HL Deb 04 February 1918 vol 28 cc301-10

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, in moving that this Bill be read a second time I think I ought to give your Lordships a short account of how the Bill appears in a separate form. Your Lordships will remember that at the Speaker's Conference the question of the extension of the franchise to Ireland was dealt with, but no recommendation either way was made as to the question of redistribution of seats in Ireland; and accordingly, when the Representation of the People Bill was introduced in another place, there was no reference to the redistribution of seats in Ireland. Later on, in October, the question of the inclusion of Ireland in the Bill was discussed in another place. At that time the Government had hopes that the Irish Convention might have reported, and that it might have been unnecessary to deal with the question any further in the Franchise Bill, but their hopes were disappointed; and they had therefore to decide whether or not any clause or provision with reference to redistribution in Ireland should be inserted in that Bill.

There were two alternatives before them. One was to omit Ireland altogether from the Bill. The other was to insert some measure of redistribution. Opinion in another place expressed itself very strongly against the omission of Ireland from the Bill; therefore, owing to the fact that redistribution and extension of franchise have always been so closely associated, and as of course the natural inequalities of population, which display themselves in different districts after a lapse of years, will be very much increased by the extension of the franchise, the Government felt that some redistribution must be brought in. Instructions were accordingly given to the Boundary Commissioners to proceed on a certain basis, and I should like to give the House the exact words of those two Instructions. First, "the total number of Members of the House of Commons for counties and boroughs in Ireland shall remain unchanged"; and the second Instruction was that "in assigning Members regard shall be had to the population and size of the constituencies." The object was to disturb existing constituencies as little as possible, but to remove glaring inequalities. Your Lordships will observe that in the reference to the Commissioners there was no mention made of the question of University constituencies, which was outside the duty of the Commissioners.

The Boundary Commissioners reported, and early in December the Schedule which they had constructed was considered in another place. Very keen and almost acrimonious opposition was offered to the provisions of that Schedule, and after three or four days debate a compromise was arrived at, and a Committee was set up, with the Speaker as chairman and two representatives of each of the Irish Parties upon it, making a Committee of five. Now, in that case the question of University constituencies was not excluded form the consideration of the Conference. The Committee reported—I think I should have said that it was at the same time part of the agreement that the decision of the Committee should be embodied in a new Bill, and that the new Bill was to pass as an agreed Bill, and was to be submitted for Royal Assent at the same time as the Franchise Bill. These statements which I have made are quoted in the Speaker's Letter, dated January 19, and addressed to the Prime Minister as the result of that Conference.

The substantial result was that very little change was made in the recommendations of the Boundary Commissioners—only, I think, in two cases—but two Universities received representation. One was the Queen's University of Belfast, and the other the National University of Dublin. I think it came with a certain amount of surprise to the House that by granting representation to these Universities the representation in the House of Commons would be increased by two. I think it had been expected that if these Universities received any representation it would be at the expense of existing counties and boroughs; but this decision was, I understand, arrived at unanimously by that Committee. It was brought before another place in the form of a Bill; there was hardly any discussion upon the Bill on the Second Reading, none in Committee, and the Bill passed unanimously through the House of Commons, and I now present the Bill to your Lordships.

I ought to state, I think, in distinguishing between University representation and representation for boroughs and counties, that your Lordships have during the course of the Franchise Bill looked with a rather more favourable eye on increases in the numbers of representatives in the House of Commons when they are representatives of Universities. I might also remind your Lordships that in the case of Wales you granted another seat to the Welsh University, and this Committee has, I will not say followed this precedent, but has acted in somewhat the same way in granting these two further representatives, as representing the two Universities. This Bill, as I have said, has been put forward in another place as an agreed Bill, and I beg to move its Second Reading.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Peel.)


My Lords, I troubled your Lordships, I am sorry to say, with a few remarks upon the subject of the treatment of Ireland when the main Bill was under discussion, and I need not tell your Lordships that I shall not presume to repeat upon this occasion what I said then. Neither would it be fair to ask your Lordships to reverse the decision at which you then arrived. I ventured to suggest on that occasion that the proposals in regard to Ireland were open to the most serious objections, and that the proper moment at which to deal with them was when the question of the lowering of the franchise in Ireland was under discussion. Your Lordships were pleased to take a different view, and, of course, I bow with all submission to that decision.

But I thought it right to call your Lordships' attention to the extreme inconvenience of the conditions under which we are called upon to discuss this particular proposal. I do not believe it is possible to pretend that we have a free hand in the matter, the Bill having been brought up to your Lordships' House at the very last moments of the session to be dealt with as if it were some matter of the smallest possible importance. In my humble judgment the Government have always looked upon this question of the representation of Ireland from the wrong point of view. They have considered it a purely Irish question, whereas it is a question of the Imperial Government. Any one listening to my noble friend who has just sat down will see the same idea penetrating his speech. He described to your Lordships how a Commission had been appointed to determine the representation of Ireland. With the exception of the chairman it consisted entirely of Irishmen, and the only question submitted to them was not what was the proper representation of Ireland as compared to the representation of the United Kingdom, but what was the proper delimitation of the constituencies in Ireland itself. Instead of the same divisor being taken to determine the proper number of Members in Ireland as is taken in Great Britain, a wholy different one is taken—a much smaller one—with the result, of course, that a far larger number of Members than Ireland is entitled to has been under this Bill awarded to her.

It passes all possibility of credibility that we should agree at this time of day to have England and Scotland under-represented to the enormous extent which they are compared with Ireland. I have nothing, of course, to say about the special University seats which appear for the first time in this Bill, on the merits of University representation. I am very glad that the Universities in Ireland should be represented, but I cannot help repeating that, in the face of the gross over-representation of Ireland, to add two more Members is really to add insult to injury. I do not know whether any other noble Lord will take a different view, but I do not propose, for my part, to ask your Lordships to do anything except pass the Bill in the circumstances. But I do think we are entitled to some statement from the Government as to how they defend the over-representation of Ireland and how long it is to go on. They are proposing a settlement here. They are always telling us that this is a great settlement, that the old quarrels about reform are to be buried, and yet they continue in this settlement that which is a gross injustice.

I put to the Government this question. Supposing the Convention does not come to anything—supposing it breaks down—are the Government going to do anything to cure the over-representation of Ireland which will be left in being by the passage of this Bill? Are we going on, year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation, with Ireland represented to the extent of forty Members more than she is entitled to have? If the Convention comes to a settlement of the Home Rule issue, no doubt the matter is more or less academical. Everybody admits that the whole matter of the representation of Ireland in the Imperial Parliament will have to be reconsidered. But supposing it does not, I want the Government to tell us here and now whether they can hold out any hope to poor, oppressed England and Scotland that they will receive justice, and, if not, how they are going to justify such neglect before the constituencies of this country.


My Lords, I should not have thought of rising, but I imagined that in the circumstances some reply would have been made to the noble Marquess who has just sat down, because it does appear to me that we are placed in a very extraordinary position. I called attention to this long ago. I have always held the opinion that the consideration of the Representation of the People Bill ought to have been postponed until the complete policy of the Government was before us, Now we have it, but in a separate Bill, and questions have been put to the Government about it which apparently they are reluctant to answer.

Now, what is the position with which we are faced to-day? First of all, the new Parliament is to have a greatly increased number of Members compared with the old ones—that is to say, the Parliament to be elected under the Reform Bill. I may remind the noble Viscount who has had the conduct of that Bill in his charge and who made an admirable exposition on the First Reading of it, that this fact was never mentioned in his explanation of the purport of the new measure. I own that I thought at the time it was a grave omission. What is it we are confronted with to-day? It has been pointed out by the noble Marquess that Ireland under these present proposals is to be represented on a basis of population of 40,000 persons in a constituency, as against the representation of English constituencies on a basis of 70,000. That is to say, Ireland is to have representation on a basis of population a little more than one-half of that which has been fixed for Great Britain. In what circumstances is that enormous advantage to be given to Irish Members who will not only have to deal with Irish questions but will be able to interfere on every possible occasion that they please with the affairs and the legislation of this country and the rest of Great Britain?

And what is the condition of Ireland? It is admitted and never contradicted, with regard to the vast majority of the people of that country at the present time, that Sinn Fein is spreading to such an extent that a large majority are said to be in favour of the separation of Ireland from England and in favour of an independent Irish Republic. What do you suppose when this is known—and it is not known at present or understood—by the people of Great Britain, would be the reception that they would be likely to give a proposition of this kind? I own that it seems to me to be a very serious position, and a very extraordinary demand which you are making upon the people of this country. The noble Marquess suggested that the Convention might break down. In that case your difficulty, will be over for the time, at all events. The whole question would have to be reconsidered within a comparatively brief period of time. But supposing it does not break down, is this to be permanent? Is Ireland always to be placed in the position of having a much larger Parliamentary representation on the basis of population than we have in this country? I confess it is a proposal which fills me with anxiety and even with alarm, and I am sure it is one which cannot commend itself to the people of this country when they are thoroughly acquainted with what is being proposed. In these circumstances I do think we are entitled to some reply to the speech of the noble Marquess.


My Lords, I did not rise to reply to the speech of the noble Marquess because the question was one to which, if he was entitled, as no doubt he was, to ask it, I should have thought the general sense of your Lordships' House would have agreed that it was impossible in the existing circumstances for the Government to give the reply that was sought. The noble Marquess asked, not for the first time in this House, for an answer, here and now. Well, members speaking from the Ministerial Bench are unwise, I think, if, in the case of a challenge of that sort, without due consideration they give the reply to which they might be tempted.

What, my Lords, are the circumstances of the case? An arrangement has been proposed for Ireland—it is the logical sequence of the wide extension of the franchise and redistribution in this country—which has been unanimously accepted by the other House of Parliament. The noble Marquess, upon that, draws attention to the over-representation of Ireland, which we all admit, which many of us deplore, and which most of us, I expect, look forward to seeing corrected in the future; and he asks for some statement from the Government as to what they will do with regard to this over-representation of Ireland in certain contingencies. He reminds us that a Convention is now sitting in Ireland, and he says, "What will you do if that Convention comes to an agreement, and what will you do if the Convention fails to come to an agreement?" If the Convention comes to an agreement, as we all hope it may, the whole matter enters into a new atmosphere at once, and the question will have to be looked upon from a new point of view. The arrangements which may be proposed for a temporary emergency will not stand. If the Convention fails to come to an agreement, how can I now, on the spur of the moment, answer as to what His Majesty's Government propose to do with regard to the representation of Ireland, or anything else?

I think the noble Viscount who spoke just now rather forgot the fact that the Home Rule Act is on the Statute Book, and that that measure effects a very decisive reduction in the representation of Ireland. That is the broad governing fact that we have to remember, by which the Government, no doubt, will have to guide its future decision. Without, therefore, complaining of the noble Marquess for asking the question, it is one to which, in the circumstances of the case, I think your Lordships must not expect me to give a definite reply.


My Lords, I had hoped that we should have had something from the noble Earl which would have justified us in leaving this subject altogether alone, but I am bound to point out that he really places us in a very difficult position. The question of the over-representation of Ireland has been raised by my two noble friends, but look at the question which your Lordships are about to enter upon, and upon which by a large majority you disagreed with the other House of Parliament—namely, proportional representation. If ever there was a case in which the question of direct election for every seat is more important than in any other it is the case of Ireland.

What the noble Earl asks us to do is this—at the last moment of the session, when it is absolutely impossible, without prolonging the session, even to consider whether some other system should not be applied to Ireland—to take up this Bill, which we see in print for the first time this afternoon, and to accept it wholesale. The noble Earl well knows that the Unionist Party in Ireland, and the Protestants of the South of Ireland, will be left with practically no representation whatever under this Bill, although they are one-tenth of the whole of the electorate, outside Ulster. I deprecated it the other night, and asked your Lordships, if you saw fit, to treat this arrangement as temporary with a view of its being relieved, either by the reduction of Members and the distribution of seats which would be proposed under the scheme which the Convention might agree to, or by the reduction proposed by the Bill of 1914, if it should ever, unfortunately, come into operation. But this Bill, if neither of these contingencies happen, may perpetuate for all time the most inequitable system that has ever been applied to any country, and a system by which those who are paying between one-third and one-half of the whole of the rates and taxation in the larger districts of the south of Ireland are to be denied any representation whatever.

I must say I think it is putting a very severe strain, not only upon our loyalty, but upon our desire to avoid all subjects of controversy if His Majesty's Government ask us to accept this Bill, not as a temporary but as possibly a permanent arrangement, and to look upon the subject of redistribution and representation in Ireland as closed by a measure which your Lordships are not allowed to have more than a few moments to consider at the end of the session. Supposing, for the sake of argument (and it is the last argument I shall use), that either proportional representation or some modification of it, is adopted in the course of the next few hours by the two Houses in consultation—in the case of Great Britain because there has been time to consider it, but with regard to Ireland, where the case is infinitely greater, it will not be touched at all because it has come at a time when it is impossible for us to move an Amendment. I enter a most serious protest against its being assumed that this Bill can be of a permanent character. If it were so it would be a gross injustice, and would also cast a severe strain upon the feelings of those of us who have done their best to try and bring matters into a more cordial relationship in the Convention.


My Lords, you were good enough the other day to listen to a few remarks that I made about the over-representation of Ireland. I think that everybody in your Lordships' House knows that this over-representation is a fact, and has been the source of all our troubles in both countries in years past. My noble friend the Leader of the House says that he cannot say what the Government are going to do in the future. I should like to point out that what is going to be done now is what has been done in Ireland all the time. You are going to give a lot of people over-representation—an overrepresentation which, if the Convention comes to nothing, will have to be taken away from them, because the inhabitants in this country will insist upon it. You are, therefore, raising up trouble for people in Ireland. In Ireland they will say that you have deceived them. You are going to rule the country as you have done for the last fifty years. You promise things to both sides—one Party is just as bad as the other—and then you are not going to give the benefits that you promised them. The result will be that the people will not believe you, and they will say that you have made promises which you never had any intention of fulfilling. In this way you are raising up difficulties ill my country which will be worse than those difficulties that you have had to encounter hitherto.

On Question, Bill read 2a.

Then (Standing Order XXXIX having been suspended) House in Committee., according to Order.

Clauses 1 to 7 agreed to.

Clause 8:


I have to move a consequential Amendment on an Amendment moved in the House of Commons transferring the power of appointing polling places from the returning officer to the Council.

Amendment moved— Page 3, line 14, at end insert ("and all polling places").—(Viscount Peel.)

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

Clause 8, as amended, agreed to.

Remaining clauses agreed to.

First Schedule agreed to.

Second Schedule:

Amendment moved— Page 5, line 38, in the fourth column, leave out the word ("Great Britain-street") and insert ("Parnell-street").—(Viscount Peel.)

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

Second Schedule, as amended, agreed to.

Remaining Schedules agreed to.

Amendments reported; Bill read 3a and passed, and returned to the Commons.