§ Order of the Day of the House to be put into Committee, read.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR (LORD BIRKENHEAD)
My Lords, some discussion took place last night, as your Lordships will recollect, upon this Bill, and my noble friend Lord Downham explained some apprehension under which he lay with reference to the terms in which the proviso of the Bill protected interests which he conceives himself called upon and entitled to protect. I have considered the matter very carefully since yesterday. I considered it in reference to the objection of my noble friend, in so far as the objection could be dismissed by the Amendment of a legal or drafting character. It could not in effect. What my noble friend said was this. Under the terms of this Bill, even as modified by the proviso, this consequence will follow—that if any candi- 379 date, on the day on which this Bill becomes law, has spent the moneys allowed in the aggregate under the existing law as modified by this Bill, he cannot spend another farthing.
I am disposed to think the case made under that head by the noble Lord is well-founded. In other words, while the proviso which the House of Commons has adopted has safeguarded a candidate in respect of such expenditure as he had made before the passing of the Act, it had not covered the case of the candidate who had spent all his money before the date on which the Act become law. Some important consequences follow from this conclusion. If the case really does exhibit a grievance it is a grievance which does not admit of legislative correction. It is a difficulty inherent in the nature of the case. It is a difficulty, in other words, which arises from this consequence. When a maximum expenditure is provided by the Bill which is before your Lordships, it is suggested that the prohibitions are unfair to those who have already made expenditure. To meet that a proviso is introduced to say that all expenditure incurred before the passing of this particular measure into law shall be protected.
But the essential fact does remain, as pointed out by the noble Lord, that if you have a candidate who, in reliance upon the terms of the old law, has spent all he was entitled to spend under the old law and under the new law, he cannot spend another farthing, and is therefore at an immense disadvantage as compared with the candidate who comes into the field at the last moment. I confess that consideration of all these circumstances—though I do not pretend to follow the noble Lord in all the views he expressed on the legal point—has led me clearly to the conclusion that the case that is made out, not a case of drafting or a case on technical grounds, but the broad case of the merits that is made out against legislation when you are almost in the midst of an election, is a case which cannot reasonably be answered.
How does the matter stand? Supposing that to-night your Lordships accepted an Amendment in the terms suggested by the noble Lord—terms which, as I understand, the noble Marquess was not disinclined to accept—supposing, I say, your Lordships accepted such an Amendment now, that Amendment would have 380 gone to another place to-morrow. It might or might not have received assent there to-morrow. The matter I understand even there is not entirely removed from controversy. At any rate, it must be pronounced most disputable as to whether the Royal Assent would have been obtained to-morrow. It is conceivable, though not certain, that in the House of Commons the matter might have been agreed on Friday, and in that case the Royal Assent would have been received the same day. The nomination day for London is to-day or to-morrow, and in the country the nomination day has in many cases already been passed.
In these circumstances I am bound to say, quite frankly, that I have advised the Government, quite apart from any technical questions or questions of law such as have been raised by the noble Lord, that on consideration it is hardly fair that men who are already plunged in an election campaign—many of whom have already for many weeks been engaged in the campaign in which they have regulated their expenditure in reliance, and justified reliance, on the existing law—should be called upon at the last moment to recast their whole expenditure; and that, even though it be conceded that all the expenditure at the very moment this Bill receives the Royal Assent is justified, yet, if the aggregate of that expenditure exceeds what is permitted in the two Bills, they should be placed in the paralysing position that they are not permitted to spend a single farthing for the rest of the Election, whereas new candidates can derive all the advantage of the expenditure of money wisely spent at the last moment.
In these circumstances I am inclined to think that your Lordships will conclude that on the whole the Government have arrived at a wise decision. I am encouraged to form that view by two circumstances. In the first place your Lordships are at least the only just begetters of this Bill in any shape or form, because, until the idea occurred to the noble Marquess, I think nobody had suggested that this revised arrangements of expenditure should be made applicable to municipal elections. That suggestion was accepted by the House of Commons. Your Lordships' suggested amendment of the law has become, and will remain, a permanent corrective of excessive expenditure in municipal elections. I regret that the 381 change was not adopted in time to make it applicable to the county council elections, without introducing grievances which in my judgment are too serious to justify your Lordships in persevering with this Bill at so late a period of the day. But, whatever is said about that, this at least is certain—there has been introduced in municipal law a measure of great and permanent value which cannot be made available for the elections of the moment, not I think, as your Lordships will on reasonable consideration conclude, by reason of any blame that can be fairly attributed to anyone.
Your Lordships are not inattentive to what takes place in another place. When the time that was necessary to swear in the Members there, and when many most urgent matters, some of them considered by your Lordships, are taken into account, I think this consideration will satisfy your Lordships that there has been no delay that could reasonably be avoided in recommending this measure to your Lordships' House. In these circumstances and if this course is considered reasonable it is proposed that the Committee stage should not be taken to-night—your Lordships have already discussed many matters—but that the Committee stage should be taken on a convenient date within the next week, and under circumstances which will make this a permanent measure, available for all time, and not at the same time a measure which will occasion unreasonable embarrassment to those who have made their own personal electioneering proposals on a scale which may be altered.
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
My Lords, I cannot pretend to be altogether surprised at the course which the noble and learned Lord has thought it right to adopt on behalf of His Majesty's Government. It was quite clear to everybody, when we were discussing this matter on the last occasion, that there is under the Bill as it stands a definite possibility of the infliction of considerable hardship on certain individuals. It was not sought to deny this, but it was the opinion of many persons, and certainly of the London County Council, that the measure was so valuable in itself that it would be a pity not to make it apply to the forthcoming election. I am told that, so far as the London County Council is concerned, that body will be glad if the measure could now be passed in the form in which it comes up to your Lord- 382 ships from another place. However, the Government take the opposite view, and I certainly am not going to attempt to offer any opposition to the course which they favour.
At the same time I do not think that His Majesty's Government can be entirely acquitted of having shown a certain infirmity of purpose in this matter. The reduction of the cost from 3d. to 2d. per head is, as a principle, uniformly approved. It was, as the noble and learned Lord told us, inserted here as an Amendment in the Representation of the People Bill at my instance, and it was only when that Bill went back to another place that, owing as I think to a very unfortunate misunderstanding of the real situation, a change was made and the previous figure reinserted in the Bill. The noble and learned Lord has said that the correction has been made at the earliest possible moment. So far as the present session is concerned, that may be the case; and of course it is true in a certain sense that there has been a change of Government since the dissolution of Parliament. But the two Governments, which I think are in a sense one, might have spoken with the same voice to a nearer extent than they have. However, as the matter now stands, it is clear that it will be the desire of your Lordships' House that this reform should not be applicable to the present municipal elections. I am sorry it is so, but I feel there is nothing more to be said.
§ LORD DOWNHAM
My Lords, may I add a few words to what has been said. I am confident that candidates drawn from all Parties alike, whether Liberal, Conservative or even Labour, will be most grateful to this House for the consideration they gave to the plea which I raised yesterday for the protection of innocent people who might easily have walked into a trap if this Bill had passed into law. They will be still more grateful to the Lord Chancellor for having saved them from the very perilous position in which they might have been placed if the Bill had been passed into law before the elections on March 6, next Thursday.
As one who is certainly as strongly in favour as any of your Lordships of reducing the excessive expenditure on county council elections, I should like to say that this Bill now will not apply to any elections probably before next November. By next November we may look forward to a great 383 reduction in the abnormal expenditure which has now to be incurred on printing, paper, and material of that kind. It is largely because that expenditure has risen at least 100 per cent. that it is necessary to spend such a large amount of money as is included under the old Act, and which will now be reduced if this Bill is passed into law. I am sure we are doing right in preventing this Bill from applying to the present election, when candidates would be liable to penalties which they ought never to have been allowed to incur simply because they were not in the least aware when they estimated and incurred their expenditure that your Lordships would be asked to join in passing a law which would compel them to spend only £400 instead of £600 on the election. They have been saved from a very perilous position, and I am grateful to your Lordships' House for having listened to the plea I put forward.
Committee of the Whole House put off sine die.