HL Deb 23 March 1914 vol 15 cc654-6


Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the Bill to which I ask your Lordships' attention is already known to you, and for that reason, if for no other, I shall make very few observations about it. It is, in fact, substantially the Bill which I had the honour of submitting to your Lordships some seven years ago. When I moved it the second time I then asked that it might be referred to a Select Committee, to which request your Lordships were good enough to agree. The Bill is one for the permissive adoption of the principle of proportional representation instead of the principle of majority representation in the election of municipal councils in England and Wales, including therein the borough councils of the Metropolis. The Bill, as I have said, was referred to a Select Committee, who recommended approval of the Bill with certain modifications as to the machinery. The Bill came up again the next year, when certain Amendments were adopted and incorporated in the Bill, and it passed through all its stages and went to the other House. It naturally arrived there too late for that session. Although the Bill has been introduced again since that time, and attempts have been made to obtain days for discussion, those attempts have been fruitless.

Now, after a lapse of six years, I come to your Lordships again and ask you to consent to the Second Reading of the Bill in the hope that it may pass through the subsequent stages in a short time and be sent down to the other House, where there is a slight expectation—I will not say a very confident one—that some attention may be paid to it. We have no power of enforcing the consideration upon the other House of Bills which have been twice passed through this House, and we must take the result as we find it. Meanwhile I beg to ask your Lordships to consent to the reading of this Bill a second time, with a view to accelerating its passage through this House and enabling it to be sent down to the other House in good time, where we hope it will receive different treatment from that which has been accorded to it previously.

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


My Lords, the noble Lord who has moved the Second Reading of this Bill has been, as your Lordships know, a consistent and enthusiastic advocate of the principle of proportional representation. He and the late Lord Avebury—whose loss we all deeply deplore—had in fact made this subject their own. Lord Courtney has given your Lordships the history of the Bill, and has stated that it was referred to a Select Committee, on which I had the honour of sitting, and that the Select Committee recommended it to the consideration of the House.

The primary object of the Bill is to secure more adequate representation of minorities, and the Committee in their Report pointed out that as they were limited by the terms of reference to the consideration of the proposals of the Bill, they did not form or offer any opinion on the merits of this scheme as compared with others having the same object. I do not think, if I may say so, that the evidence taken before the Committee showed that there was any real demand for the alteration in the system of elections proposed by the Bill. Still, as Lord Courtney has reminded the House, the Bill is optional. But I very much doubt whether many local authorities would be willing to disturb the present system by adopting what, after all, must be admitted to be an extremely complicated system. The larger part of the Bill appears to be in the schedules, which occupy a good many pages and which will need a good deal of studying by all concerned to explain the system of counting the votes. I venture to think that returning officers and all those engaged in elections where this system is adopted will have a very arduous task; and although I think it is probable that, after a little while, the officials charged with the conduct of elections under it might carry out the duties without any serious mistakes, I am not at all sure that the average voter would not have difficulty in deciding the order in whish to distribute his preferences; and I am sure it would be difficult to persuade him, at first at all events, that his votes had been accorded their full value in the way he wished.

Another disadvantage which appears to the Local Government Board is that this system would involve town councils going out altogether every three years, thus involving a risk of a serious break in continuity of administration. At present, as your Lordships know, in provincial boroughs one-third of the councillors are elected every year. I have drawn the attention of the House to some of the objections to the Bill as they seem to me. At the same time the Bill is optional, and before it could come into force it would have to be adopted by a three-fifths majority at a meeting of the council, and if it were not found to work satisfactorily it could be abandoned. The Government will certainly not offer any opposition to the present Bill in your Lordships' House and are quite willing that it should go to a Second Reading. I think the noble Lord, from his concluding remarks, is not very much more sanguine than I am as to its going any further than this House during the present session, but if it ever passes into law it will certainly be interesting to watch how many town councils try the scheme and with what results.

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