§ LORD STRACHIE rose to ask His Majesty's Government when and how they intend to carry out their pledge to prepare a new Parliamentary Register so that if occasion arises a General Election can take place upon it; and to move for Papers.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is common knowledge that it would be practically impossible to hold a General Election on the present Register, which is so stale and antiquated that a General Election upon it could not result in the true opinion of the people being obtained as regards the future Government that they desire. I am sure I shall not be contradicted by any noble Lord who, like myself, from necessity in the past has had acquaintance with the way in which Registers are made up and the difficulties of compiling them, when I say that this is not a light or easy matter. It is, however, one which ought not to be neglected. Indeed, it surely would be right that when the time comes, though it may be a long while yet, for Peace to be made, it should be made by a Government and by a House of Commons possessing the full confidence and being representative of the country; and he would be a very brave man indeed who would say that the present House of Commons is still representative of the country.
§ The last Register was made up as long ago as 1914—that is to say, it came into force on January 1, 1915. This sounds as if the Register was only a year and a half 1048 old, but those noble Lords who are acquainted with registration know that this Register is at least three years old, and in some cases it is more like four and a half years old as regards qualifications in certain areas. Removals have been enormous, not only as regards the war, but in the general way of men following their work; so that for practical purposes the last Register is altogether obsolete. What happened in 1915 was that registration was postponed early in the year, and no registration took place in 1915 at all. The Government then said they would take the means for bringing a new Register into force as soon as possible. Then in December, 1915, the Government finding that the war was still going on, a new Registration Suspension Act was passed, not only for a time, as in the case of the former one, but suspending registration permanently; so that under the present condition of things no registration can take place until the Government deal with the question as a whole.
The Government recognised, however, that it was a very strong order indeed to propose that there should be no registration. Not only was this so in view of a possible General Election, but I imagine that the reason why no by-elections have taken place is that it would be a farce to hold them on the present antiquated Register. When this second measure was passed in December, 1915, the Government promised specifically to provide a special Register. The then Home Secretary stated in the House of Commons—
As the language of the Bill will be found to show, we contemplate the preparation of a special Register to be used when the General Election comes, which will secure that those returning from the Front do not lose the opportunity of voting because of the length of the period of qualification. … The creation of such a special Register is a matter of some difficulty, but it is one to which the Government are giving urgent attention.
This was nearly a year ago. Since then nothing has been done to carry out this pledge, except that in another place the other day the present Home Secretary, Mr. Samuel, made a statement which was described by Sir Edward Carson as opéra bouffe, and which was laughed out as ridiculous and as showing that the Government intended to do nothing at all. Over a year ago the Prime Minister promised to consider this question, which he said—like his statement as regards the constitution of your Lordships' House many years before
—was a question "which would not brook delay." Yet what does the Prime Minister now say? He says—
We will consider this question, and if we are able to make proposals of our own we will do so.
§ And that in face of the fact that a year ago the Government told the House of Commons and the country that it was their intention, if Parliament agreed to suspend registration, to proceed at once with this subject and deal with it in the quickest possible manner!
§ The other day the Home Secretary said that one of the great difficulties was, Would you give votes to women or not? And he asked, What were you to do about soldiers voting? He said it would be impossible to have an Election going on in France with ballot boxes in the trenches. I submit that this is fooling with a question which is of the most serious importance. There are thousands of soldiers who, if they had qualifications, are disfranchised because they are no longer in this country and their residence has been vitiated. On the other hand, I fancy that the great majority of soldiers were not electors before they went out. That observation does not apply, of course, to the men who are serving under the last Military Service Act; but the great majority of those men are at present in this country, and if there was a General Election and they had been properly registered they would be able to take part in it. The argument is often used that it would be unfair to our soldiers to have a General Election when they were unable to take part in it; but it ought to be remembered that a large number of people staying at home regard it as equally unfair that they should be disfranchised. I venture to think that our soldiers and sailors would suffer no harm, because I feel certain, if a General Election came in their absence, that the first thought of the men who had to vote would be to do justice to those serving in our naval and military forces and to make certain that the sufferings which they had endured should not go for naught.
§ Then we have been promised another Inquiry, although the Government more than a year ago told us they were quite ready to deal with this matter. When apparently they were disinclined to do so, they tried to shuffle it off on to the House of Commons, but the House of Commons absolutely refused to have anything to do with it, and the Government now say they are prepared to consider the question—as 1050 if it were entirely a new subject and one on which they had made no promises. I suppose it is really a matter of little importance to them in one sense, because as long as the Government can prolong the life of the House of Commons they can prolong their own life. It is obvious that with the death of this House of Commons would come the death of the Government. One: cannot help feeling that the Government, are rather inclined to play with this question. They say, "What does it matter? We-have a House of Commons which is quite satisfied with us, and we are going to bring in another Bill further to prolong the life of this Parliament."
§ What is the present position? It is a remarkable one. Actually the present Parliament comes to an end next month, and the Government have not yet announced what is their intention regarding this matter, except that they mean to prolong the life of this Parliament. They regard this as a matter of little consequence to the country. The country, they appear to think, is satisfied that the present Government is indispensable, and the Government therefore desire to hang on to office as long as possible and think it does not matter if the life of this Parliament is extended to any time which they may think fit. That may be the opinion of right hon. gentlemen sitting on the Treasury Bench, but it is not the case that Liberals generally are absolutely satisfied with this Government and with the present House of Commons. I noticed the other day that an old friend of mine, one of the most consistent supporters of the Government in the House of Commons, Sir Courtenay Warner, quite openly said, "We want to have life and vitality in a renewed Parliament." And he went on to say that "this was not a Parliament that could make Peace"; that as a matter of fact it was well known that this Parliament was "like the Long Parliament, trying to hang on and remain in office." And this was from one of the Government's strongest supporters! I submit that the people of this country ought to have a proper Register, so that a General Election could, if necessary, take place. If there were a General Election at the present moment on the old Register, it would simply be a farce and a fraud.
§ Moved, That there be laid before the House, Papers respecting the preparation of a new Parliamentary Register.—(Lord Strachie.)1051
§ THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE
My Lords, I make no complaint of the noble Lord opposite for having brought this important question before your Lordships, but I regret that he should have spoilt a statement which began in a very temperate and judicial tone by some, as it seemed to me, wholly uncalled-for innuendos at our expense, and by such statements, for example, as that we regarded this question as one not of serious importance, or, again, that our conduct was actuated solely by a desire to "hang on to office." I really think the noble Lord might have known better.
§ LORD STRACHIE
I do not think I said that. What I referred to was the opinion that the Government was indispensable.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE
The noble Lord used the words "hang on to office." I wrote them down at the time. At any rate, I do not desire to press that part of the case further. The situation is a fairly obvious one. The life of this Parliament, as the noble Lord has told the House, expires at the end of next month, and therefore unless we resort to legislation we shall find ourselves face to face within the next few weeks with a General Election. Quite apart from any desire to prolong the life of the present Government, there are a great many reasons which render most people averse from the idea of resorting to a General Election while this great war is in progress. The reasons are so obvious that I need not dwell upon them. None of us desire to revive old political animosities, or perhaps to let loose new political animosities, at such a time as this. None of us desire to see the waste of energy and the waste of money which an unnecessary Election could not fail to cost the country, and I think we must all have at the hack of our mind the feeling that an Election held at a time like this would present to the country confused issues upon which it would not be easy for the electors to pass a calm and deliberate judgment. Therefore, my Lords, I admit that my instinct, at any rate, is to avoid, if possible, a General Election while the war still continues.
This being so, we feel that the only course open for us is to come to Parliament and ask for a Bill which will give a further lease of life to the present Parliament—an extension certainly not for a long period of time, but for a very short one. But while we intend to take this course we fully recognise 1052 that a General Election may, owing to some unforeseen circumstance, become unavoidable. Circumstances may demand it so strongly that no Government would desire to throw obstacles in the way, although, of course, we realise fully—and with that part of the noble Lord's statement I certainly do not quarrel—that an Election taken at this moment upon the present Register would be a most unsatisfactory Election. The present Register, which, as the noble Lord told the House, is in fact probably more than three years old, is entirely obsolete, and we should therefore all regret if we were to find ourselves forced to depend on that Register.
Now the Bill for the prolongation of the life of this Parliament must, we think, pass into law before the adjournment. We understand that it will be for the general convenience that there should be a recess, and if the Bill does not pass before the adjournment it would be too late to serve its purpose But we realise absolutely that if we ask Parliament for such a Bill, we are under the obligation to produce at the same time, at any rate in outline, our proposals with regard to the formation of a new Register. Therefore although we cannot, of course, hope to pass a Registration Bill before the autumn, we shall certainly, I will not say introduce a Bill, but we shall at any rate place our proposals with sufficient clearness before Parliament before the House separates for the adjournment. I do not know that I can say more than that. I am quite sure that neither the noble Lord nor any noble Lords opposite will expect me to anticipate at this moment the proposals which we shall make, and which will, of course, come before Parliament at the proper time.
I will only add one word more with reference to what was said by the noble Lord as to our delay in dealing with this important question. I think his complaint is a fair one. He quoted speeches made by some of my present colleagues, in which hopes were held out many months ago that we were going to make some attempt to deal with the question of registration. If his researches had been careful enough, he would have been able to find some words which I have spoken in this House in which a similar hope was expressed. I can only say that our excuse for not fulfilling those pledges is to be found in the extreme difficulty of the subject and the immense variety of opinion which obtains with 1053 regard to it. We intend on this occasion to take the subject up in all earnestness, and I hope before long that your Lordships will be made fully aware of what we intend.
§ THE EARL OF PORTSMOUTH
Did I understand the noble Marquess to say that at the same time as the Bill is introduced for prolonging the term of this Parliament the Government's proposals with regard to the formation of a new Register will be submitted to your Lordships' House in outline?
§ THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE
I did not say "submitted to this House." I said that they would be laid before Parliament—that at any rate the substance or outline of them would be so laid. I did not commit myself to the production of the Bill. And I wished to make it clear that this would be done before the adjournment and at the same time, or nearly at the same time, as the production of the Bill for extending the life of the present Parliament.
§ THE EARL OF PORTSMOUTH
I understood, from what the Prime Minister said in the House of Commons a night or two ago, that he pledged himself to introduce a Bill in definite form. Proposals in outline are not of a satisfactory character. We have had many proposals in outline which have come to nothing. It is desirable that we should be given something in the form of a definite document, and not merely a speech. For a long time we have been living upon statements of Ministers, and we have not got any further. The war is now being left to be waged—and won, I hope—without interference, by the naval and military people. But what I think the country has a right to anticipate with some anxiety is that when the conclusion of the war is reached they should be confronted with this position by the Government, that they should be told that they cannot have a General Election regarding the terms of Peace—the terms of Peace being points on which the country ought to be consulted—because there is an inefficient and unreliable Register. It is obviously impossible to have a General Election in the course of the next few weeks. In fact, we should not gain anything by it. We should still be appealing to the country on a Register which goes back to 1913. But there is no reason why a new Register should not now be seriously taken in hand, so that in the course of the next six months we should 1054 have a Register up to date. The contradictory statements of Ministers lead us to fear that nothing is being done, and that when the time comes the country will not have a Register on which a General Election can be held with any hope of ascertaining the real opinion of the country.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Lansdowne has told your Lordships that a Bill for the further prolongation of the life of the present Parliament will be laid before your Lordships' House. I think this is the first time that a public intimation has been made here of that fact. I do not criticise my noble friend for having made it so late, but I must say I think it is a matter of surprise, considering the great interest which this subject earned in this House on the last occasion when the life of the present Parliament was prolonged, that the Government should have delayed until this moment announcing the proposal for a further prolongation. It is quite true, as Lord Portsmouth said, that it would be impossible to hold a General Election within the next few weeks, but it must have been evident to the Government for a long time past that this particular dilemma would present itself. Yet nothing has been said up to now on the point. I assume that your Lordships will agree to the Bill for the prolongation of the present Parliament when it is presented to us- but upon conditions. We cannot enter into an engagement to agree to anything which His Majesty's Government suggest to us. It will depend upon what accompanies the Bill, whether certain conditions are fulfilled, and those conditions will help us to determine for how long the prolongation should be.
As my noble friend Lord Lansdowne has most candidly admitted, it is by no means certain that it will not be necessary to have a General Election, I do not mean next month, but within a limited period; and if there is to be a General Election it seems to me clear that an effort should be made to put the Register on a proper footing. There are many circumstances which might lead to the necessity of a General Election. There is the Peace. There would have to be a General Election, if not before, certainly immediately after. Yet unless the Register is put upon a proper footing it would be a very imperfect General Election. I do not put that very high. I do not think Peace is immediate at all; it does not look to me as if it were. What I think is more 1055 likely is the break-up of His Majesty's Government. That might happen any day. I am not saying it will happen; I am not in the secrets of the Government. But anybody can see that the Government are not as strong as they were. Therefore it is quite clear that it might possibly happen that the Government may break up. I am not suggesting that it ought to break up. I know that great responsibilities rest upon Ministers in matters of this kind. But the possibility is one which should be prepared for.
Lastly, I think it is pretty clear to everybody that the present House of Commons—I want to speak of it with all respect—has not the same moral authority that it had at the time of its election. It has lost position with the country. That is an important circumstance in time of war—that the Representative Assembly, upon whose will the life of the Government depends, should have lost authority with the country. That process will go on. Probably it will get less and less authority as time proceeds. That is the case with all Parliaments. After a certain time it may be necessary to get renewed vigour into the councils of the country, renewed power and authority behind the Government, or whatever Government may be in power, by a General Election—by going back, that is to say, to the people, from whom the authority really comes. All these reasons make it possible that a General Election may be forced upon us.
We ought, therefore, to have a new Register. I do not mean to say that if there is not a new Register there cannot be a General Election. I should be sorry to commit myself to such a proposition. It may be necessary to have a General Election, good Register or bad Register; but it is far better that we should have a proper Register, and that, it seems to me, is an obligation which the Government cannot avoid. Every day the Register is going worse; every day it is getting staler and more unrepresentative of the constituencies. My noble friend (Lord Lansdowne) has, with his usual candour, acknowledged that the case for a new Register is overwhelming, and that there is an obligation on the Government to proceed to deal with the matter. We are grateful to my noble friend for his speech and for his promise. I was under the impression, like my noble friend Lord Portsmouth, that the Prime Minister in another place had promised a 1056 Bill. I have not seen the promise in print. It is only what has been told to me in conversation, and I may have been misinformed.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
I have no doubt that this point will be put right before your Lordships adjourn. At any rate, proposals containing the main outlines of such a measure will be laid before Parliament. I hope that they will be full proposals. When you have a Bill, however, you have something with which you can actually deal. You know what is being proposed; but general propositions sometimes, by means of their vagueness, conceal the intentions of the Government rather than reveal them That, I am quite sure, is not the wish of my noble friend Lord Lansdowne. We want to know what exactly is proposed to be done, and we want to know this before the adjournment—that is to say, before we agree to the further prolongation of the life of the present Parliament.
I do not want to dwell upon the rottenness of the present Register. My noble friend Lord Strachie has dealt with this quite fully. There is the efflux of time, and the fact that the Register ought to have become obsolete on January 1 of this year. Then there is the abnormal number of removals, owing to the conditions of the time in which we live; and then there is the fact that a very large body of the best citizens of this country are serving abroad as soldiers. I wonder whether the Government have made any calculation as to how many citizens who would have had votes had they been in this country under ordinary conditions of peace are now in uniform serving the King. I have had a rough calculation made, but I do not put it forward as altogether reliable. I have not had an opportunity of making a very careful investigation; but I think the figure is not far short of a quarter of the whole body of the electors—that is to say, of the whole body of men who would be electors in ordinary times of peace, one quarter are now in uniform. That is a very large body. I confess that I do not think any Register will be really satisfactory which does not make some proposal for giving votes to this large body of citizens. After all, they are not only a quarter of the whole electorate; but, if I may say so 1057 with great respect, they are perhaps the best quarter—they are the cream, the men who have shown by their actions how worthy they are to have votes, because they have offered to lay down their lives for their country. As these men represent 25 per cent. of the whole electorate, it does appear to me that some effort should be made to keep their votes for them and to give them an opportunity of voting when the time comes.
I do not know what ideas the Government have as to a Registration Bill, and I am certainly not going into detail at this moment. I have no doubt that my noble friend the Leader of the House, if he addresses your Lordships, will tell you that there are great difficulties. Of course, there are great difficulties. But it is the object of the two Houses of Parliament and of the Government to get over difficulties, and these difficulties must be got over. The difficulties are largely due to the great delay in dealing with the subject. We have no time now in which to make a perfect Register. It is very difficult to make a perfect Register in any circumstances. Moreover, we have not the personnel in England to do it. As many of your Lordships who are accustomed to electioneering know, an enormous number of people have to be employed in preparing the Register, some of them officials, and many who are not officials, including Party agents and Party canvassers; and then there are revising barristers. All these are necessary for a perfect Register.
May I make a suggestion to the Government? Let them eschew all counsels of perfection in this matter. What we want is a Register capable of giving the opinion of the country if the country is consulted. A rough-and-ready Register would be sufficient for our purpose—I mean a Register with a certain small margin of error; and I think the Government will find, if they go into the subject, that it is possible to produce that with a relatively small expenditure of time, of effort, and of personnel. And if they will deal with the subject upon those lines and make an effort to maintain the voting power of the men who are serving the King in uniform, then I think we should have an adequate Register upon which we might challenge the opinion of the country and be certain to get a verdict which corresponded actually to the opinion of the constituencies as a whole. I cannot help saying, in conclusion, 1058 that I regret that the Government have put this subject off until so late. I earnestly hope they will take it up now with all dispatch, and that when they come to lay their proposals before your Lordships' House and the other House of Parliament they will be in sufficient detail for us to judge fully and completely of what is actually suggested, and whether the proposals are sufficient to enable us confidently to agree to the further prolongation of this Parliament.
§ LORD DEVONPORT
My Lords, I did not gather, from the, statement of the noble Marquess (Lord Lansdowne), that he gave any pledge that it was the intention of the Government at some future date not too remote to introduce a Registration Bill; but from observations that have fallen from previous speakers there seems to be some ambiguity on the point as to whether or not a pledge has been given in another place that a Bill will be introduced. Of course, it makes all the difference in the world if the thing is left in that indefinite position. I would venture- to ask the noble Marquess the Leader of the House to tell us "Yes" or "No" whether the Government are going to introduce a Registration Bill so that we may have that covering security in case of some unforeseen accident happening that may displace the Government and compel a General Election.
It is obvious to all of us that the circumstances in the House of Commons, which is where the mischief will take place if it takes place at all, have materially changed in the last few days. We have a Party who have proclaimed—I think with very good cause—that they do not intend the Government to be free from their criticism in the future. Those of us who have had House of Commons experience know what it means when a Party of that kind gets on what I may call rampageous lines, Therefore at this moment, above all other moments, we ought to have this covering security of a Registration Bill. Supposing, for example, we do not have it, and the Government are defeated in the House of Commons. Are they to call it a no-ball and go back to the wicket because we have not a Registration Bill, or are we to have the Election on this down-at-heel Register for which nobody has a good word? I think we are entitled to intimate firmly in advance to the Government that when their Bill comes here for the prolongation of the life of this Parliament there will be strong opposition 1059 to its going through without we get an absolute assurance that they will prepare and have ready for us by the end of the year a Registration Bill. We have the Government in the hollow of our hands with regard to the Prolongation Bill. We can reject that Bill here, and then there must be a General Election. Of course, we do not want a General Election. I am one of those who are most hostile to the idea of a General Election. But we are entitled to insist upon the covering security of having a Register prepared. Therefore I ask the noble Marquess to say "Yes" or "No" whether the Government are prepared to give us a Registration Bill before the end of the year.
THE LORD PRESIDENT OF THE COUNCIL (THE MARQUESS OF CREWE)
My Lords, I think that, as a matter of fact, there is not any substantial difference between the views of the noble Lords who have taken part in this debate and those of His Majesty's Government, as expressed by my noble friend behind me (Lord Lansdowne). On the particular point to which the noble Lord who has just sat down alluded it is important that we should be clear, as there seems to be some slight doubt as to what the Prime Minister actually said in another place. What happened was this. The Prime Minister stated—We shall put the House and the country in possession of our proposals in regard to registrationthat is to say, before the adjournment—and the detailed discussion of those proposals must necessarily be reserved until after the House resumes.Then he was asked, "Will they be in a Bill?" and the Prime Minister replied "Yes, I think so." And he went on to say—What I want to guard against is conveying the suggestion that the Government is to present a Bill which must be carried through all its various stages before the House adjourns, unless there is general consent. That would be quite out of the question.It is clear, therefore—and my noble friend and I could have told the House so without the statement of the Prime Minister—that there is no intention of putting forward merely what have been called nebulous propositions with regard to a Register, but that they will either take the form of a Bill or of clear heads which practically come to the same thing for giving the House and the country definite information as to what is proposed.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
I have not got Hansard, but as the noble Marquess read it out I should have said that the Prime Minister did promise a Bill.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
And the Government, having thought it over, think that the Prime Minister's opinion was wrong?
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
It will be a Bill or the equivalent of a Bill. I cannot pledge my right hon. friend, in terms, to introduce a Bill.
§ LORD DEVONPORT
Surely the Cabinet know whether they are going to introduce a Registration Bill or not. The Prime Minister does not go to the House of Commons and make a statement without the consent of the Cabinet. Surely the noble Marquess is in a position to say "Yes" or "No."
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
I think my noble friend behind me, if he will allow me to say so, is not speaking of the same thing as I am. The point is whether the Bill is to be introduced complete and ready for discussion before the House adjourns during the course of the present month. What I understood the noble Lord behind me to ask was whether the Government would bring in a Bill so as to have a fresh Register before the winter.
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
Precisely. It is quite clear from what has been said that the intention is to introduce a Bill, or to lay before Parliament the heads of a Bill, which is what it comes to, and then to adjourn for, I suppose, a comparatively limited time, and afterwards to proceed 1061 with the actual registration proposals. So that this is practically an answer of "Yes" to the noble Lord behind me. The noble Marquess (Lord Salisbury) spoke of the delay which has occurred, and which was admitted by my noble friend Lord Lansdowne. That, of course, is quite true; and the noble Marquess very fairly admitted that the subject bristles with every species of difficulty.
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
The noble Lord who opened this discussion did not appear to think that it was so difficult. He seemed to be prepared with a ready-made solution. He did not tell us what it was, but he seemed to think that the statement made by my right hon. friend the Home Secretary in another place was of too light a character, because it indicated a number of difficulties which the noble Lord himself would be quite prepared by some means or another to brush aside. It cannot be disputed that the difficulties belonging to this question are very serious indeed. It is true, as Lord Salisbury observed, that an enormous proportion of those who ought to be electors are abroad, and among the men who are out of the country are a very large number whose votes clearly are valuable, and it is the right of those men, if possible, to exercise them. But the difficulty attaching to the fact that the Navy and the Army now include such an enormous number of voters, or of potential voters, is one which, I frankly confess, has pulled us up short in considering how the problem ought to be solved. Then there is the further difficulty, that it is by no means easy to face the question of a new Register and at the same time to keep away from all the controversial questions of franchise, of the length of the term of qualification, and a great many others, which arouse in ordinary times acute Party differences which we are most unwilling to awaken at the present moment. But it is quite clear that those questions will have to be faced.
Noble Lords have spoken of the possibility of a hurried and sudden General Election. The noble Marquess (Lord Salisbury), I will not say contemplated, but indicated the possibility of a break-up of the Government, and did so, I thought, not without a certain amount of relish. Be that as it may, I must remind him, and 1062 also my noble friend behind me (Lord Devonport), that the mere fact of having a Registration Bill in print would not go very far towards giving the covering security which my noble friend indicated. It is only the actual Register which would give the real security which he demands; and that, of course, takes a considerable time, involves an unduly large sum of money, and also necessitates the employment of a great deal of labour which ought to be, and is now being, perhaps, more usefully occupied, although the necessity of the Register is admitted by all of us. Therefore the question whether the actual Bill is introduced before the end of this month or not does not seem to have so important a bearing on the whole question as some noble Lords have appeared to think.
As regards the question of the General Election, I should like to say this. The noble Marquess indicated various possibilities in which a General Election might be necessary; and we do not, of course, for a moment dispute the possibility of one being caused by any of the agencies which he mentioned. But there is one cause for a General Election which I am happy to think is altogether absent. Supposing that there was a considerable minority of opinion in this country which was not favourable to carrying on the war with all our national and Imperial strength, it might then be necessary to have a General Election in order to show that the country is really sound at heart, and to obtain the votes of all those at sea and fighting in the field so as to indicate what the opinion of the great majority of the country is. But no such minority exists. There is no sign of a cleavage in that direction. Therefore the one circumstance, as it appears to me, which might make a General Election urgently necessary is, fortunately for us all, not to be found in existence.
As the noble Earl opposite (Lord Portsmouth) said, what we ought to consider, and what indeed we are considering, is the question of the preparation of a Register. I quite agree with the noble Earl that this is a point which we have to bear in mind—that is to say, that ever supposing none of the earthquakes occur which would involve a sudden and unforeseen General Election, yet we ought not to be unprepared for the possibility that by common consent a new Parliament ought to be called into being. Peace, as the noble Marquess knows very well, will not come down like a curtain at 1063 the theatre. The bringing into effect of Peace, be it near or be it far, must be a long and a slow business; but that does not absolve us, I entirely agree, from the necessity of being prepared to take the opinion of the whole country as to the composition of the Government by which they desire to be represented in the next Parliament. I think, therefore, that noble Lords opposite may rest satisfied that when the Bill is presented for a short prolongation of the existing Parliament, they will be fully seized of the proposals, by then as I hope matured, for preparing the advent of the new Parliament whenever that may be.
§ VISCOUNT PEEL
My Lords, I wish to make one observation on what the noble Marquess has said. As he has justly observed, we can congratulate ourselves that there is no cleavage, or no substantial cleavage, of opinion in the country as to the necessity of prosecuting the war. That is fortunately the case. But the noble Marquess appeared to argue from this that the necessity for a General Election might be rather less than it otherwise would be, and consequently the further deduction seemed to be implied that the necessity for a new Register was less important. I take a different view. I think the case is rather wider than that. No Government, whether Coalition or whatever it may be, has the right to disfranchise the people of this country; and that is what—unintentionally, no doubt—the Government has actually been doing. The people cannot vote unless they are told where and how to vote and who are to vote, and it is the duty of the Legislative Assembly to provide that there shall be lists of these electors who can vote if necessity arises. For this reason and not merely because circumstances might arise under which a General Election might be useful, it seems to me that it is the absolute duty of Parliament not to let the Register get into such arrear that it is impossible to hold a General Election.
May 1, in passing, observe that although the Government can in a sense prevent a General Election by not dealing with the Register, we have occasionally by-elections owing to deaths, and so on. In these cases we do have Members elected, and by-elections are taken as tests of the opinion of the country. Therefore in that case I think it is important that the Register should be brought up to date. But it is important also from another point of view. 1064 The Government is responsible to the country, and it should be possible that this responsibility could be brought home. Any Government—I am not criticising the present Government; I am saying "any Government"—ought to feel that the responsibility it owes to the country can at any particular time be brought home to it. It cannot be good for the Executive to feel that anyhow it is perfectly safe for the moment, because it must take six months before the Register could be made and before there could be an appeal to the people. It is that dissociation between the Government and the constituted electorate which is a very serious gap to which the Government ought to address itself.
As the statement of the Prime Minister was reported in The Times, it seemed to be very definite. The Prime Minister, when asked whether the Government's proposals would be in a Bill, is reported to have said." I think that will be the case"; and when a Prime Minister says "I think," generally it will happen. I understood that he was only stating in another phrase the decision of the Cabinet. Of course, I may be wrong upon that point. Anyhow, what one wanted to be clear of was that it was not only the intention of the Government to produce the heads of this arrangement before the present sittings of Parliament are over or to bring in a Bill substantially setting out the case, but that they were prepared to undertake, if the lengthening of the present Parliament should be granted, that the Registration Bill should be passed as soon as Parliament reassembles. For my own part, I should be perfectly satisfied if the Government would give that undertaking, and I think it is an undertaking which it is not unfair to ask them to give. I confess that six months ago, before the question of the further prolongation of Parliament arose, I was in favour of a General Election. I think in various ways it might have cleared the air. But I do not think anybody is in favour of a General Election now, especially as the Register is so out of date. I think it would be fair to the country and also dispose of a good deal of rumour if the Government would make a definite statement that this Bill will be passed as soon as possible after Parliament reassembles.
§ LORD STRACHIE
My Lords, I rise only to ask the Leader of the House whether there are any Papers, or whether the matter is in such a state of flux that no proposals 1065 can be laid before the House with regard to this question of registration. In genial sarcasm the noble Marquess said that I, perhaps, had a ready-made solution for this difficult question. It is perfectly impossible for any private member of this or of the other House to make proposals to solve a question which the Home Secretary the other day said was so complicated and difficult, and over which the Government had been spending a year without finding a solution. If the Leader of the House says there are no Papers, I would ask whether it is the intention of the Government only to announce the heads of the Bill and not to bring in the Bill itself before the life of this Parliament is prolonged. I understood the noble Marquess to say—he will correct me if I am wrong—that it is the intention of the Government to bring in a Registration Bill and to pass it this year. If that is not their intention, we are no nearer a solution than we were before. Of course, no Government can absolutely pledge themselves. I am too old a Parliamentary hand not to know that. But are the Government ready to pledge themselves to bring in a Bill, and, so far as they are able, to pass it into law as soon as possible, so that the work of the new Register can be put in hand immediately after the beginning of the New Year?
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
My Lords, in reply to the noble Lord opposite, I do not think there are any Papers which can usefully be circulated at present with reference to this complicated question of registration. There have, of course, been a number of Departmental and other discussions, of which the fruit will be the proposals which will be laid before Parliament; but I am afraid I cannot promise the noble Lord anything in the way of Papers.
As regards the further question, as to what opportunities the House will have before the adjournment for discussing the matter, I might point out this. So far as this House is concerned, it appears to me that supposing the plan were adopted of stating the heads of a Bill rather than the introduction of the Bill itself—though I am quite unable to say which method will be chosen—that course might be rather to the advantage of those in this House who might wish to discuss the question of registration before the adjournment. And for this reason, that if the Bill were introduced in another place and were read a First Time before the adjournment it clearly would not be open to us here to discuss the 1066 propositions. What would then happen would be that when the Prolongation Bill was brought up here noble Lords would merely become acquainted as members of the public with the terms of the other Bill and would consider whether these justified them in passing the Prolongation Bill. On the other hand, if the proceedings in the other House were less formal and did not involve the introduction of a Bill, there is no reason why a similar statement should not be made in this House and a discussion take place upon it.
§ LORD STRACHIE
The noble Marquess has not answered my question whether it is the intention of the Government, as far as they are concerned, to introduce and pass a Bill this year.
§ VISCOUNT MIDLETON
My Lords, I would appeal to the noble Marquess whether it would be possible to introduce the Bill at an early date. What we apprehend is this. The Prime Minister hopes to adjourn Parliament in a fortnight from now. It is quite evident that, unless the Bill is introduced early next week in another place, we may find ourselves in this position, that by some hurried changes in the course of the discussion at the last moment the Bill maybe brought up here in quite a different form, and your Lordships may not be in attendance and there may be no opportunity of summoning anybody to discuss it. The Bill may change its form very materially between the time when it is introduced and its being brought up to this House. Therefore I would ask the noble Marquess to use his influence to secure that the Bill shall be introduced early next week in another place.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE
My Lords, what seems to me the essence of the situation is this. We tell your Lordships that before you are asked to dispose of the Bill for extending the life of the present Parliament you will be made fully aware of our proposals with regard to registration. Whether the Bill itself will be produced before the adjournment, I am not able now to say; but, I say without hesitation that your" Lordships will have full opportunity of passing judgment upon our proposals before we ask you to agree to the extension of the life of the present Parliament.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.