§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ MR. DODDS
, in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said, he wished at once to disclaim any desire to infringe upon the provisions of the Ballot Act. What he desired to do was simply this—to reduce the enormous cost that was now incurred in the election of auditors and assessors. The Ballot Act provided that every contested municipal election should be conducted in the same way as a Parliamentary election; and 593 the main object of the measure was to eliminate the words "auditors and assessors" from the Ballot Act, in order to save the enormous expense which was now incurred in the election of those functionaries. Hardly any public interest was taken in the contests, and yet all the machinery of the Ballot had to be put in operation in taking the poll at a contested election. The cost was thus raised to nearly £100, whereas £5 would have been sufficient under the old system. There were other minor and subsidiary clauses, but that was the main object, of the Bill, and if it was agreed to, it would prevent a great amount of unnecessary and extravagant expense at municipal elections. Excellent as the Ballot system was, in his opinion, he thought they ought not to apply it to the election of auditors and assessors. He believed the Government were not opposed to the principle of the measure, and he hoped that the hon. Member who had given Notice of his intention to move its rejection would not persist in his Amendment. If the course he suggested was taken, and the second reading agreed to, he would propose that the Bill should be referred to a Select Committee, for this reason—there were two other Bills relating to municipal matters on the Table, and his own belief was that the whole three Bills could be amalgamated, and that a couple of hours would suffice for all purposes. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving the second reading of the Bill.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, 'That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Dodds.)
§ MR. PELL
, in moving that the Bill be read a second time that day six months, said, the objections of the hon. Gentleman to the mode of electing auditors and assessors ought to have been stated when the Ballot Bill was under discussion. There was no doubt that the cost of election of municipal officers under the Ballot Act had largely increased; but the expense of electing those officers was not out of proportion to the expense of electing other persons under the Ballot Act, for he knew one instance where £1,500 had been spent in the election of one member of a school board. If the hon. Gentleman's objection to the mode of electing auditors and assessors was its expensiveness, why 594 had he not proposed to cut down the expense of all elections under the Ballot Act? Nothing could be more unsatisfactory than the system of auditors in municipal boroughs before the Ballot Act came into force, and instead of proposing to repeal part of that Act, the hon. Gentleman should have proposed that the whole system of selecting auditors should be changed, and that they should be nominated by the Local Government Board, in the same way as the appointment of Poor Law auditors. Municipal auditors had to examine and report upon accounts amounting to many millions a-year, and their reports showed that nothing could be worse than the manner in which the duty was discharged. There were ample opportunities for jobbery in the boroughs of England and, accordingly it abounded. He (Mr. Pell) hoped that debate would draw the attention of ratepayers to the allowance of improper items in borough accounts, which would never have been allowed if the accounts had been properly audited. With regard to assessors, he should like to see the office abolished altogether. As he thought it was too soon to repeal a portion of an Act within one year after its passing, which portion he believed to have had a very useful effect, he should move the rejection of the Bill.
§ Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."—(Mr. Pell.)
§ Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."
§ SIR HENRY JAMES
said, he thought a strong case had been made out for the second reading of the Bill. The auditor was an officer who should be elected by the Local Government Board, and the cumbrous and expensive process of the Ballot should not be applied to it, which was not desirable in that case any more than in that of any other official. He hoped the Government would accept the second reading of the Bill. He believed the including of the election of auditors and assessors in the Ballot Bill was an oversight. No evidence was laid before the Committee on the subject of the election of these officers.
§ MR. C. E. LEWIS
said, that was the first nibble at the Ballot Act, and it was rather strange that such a nibble should 595 be made by an hon. Member on the Opposition side of the House, especially when it was considered that the error or mistake was not sufficient to justify it. It might be expedient to appoint a Committee this Session to consider whether any improvements could be made in the Ballot Act, and if such a Committee were appointed the question might very properly come before it; but he thought it would be rather unworthy of the House to alter so important a measure as the Ballot Act with reference merely to this question. A little suspense should be endured for the purpose of testing the working of the Ballot Act.
§ MR. NORWOOD
suggested that the expense and inconvenience might be got rid of by having these officers elected at the same time as town councillors, and by the same voting papers, so that the machinery for one election might serve for the other.
MR. ASSHETON CROSS
thought it would be a great pity if the working of the Ballot Act were interfered with in the piecemeal way proposed by the hon. Member for Stockton. His own impression was that the matter required much more discussion than it had yet had, and therefore he should be glad to see the consideration of the matter put off. His opinion was, that there was a great deal to be considered not only in reference to the appointment of auditor, but as to the power of such officer when he was appointed. He had watched with very great jealousy the gradual increase in the expenses of municipal boroughs from one end of the country to the other. An auditor should be appointed not merely to check accounts, but also to disallow such charges as ought not to be allowed, and until an auditor had power to disallow such charges no satisfactory conclusion could be arrived at on this matter. For that reason he would vote against the Bill; but he would take care that the whole subject of the appointment of auditors should receive the careful attention of the Government, and when they had decided upon it, he would be prepared to make a statement to the House upon it.
§ MR. STEVENSON
said, that there was no competition for these offices, but still many people who were interested in expense being incurred in elections caused contests to be carried out. It was quite time that Parliament put a stop to 596 this practice, and he hoped that the Bill would be read a second time.
§ GENERAL SIR GEORGE BALFOUR
hoped the Home Secretary would bring in a Bill on the present confused and perplexing subject of local rates and local expenditure before the end of the Session. But in order to check the reckless expenditure now existing in Parliamentary boroughs, it was essential that independent auditors should be appointed, with powers to examine, not alone the expenditure supported by vouchers, but to inquire and report on the propriety of that expenditure, which could so easily under the present system be covered by vouchers without regard to the necessity of the outlay or its economical application. The whole of the accounting for local income and outlay was at present so entirely without uniformity that it was impossible for any compilation of the local rates and expenditure of the country to be made with any prospect of rendering the results in a clear manner. The subject was, in his opinion, so vast and complicated, and so extensive, as to be quite unfit to be undertaken by a private Member.
And it being a quarter of an hour before Six of the clock, the Debate stood adjourned till To-morrow.