HL Deb 04 November 1915 vol 20 cc167-77


Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I ask you to give this Bill a Second Reading with the object of affirming two principles which I believe will recommend themselves to your Lordships. The first is that no elector shall be deprived of his vote on account of being on active service, whether in the Army, the Navy, or the Mercantile Marine; and the second is that military or naval service shall in itself confer the franchise. The Bill accepts the principle that those who have defended their country have a right to a voice in the management of its affairs. I am aware that the second principle opens up considerable controversy, because it may be said that we are seeking to enfranchise people who are not contemplated by our present franchise laws. That is quite true. But I desire to recommend the principle to your Lordships, although I am aware that anybody who has enlisted may say, "My comrades who have gone out to the Front have been given the vote and will be able to exercise it. I was just as willing as they were to go out to the Front, but because I have not been sent abroad I am not given the vote." If the House accepts the principle that service in the armed Forces of the Crown should of itself confer the vote, then I submit it is not impossible to adjust that in such a manner as shall be fair and equitable. But it seems to me to be so important that those who are serving abroad should not be disabled on that account from exercising the vote, if they have already got it, that I am prepared, should your Lordships insist upon it, to make you a present of the second principle—that of conferring the franchise in virtue of service—in order to save the first principle, which seems to me to be vital.

There are a great many people who will say that as the Bill will only become operative should a General Election be held before a year after the termination of the war it is not necessary to pass it, because there is no chance of a General Election being held within this period. That is just as it may be. It would be highly undesirable to have a General Election either before the termination of the war or within a year afterwards. It would create a great deal of confusion and expense, and the issue would be doubtful and difficult to define. Many other reasons will occur to your Lordships why it would be undesirable to have a General Election within this period. But more wonderful things have happened; and I submit that if we pass this Bill we shall be relieving those who are serving at the Front of a sense of very grave injustice, for it is a very grave injustice indeed that an elector who has gone out of the United Kingdom voluntarily in a great many cases—because these are not all professional soldiers—should, in virtue of risking his life on sea or on land, be deprived of his civil rights.

There are no doubt objections to this Bill. Like many other measures that have been presented to Parliament, it is, as far as machinery goes, only the very first word in trying to affirm this principle, and I am perfectly willing to alter the detail of it as much as your Lordships may please; but I beg you most earnestly to give the main principle of the Bill your serious and favourable consideration. If we can contrive to pass it, we should not only be saving a very great injustice but we should be doing ourselves a good turn, because we should feel that we could not hold a General Election in this country unless we were fortified by the advice and the wishes of those of our friends who are out at the Front. It has just struck me that there is one direction in which the first clause of the Bill certainly should be amended, or at least should be more carefully defined. We have all got into the habit of referring to some day or other called the "termination of the war." I am not quite sure when I am talking about the termination of the war exactly what I mean myself. It would be a great advantage if the noble Marquess, from his long experience, would favour the House with what in his opinion is meant by that expression, whether it means the day on which peace is signed or the day on which the armistice, which I suppose —


interrupted the noble Lord with a whispered statement.


My noble friend Lord Cromer says that all this has been discussed before when I was not in the House. Well, in those circumstances perhaps the noble Marquess will give me, in my ignorance, one or two words of enlightenment as to what was discussed when I was not here with regard to the day when, technically speaking, for the purpose of Acts of Parliament, the war may be considered to have been brought to an end. There is one more point. When this Bill was drafted we were then at war with Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey, but the area of the war shifts nowadays from one place to another, and therefore the first clause will have to be altered in such a way as to include any other country with which we may be at war. I hope the Government will give the idea of this Bill their favourable consideration, and if the Bill is withdrawn to-day, should it not in its present form seem acceptable to your Lordships, or if you vote against it—though I am not quite sure whether there are a sufficient number of Peers in the House to take a decision upon it— we could begin all over again some other day. If we do not come to any definite decision about the Bill to-day, I hope that at least we shall hear from the noble Marquess that he does not think the proposal unreasonable, that it is receiving the attention of the Government, and that the Government will bring in a short Bill on their own account dealing with it in their own way. I can assure him, with great respect, that if the Government do that they will receive a great deal of support. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a—(Lord Willonghby de Broke.)


My Lords, I hope your Lordships will accede to the request of the noble Lord and give this Bill a Second Reading. The noble Lord has been, to my mind a little too deprecatory with regard to his Bill. But first of all I want to congratulate him upon the Memorandum which is prefaced to the Bill. I wish that every Bill had attached to it a Memorandum which made as clear as this Memorandum does what the object of the measure was. The nation has called for the services in the field of every single man who can be spared and who is of military age, and this call has been answered in a magnificent manner. We are only gradually becoming aware of the number of men who have responded to the call and offered themselves for sacrifice on the altar of the nation's liberties. I think we must all feel that national gratitude can hardly go too far in showing these men that we appreciate what they have sacrificed. All who have voluntarily responded to the nation's call deserve our gratitude. How can we show our gratitude better than in telling those men who already have the franchise that the fact of their going out to fight the enemies of their country will not deprive them of the right of every British citizen with any stake in the country to the privilege of voting for those men who are to guide the destinies of our Empire? And how can we show our gratitude better to those men who have not yet got the franchise than by saying to them that by their act of coming forward and not holding back their lives if necessary they have proved themselves worthy to have the vote?

In supporting the general principles of this Bill, I desire to say that there are certain Amendments which, if the Bill ever gets to Committee, I shall think it right to move. They are three in number. First, this Bill, in my opinion, should not apply to any who at that time are serving under statutory compulsion. We owe no gratitude to men who only come in by compulsion, if compulsion ever comes. Secondly, I cannot for the life of me understand why we should cease to be grateful to a man for services in the field after the war has terminated for a year. It appears to me that as long as he is able to vote, a man who has served his country in the field should be permitted to vote. The other Amendment which I should propose would be that the Bill should not be limited to soldiers, sailors, and mercantile mariners absent from the United Kingdom. If you leave in the words "absent from the United Kingdom" you will get into a difficulty, because a man ordered to Dover, we will say, to resist an invasion —not that an election is likely to take place at that very moment—would not be allowed to vote, whereas a man who was out in France or at Gallipoli would have the right of voting. The man in England is under orders and is as much doing his duty as the man who is further afield.

I think the noble Lord was too deprecatory of his Bill when he said that it might be considered controversial. I cannot see how in present circumstances such a Bill could be considered controversial. In olden days it would have been. But we have, or shall have very shortly, a nation in arms—that means that every single man of military age and fit will be with the Colours. Could we who are sitting at home at ease, we who are above the military age, for one moment grudge any young man who is in the military or naval forces of the country the privilege which the noble Lord by his Bill proposes to give? I do not believe it. I believe this Bill would be welcomed. Every proposal that is made will find a few objectors; but, speaking broadly, the great mass of the nation is absolutely loyal and grateful to these men and would be ready to give them the privilege which the noble Lord proposes.

I may be asked, Why do you not include in the Bill those who are serving the nation at home in civil employments, just as necessary to the successful prosecution of the war? My reply would be that men who are in a civil capacity serving the State, however noble and useful may be their work, however self-sacrificing they may be in doing it, have not made the one supreme sacrifice of risking their lives at the hands of the enemy. Not for one moment should it be thought that there is any comparison at all between the claims of the man who is risking his life on the field of battle and the man who is doing his duty, nobly I dare say, in the munition factory, in the public office, or elsewhere. I imagine—although the noble Lord did not say it—that he has brought in this Bill in order that there should be a special recognition at the hands of the State of these men who have taken the step of placing themselves in such a position that the supreme sacrifice may be made by them.

There is another objection which may be raised to the Bill. The noble Lord in his Bill does not allude in any way to the women who have placed their lives in jeopardy—and there are hundreds of them —in the service of the country. If any woman should be so foolish as to raise this question now, my reply to her would be, as one who ardently desires that worthy women should be accorded the privilege of the vote, that what is of absolute necessity at this moment is that there should be national unity, and that any attempt now to put forward what women conceive to be their just rights would be a fatal mistake. The way in which the women of the nation have come forward to work for their country, and the self-sacrifices they have made—I include those women who formerly, to my mind, were exceedingly unwise in the action they took to promote what they thought their interest—will never be forgotten. The British people are not unobservant or ungrateful. They may not always be quick to recognise the demands of justice when they run counter to their prejudices, their habits of thought and action, and the traditional custom of ages, but they know what self-sacrifice is and recognise it when they see it. Self-sacrifice in a noble or patriotic cause goes direct to the heart of the average British man or woman and one more sacrifice on the part of women, far from militating against their interests, will make even more secure than ever that ultimate triumph of patriotic womanhood when blessed Peace shall again be restored to our beloved country, and the permanent security of the rightful liberties of both men and women in all free countries is definitely assured.

Seeing that this Bill (to my mind at least) is noncontentious, does injury to no man or woman in the State, takes away the franchise from no one, recognises the sacrifices made voluntarily by over 3,000,000 of British men, and gives them the opportunity, which many of them do not now possess, of helping by their vote to guide the destinies of this great Empire, for which they will many of them have fought and bled, let us not hesitate to accord, by this small Parliamentary measure, the State recognition which these gallant men will have so eminently deserved before victory has finally crowned their self-sacrificing and patriotic efforts in the cause of King and Country.


My Lords, if I venture to say a few words of criticism of my noble friend's Bill, and if I even end by suggesting to him that it may be well not to press it further upon your Lordships' House, I can assure him that I am not actuated by any feeling unfriendly to the general principle he has in view. The primary purpose which he has before him is one which must, I think, commend itself to everybody. He desires that these gallant men who are fighting for us, who are risking their lives, whether by sea or land, should not as the result of the sacrifice they are making be deprived of their civil rights and denied an opportunity of taking part in the political affairs of their country. That principle has really been admitted by Parliament, because last year we passed a short Act called the Electoral Disabilities (Naval and Military Service) Removal Act, which was designed for the express purpose of providing that no person should be disqualified for being registered for voting, in respect of a qualification for which any residence or inhabitancy is required, by reason only that during the whole or any part of the qualifying period he has as a member of the Naval Reserve, or the Army Reserve, or the Territorial Force, or as a Volunteer, been absent on the service of the Crown. Therefore I think that Act really affirmed the principle which my noble friend recommends to us.

Now what is the plan upon which my noble friend proceeds? He proposes that if an election should take place during the war or within a period of twelve months after the termination of the war soldiers and sailors already on the register should be given facilities for voting. He goes further, and proposes actually to extend the franchise to such men if they are not already on the Register. At this stage, let me endeavour to answer the question which my noble friend puts to me. He had some misgivings as to the precision of his own expression "the termination of the war" We have lately passed a great number of emergency measures all of which are limited to the duration of the war or to a period of so many months after its conclusion, and others besides my noble friend have asked what is meant by the "conclusion of the war." I do not think that is a question which anybody at this moment can answer. It is quite clear that it might not be sufficient to make the date run from the actual signature of certain international documents. The fact is, the question will have to be considered in all its bearings; and when the time comes, as I hope it may before very long, I am convinced that we shall have to pass a short Act of Parliament fixing a date and saying that that date shall be taken to be the date of the termination of the war.

One word as to the second of my noble friend's proposals—I mean the proposal that the franchise should be extended to men who are serving and who are not already entitled to it. I am sure, from the tenor of my noble friend's speech, that he felt himself that this was far too serious an innovation to deal with in a Bill like the one which he has placed upon the Table. It would obviously be an immense change in our franchise legislation, and if anything of the kind were to be attempted I venture to suggest that it could only be after full consideration by the Government of the day. And I think there must occur to all of us some very obvious reasons why it would be at any rate very difficult to extend the franchise to every soldier or to every sailor who happened to have spent a few weeks or even a few days on service in the field.

I now come to the machinery of the Bill, and my noble friend very candidly admitted that the machinery which he proposed was to be regarded as only the first word in the matter. I am afraid its machinery, at a great many points, would prove to be extremely difficult to work. What is suggested under the Bill is that a person desiring to vote at a given election is to notify his desire after the election has been announced and not more than three days after the date fixed for nomination. He has to do this by means of an application to the Returning Officer, and he has to do this, remember, in the middle of military Operations and in circumstances which might render correspondence of that kind by no means easy. That is the procedure in the case of the soldier or sailor who is already entitled to the franchise. The man who is not entitled to the franchise is to follow a different procedure. He has to apply to the proper naval or military authorities for a certificate. The application in the one case and the certificate in the other are to be sent to the Returning Officer, who will then supply the man with a ballot paper. The man is to return the ballot paper to the Returning Officer, who is required to retain all these papers together with the unopened ballot boxes for a period of four weeks after the ordinary date of polling. That would be a very inconvenient period of delay after a General Election, and I am bound to add that I am not sure that the four weeks which my noble friend suggests would really be adequate for the purpose. The man might be fighting in Mesopotamia or at a great distance, and the four weeks would probably have to be considerably extended. The result in any case could not but be to delay the result of the elections considerably, and, I venture to think, inconveniently. Then is it not clear that if this change were to be made it would be necessary to set up on the spot machinery of some kind where the man was serving in order to collect and forward his voting paper? I cannot find in the Bill any machinery for that purpose. It is quite true that the point is not altogether forgotten. I find it here said that the man who desires to obtain a vote is to inform the proper authority. But the proper authority is to be determined by the Army Council, the Admiralty, or the Board of Trade. So that really there is no machinery. Machinery would have to be set up, and I venture to think that it would he extremely difficult machinery to devise.

Then is there any security in this Bill that the ballot paper will ever reach the man at the Front? He may be serving at some place which letters do not reach very easily. We know what complaints there are of the non-arrival of letters to men serving at the Front. Then when the ballot paper gets back to the Returning Officer will there be anything to show that it has been actually in the hands of the man to whom it was directed? Your Lordships know the elaborate precautions of safeguard which are enacted in the Ballot Act. None of those would be provided under the Bill as it stands, and that would be a serious difficulty. I also suggest to my noble friend that if a Bill of this kind were to be attempted at all it would probably have to be extended in its operation, because there are other persons who stand a chance of being disfranchised owing to the conditions which now prevail—such people, for example, as those who are engaged in munition work and Government employ of all kinds. There has been a great movement of the population lately owing to the war, and from that displacement there has resulted a corresponding amount of disfranchisement, and if these things have to be set right I venture to think they ought to be set right systematically and not in a piecemeal fashion.

I have dwelt. I hope in no uncharitable fashion, upon what seem, to me to be the imperfections of the machinery of the Bill. Let me add a word as to the attitude of His Majesty's Government towards this question. We have always been profoundly convinced that a General Election ought not to take place while the war is going on, and I may say that so far as we are concerned we shall spare no pains to prevent any such thing taking place.


Or within a year after?


The question of the limit of time must be, I think, subject to a certain amount of elasticity. We also hold very strongly that, if possible, before a General Election takes place there should be a revision of the Register. There was an attempt made to deal with that matter, as I am sure my noble friend remembers, in a Bill which was passed through Parliament in the month of July of this year—the Elections and Registration Act. The effect of that Bill was to stop the ordinary process of registration and to keep the old Register—that is, the Register which came into operation on January 1 this year—in force pending further legislation but not beyond the end of the Year 1916. That is how the matter stands. There is no registration going on at present, and we all realise that a revision of the Register must come sooner or later. But we realise also that the matter cannot be allowed to remain there. As my noble friend knows, the natural life of this Parliament comes to an end in January of next year, and it would be physically impossible to complete the new Register during the weeks which stand between now and that date. Therefore if a General Election were to take place it would have to take place on the old and imperfect Register, and none of us, I am sure, desire that that should happen. Therefore in our view what is necessary is to consider the question of extending the life of the present Parliament and of providing the means of compiling a new ad hoc Register next year, so that it may be ready when it is wanted. These questions are engaging our attention at this moment, and we hope very shortly to be able to tell Parliament how we propose to deal with them. But I venture to suggest to my noble friend and to the House that they are matters for which His Majesty's Government must be held responsible, and that, as we do not in the least intend to shirk that responsibility, we are justified in asking him to allow the matter to remain in our hands.


My Lords, I am very much obliged to the noble Marquess for the complete statement that he has made. It is a very valuable statement, and if the introduction of this Bill had succeeded in nothing else except the speech of the noble Marquess I think it would not have been entirely in vain. I can quite understand the difficulties with regard to enabling those who are on active service to record their votes, but the noble Marquess has presented difficulties which had not occurred to me before. At the same time I do not relinquish the idea of this being possible. Because those who will the end can always will the means, or pretty near it. For the present I will not persevere with the Second Reading of this Bill, but it must be understood that this is without any prejudice to any Amendments that may be proposed at a later stage if a Bill is introduced for the purpose of defining the life of this Parliament and entering into other matters connected with registration. I beg leave to withdraw the Bill.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.