Motion made, and Question proposed,
That Mr. Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough of Woolwich (West Division), in the room of the Right Hon. Sir Kingsley Wood, deceased."—[Mr. James Stuart.]
§ Sir Richard Acland
On this occasion I feel there are good grounds for asking for a reasonable postponement of this Writ, and, if that is not granted, for opposing it. There is a printed Bill, which, I do not think it is any great secret, will be passed in a matter of weeks. Within two weeks of the passing of that Bill the electors of Woolwich could vote on an up-to-date Register. I am entirely 2 disinterested in this particular constituency. So far as one can see, it is going to be contested by two candidates, between whom I should find it difficult, although perhaps not impossible, to choose. But, as a matter of principle, I feel that the electors of Woolwich should be given the best possible opportunity of choosing between those candidates. When this principle was first raised, those who took, broadly speaking, a similar point of view to mine were in a difficult position; we were really asking for the constituency to be left without a Member for perhaps months. But that is not the case to-day. I ask for the electors of Woolwich to be left without a Member of Parliament only for a few weeks. I acknowledge that that is a disadvantage, but something of the sort has happened before, and nobody has complained. Sometimes, when the party concerned has desired to bring a candidate home from the ends of the earth, a Writ has not been issued for months, purely for the convenience of the party which happened to be concerned. Sometimes, when Members have died in the middle of a long Parliamentary vacation, months have gone by—during which it has been possible, technically, I believe, to get a Writ moved—and nobody has moved a Writ, and nobody has complained. So this loss is indeed a small one, which has often been shared by electors in other constituencies. For that loss—a trivial one—of being without representation in this House for a few weeks, the electors will get the opportunity to express their democratic views on a Register as up to date as the wit of the 3 Home Secretary and the wisdom of this House can make it, instead of having to make up their minds somehow on a Register which, in all parts of this House and by all sections of the community, is regarded as archaic. Therefore, I suggest that this Writ should be moved on the day after the Bill which is now printed has become law.
§ The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Attlee)
The hon. Member, I think, has forgotten that the passing of a Bill does not put all the machinery into operation. The passing of the Bill is one thing, and the machinery then has to be set up for putting it into operation. [Interruption.] I have my information. It will take a considerable time to get that machinery in motion. I think the hon. Member is mistaken in saying that it will take only a few weeks.
§ Mr. Attlee
I think it would be unjust to withhold the issue of Writs for constituencies just because they happen to fall vacant at the time of the introduction of this Bill.
§ Mr. Loverseed
Is it not a fact that the Register may be issued within a matter of days; that the particulars are, in fact, in the hands of the food offices, and that the returning officers at the present moment hold the duplicates of these particulars, which could be issued in a matter of days?
§ Mr. William Brown
I have taken part in a great many by-elections in the past few months, and, in my experience, there has been no feature which has caused more popular anger than the out-of-date nature of the register. It is a matter of bitter comment that practically everybody under the age of 27 is disfranchised, and that the soldiers who are fighting in the war have no opportunity of voting. In those by-elections it was impossible to do anything about it; but in this by-election, and in subsequent ones, it is possible to do something. I assert that upon the decision as to whether this Writ is taken to-day or a few weeks hence may depend the choice between the candidates at Woolwich. In many by-elections the result of the contest would have been quite different if the decision had been made on an up-to-date register. It is not 4 a question of seeing that Woolwich is represented quickly, but of seeing that it is represented rightly and democratically. If the matter is carried to a Division, I shall vote against the Government.
§ Question put.
§ The House proceeded to a Division, and Mr. SPEAKER stated that he thought the "Ayes" had it, and, on his decision being challenged, it appeared to him that the Division was unnecessarily claimed, and he accordingly called upon the Members who supported and who challenged his decision successively to rise in their places, and he declared the "Ayes" had it, eleven Members only who challenged his decision having stood up.
§ Sir R. Acland
On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. I do not question the general propriety of saving the time of the House, because it is valuable, but the point of a Division is to record the names of those who have voted. I remember a day in the time of your predecessor when the I.L.P. were in the same position in which you have, quite properly, put myself and my hon. Friends, and the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) was able in a matter of 30 seconds to have their names recorded for posterity. We have been put to this disadvantage, and I still ask whether there were not a sufficient number of hon. Members opposing this Motion for a vote to be taken and their names to be recorded?
§ Mr. Speaker
I asked hon. Members to rise, and it was for me to decide whether it was necessary or not to hold a Division. The responsibility was mine, and I must accept it, and I do.
§ Mr. W. Brown
On a further point of Order, Mr. Speaker. Is there a method by which hon. Members who wish their names to be placed on record as having opposed the Government on an issue can record their votes?
§ Mr. Speaker
The hon. Member has not only made a speech, but he has made an interruption now, and he knows perfectly well that the fact will be recorded.