he meant by an able-bodied pauper, but he did imply that people who voted in elections for boards of guardians did so deliberately for the sake of getting relief if they should be in need of it, or profess to be in need of it. Elections for the guardians are taking place all over the country, and there has hardly been a local contest where this kind of stuff is not trotted out by the anti-Labour candidates and their supporters. But I would point out that the young men who vote for Parliament do not vote in the elections for the guardians, as they have not got the vote. 25 per cent. of the Parliamentary electors do not take part in local elections at all as voters, and therefore they cannot be made the subject of the hon. Member's charges. When it is also remembered that unmarried men and even widowers do not get any relief at all from boards of guardians it will be seen at once that if there is any case against the boards of guardians it is because of the relief which is given to married people and their dependent children.

If it be right to disfranchise the voters for boards of guardians' elections, it is equally right to disfranchise the voters for Parliament. The present Government have passed some Measures which are as much bribery, if it be bribery, as anything done by way of giving relief. Old age pensions are an illustration. If we are going to disfranchise people who receive poor relief we ought to disfranchise the whole of the teaching profession, who are now paid ender the Burnham scale by a provision ratified by this House, which is Parliamentary bribery, to put it in that way. You cannot limit the operation of this Motion to boards of guardians' elections, because many of the education authorities in necessitous areas have to give relief in either money or in kind. What is the feeding of school-children but another form of relief? Then there are the work of the child and maternity welfare centres, the provision of milk for infants who are in need of it, the provision of free books and free fares for children attending secondary and other schools, and the provision of free scholarships in schools and universities. All those things can be said to come in the same category, in principle, as poor relief itself. The hon. Member for the University of Wales (Mr. E. Evans) has pointed out that out of a million or so paupers the vast majority are women and children and not able-bodied men.

The only satisfactory way of relieving the burden of high rates on industry depends upon the realisation of the fact that the bulk of this extra burden, due to poor relief and to the feeding of school children, and so on, is attributable to national causes and ought to be placed upon national taxation. If the Government shifted these national burdens on to national taxation the rates would probably go down by one half. I want to illustrate this point by the case of South Wales. At present there are something like 50,000 miners out of work in South Wales, owing to depression in the coal trade. Only the other day the Minister of Health, speaking on behalf of the Government, and with the expert knowledge which he has at command, admitted that neither he nor his Government saw any possibility of 200,000 coal miners finding work again in the coal industry. What is going to happen to those miners? They do not want to accept poor relief. They are able-bodied men, anxious to work and willing to do an honest day's work for an honest day's pay; but under this Motion these 200,000 miners would be disfranchised, because as soon as they have exhausted their unemployment benefit pay they have no other resource but poor relief for themselves and their dependents. No class in this country hates poor relief as do the miners. There is not a miner who would resort to it if he could possibly avoid it, and many thousands of miners and other workers in the necessitous areas have only accepted poor relief as a last resource. They have spent' all their little savings, they have even sold many pieces of their household furniture before accepting poor relief.

I would like to give the House one example of many thousands which could be given of the normal condition of the poor, independent of the out-of-works, with regard to this present distress in the coalfields. I call to mind a widow. She became a widow three years ago. Her husband had been a miner, and as he died following an illness she received no compensation money. She had no income to fall back upon, and was compelled to resort to Poor Law relief for herself and her three young girls. The whole of her time as a mother is taken up in looking after the health and comfort of those three girls. All three are exceedingly clever girls. She has made sacrifices for them, and all three of them are in a county secondary school, and one of them is the top girl in her school. This family could not possibly live without poor relief. This woman is an able-bodied person, but all her activities are necessarily absorbed by her house, and these three girls are rapidly becoming three valuable citizens. What is true of this case is true of countless thousands in the working class homes of our country, and yet the hon. and gallant Member who seconded this Motion would deprive all these people of this. He could not have thought of the consequences of the Motion if it were to be incorporated in an Act of Parliament.

Not one of the people who have talked so much about the respectability of the poor and keeping off the poor rates have suggested another obvious way of relieving high rates. In addition to the national policy that is required to shift the burden of national services which falls upon the local rates, there in the question of the enormous wealth amassed in this country year by year by the landlord class. Ground rents and mining royalties have never contributed a penny piece in England and Wales towards the poor rate. Here is a source of revenue which is untapped which no speaker in this Debate has suggested for the relief of high rates. They have not made this suggestion because they represent a class that lives and battens in this way upon the labour of the poor of the country who create that great wealth by the growth of population and by their industry. Not long ago the Coalowners' Association and the South Wales Miners' Federation jointly met the Government and placed before them the position of South Wales. They suggested that this heavy burden of the mining royalties should be transferred in the form of a contribution towards the relief of local rates.


I think the hon. Member is wandering rather far away from the subject before the House.


Other speakers have wandered quite as far as I have done, and I think my illustration is useful. If my suggestion were adopted, this question of high rates would gradually disappear. Reference has been made to the high rates in some districts, but we are not concerned whether the rates are high or low. What we are concerned about is the use that is made of the rates, and the social services which are rendered. In the local authority areas where Labour is in a majority, they are making good use of the rates for the public welfare. It is not so much a question of how much in the pound the rate is, as the services you get out of the expenditure. Efficiency is more important than false economy. The money which has been spent during the last few years in Poor Law relief assisting school children has been a sound insurance policy to stave off revolution in this country, and if something of that sort had not been done, the Government could not have carried on as smoothly as it has done during the last few years. Any party which interferes with the civic right of any man or woman to vote either at local or Parliamentary elections would be laying the foundations of their own downfall.


For the first time in my life I find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Peckham (Mr. Dalton). At the same time, I am anxious to dissociate myself from the manner in which he applied his argument. The hon. Member for Peckham, who does not now employ his military title, is known to be gallant in fact, although he may not be so referred to in this House. For this reason I am the more surprised that he should have indulged in a somewhat cynical attempt to exploit his former comrades. In the main I agree with the arguments which the hon. Member put forward. I agree that there is no better qualification for citizenship than that of fighting your country's battles. I do not think any ex-service man should be disentitled to vote or should be deprived of the full rights of citizenship because he is poor.

In this connection I would like to deal with the position of the conscientious objector. I believe that most conscientious objectors have now outlived their period of disfranchisement, but will anybody claim that while a conscientious objector is entitled to a vote any man who carried a musket is not to be allowed to exercise that right because he happens to be poor?

Unemployment in this country may be classified under three different sections. First of all, there are those who are normally covered by unemployment insurance, and who are usually able to get work before their period of benefit has expired. In the second category there are those who, while perhaps normally covered by insurance, at times are forced to have resort to Poor Law relief. The third category consists of those who are either out of insurance more or less permanently or are not covered by unemployment insurance schemes, and in any distress they must have recourse to the rates. Until we can remedy that situation, I do not see how any proposal like the one with which we are dealing is possible.

The people in the second category who occasionally have recourse to the rates, are distributed amongst the different industries of the country. A man in a distressed area, when he has exhausted his unemployment benefit, may find that he has no chance of obtaining work in his own industry, or any other industry in his district; whereas men in other parts of the country where there are alternative forms of employment may, without difficulty, and within a short time, pass from one trade to another. Until we are able to segregate the people who may fairly be called parasites, or, to put it more politely, are not likely to be able to obtain work again, I do not think it would be right to deprive a whole category of any part of their citizenship. In the case of those who are unable to carry on and are obliged to apply for public assistance, there should be no disfranchisement. There is no doubt in the minds of any hon. Member of this House that there has been a shameful exploitation of the pauper vote in certain districts, mainly in London. I know there has been some exploitation of this kind in other parts of the country, and that exploitation is a lasting disgrace to members of the party opposite, I also believe that a very large number of the members of the Labour party are as heartily ashamed of this exploitation as a blot on our civilisation as we are on this side of the House, only they have not the courage to say so.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for East Hull (Mr. Lumley) that the Minister of Health has found a proper remedy for this state of things. I doubt very much whether the corruption is so far-reaching as has been stated in this House. I am rather afraid that we are in danger of making poverty a crime. Some people want to disfranchise the poor, others want to sterilise them, and no doubt we shall eventually have a proposal to put them into a lethal chamber. I hope that time is some considerable distance off. Meanwhile, I shall oppose the Motion to begin by disfranchising them.


What has taken place in this Debate shows how innocuous is this Motion dealing with poor relief as a disqualification. The Motion merely sets forth that this is a subject which requires consideration, and it asks the Government to take steps to restore some measure of disqualification of recipients of poor relief for voting at elections of votes of guardians. Unless you are going to say that there never can be a point reached when receipt of Poor Law relief shall be a disqualification, you are hound to vote for this Motion. The question whether you are an ex-service man and the like would not enter into it, and unless you are going to say that at no point of time continuous receipt of Poor Law relief ought to amount to a disqualification, it seems to me that you are bound to vote for this Motion. It must not be forgotten that the right to vote combines with it a qualification for election as a member of the board of guardians. Therefore, you have the curious position of a person in receipt of relief being qualified to be elected as a member of the board of guardians administering that relief. It seems to me that in those circumstances it must be right to say that such a person should be disqualified from voting and from being a member of the board of guardians.

I have been very much struck with the contrast drawn between the position of those poor people and the case of the biggest ratepayer. We know that the biggest ratepayers in many districts are the limited companies, and they have no votes. They have no vote by virtue of carrying on their business in a particular place. To say that those in receipt of Poor Law relief should continue to have a vote while the big ratepayers in a limited company should not have the same right, seems to me to be continuing an anomaly which ought to be removed. Not only have these big ratepayers no vote, but it should not be overlooked that the men engaged in those businesses are probably the ablest men in the district, and they are disqualified from serving as members of the council or on the board of guardians in their own district. As long as you have the extraordinary position of the officials of a limited company not being allowed to vote, and not possessing the qualification to be members of the boards of guardians, I cannot help thinking that there must be some point at which a man in receipt of Poor Law relief ought to be disqualified from voting, and should be disqualified from being a member of a board of guardians. I think the receipt of Poor Law relief should deprive a man of the right to exercise the franchise, and there must be a point at which that should take place. All that this Motion is asking for is that the point at which it would be fair to deprive a man of his vote should be considered.


It is not often that I disagree with nay hon. and learned Friend the Member for Altrincham (Mr. Atkinson). His great debating qualities and sound political views are known to us all, but I am perfectly amazed that he should advance the argument that because there is one black there should be two blacks. I am more amazed to learn that although the hon. and learned Member has full knowledge of the fact that there are alterations proposed in the law to remedy what is an admitted defect in regard to the company law in respect of the voting capacity of some official or officials of a company, he puts that to us as a reason why some of the poorest, and most thrifty and prudent people who are disfranchised at the present moment should continue to be disfranchised. Let me quote one or two examples from my own constituency on the North-East coast. I have in mind one widowed lady whose three sons were killed in the War, and, owing to the intricacies and difficulties and the, sometimes, unfortunate character of the regulations, which are not made for hard cases—although I want to pay my tribute to the thoughtful and sympathetic attention of the Minister of Pensions in every Government in regard to these cases—this poor woman, who lived a frugal life, was compelled in the end to apply to the guardians for relief. There was no finer citizen to be found in the Hartle-pools, and yet, because of our present system, this poor woman, whose three sons gave their lives for their country in the War, and who has done her utmost to keep herself respectable, but at the end was compelled to go to the guardians, must be deprived of the possibility of participating in the franchise for the return of someone to represent her.

Another case of an ex-service man occurs to me. He gave up a 20 years position to fight, and yet was shamefully done out of his work after his return by another person. Yet this great City of London contains so many people who are too idle to accept the responsibilities of citizenship that in some cases only 11 per cent. of them utilise what is a precious right of the citizens of our country, namely, the franchise.

It is a broad position, and, while there are many features which, I agree, require reconsideration, if this Motion goes to a. Division I shall certainly vote against it. I think it is inequitable. I do not think it should be applied, and, to my mind at any rate, it is a bite only at a larger problem. If one might make a suggestion, I would rather be prepared to support a Resolution proposing that, where any able-bodied man or woman who was fit and able to do so had not utilised the franchise for three years, it should be taken from them and given to some of these poor folk who have proved that they are good citizens, and yet, by reason of their financial position, are not able to exercise the full responsibilities of citizenship in regard to voting. At any rate, I must say to my hon. Friend that, if he carries his proposal to a Division, I shall vote against him.


I am sorry that the hon. Member for Mile End (Mr. Scurr) has not been in the House for the last hour, although I see that he has now returned. Had he been here, he would have realised that the Aunt Sally of Conservative ideas that he laboriously set up is an utter and complete myth. The arguments of hon. Members who. have spoken in favour of this Motion illustrate the extreme danger of arguing from the particular to the general. Their argument is that, because in a few isolated cases up and down the country there may be abuses, therefore very large numbers of persons should be disfranchised who by no stretch of the imagination could he accused of having misused their rights of voting. In my own constituency, as hon. Members may possibly have seen from a Report of the Ministry of Labour published in the "Times" last week, we have, in some areas, 26 per cent. of the working population unemployed. It is idle to suggest that these men this week should be told that, through no fault of their own, they are unfit to vote for guardians, and, possibly, the following week, that they are fit to vote at a Parliamentary election, where infinitely greater issues are at stake.

The fundamental condition of our government in this country is that we depend on the common sense of the great mass of the people, and we believe—and up to the present we have had every right to believe, and all history teaches us to believe—that men and women in this country see through those specious promises of men who try to beguile them into thinking that they will get something which will be to their personal advantage. I believe that they have always voted, and always will continue to vote, in favour of the best interests of the public. Anyone who does not believe that does not believe in the essential characteristics of our own race, and it seems to me that, if a party like our own—which is proposing to give further proof, if proof were needed, of its belief in the common cense of our people, by increasing the electorate by 5,000,000—if a party like ours chose to pass a Motion of this sort, it would be wholly and utterly illogical.

The Motion is anti-democratic; it is very unfair, and it could only, as it seems to me, be passed, if it were passed at all, by Members of the party opposite. One of their leading publicists—I hope I am not maligning him when I say that he is a member of the party opposite—Mr. H. G. Wells, in a book that has been recently published, says: The essential weakness of democracy is that the great mass of human beings are not sufficiently intelligent to follow political issues at all. I think that, when hon. Members opposite or when many of their satellites get up and make, as they do, promises of further doles and £4 a week for everyone, they really believe in their hearts what Mr. H. G. Wells says. namely, that the mass of the people are not sufficiently intelligent to see through it. We do not follow that principle. We have much greater faith in the common sense of the people of this country. We believe that they will see through this sort of thing. We do not make promises of that kind, and that is one of the reasons why we are here in these numbers, and why we shall continue to be here.

7.0 p.m.


Had it not been for the fact that the conduct of certain boards of guardians in this country has come under the serious review of the Government this Motion would not have been before the House this afternoon. Behind the Motion, and behind all the speeches that have been made in its favour, is the assumption that, where there has been anything in the nature of a sympathetic point of view on the part of boards of guardians, that is an attempt on the part of the Labour party in local government to utilise the rates for subsidising the unemployed and the poor of the community. A great deal has been said in the course of this Debate about the ex-service man. We know, of course. what the other side claim in regard to sympathy with the ex-service man, and we are entitled to point the moral, as we have already done; but I am not so much concerned about the distinction that is drawn between the ex-service man and other members of the community, because we all know that, at any rate after the War had been in progress for some time, every person who was able to do service for the country was compelled to do so, with the exception, of course, of those whose conscience would not brook any compulsion whatever. The question of the ex-service man is not the essential point. The essential point is the fact that an attempt is being made, or would be made if there were any chance at all of this Motion being carried, to set the clock hack and to break down the principle of democracy for which this nation, and the people of this nation, have fought so well in the past. So far as the question of Poor Law relief is concerned, surely the point is this, that the people who are wasters ought not to get relief. That is perfectly true, and it is a matter for good government and good administration on the part of local boards of guardians. The assumption, however, always seems to be made by members of the party opposite that there is a lot of people who could get work but who refuse to search for work and prefer to live on public charity. There is a very great fallacy in that idea. Work does not drop from the skies. If there be anything at all in the suggestion that people refuse to work for whom work is available, it should be the duty of some public authority or other to point out where that work is available.

The Minister of Health some time ago spoke about the administration in West Ham, and said that, owing to the strictness of that administration, some of these wastrels in despair went out and found work. Where did they find that work? Were those jobs specially made for them? Did they come out of the blue? If not, they were jobs that were vacant temporarily or momentarily, and not permanently. Jobs are not waiting to be filled while people are able to fill them, and, if those people went out and found work, they could only do so at the expense of people who had filled those jobs previously, unless it be suggested that the jobs had not been filled previously, but had been started de novo. There was, however, nothing of the kind; what happened in these cases was simply that jobs were found for people who were out of work, and the rates are just as much called upon to maintain the people who are now out of work as would have been the case if no such work had been found. Really, the issue is the finding of work, and I make a great distinction between indiscriminate Poor Law relief and what is called excessive Poor Law relief. I do not believe, nor do the Labour party believe, in indiscriminate Poor Law relief in local areas; they do not encourage it, and have never stood for that kind of thing at all. I know that a number of people who profess to hold advanced opinions imagine that indiscriminate Poor Law relief is somewhat of a revolution, but that is not the principle of the Labour party; the Labour party does not stand for indiscriminate Poor Law relief. On the question of excessive Poor Law relief, I would like to put forward this point of view: Nothing that has ever been brought before this House in Debate with regard to the whole question of Poor Law relief has shown anything that could from any human point of view be described as excessive—[Interruption]—yes, relatively to local circumstances, perhaps; but, after all, if you take the highest amount that has ever been paid by the most extravagant board of guardians, what does it amount to? We had a case, in answer, I think, to a question, only a few days ago, where a man with a wife and six children was getting the tremendous sum of 24s. 6d. a week. Let hon. Members look at that, and ask themselves whether it is really excessive, and let them bear in mind that these people are unable to obtain work. Even if that man were a wastrel, if he could obtain work, he could only obtain the work that someone else is doing. Moreover, the question of Poor Law relief is not merely a. question of the wastrel; it is a question also of his wife and his children, and those children ought to be industrial assets to the nation. Therefore, when we talk about this question of local extravagance, I do suggest that we ought to make a distinction in regard to this idea of indiscriminate Poor Law relief. That has to be proved, and it certainly should be corrected, but there ought to be humane and just treatment of the poor of this country. An hon. Member opposite made the remarkable statement that people could be elected to boards of guardians who were, or had been, in receipt of Poor Law relief. That is altogether untrue; that is not the position; that is not the law of the country.

There was a case only a little while ago at Kingston, where a member of a board of guardians was knocked down by a motor car, I think, and had temporarily to he taken to a public institution. That raised the whole question as far as that individual was concerned, and there was no question at all about the fact that no man who has been in receipt of Poor Law relief can be elected as a member of a board of guardians. The hon. Member who seconded the Motion happens to be my own Member; I live in his constituency. He suggested in the course of the speech that the vote possessed by people in receipt of Poor Law relief was simply a question of bribery, and laid the position open to all sorts of bribery and semi-corruption in regard to local administration, and he said he, himself, personally had not made promises to the electorate—at any rate, promises which would make any difference to their financial circumstances. I am quite prepared to prove that the hon. Member has a very bad memory as far as that is concerned. There is at present in his own constituency a guardians' election in progress, and I have received from the Municipal Reform candidates, the candidates of his own party, programmes, manifestoes and election addresses which tell me, as a ratepayer, that if I vote for Municipal Reform I shall save in rates. I am quite serious. I am asked by the supporters of the hon. Member to vote according to my pocket, and not on the merits of the question. I would not think of depriving members of the Municipal Reform party or anybody else of the right to vote. If you want clean government which has no shadow of corruption, you must see that the people have an intelligent conception of their duties and responsibilities, and that undesirable people shall be taken off——


Will the hon. Member permit me to say that I have never been a candidate for the guardians?


I shall have something to say about it in my own division. There is another point before I sit down, and that is in regard to limited companies not being able to vote in the districts where their factories are situated. We are told that they are large ratepayers, and that although a poor person who has been in receipt of public relief is enabled to vote, people who pay these large rates are unable to do so. I should have thought we had passed a long way beyond the whole conception of property qualification—the old idea that not human beings but bricks and mortar, stocks and shares, and other things were entitled to vote. We have no doubt that the shareholders of a company in, say, Poplar, West Ham or Bermondsey can have as many votes as anybody else in that community if they are prepared to live in and accept the local responsibilities of these districts. But they do not do anything of the kind. They live somewhere else, and make their money out of the works, factories, industry or business in which they have shares in those areas. The money is made out of the people who work in these factories and from the people who buy the products of these factories. The shareholders do not make it. They take the dividends out of the areas in which they would not think of living, and they expect the same sort of power over those who live in those areas, and who, by force of circumstances, have had to accept relief. I do not think this Motion is going to be carried, not that Members on the other side of the House would not like it to be carried, because it is part of their attitude towards democracy, but because they have one eye on their principles as usual, and the other on their constituencies.


I have to make an apology for seeming to deal with some matters that concern more the Department of the Minister of Health. As far as the question affects Poor Law administration, it is a matter for the Minister of Health, but when it affects franchise it becomes a matter for the Home Secretary. I have listened to the Debate with great interest, and I think it has been a good Debate. It has brought out one or two interesting points. It is quite clear that a large proportion of Members do not want to see any further extension of what the hon. Member for Peckham (Mr. Dalton) called the appeal to the financial interest of the voters in this matter. There is great difficulty on both sides as to how far it is reasonable to expect every man to vote, irrespective of his position, and in spite of the fact that he may be directly living on Poor Law relief. That is one side of the question. The other side is that it is not only impossible but wrong to deprive of the vote those men who in many cases, having fought for us during the War, have had to give up their work because they came back wounded. It is very hard lines that, they should be deprived of their vote because they have gone on the Poor Law or some other form of relief.

I want to put the difficulties before the House, so that it should realise the position. The vote of those in receipt of Poor Law relief is quite a modern innovation. Under the old Common Law, no one who received relief of any kind was entitled to vote. During the Governments of both Liberals and Conservatives it was an accepted principle that a man who lived on Poor Law relief should not have the vote, but in 1918 the House decided to get rid of that disqualification. A very curious tone ran right through that Debate. There was a feeling that it was unfair to retain the disqualification for Parliamentary voting, while there was a great deal to be said in favour of retaining it far local self-government. One hon. Member said, "I am not sure whether the present system of Poor Law relief would make a free and an independent electorate." There you get the real gravamen of the position. You want the elector to be able to give his vote freely and independently. I think a very respected Member of the Labour party, who is no longer with us, Mr. Wardle, assisted in that Debate, and pointed out that this stigma for Parliamentary purposes was removed altogether: as to its removal for local government purposes, he said, "I quite agree that that may be different." So one sees there are those differences of opinion as to whether it is right to remove the disqualification altogether or put back the disqualification. We have to face the facts as they are. We have to consider them as they are before we arrive at any hasty decision. There is no doubt that Poor Law relief since the removal of that disqualification has increased enormously. If you look at the last year before the War, 1913, when the country was prosperous, you find that 630,000 people were in receipt of Poor Law relief. In 1920, two years after the disqualification was removed, 567,000 people were in receipt of Poor Law relief and it has steadily gone up. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] I should like to give the facts first. I want the House of Commons to realise what the facts are. The figures have gone up very largely even during 1920–21. At the end of last year we had 1,250,000 in receipt of Poor Law relief.


Was there not a miner's stoppage in 1921?


In London, where trade is as good and employment is as good as in 1913, the number of persons in receipt of Poor Law relief has doubled. I do not say what the reason is, but in a great city of 5,000,000 or 6,000,000 people we get, compared with 10 years ago, double the amount of Poor Law relief. In 1920 pauperism in London was 100,000 and last year 217,000. I want the House to realise the magnitude of the problem which we and which Poor Law reformers are facing. We want a free and intelligent vote of the electorate on all questions, Parliamentary, municipal and boards of guardians. The Mover and Seconder of the Motion thought the whole thing perfectly simple. I have gone into the question and have found it exceedingly difficult. You would get, in fact you did get before the removal of the disqualification, men deprived of their vote who had not had poor relief for 18 months. If we are going to have, as we probably shall have in the future, a three months' qualification with a yearly register, you will find that a man will only be disqualified if he has taken Poor Law relief in one particular quarter of the year before the register is made up. He might receive relief to his heart's content for eight months and four weeks of the year and would not be disqualified, but, if he received relief during the particular three months prior to the making up of the register, he would be disqualified. Then, of course, there are other difficulties in regard to the female franchise—the disqualification of the husband or wife receiving, one or the other, Poor Law relief, and there are enormous difficulties in dealing fairly with the question of ex-service men. I am bound to say that there would be very great difficulty in doing anything to disfranchise ex-service men. The way, as it appeals to me, of making elections fair is, as the hon. Member for Peckham said, to deal not with the voter but with the candidate who appeals unfairly to the voter.


The right hon. Gentleman is putting words into my mouth that were uttered by another hon. Member. I said abolish the guardians and merge their functions.


I quite thought the hon. Member would agree with me that it is desirable to raise our politics to the highest level. It may seem rather Utopian, but we should appeal to the electors on the broadest possible basis, and not on direct personal motive. The hon. Member who preceded me made a very fair point in mentioning the appeal of a candidate who said, "Vote for us, and your rates will be lower." I do not want to quote cases, but there have been very distinct cases—the Minister of Health has dealt with them in the House and in public—where attempts have been made to obtain votes by pocket influence, such as "Vote for me, and we will give a larger measure of poor relief." I am glad the hon. Member is against indiscriminate poor relief. I trust the whole of his party will agree with him there. As to excessive relief, that is obviously a question of amount on which opinion may differ, but I do not think it is fair to quote relief, to a married man with six children, of 26s. I have here a large number of scales, and there is no scale I can see of any well-known board of guardians in town or country where a man with six shildren gets anything like 26s. [Interruption.] They run to about 41s. to 43s. They are all distinctly higher than the amount given by the hon. Member.

I want to take the statement of the hon. Member for Peckham. I shall tell the Minister of Health that in his scheme of Poor Law reform he will have the support of the leaders of the Labour party in getting rid of the taint of bribery or unfair influence on the electors. The briber is far worse than the man who takes a bribe. Everyone will agree with that. The man who gives a bribe in order to get something for himself, whether it is a vote or anything else, is far worse than the man who receives it. While my appeal would be to candidates to raise the tone of their political discussion and of their attempts to obtain votes, very great help will be given by the reform the Government hope to bring in in the very near future, and, if in the course of that we can find means of dealing with the question of merging the guardians in some larger body, I believe it will very largely get rid of this very real difficulty.

What line then should I ask my hon. Friends to take, and what line do I intend to take myself in regard to this question? On the whole, if my hon. Friend who introduced the Debate, in a speech which showed much care and much thought, could see his way not to press it to a Division, I think he would be wise. [Interruption.] I want to keep the Debate on the kind of level the House of Commons should adopt and not to make a mere party attack. Speaking as a responsible Minister, having heard the Debate, and having gone into the matter very fully not merely for hours or days but for weeks, and the Cabinet having gone into it equally fully, as at present advised I cannot think the proposal my hon. Friend mikes is the best one for dealing with what all sections of the House admit is a very real difficulty. If he could see his way not to press it, I think that is the best way of dealing with the difficulty.


In view of the very interesting and instructive discussion which has been conducted generally with good will on both sides, I ask leave to withdraw the Motion.


Is it your pleasure that the Motion be withdrawn?

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.




The objection was too late.