HL Deb 03 March 1908 vol 185 cc474-88


Order of the day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I am afraid I occupied your Lordships' attention at rather undue length in presenting this Bill a little while ago, but I hope on this occasion to be as brief as your Lordships would desire. As the House is aware, this is a permissive Bill. Its object is to enable the municipal councils of our English boroughs to substitute for the present method of electing their members the system which is detailed at length in the Bill. The alteration is intended to secure a greater continuity in the composition of these councils and the more assured presence on them of independent members, men who are active and useful in municipal affairs but are not attached to any political party, and who, under present circumstances, have a difficulty in entering these bodies.

The Bill was read a second time last year by your Lordships and referred to a Select Committee. That Committee took great pains to examine the scheme and the operation of the Bill, and they reported very favourably upon it. I think I am fairly representing them when I say that they thought the Bill well calculated to attain the ends sought by it, that it could be worked with tolerable ease, that returning officers could certainly be found capable of carrying it out, and that they would have little or no difficulty in training their assistants to work the system. The members of the Select Committee had the advantage, not only of hearing explanations of the Bill given by those interested in its drafting, but of actually seeing an election of members of a medical council in London conducted on this system, which no doubt had some effect upon their decision.

Whilst the Select Committee thus approved of the object of the Bill and substantially of the method by which it was sought to be accomplished, they thought the conditions under which it might be adopted by the municipal councils were not quite stringent enough, and that it was not sufficiently apparent that whatever was done would be done experimentally. They therefore proposed certain alterations in the Bill to remedy this supposed defect. These alterations have been made, or, at least, I have endeavoured to incorporate quite faithfully all the proposals of the Select Committee. I believe a doubt is entertained by one noble Lord who can speak with authority as to whether we have carried out the proposals of the Select Committee with absolute correctness. It was so intended, and if we have failed, the matter can be remedied in Committee. I can assure the members of the Select Committee that nothing was intended but to carry out with the utmost strictness what they recommended. As your Lordships approved the principle of the Bill last year, at all events, so far as consenting to the Second Reading involves approval; as you referred it to a Select Committee, who returned it with such favourable comments, and as we have made the alterations proposed by the Select Committee, I do not think I need trouble the House with any further remarks at the present moment. I therefore, with great hope that it will meet with the absolute concurrence of your Lordships, move the Second Reading of the Bill.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a—(Lord Courtney of Penwith.)


My Lords, I desire to say, on behalf of the Government, that we do not propose to offer any opposition to the Second Reading of this Bill, partly, of course, because it is of a very tentative and permissive character, and, even if passed into law, would not of itself involve any important legislative change. My noble friend hehind me spoke of the Committee which, as your Lordships know, sat last year. It seemed to me he somewhat overstated the effect of the Committee's recommendation when he said they had expressed approval of the principle of the Bill. What they did I think, was to express approval of the experiment being tried, which is not precisely the same thing; and it is also I important to remember that the function of the Committee was a distinctly limited one. They did not inquire into the whole subject of minority representation, but simply dealt with this particular Bill. It is, I think, important to bear that in mind in considering what the Committee really did.

There is no doubt that, as far as the London municipal boroughs are concerned, there is, as everybody who has looked at the Report of the Select Committee will see, something in the nature of a distinct grievance which might be remedied. In the Metropolitan boroughs, which, as your Lordships know, are in a different position from those in the provinces, the elections are triennial and affect the whole of the council; and the effect has been that on certain occasions there has been an absolutely sweeping change in the composition of the council, far beyond what the change in the opinion of the electorate could, be said to warrant. In the provinces, on the other hand, under an entirely different Act of Parliament, one-third of the council is elected every year. That does involve a much more gradual alteration of the composition of the council, and it involves-a much greater probability of something, like a continuous policy.

One complaint which has been brought against this Bill is the alleged complication of the manner in which its object is to be carried out, and I think that my noble friend probably underestimates, the degree of terror with which his First. Schedule is regarded at first sight by those who attempt to peruse it, and with which it might be regarded by the returning officer. On the other hand, I think my noble friend is entitled to argue, as no doubt he does, that it is quite possible that a process which looks extremely complicated on paper, may be far more simple to carry out than a first view would lead one to suppose; and I believe, as a matter of fact, that those who have tried the experiment—and the Committee had the advantage of witnessing an actual election under this system—have found that it is easier than the appearance of the Schedule would lead one to imagine.

On general grounds, as I say, we do not desire to offer any opposition to the Second Reading of this Bill. But I think it is important to give one word of caution, as we know that my noble friend looks further ahead and hopes to see this plan employed for the purpose of Parliamentary elections. I should, therefore, like to guard myself by saying that it must not be supposed that we either say or deny, by giving assent to the Second Reading of this Bill, that this plan is the one which ought to be adopted, supposing any plan has to be adopted, for the purpose of meeting the difficulty of minority representation on the large scale. I am anxious to make that perfectly clear, in order that we may not be told at a future date that we have adopted the principle of the noble Lord's Bill for the larger purpose.


My Lords, as I had the honour of acting as Chairman of the Select Committee, it is, perhaps, due to the House that I should say a word about our proceedings. I am sure, in the first instance, that the Report entirely carries out the view I held myself, and, I think, the view of the great majority of the Committee. As the noble Ear the Lord President of the Council has stated, our duties and functions were certainly limited. We had not to express an opinion on the principle of the proposal; but we did satisfy ourselves that the machinery of the Bill would work perfectly well, and that it carried out in an effective way the object of the measure—namely, that of giving fair representation to minorities.

We had a very ample opportunity of having the Bill explained to us by the officers of the society with which my noble friends Lord Courtney and Lore Avebury are connected; and I am bound to say that it took some time and a good deal of explanation to make us fully acquainted with its intricacies. But when we had mastered the proposal, and had had an opportunity of seeing an election carried on under this system in the Royal College of Surgeons, with the officers of the Proportional Representation Society as returning officers and the surgeons themselves counting the votes, we could see that, with proper instruction, the Bill was perfectly workable, and that a competent returning officer would be able to give such instructions to his subordinates as would ensure the machinery of the Bill working efficiently. I am bound to say, with regard to the complicated nature of the Bill, that I think that part of it could be got over; but I did form a strong opinion that there was one objection to the rather complicated explanations that were necessary—namely, that a voter in the first instance certainly could not assure himself that the machinery which was put before him would necessarily carry out the object in view, and that his vote would have the proper value when the votes were counted; but that as soon, however, as he had had an opportunity of carefully examining it and of having the matter fully explained to him, he would, no doubt, give his vote under this machinery with an assurance of confidence. The next point we thought it necessary to assure ourselves upon was that there was a feeling in the country in favour of adopting some system, different from the present mode of election, which would secure more weight to the minority vote. As the noble Earl has pointed out, in London, where the elections take place every three years and affect the whole of the council, there have been some of the most startling changes that it would be possible to conceive. In Lewisham, for instance, at the 1903 election, the Progressives had thirty-four seats and the Moderates only six; in 1906, on the other hand, the whole of the Progressives were unseated and the Municipal Reformers obtained all the forty-two seats. There have been, under the present system, such violent fluctuations that most people have felt the necessity for some value being given to the minority vote.

Having satisfied ourselves on those-two points, we thought it our duty to secure that the Bill should be strictly confined to an experiment. The scheme which we proposed was this, that a council should not have power to try this experiment by a mere majority, but that the resolution in favour of the change should be carried by a majority of three-fifths of the council after due notice had been given. This would enable an experiment to be made of the proposed system for a period of three years, practically one election of the whole council. We also suggested that, if it was wished, after the expiration of the period of three years, to continue the experiment, it should be possible for a council, by a resolution of a majority of its members, to continue the new system of voting for another period of equal duration; but, failing any such resolution, the borough should revert automatically at the next municipal election to the mode of conducting elections in force before the experiment was tried. We also proposed that after the expiration of this second period of three years any further resolution of a council in favour of the continuance of the proportional system should be laid before each House of Parliament for a period of not less than forty days during the session of Parliament, and that, if either House before the expiration of such forty days presented an address to His Majesty against the resolution, no further effect should be given to it.

I would point out that we had no opportunity of comparing this procedure with other means of giving effect to the minority vote. The Committee was a Committee on this Bill, and, as chairman, I had to rule out of order any discussion with regard to other modes of securing the object in view. Therefore we felt that we were not in a position to say either aye or no whether this was the best mode of procedure, but merely to give effect to what was proposed, namely, that the experiment should be tried. There is one other point to which a reference was mad by the noble Lord in charge of the Bill. I do not think that Clause 4 as it stands does quite accurately carry out the proposal of the committee, because it says that— The operation of this Act may be discontinued for any borough by a resolution of the council passed in the fame manner and on the like notice as the evolution adopting this Act and thereupon this Act shall cease to be in force in the borough. and that then— The council of any borough in which the operation of this Act has been discontinued may again adopt this Act in the same manner as if it had never been previously adopted. As I have explained, that is not intended. It is not intended that there should be any necessity for moving a resolution to discontinue the operation of the Act, but that proprio motu the council should go back automatically to the old mode of conducting the election unless a resolution in favour of the continuance of the proportional system is passed by a majority of the council. I think, therefore, the noble Lord will see that this clause is not quite in conformity with the scheme outlined by the Committee, and, subject to that, I entirely agree with the explanations he gave.


My Lords, it is most natural that such of your Lordships as take an interest in this subject should approach it and desire to speak of it with the caution that was exhibited by the noble Earl the Lord President of the Council. The question dealt with in the Bill is one of the very highest importance. The evil my noble friend seeks to grapple with is that the present method of checking votes in this country for every purpose works out with the result that n a great many cases there is no true representation of the various opinions held. It is, no doubt, generally felt that that is not satisfactory, and that it would be a great deal better if some method could be discovered which would give fair representation to the minority.

Anyone can see that those are topics entitled to plain consideration from everyone, and they have attracted the support of some of the most powerful minds in this country for a great number of years. I will not allude to those who are still with us, but I would like to mention, for the respect I bear to his name, the late Henry Fawcett. My noble friend Lord Courtney appears to have lived and learned, and to have come to the conclusion that he must approach the question in a tentative and experimental way, for he has left Parliament severely alone. This Bill suffers, I think, not a little by the title that has been given to it; it is awe inspiring to be asked to consider a Bill for proportional municipal represensation. It suggests a great many sums behind to be worked out by those whose minds still retain enough of their early education to enable them to perform the feats, but it does not suggest anything of popularity. The schedules, too, do not look attractive reading at first blush.

I heard the discussion last year on this Question, and was a good deal struck by what was said by the noble Marquess the Leader of the House, whom we hope soon to see again in his place. The noble Marquess said he had given consideration to this matter some years before, and one of the practical difficulties that struck him was that the returning officer was given a power that in some cases might be found to be almost too great for fair and satisfactory working. I do not say that it is an objection that I would adopt lightly, but it shows how a fair mind looking at this question will see points that need examination and consideration. The struggle has been, I have no doubt, on the part of my noble friend and those interested in this question, to evolve a system which is not only just, but susceptible of ready understanding. I have no doubt as to the absolute honesty of purpose of my noble friend, but whether he has yet succeeded in reaching the highest point of simplification in a very difficult question I have not the knowledge that would enable me to say.

The measure has gone through the ordeal of a Select Committee, and that Committee guarded themselves against making a rush with anything like enthusiasm on the subject, but rather dealt with it with caution and much hesitation. It may be that should the Bill pass, the boroughs would, to use a common expression, fight shy of it; it may be that the constituents would be timid and would not think they could work it out; and if the representatives of the borough, who had to consider the application of this Bill, had it borne in upon them by public meetings and by articles in the Press that the constituents of their borough did not see their way to adopt it, understanding the present system but not feeling very clear that they could understand the new system, that, of course, would operate as a check; and it might be that, if the Bill passed, it would be adopted in a comparatively small number of boroughs. I dare say that that would satisfy to some extent the views of my noble friend, because it would test the working of the system by public elections.

The suggestion made by the noble Earl the Lord President of the Council is that the wisest, fairest, and most courteous course to adopt, in reference to a measure proposed by one whom we all respect so much as the noble Lord, is to read the Bill a second time; but the noble Earl was careful to guard himself by entirely confining what he said to this Bill, and by preserving entire freedom should it ever be sought to apply the principle in a wider way. The views stated on that subject by the noble Earl commend themselves to my own judgment, and I would be sorry to say anything that would indicate a want of entire respect for the Bill.


My Lords, the noble Earl the Lord President of the Council has pointed out very properly the great distinction between the metropolitan boroughs and the provincial boroughs. In the case of provincial boroughs, a third of the councillors retire annually, with the result that there is an election every year, and I believe that, as a rule, the boroughs are divided into wards returning three members. Now, nobody has pretended to say that there is any grievance there. There was no evidence before the Select Committee last year from a single provincial borough that they were dissatisfied with the present mode of election. One-third of the members are elected annually; there is, therefore, continuity, and the minorities are fairly represented. I am perfectly certain that if this Bill passes into law we shall never see the experiment tried in any one of the provincial boroughs. Indeed, it was stated before the Committee that the provincial boroughs were satisfied with the existing state of things and did not approve of the Bill.

In the London boroughs the position is certainly very different. The plan that has been in operation there since the constitution of the metropolitan borough councils, and, indeed, before in the case of the old vestries, has been that of triennial elections affecting the whole of the members, and it has happened that at one election the whole of the members of a council were replaced by others of a different type. I do not think anybody who has looked into the matter can doubt that some change is necessary and desirable in the case of the metropolitan boroughs. For my part I think the true remedy could be found in the application of the provincial method of election, the boroughs being divided into wards returning three members and a third of the members being elected each year. That seems to me to be the logic of the position; but as my noble friend desires that the experiment of proportional representation should be made, I have no particular objection. It is unlikely, however, that any of the London borough councils will risk the trial.

To speak frankly, I am not in favour of schemes of minority representation. I have had a connection with the subject almost as long as my noble friend Lord Courtney. I recollect that forty-one years ago, when the Reform Bill of 1867 was before the House of Commons, and a Motion was made for the purpose of introducing the cumulative vote into Parliamentary elections, the motion was supported by Mr. Mill and Mr. Fawcett, and I have no doubt my noble friend Lord Courtney, although not a member of the House at that time, supported it by his pen. Though supported by high authority on One side, it was opposed by equally high, in fact greater, authority on the other—namely, by Mr. Disraeli, Mr. Bright, and Mr. Gladstone; and I remember that, speaking on that occasion, I ventured to predict the failure of the scheme.

I would remind your Lordships that two experiments have already been made in this direction. It was introduced into the Reform Act of 1867 by your Lord ships by way of Amendment, and was very reluctantly accepted by the Government of the day and by Mr. Disraeli, who had previously expressed a very confident and strong opinion against its adoption. However, it was adopted and applied to three-cornered constituencies—not many in number. The proposal was that, instead of three votes being given, the electors should only give two. For some little time, I think, the scheme gave satisfaction, but after a while its defects became apparent. One of its defects was that it caused political stagnation in the constituencies; members got returned as minority members, and there was no practical means of getting rid of them The whole scheme became distasteful to the constituencies where it was adopted and in the Reform Act of 1884 it was abolished by universal consent, and there was substituted for it the scheme of single-member constituencies.

The other experiment that was tried in the same direction was in the case of school board elections, where the cumulative vote was adopted to enable various religious sects to be represented. That, if I recollect rightly, was adopted by general consent, and for a time it worked well. But after a few years it was found that it enabled representatives of small sections to get into positions where they were mischievous rather than useful, and from which they could not be dislodged. Even supporters of minority representation condemned that particular scheme, and it finally disappeared when the work of the school boards was trans-erred to county councils. Lord Courtney and his friends think they have at last devised a scheme which is not open to these objections; and, theoretically, I think, there is a great deal to be said for the elaborate scheme described in this Bill. But my own belief is that in 3ractice it will be open to almost similar objections to those felt against the cumulative vote. I think it will turn out, in practce, that it will favour minorities in she same way as that scheme did, and that it will make it extremely difficult for majorities to obtain their due proportion on the councils. It will obstruct majorities, and, on the other hand, small sections and classes of people will find themselves able to return members.

Take, by way of illustration, the scheme as described in the Schedule of this Bill. Take the case of a constituency returning five members with 6,000 votes. According to the proposal of my noble friend, any one candidate getting the quota of 1,000 votes will be entitled to be elected, and, theoretically, that is perfectly accurate, and there is a great deal to be said for it. But, in point of fact, when you come to the practical working of a scheme of this kind, I think it will turn out very differently. Let me suppose, for instance, the case of a constituency which is being fought by two nearly equal parties, and that then a candidate independent of either of them comes forward. I think it can be shown mathematically that in such a case, if the independent candidate obtains, not one-sixth of the votes, but slightly above one-ninth of the votes he will be almost certain of election.




It would be necessary for the purpose of working this out to have a blackboard and chalk; but I must ask the House to take it from me that, under the conditions I suggest—namely, that two nearly equal parties are fighting the constituency, and an independent candidate comes forward—the independent candidate, if he obtains one-ninth only of the votes, would be almost certain of toeing elected.


No, no.


Then there is this further difficulty. If, in the case of a constituency returning five members, an independent candidate succeeds in getting the quota, then the two parties who are fighting for the other four seats would almost necessarily be in an equal position—two of each would be returned, unless one party were in the proportion of three to two, which is a very rare case. Thus it turns out that, under a scheme of this kind, the minorities would be unduly favoured, and majorities would find it extremely difficult to exercise their influence. For these reasons I confess that, for my part, I have very great doubt as to the advisability of the whole scheme. I do not know that I have any objection to the Bill passing into law, or even to the experiment being tried in any one of the London boroughs if they choose to adopt it. But I very much doubt if a London borough council will try the scheme, and I have a very strong impression that, if passed, the Bill will become a dead letter.


My Lords, as I had the honour of serving on the Select Committee of your Lordships House by whom this Bill was considered, I wish to say a few words on this subject. Speaking as one who was a member of the late School Board for London, I do not at all accept the view of the noble Lord who has just sat down, that the cumulative vote in school board elections was a bad system. I think the inconvenience of its working, so far as there was inconvenience, was due to the awkward size of the constituencies, and the inconvenience would, I think, have been greatly removed if there had been only three members for each constituency. But the system of cumulative voting gave a fair representation of parties, and there was scarcely one constituency in London in which the elector, whichever side he was, had not at least one of his members in sympathy with him. I think that was a great advantage. If anyone speaks impartially on this matter it is myself, because, on the first occasion that I stood for the London School Board, I was defeated by the operation of that vote; but I still consider the working of it was fair. My own bias was in favour of the cumulative vote, or the restrictive vote, rather than the complicated system of this Bill; but, from what I heard and saw on the Committee, I was led to believe that the working of the system seems to be much easier to those accustomed to it than one would at first sight suppose it to be. It seems to me that a wide extension of minority representation is the inevitable consequence of the wider popular franchise. The effect of the present system is that large parties scattered throughout the country hardly have any representation at all. I welcome this Bill as a step in the right direction, but whether the scheme will ever be adopted on a large scale I do not know.


My Lords, as I also had the honour of serving on the Select Committee I trust I may be permitted to say a few words on this subject. Lord Eversley, though he did not oppose the Bill, certainly threw cold water upon it, and prophesied that, if passed, it would never be adopted. I am not going to be so bold as to enter into any prophesy, but, if I were to do so, I should say that if the municipal authorities had power to adopt this system they certainly would do so, At any rate, that has been the case in Switzerland. Lord Eversley went on to discuss the question of cumulative voting in school board elections. I entirely agree with my noble friend who has just sat down that, far from working badly, the cumulative vote gave great satisfaction. It is quite true that many of us thought there was a better system than that of the cumulative vote, and the House of Commons appointed a Committee, on which I had the honour to serve, to consider the question; and the last two Vice presidents of the Council as well as the last two heads of the Education Department gave very strong evidence before the Committee that the cumulative system had not only not been a failure, but had conduced greatly to the satisfactory working of school boards. The system was not abandoned, as my noble friend suggested, because it was condemned, but simply because the work of the school boards was handed over to the municipalities and no change was made in the system of election to those municipalities.

Then Lord Eversley gave the House some very extraordinary mathematics, and asked your Lordships to accept them from him. It would be premature to go into that question in any detail, but I would venture to express a hope that the House will not accept that statement from my noble friend. As to the alleged difficulty of the system proposed in the Bill, I think it may be assumed that what the Danish, Swiss, and Belgian electors and the voters in various other parts of the world can do, will be earned out satisfactorily by British electors. I am not prepared to admit that my fellow-countrymen are so stupid that they cannot carry out a scheme which is gradually making its way over the rest of the civilised world. As a, Londoner, and an ex-chairman of the London County Council, I may say that, whatever may be the case in the country—and I cannot help thinking that, even in the country, this Bill would work with great advantage—the present system in London is most unsatisfactory. It has been found by experience in two successive municipal elections in the Metropolis that a comparatively small change of opinion among the voters themselves may suffice to throw out the whole of the representatives of one party and replace them by the representatives of another.

Whether we agree, on the whole, with the Progressives or with the Moderates, I think we shall all concur that there are good men on both sides, and that it is important to secure the return of those councillors who have done good service in the past. The result of this Bill will be to secure greater continuity of action, and it will, therefore, prove a great advantage to the Metropolis. I deny that the Bill would give undue advantage to the minority. It will secure what I venture to think the House will agree are the two great objects we should aim at in any system of representation—it will give power to the majority and a hearing to the minority. This Bill will to a considerable extent secure those two great objects, and I am glad that your Lordships are going to give it a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.