HL Deb 22 May 1900 vol 83 cc882-4

My Lords, I beg to ask Her Majesty's Government whether a county councillor who is absent for a period of twelve months from the United Kingdom is liable to a fine and to the loss of his seat; and whether they will take into consideration the hardship likely to be thereby inflicted on councillors serving in the Auxiliary forces abroad should their corps be kept under arms for so long a time. I am afraid that the point of the question has somewhat diminished in force by the events which have lately happened in South Africa, because we all trust that the troops now stationed abroad will return to this country before the conclusion of the period of twelve months. Bat the question is important as a matter of principle. The law is that a county councillor loses his seat and is subject to a fine if he is absent from the council for more than twelve months. The loss of seat is not merely temporary. In many cases the councillor would be deprived altogether of the opportunity of taking his proper share in the business of the county in which he resides, and in which he probably has a very large stake, because when a county councillor vacates his seat his place is filled by some other resident in the county, and it is extremely difficult for him to regain it or to find another. There are social and other reasons which make a man very reluctant to attack a sitting member, and a sitting member cannot be expected in every case to give way to the old member who by his absence has forfeited his seat on the council. The case of district councillors and members of boards of guardians has been pressed upon me by the Association of Poor Law Unions, who say that there is a hardship in that case. The cases, however, are not parallel, and therefore I have not included them in the question. District councils have power to remit the penalty which a district councillor incurs in case of absence, though even in that case Members who have a strong feeling against the war might oppose the remission of the penalty. That is not a probable case, but I have brought it to the notice of Her Majesty's Government because I think it would he well if district councils were included in any change of the law. I do not quite see why a county councillor should stand in one position and a district councillor in another. If it is said that the position of a county councillor is so important that he ought to undergo more penalties if he neglects his duties, I would venture to point out that the duties of a Member of the House of Commons are still more grave, and yet there is no penalty imposed on a Member of Parliament who is absent from this country for more than a whole year. The law as it at present stands presses very hard on the officers of the auxiliary forces. They engaged in their service on the understanding that they were to defend this country in case of invasion. We have practically forced them to go abroad, because no man of ordinary courage and ordinary patriotism would refuse to volunteer when his country asked him, and I think the least we can. do is to release him from a penalty of this kind.


My noble friend Lord Harris is engaged on military service, and I am therefore compelled to undertake the answering of this question, which I am perhaps not very competent to do. I understand that any Question of a fine is not, as relating to a county councillor, a matter or serious difficulty, because the county council is at liberty to reduce the fine to a nominal sum, and therefore any serious inconvenience will be prevented. The picture which my noble friend has conjured up of a Quaker district councillor is not, I think, sufficiently important in regard to the number of cases likely to arise to call for action, and if there wore any attempt to plunder an unfortunate member who went to the wars, I think there would be patriotism enough to indemnify him for the suffering he might have endured. The question of vacation of seats is another matter I should father counsel my noble friend to put this by and bring it forward later in the session, when we shall know somewhat more certainly than we do now what the length of their absence is likely to be. If the absence is serious, undoubtedly a case for legislation has been made out. No doubt when these provisions were made nobody dreamt of a state of things arising under which members of county councils and district councils would go to the other end of the globe to fight. It can hardly be said, therefore, that they ought to have foreseen the difficulty in which they stand. My noble friend is aware that there is still before the House of Commons a Bill dealing, I think, with the case of Members of Parliament, and preventing the vacation of their seats by their absence in South Africa. I cannot pledge myself in the matter, because I have not considered it sufficiently, but I think we might make that Bill applicable to the cases which my noble friend has brought forward, and relieve any serious injury if it turns out to be serious. I think, at all events, there is ground for indulging in the hope that they will be back in this country before the period of their service elapses.