§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ Mr. LONG
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a second time."
I very much regret, in the first place, that the Bill, as I understand it, has not reached the hands of Members this morning. I am an old enough Member of the House to remember that this kind of difficulty has frequently arisen. It is one of those peculiar Parliamentary difficulties as to which nobody seems to have any definite information.
§ Mr. LONG
I would point out that if every hon. Member is as greedy as the hon. Member, they are apt to deplete the supply. That is due to the fact that there were certain advance copies in the Bill Office last night. In my anxiety that Members should have the Bill in their hands yesterday, I gave instructions that the Bill should be printed immediately after the Order sanctioning its printing had been received, and that copies should be placed in the Bill Office in the hope that they would be available for use, and I assumed that the Bill would be circulated in the ordinary way this morning as it certainly ought to have been. I am not responsible, so far as I know, for the actual circulation of the Bill. If I am, it is a new duty of which I was not aware before, and I express my regret, but I do not think it rests with me. I have done my best to find out how the mistake occurred, but I have not succeeded. I can only express my regret to the House that my efforts, which were quite honest in the matter, failed so completely. As regards the second objection that has been advanced, namely, that this Bill is taken now when the House has had so little opportunity of being aware of its provisions and that it would have been better if I had introduced it under the Ten Minutes' Rule yesterday, I can only say that if it had occurred to me to make that suggestion to the Prime Minister, I am sure that he would have given me the necessary permission and I should have been very glad to take advantage of it. To be quite 1834 frank with the House, as I hoped that the Bill would be available for Members in the Vote Office within a very few minutes, or at any rate an hour or two after I obtained permission to print it, I did not think the statement would be necessary.
§ Mr. LONG
Yes, I know. The Bill really, whatever view hon. Members may take of it, is a very simple one. I would remind the House that if ever a Bill was deserving of discussion, it is this one, because it is an answer to an insistent demand made upon me from all quarters of the House since I had the honour to take my present office. The criticism then which may be addressed to me and the Government is, Why so late1? My only answer to that is that I do not believe in the cry we hear so often now that it is too late to do it. It ought to have been done before. The one which appeals more to me is that it is never to late to mend. I had a good deal to do when I took over my new office, both inside the office and in connection with Government work outside, and at first I did not realise the extreme urgency of the question. I take full blame for this upon myself.
The object of the Bill is really very simple. It is, in the first place, to postpone for a year all municipal and local elections. The Government hope to deal later on with the question of Parliamentary elections and the provisions which will have to be made for them. This Bill deals only with municipal and local elections, provides for their postponement for a year and provides that where casual vacancies arise they shall be filled by co-option, and further that the same law shall apply to certain other elective bodies which you cannot specify in a Bill but which may possibly find some difficulty arising in consequence of this measure, and may desire their election, when it becomes due, to be postponed. The Bill also deals with the register, and on that it is my duty to say rather more than I think is necessary to say in regard to the first part. Everyone, I think, will agree that in a moment like this it is desirable that no elections should take place. This is the view of the representatives of our various local bodies. They have communicated it to me at the Local Government Board and have pressed it upon me. It is quite possible that had there been no legislation there would have been no elections, because public opinion 1835 unquestionably points in that direction. But we all know that a minority may for some reasons of their own be able to upset the general conclusion which has been arrived at informally, and we all felt that it ought to be enacted that during the War, or the period during which we are as we are, the elections should be postponed, and therefore we postpone them for a year in order that there may be no possibility of anyone upsetting this general arrangement. With regard to the register, I am told that this ought to have been done a long time before, and that unnecessary expenditure has already been incurred. I do not speak as an expert on this very difficult question of- registration, but, getting the best information I can, I entirely disagree with that view. The work which has been already done, I am informed, is the work done by the overseers, who compare the claims of the new voters in their own particular area. That work is done, and the date taken in the Bill is 31st July as the period at which registration work is to cease. Therefore it means that all these overseers' lists will be available as the foundation of the new register upon which any future election will have to take place, and therefore not only do I deny that this work has been wasted, but, on the contrary, I think it is very valuable and necessary work which has been done. I shall be asked, why the not hold your Revision Courts? I think everyone knows, who is familiar with our electoral system, that the Revision Courts really depend very much for their work upon the conflict which takes place in them as between the parties, and certainly we felt that this was not an occasion when it ought to be possible to have any of those disagreeable conflicts which are frequently waged before the revising barristers. On the contrary, the general peace ought to be maintained not only in Parliament, but in the Revision Courts and in connection with the register.
There is language in the Bill which offends the susceptibilities of some of my hon. Friends on both sides of the House who attach great importance to anything connected with contracts. I quite share their views, and I have frequently expressed them in this House, and I think if they look at the Bill they will see that we have taken power to deal in what is an absolutely fair and right manner with these contracts—that is to say, we 1836 authorise all expenditure incurred in connection with this work up to 31st July to be paid, and it will be paid, and I need hardly say that the Government will be responsible for the settlement which will have to be made if the Bill passes, and will do all in their power to see that these cases are fairly, justly, and properly dealt with. So that I really think the breaking of the contracts is not quite as serious as some of my hon. Friends think, because these contracts are in regard to work which is not now going to be done after 31st July, and it surely would not have been wise legislation to say that the work was not necessary, that therefore it was not to be done, and yet was to be paid for because contracts have been made in regard to it in the early part of the year. That is what I would say in defence of that part of the Bill. Of course, it involves a certain amount of sacrifice on the part of individuals. I do not suppose it is possible to pass any Bill of this kind which does not involve sacrifice. I suppose there is no one in the country who is not called upon to bear some personal sacrifice, and forego what he has looked upon as some legitimate advantage which comes to him. We have proposed the Bill in answer to what has been an almost unanimous demand, both from Members of Parliament and outside. We desire that it shall take effect so as to put an end to elections and to registration for the reasons we have given, but also incidentally this Bill, if it passes in anything like its present form, will result in a saving to the taxpayers and ratepayers of the country of at least £100,000, possibly more—not a very vast sum, as sums are talked about nowadays, but still one of sufficient importance, I think, to have made it obligatory upon the Government to take steps to secure this saving if it could be justly and properly done. These are the provisions of the Bill. These are the reasons why we have introduced it. It applies to Scotland and Ireland in somewhat different form because the Scottish system is different from ours, and the Irish system is different from ours. So far as I know, there is no objection to them in principle. The objections are rather to details, and I hope the House will be willing to consider it to-day in a businesslike spirit, and enable us to place it on the Statute book before we separate.
§ Mr. LONG
No, I have not thought it necessary to go into the whole details of registration, but that is one of the reasons why a register made this year must be absolutely valueless, because all the soldiers and the sailors, all the men engaged in mine-sweeping, all the men who are doing heroic service to the country, in addition to the men who are now engaged in munition work, who have been moved, not of their own will, from one part of the world to another to serve their country, and all the men who have been moved from their homes to different parts of the country, will be left out of the register, besides a great many others. Therefore it would be utterly useless.
§ Mr. RAWLINSON
This Bill, which will probably come into the hands of some hon. Members now for the first time, is in two totally distinct parts. The right hon. Gentleman has told us that he introduced the Bill very largely because he was asked to. In regard to one part of the Bill, that is a correct statement, but in regard to the other it is absolutely incorrect.
§ 1.0 p.m.
§ Mr. RAWLINSON
I mean what I say. The right hon. Gentleman was absolutely accurate in saying that there had been a general request for some considerable period for one part of the Bill, but he was inaccurate in saying that there was a general request for the second part of the Bill. I will show him very clearly that that is not so. As regards the first part of the Bill, it deals with the postponement of municipal elections. No doubt there has been a demand for that part of the Bill, but whether or not this Bill carries out the full nature of the demand I am not in a position to say, because I have not read the Bill sufficiently carefully. I do hope the right hon. Gentleman will give the House an opportunity of considering the Second Beading, not to-day, but on Monday, so that people who are skilled in municipal elections may have an opportunity of seeing whether the Bill carries out their intentions or not. As regards the second part of the Bill, which is to stop the work of registration from the 31st July, that stands on a totally different basis. Questions have been 1838 asked as to what the policy of the Government was upon that particular point, and the Prime Minister has given an answer on two separate occasions. That is what I meant when I said that the right hon. Gentleman was inaccurate in saying that there had been a universal demand for the second part of the Bill. On the 21st June the following question was put to the Prime Minister:—Mr. Lough: Is the Prime Minister now in a position to announce whether the usual Courts for the registration of electors will sit this year, or new registers be prepared; and, if not, what arrangements the Government propose to make with regard to this matter and the postponement of elections?The House will see that two different matters are mentioned, namely, the postponement of elections, and the sitting of the Registration Courts. The Prime Minister gave the following answer:—A good deal of the work in compiling the registers of electors in the present year has already been done, and I do not think that it is desirable that the ordinary procedure should be suspended. I anticipate, however, that the activities of the political parties will be in general stayed. A Bill to postpone elections for a year, and to provide for a register for the future, will be introduced forthwith." [OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st June, 1915, cols. 932–933.]It will be noted that the Prime Minister said that as regards the sitting of the Registration Courts, he thought it was undesirable that the ordinary procedure should be suspended. I challenge the President of the Local Government Board that at that, time there was not the slightest intention on the part of the Government to suspend the work of the Registration Courts in September, or to suspend the work of registration. A second question was asked on the 30th June:Mr. Lough asked the Prime Minister whether he is aware that the work of the local authorities in England and Wales in preparing the annual register of voters involves an expenditure of £300,000 per annum and does not commence until the 25th July, so that an opportunity could be given to the House of saving a great proportion, if not the whole, of this sum by enabling it to consider the Bill for postponing elections without further delay; and whether, under these circumstances, he will endeavour to introduce the Bill at once and expedite it at all stages?The Prime Minister: Some considerable part of the expense of this year's registration has been already incurred. Notwithstanding the postponement of elections, I do not think it would be for the general convenience to discontinue the registration now in progress. The Bill to which my right hon. Friend refers will be introduced as soon as possible."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th June, 1916, col. 1805.]That is a definite statement by the Prime Minister that despite the postponement of elections he did not consider it desirable to stop the registration then in progress. What has been the result? Contracts were entered into, to be performed after 31st July, not only with the printers and so 1839 forth, but, amongst other things, the appointment by the judges of revising barristers took place. These contracts were entered into and completed. If the second part of this Bill does not pass, these contracts will be enforceable in the ordinary way. That is how the position stands. Up to the end of July a considerable amount of work has been done; that is admitted. Anybody who knows anything about registration will know that the right hon. Gentleman has certainly been misinformed when he suggested that the work is not exceedingly expensive up to 31st July. The whole of the voters' lists have been prepared up to 31st July and printed. That expense has been incurred.
§ Mr. RAWLINSON
When we come to the figures the right hon. Gentleman will find that this is by far the most expensive part of the work. I have got the figures for certain boroughs, and I can say that by far the most expensive part of the work has been done. He said the work would be useful on some other occasion. I can assure him that that really is not so. Some of us, I suppose, have had experience in these matters. The list prepared by the overseers will have to be redone next year. I speak of what I know, and I maintain that when you have left over the work of revision—I remember in one particular county there was no revision for some years—the difficulties of getting the lists into order again are very great indeed. It is clear, from the answer that was given by the Prime Minister in June, that the Government admitted that while it might be desirable to postpone elections it would not be in the public interest to postpone the registration; because the tangle the register gets into, if it is not dealt with year after year, is an exceedingly difficult one to unravel. You have got, therefore, to this position, that the bulk of the expenditure has been incurred, and that the rest of the expenditure to be incurred, though large, is considerably less than the amount which has been incurred already.
§ Mr. RAWLINSON
I quite agree. I did not understand that the right hon. Gentleman gave that figure. At any rate the Department that he is responsible for brought in a Bill last week which will involve us in expense to the amount of this identical figure of £100,000 which the right hon. Gentleman expects to save under this Bill. The matter, however, stands upon a bigger basis than that. The Prime Minister stated definitely in June that registration was to go on although elections were to be postponed. People altered their arrangements owing to that. Appointments were made and contracts were entered into. I speak particularly of one form of contract, which is, perhaps, the least popular, and that is the contract with the revising barristers. After all, even a lawyer is entitled to fair play up to a certain point. These people got their appointments and they have taken houses in the districts where they are to revise the lists, in order that they may be able to perform their work under their contracts. It is a popular thing to say that a contract with a poor person is much more important than a contract with a rich person. Well, some of these revising barristers are not exceedingly rich, and it is a matter of great importance to them when they alter their summer arrangements and make contracts, as many of them have done, which they cannot get out of, for the taking of houses in their respective districts, so that they might be able to carry out their duties under their contract. The right hon. Gentleman comes down and says that the contract has not been performed, and therefore it would save money to break it. The Government are gong to stick to the contracts which have been performed and for which they have got full value. But as respects the other contracts, they have changed their mind, for the Prime Minister having stated one thing in June, the Government are saying another thing to-day, and these contracts are to be treated as a scrap of paper.
§ Mr. RAWLINSON
The Secretary for Scotland does not like that. Can he 1841 answer it? There was admittedly a contract which is binding; why should it be torn up?
Mr. McKINNON WOOD
My point of view is that that is purely a Committee point. It has nothing to do with the Second Reading of this Bill. If the hon. and learned Member considers that the case of the revising barristers should be specially dealt with, the matter can be put right in Committee. Does he suggest that we should give up a great saving, not merely in England, but in Scotland and Ireland as well, simply because of a small matter which could easily, be adjusted?
§ Mr. RAWLINSON
I am very much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman, who says that these contracts are practically a Committee point. I was only following the right hon. Gentleman who introduced the Bill, and was differing from what he said. I am only too glad to hear from the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for Scotland that this is a Committee point, and I shall certainly take the hint from him, for I understand it amounts to that, in dealing with the matter. But while the question of contract may be a Committee point, it is very important on the Second Reading of the Bill, for the principle remains the same. I was kept here last night by a Bill which did not interest me, so that I might be able to vote at the proper time in favour of contracts being entered into, and I feel very deeply upon this and consider that I am entitled to speak more strongly on the question of the sanctity of contracts than I should be if I had not stayed here last night. There are two sides to this Bill. There is no possible objection to the first side, but with regard to the second part of the Bill, possibly I may be wrong in not regarding it as the right hon. Gentleman does, as entirely a Committee point. I look upon it as more than a Committee point. The second part of the Bill is in contradiction with what the Prime Minister said in June. I think it most important that the Government should not change their policy now, and that whatever contracts they have entered into should be rigidly adhered to.
§ Mr. PRINGLE
I have some doubt about the value of Clause 1 of this Bill, but I do not think that the question of its desirability is of sufficient importance to enter into a controversy with the Government about it. I have some doubt as to 1842 whether it is really advisable by Statute to postpone all the elections. Last year there was no statutory postponement, yet the good sense and good feeling which prevailed almost everywhere prevented these local contests from being held, and it was only in a few cases where some local question required to be settled that any election took place. And I really do not see why the people in any municipality should be deprived of their right of turning out their representative this year, where they think that they are not acting in accordance with the public interests. I can understand perfectly well the point of view of the existing councils. The right hon. Gentleman has told the House that the existing councils do not want to have elections. Of course, naturally, they desire to continue by Statute and have another year, and be saved the necessity of submitting themselves to the judgment of the electors. But questions may arise in any locality as to whether local schemes should be continued or not, and under this Bill the local authority can do what it likes, subject to some supervision by the Local Government Board, altogether unchecked by public opinion, because they are under no necessity of consulting the localities. I do not think that this is advisable in the interests of economy, but I do not desire seriously to challenge that part of the Bill, because I understand that there is no serious opposition to it. On the second Clause, however, I am completely at issue with the Government. I was amazed when I heard the hon. Baronet the Member for Ayr Burghs say that there was only one opinion among Scottish Members. It is the first time on record.
§ Mr. PRINGLE
Not even then, because the hon. Baronet was against the Board of Agriculture getting its usual Grant this year, and in reference to the Grouse Bill the hon. Baronet was not entitled to speak for all the Scotch Members. Personally, I do not believe that the right hon. Gentleman has made out any case for suspending the new register. As the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite has pointed out, almost everything has been done for the purpose of making the new register. The overseers in England have completed the lists of the claims which have to be in by the 20th July, and consequently their work and that of the agents has been entirely done. In Scotland we know that the 1843 work there is not done by overseers but by public officials and their assistants. These gentlemen have made their surveys in all constituencies, partly for making up the valuation rolls and partly for making up the Parliamentary register. All that work is done. Why should it not be used? We are told indeed that the result will be to keep many soldiers and sailors off the register. In some cases it will have that effect, but in the majority of cases, where the soldier or sailor was a householder and the house is still in his name, the assessor in Scotland will automatically put his name on the list, and his name will remain on the list unless some person takes objection on account of the want of reference. I do not believe that there is a single agent in Scotland who would take objection as regards the coming register to a single soldier or sailor whose name would appear on that register as a householder. Therefore I do not believe that the case of the soldiers and sailors would affect the new register.
On the other hand, the new register would clear off all those who had removed and all those who were dead. You would therefore have the register brought up to date, which is a very valuable matter. Certainly in Scotland the cost for the rest of the work would be a very small matter. We have no revising barristers in Scotland and no vested interests and no sub-contracts have been entered into. The Registration Courts there are conducted by the sheriffs, who do the work as part of their ordinary administrative and judicial duties. Consequently, the cost would be a trifling matter. You have already done a large part of the work in connection with the register.
§ Mr. PRINGLE
It is a minor point, and I am quite prepared to admit that the hon. Baronet is right. As to the cost that will be incurred in making the new register, my point is that the new register will be better than the old register, and that its superiority will justify this extra cost. We know also that this trifling cost may turn out to be a small matter even in England. We have been assured by the right hon. 1844 Gentleman that this question of the contracts with revising barristers is a Committee point. If that is so, I hope that the Government will not put on the Government Whips, but that it will be left to hon. Members whether these contracts are to be broken or not. That is the fair way of treating this Committee point on which the free judgment of the House should be taken. If in the exercise of the judgment of Members it should be decided that these contracts are not to be broken, then the saving of expenditure would be comparatively trifling, so that even on this point there is very little to be said. What is the effect of Clause 2 of the Bill? That is a point which has not been considered at all. The Clause says:—The Parliamentary and local government register of electors in force at the time of the passing of this Act shall remain in force until Parliament provides for special registers being made or otherwise directs.That means that the existing register is made permanent until Parliament has passed a new Statute. You are proposing to set up a permanent register. It is quite true that we have the present Government in power just now, but we do not know how long that combination will continue. We may have readjustments, and it might be to the interest of the new combination who take the place of these gentlemen to have a general election; they might be able to pass a measure through both Houses of Parliament for the purpose of that election; or, it might not be to their interest to, pass such a Statute, but to have an election on the old register, so as to obtain a House of Commons, to their mind. I say that the House of Commons has no right to put that weapon into the hands of any Government. I think that on constitutional grounds there is absolutely the strongest objection to any such course. You have no right to make the existing Parliamentary voters the settled electorate of the country. After all, it is not in the power of this House to decide it. There are two Houses of Parliament. You have in future to consider this, that the Government might think one kind of register the best, and if that kind of register were agreed upon you might find that the other place would disagree with it and reject the Bill. So that the effect of this is, as I think I have established, that Clause 1 means a permanent register, and I do not think that this House should 1845 assent to that; and that Clause 2 is for the purpose of breaking contracts with revising barristers.
I wish to make a few observations on the point of these contracts. Who are the men you are going to break contracts with? A few junior barristers. I am a junior barrister myself, but I have never been a revising barrister. I have either been in Parliament or a Parliamentary candidate, so that I was disabled from becoming a revising barrister. After all, these revising barristers are men making comparatively small incomes. They are poor men; they are uninfluential; their case will not be popular with the country; they have no influence in this House; they are men who are not making war profits—indeed, their profession is depressed. Last night we had the case of the coal owners, who have been making inflated profits, waxing fat on the plunder of the poor. Contracts with them are to be maintained in order that they may earn the extra few shillings, but the poor revising barrister is to have his contract broken. I do not believe that if the case is put to the House they will assent to that course. If you are to have sanctity of contract in the case of the rich coal owner, there should be sanctity of contract for the revising barrister. I am in favour of economy. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] Yes, but economy at the expense of people who can afford it. I submit that it is really a contemptible proposal to suggest that in order to save a few thousand pounds you are going to break contracts deliberately entered into, after an express statement of Government policy by the Prime Minister. I think I have made a case in support of the point that, as a matter of public policy, it is better to have a new register. In the second place, I think economy can be effected only at the expense of a breach of contract with the revising barristers, and that breach of contract, if assented to by the House, would be a contemptible proceeding, having regard to the past action of this House in respect to contracts with other people.
Mr. McKINNON WOOD
My hon. Friend has spoken more from the point of view of the English barrister, but in his argument in regard to revising barristers he entirely forgot the case of Scotland and of Ireland. The House surely must be aware that even if we paid the revising barristers for not doing the work we would still be in 1846 pocket, and save many thousands of pounds. A week or two ago I went down to Scotland, on behalf of the Government, and addressed meetings on the subject of national economy, and the Scottish people, at least, are a literal and a consistent people, and if they start on the path of economy they are not going to waste money for nothing. That is what my hon. Friend wants us to do.
Mr. McKINNON WOOD
My right hon. Friend the President of the Local Government Board told the House what would be the saving in England, but we would almost double the saving in the case of Scotland. I am not in a position to fix the amount, but I should not wonder if we saved in public and private money together £60,000. The question as to the revising barristers' fees is a Committee point. I have known my right hon. Friend for some twenty years, though I have been associated with him in a different way, and I am sure he is the last man to do injustice to anybody, and I am sure he will not do injustice to anybody. When I went down to Scotland to talk about economy, I received a very remarkable deputation from the City of Glasgow. It consisted of the chief Unionist agent, the chief Liberal agent, the Nationalist agent, and the Labour agent, and the assessor. They came to say to me, and were absolutely unanimous in pressing me, to get this Bill through for Scotland. What was the ground they took? They said, this would be a sheer and absolute waste of public money, and that the Glasgow ratepayers would have to spend £6,000, and there would be worse than nothing to show for it. The assessor said, "I am engaged, and my staff is depleted. I am looking after the Belgian refugees and recruiting work." The agents said, "We are all engaged in recruiting work or thrift work, and we do not want to make a useless register this year." They said this also to me, that this register would be worse than the last one, and would be of no advantage, and would be a thoroughly bad register, for the reasons which my right hon. Friend has given, and which are familiar to everybody in the House. What is the question of the revising barristers, and the pay of the revising barristers?
Mr. McKINNON WOOD
I never saw a measure of economy opposed on such trivial, unfair and insincere grounds as those.
Mr. McKINNON WOOD
I withdraw "insincere" if it offends anybody. Surely the whole point as to the revising barristers is not the way to argue the matter. We had some very offensive remarks about the head of the Government, and scraps of paper. I think the sooner those political quotations are dropped in domestic controversy the better. It is a very unfortunate way of carrying on domestic controversies on matters though they may be opposed. We are all friends, and brother Englishmen, and I think those phrases should be dropped. I think I am entitled to speak a little warmly when phrases of that kind are used. As my hon. Friend is very well aware there are no revising barristers in Scotland. The sheriffs do the work, and I do not know why the sheriffs should object to having less work to do this year.
Mr. McKINNON WOOD
That really is an argument not worthy to put before the House. The assessors have not started on this work. The House is being asked to waste probably some £60,000 in Scotland and £100,000 in England, and another sum in Ireland, for no reason at all. Can we prate about economy, and take this line? It is the most inconsistent opposition I have ever heard. Does the House really realise that there is a necessity for economy? Here is money that will be saved, and cost nothing, and we will be none the worse for saving it, and yet that is a contentious matter in the House of Commons. I am sure hon. Members will feel that it is their duty to support this Bill on Second Reading, whatever points they may wish to raise on the Committee stage.
§ Colonel YATE
The hon. Member for North-West Lanarkshire (Mr. Pringle) treated the question of the Revision 1848 Courts as a trivial matter. We saw recently an estimate of £250,000 for Revision Courts, and surely we all must acknowledge that to waste £250,000 on the Revision Courts under present circumstances would be a thing that would be intolerable to the whole country. The hon. Member also said that no one would ever make any objections to an absentee soldier or sailor. Whatever his belief may be in that respect, I think it is the duty of us here to see that nobody will have the opportunity of making any objection to our brave soldiers and sailors and to the mine-sweepers who have been referred to, and all of whom are absolutely giving their lives in our behalf. It rests with us, one and all, to see that the interests of those men are perfectly protected, and I hope we will do so.
§ Mr. GLYN-JONES
I desire to express the hope that the Government will proceed with both parts of this Bill. As to the first part, there appears to be more or less general consent. As to the second, namely, the removal of any necessity for the completion of registration work this year, I cannot understand anyone who has practical knowledge of the work of registration not agreeing at such a time as this to forego the work entirely. It is suggested that the Government have changed their mind, and that there was a time in June when they thought that the work of registration should go on. If that is so, all I have got to say is that I think they were wrong in June and they are certainly right now. Then there is the suggestion that there will be some difficulty about contracts. From my experience of London registration I am bound to say that if the revising barristers got every penny which they got last year without doing anything it would be well even then that the work should not be done. We are right, of course, in saving all the money we can, and it is perfectly fair to put forward that as an argument-There are other ways in which expenses can be saved. The printing of the register is an enormous expense, and for myself I cannot help thinking that it would be quite possible for the Government to make suitable arrangements to equitably deal with contracts which have been made and which cannot be carried out. My hon. Friend (Mr. Pringle) says that we are going to freeze the register. If there is going to be an election of any kind before the War comes to an end the present register is the best register you 1849 could have and is the one which is likely to do least injustice. An hon. Member asks why? First of all, take the lodgers who are at the front. Unless you have some change in registration law everybody knows that those old lodgers cannot go on new lodger lists unless they sign claims. It is now suggested to me that they could not vote. I am not at all sure that an arrangement would not be made whereby they would be enabled to vote. I am speaking as to the register being the guide as to those who are entitled to vote. I say if the present registration goes on, unless you have some change in registration law, all the old lodgers who are at the front will be removed from the register and not entitled to vote.
There is another matter which has not been touched upon. We have been dealing with this as a matter of expense and as involving work on public officials. What does it mean in the constituencies where the registration work is done, and often fought with the keenness of an election? In some constituencies where the margin is small there is as much political animosity brought into the work of Registration Courts as there is at an election. Is this the right time to have that done? What of the work of the political agents during the next two or three months making objection to people on the list or putting in fresh claims for people whom they think will support their cause? What cause? Speaking as a Member of Parliament, I cannot help thinking that we are attaching now a great deal too much importance to what we may consider to be the political views of the people we are putting on or keeping off the register. I do not know what my own views will be on the issues of the next General Election. No one knows. No one knows who will lead us or what his views will be. If that is so, how can political agents know whether, from their point of view, they are keeping the right people off or putting the right people on? If you could guarantee that no political agent would take any part at all in the next registration work, my objection on this point would be met. But you cannot give that guarantee at all. If that is so, we had better frankly face the realities and say that it is perfectly ridiculous to speak about preparing a register at this time. Whether we do or do not save money by not going on, I think, in the interests of all parties, and certainly in the interests of the most useful work which political agents and their organisa- 1850 tions are at present doing throughout the country, they should not be saddled with the duty, because it would be a duty, involved in the preparation of the register. We know what it means. Political agents would not trust each other not to put in objections and political animosities would be aroused, with the result that much greater injustice would be done to voters entitled to be on the register. We are not dealing with normal times. I hope the House will not allow the point with regard to existing contracts to prevent their doing away with the work of registration this year. In Committee or in some other way we can be left to make due provision to meet any real grievance which anybody who has entered into a contract for registration work may suffer.
§ Sir W. BYLES
We are merely asked to give a Second Reading to the Bill, and that, I think, is a reasonable request. I attach considerable weight to the criticisms and objections raised in the early part of the Debate by my hon. Friends, and if we were in normal times I would be with them. I would suggest, however, that both the important points raised by them can be very well dealt with in Committee. I read the Bill yesterday: I thought that, on the whole, it was a reasonable proposal, and I think so still, that the elections should be postponed and the register not proceeded with. The Government have a great deal to do, and it is the business of the House of Commons to assist them as far as possible. These are exceptional times. In normal times one would be much more ready to join in the criticisms which have been urged. But these are exceptional times, and it seems to me that in these discussions we are forgetting the primary duty laid upon the Government, Parliament, and the country, of prosecuting the War. We have to prosecute the War, to end it, and to win it. I do not think we ought to put any obstacles in the way of the men who have that vast responsibility upon their shoulders.
§ Mr. ROBERT PEARCE
I should like to ask whether the City of London and other cities and county boroughs are included in the Bill? As I read it, it does not at all affect the City of London.
§ Mr. PEARCE
That is sufficient on that point. As to registration, the work of the overseers, which is more important than the work of the political agents, has already been done, and is provided for in the Bill. It is very desirable that work which has already been done should be preserved in the way proposed by the Bill. The revision of these lists, which is a mere examination of objections, is a comparatively small matter, and can very easily be done next year, when another list is prepared. It seems to me that the framing of the registration part of the Bill is sufficient for the purpose of preserving the register in its best condition in readiness for a further correction next year, or whenever the General Election comes.
§ Mr. HOGGE
I think my right hon. Friend will find that the City of London is not included in the scope of the Bill. An exception is made on behalf of the hon. Baronet opposite (Sir F. Banbury). He has slipped out of the Bill, but we will get him in in Committee. I wish to address myself to the Scottish aspects of the case. I am sorry the Scottish Secretary has gone away, after the very conciliatory speech which he addressed to us, without hearing what any Scottish Member had to say about the preparation of the register. In Scotland our voting roll is constructed from a roll which is got together after a survey by the assessor for the purposes of the valuation roll. That survey is an intimate one, involving a considerable amount of work, and falls within the duty of the office—that is to say, the official responsible is paid a salary which includes his work in this capacity. If that official is not to do the work this year for which he is paid, it is an obvious economy to effect in his salary.
§ Mr. HOGGE
But not the register, which is also part of the work. Nor is the sheriff doing his part of the work, although he is paid for it as part of his duties. A great deal has been said in this discusion about political agents being concerned in the making of these rolls. The House seemed to agree when it was suggested that political agents sought to get on to the register voters of their own political colour, and to keep off, by all the 1852 devious means open to them, voters who were against them politically. That is a very wrong way to construct any register of voters. It is very wrong for any political party to attempt to keep any man off the register who has a right to be there. [Laughter.] That seems to be taken as a joke. But I do submit that it is worth while for once in our lives to get an absolutely honest register of voters, a thing we have never been able to get before. All of us know we are in this conspiracy to try to doctor the voting roll. Our various agents in our constituencies meet before the roll is finally decided, and with a system of give-and-take, giving and taking so many lodgers, an so on, adjust the roll before it actually comes before the final authority. Here is an opportunity to have a perfectly clean register, with nobody on that register but the people who are entitled to be put there without the assistance of political agents. A great many people die during the year, and everybody who knows the work in connection with the roll and the tracing of voters, knows that a large number of voters go off the roll because there are dead or because they have removed out of the district and no longer have the qualifications. A suggestion has been made that we might have a General Election. I suppose we will have a General Election sometime. If some of the newspapers in London had their way some of us would have to go before our constituents at once in order that we might be dealt with; some of us would be very pleased so to do, to have the opportunity of meeting our constituents at the very earliest possible moment.
§ Mr. HOGGE
That is not necessary until we have completed the task for which the electors sent us here. But I am greatly in favour of every locality having that opportunity and right at any moment. Take the municipal elections. Why should any electorate in any municipality be deprived of the opportunity of expressing its municipal opinion on things which are not at all concerned with the War? Everybody who has been on a municipal corporation—as many of us in this House have—know the questions that arise. We know many of the municipalities throughout the country where no question of politics arises, and where great public 1853 questions are decided. I give my right hon. Friend notice on this point, that I may put down an Amendment for the Committee suggesting that the difficulty could be got over in the way I indicate. I think it is a fair point to put. I myself deprecate elections in municipalities where the man who forces a contest gets only a miserable amount of support. For instance, in Edinburgh recently, one or two contests were forced in which the man who was beaten did not get more, at the outside, than twenty votes. I do not think any man is entitled to force a municipal contest and put the municipality to the expense of a contest unless he is able to produce behind him a sufficient public support to warrant his candidature.
I therefore want to suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that that might be met by amendment which would seek to penalise a candidate who forces a contest unless he gets a certain minimum of support from the electors. That would leave it open for our municipalities to have their elections, if they wished to have them. It would also prevent anybody forcing a contest for some peculiar fad or notion of their own. I trust that suggestion—as I am sure it will—will receive consideration. The hon. Baronet opposite mentioned the question of expense. All of us know that every printer in every locality keeps the register in type from year to year. [An HON. MEMBER: "NO."] Well, those who do not are foolish. We do in Scotland. But we are an economical people. We waste no money in printing the register afresh. We keep the register in type, and the only expense is the printing. In Scotland the printing trade is one of the most depressed trades on account of the War. In Edinburgh, the whole of the printing industry has been absolutely destroyed by the circumstances attending this War. The printing of these registers is a valuable piece of work which would in many of the localities in Scotland keep those printers for a time. That is a side argument which I think is quite worth considering. My right hon. Friend took £50,000 in the Estimates the other day to deal with matters under the Unemployed Workmen's Act. Some of this public money might be devoted to helping the industry that is very depressed. Supplied with a piece of public work like this, you would be helping the printing industry in Scotland, and this in addition to the fact that you will get an 1854 up-to-date register which could be kept up to date at very little expense. I submit that these are reasonable considerations for the House in respect to the Scottish register. With regard to the English and Irish registers, they are in the hands of the English and Irish Members. So far, however, as the Scottish Members are concerned Scottish opinion is in favour of bringing the register up to date, and keeping it up to date for the reasons which I have given.
§ Sir G. YOUNGER
I am sorry I do not altogether agree with my hon. Friend opposite. Certainly he will admit that I am in a position to know, at all events, a good deal of the opinion of my own side, and I can only say that there is a perfectly unanimous opinion on this matter. I have also had many conversations with Mr. Webster, the head of the Liberal organisation. He is quite thoroughly agreed as to the necessity of some measure of this kind. He said so in my presence some months ago. I, myself, having perfect confidence in the common sense of the Government, believed that they would be sure to do something like this, and told my Unionist friends in Scotland not to spend a shilling over our register. The register as it stands now is infinitely better than any register we could prepare, certainly in Scotland. Our agents on both sides have been engaged—and the country owes them a debt of thanks for it—for many months in recruiting work. This applies to the headquarters of the Unionist party in Edinburgh and the headquarters of the Liberal party in Glasgow. They have done admirable work in every kind of way for the country. We still have demands for men to do their very best to fulfil their obligations in that respect, and I think it will be a disaster if they were taken from most necessary national work to engage in the petty squabbles we have every year over our registers.
It is perfectly true, as the hon. Member said a moment ago, that the printers in Scotland usually keep our electoral rolls in being. They keep the type standing both for our valuation rolls and for our electoral rolls. All the same there is a very heavy expenditure each year in connection with changes and alterations in these rolls. Every one understands these are very considerable, and particularly in connection with the new Act which was passed a year or two ago. In places like Glasgow, where removals are very fre- 1855 quent, and many alterations are necessary, nowadays it is practically almost necessary to print an entirely new roll. Be that as it may, we should certainly save a large amount of public money, and also we should keep the roll as at present. No Government will take advantage of the position to retain that roll permanently. I do not think that any Government in power, or that may come into power in this country, will do anything in the slightest degree to prejudice the electoral position. The hon. Gentleman opposite suggests that that might be done?
§ Mr. SPEAKER
Perhaps the hon. Member had better wait till the hon. Baronet has finished and then make his speech. I think we may assume that whatever the hon. Baronet says will be opposed by the hon. Member, and whatever the hon. Member says will be opposed by the hon. Baronet; so that we know where we are.
§ Sir G. YOUNGER
I do not know whether the hon. Member is willing to accept that position, Mr. Speaker, but so far as I am concerned it quite expresses my position. The hon. Member knows, and so does the right hon. Gentleman—whom I am sorry was not here when I made my preliminary remarks—that the general opinion is what I have stated. If the right hon. Gentleman does not object to my saying it, something like a week ago we both agreed that if delay was to occur in connection with this matter in stereotyping the English and Irish rules, we, at all events, agreed we should make an effort, and he would make an effort, to get the Prime Minister to assist about the lists for Scotland. Therefore, I merely rise to say I agree entirely with the line the right hon. Gentleman took in the matter of Scotland, and hope the Bill will be read a second time.
§ Sir WILLIAM BEALE
As a representative of a Scottish constituency, the information which has reached me makes me agree entirely with the observations of the last speaker, and mainly with those of the Secretary for Scotland—at all events to this extent, that the Second Beading of this Bill ought to pass without any delay—and I am, therefore, very reluctant even to get up except to say a word upon the question of revising barristers in England. I know it is a Committee point, but, with the object of saving time, I think it is well 1856 we should be at one as to the view we should take as to the rights, if any, of people who are injured to any extent by this Act, as those gentlemen will be. I entirely agree in the main with the ideas of the hon. and learned Member for Cambridge University (Mr. Rawlinson), but I do not think I can quite put it in the way he did. I do not think it is exactly on the footing of a breach of contract. I do not know whether they have already been appointed.
§ Sir W. BEALE
Practically that is a reappointment of the men who acted last year. Even so, I think it is a case where gentlemen have been induced to make their arrangements and to put themselves to disadvantage in an expectation. I should like to put the case, not precisely in terms of a breach of contract, but as a case in which you disappoint people who arrange their lives in an expectation, and I hope we shall be able to find an Amendment on which we shall be at one, and which will, at all events, save these gentlemen from loss. Not only have these gentlemen generally had a comparatively small practice at the Bar, but they are men very often who could not keep up the rent of their chambers without the certainty of this little position they hold, and, incidentally, they are the class of men who do a great deal of service indeed in acting as arbitrators in small matters, and who are a very useful class of barristers. I hope that will be borne in mind.
§ 2.0 P.M.
§ Mr. HUME-WILLIAMS
I only desire to intervene for only a few minutes in this Debate, because I have no doubt the House will wish to proceed with the Second Reading, and anything I do say is intended to be helpful, although it may or may not bear that aspect. I doubt whether the part of this Bill which deals with the postponement of the Registration Courts will really carry out the object which I am sure those who support it would wish. If it had been suggested at an earlier period that all the work in connection with the preparation of the registers and the checking of the lists should be postponed altogether it might have been a good proposition or it might have been a bad proposition. But, at the point which we have reached now, I do submit to the House that it is very doubt- 1857 ful whether you would not be better carrying out the objects of your Bill if you allowed the registration work to be completed, seeing that it has gone so far. I presume, of course, that there will be no General Election until some kind of new register has been set up. It would be unthinkable that a General Election should take place some time next year, let us say, on the register which had been settled last September. I could not think of an election upon an old register which would then be two years old—perhaps more. Therefore you have got in view the preparation at a future period of the register upon which the election is going to take place, and I take it the sole object you have is, how best to fix it. It seems to me that the barrister who is going ultimately to settle that register, be it next year or the year after when the election takes place, must have something to go upon, and so must the overseer. Is it not better that he should have something for this year absolutely settled and up to date than that he should have now a mere list prepared by the overseers?
§ Mr. HUME-WILLIAMS
I am quite sure my phrase to that extent is correct. No register could be prepared now up to date for a year hence; you can only get it as near as you can. My point is that, having got so far, having got your overseers to prepare the lists, having got them in print, having appointed your revising barristers, having engaged the Courts, would it not be simpler for your own purposes to complete the scheme, which has gone so far, by holding your Registration Courts, subject of course to the arrangement, which I understand was carried out in the greater part of the districts last year, namely, that there should be no political controversies between the agents of either side? It is within the knowledge of every man in the House, I think, that all the Registration Courts last year proceeded upon the most amicable arrangements. There were no contests, and in consequence you have got a register which does represent the electorate of that time. Now you are looking forward two years, and I cannot help thinking that, having proceeded so far as you have, it would be a wise thing to take the really small final step.
1858 As to the revising barristers, I quite agree with the point which will be raised at a subsequent stage, but I do venture to press it very strongly upon the attention of the Government. These gentlemen are appointed every year, and the appointments have taken place. The Courts have been engaged and all the necessary work has been done for carrying out their work. Their arrangements are made. There is a sort of popular fallacy to be found sometimes even in this House that the leaders of the Bar are people making very large incomes. I only wish it were so. At any rate, those members of the Bar who are appointed revising barristers cannot be said by the wildest flight of imagination to belong to that class. I could give instances to the House in my own personal knowledge of more than one man who depends on the small salary he gets from this appointment to sustain himself and his family, and who has made his arrangements and is entitled to look to that source of income in the coming year. You are compensating everybody nowadays for every injury done. If an aircraft comes across a town and drops bombs on it, one might have thought that is an ordinary incident of war. You compensate those who are injured. Everybody is out for compensation, and yet it is commonly suggested that these gentlemen are not to receive any consideration. I observe that the President of the Local Government Board lends this suggestion a sympathetic ear, and I hope it will be dealt with in Committee.
§ Sir HARRY SAMUEL
I quite agree that this year there ought not to be any register prepared. No register that can be taken this year could by any possibility whatever be truly representative of any constituency, and I am perfectly certain that any register we might have taken now would be infinitely less reliable and less of a guide for the future than the register which exists at the present moment. There are many other reasons which I might put forward, but there is one reason which comes to me perhaps with stronger force than in the case of most hon. Members. I have been engaged ever since the War broke out, by kind permission of those in authority, in endeavouring to see that we get a sufficient number of men for our Army. In this work our political agents have been to us an absolute stand-by, and we never could have done the work as we have done it had it not been for the fact that the political agents of all parties, 1859 Conservative, Liberal, and Labour, have worked hand in hand all through the country with the most splendid results as far as the securing of recruits is concerned.
In addition to this the political agents have been asked to endeavour to help us to put before the people the absolute necessity of doing their best to be economical and to save. If the agents are to do all that, how on earth can they take part in this campaign for recruits and war savings, and other things as well, if in addition they have to take on the work of creating the ordinary register of the year? For that reason I ask the House to approve of this measure. The only fault I have to find with it is that it has been delayed so long, and it would have been an infinite advantage to many of us if this Bill had been introduced a little earlier. This measure is conceived on right lines. It is impossible to think that we can now have party warfare, because there are no parties at the present moment of any kind or distinction except the one great national party that stands for the absolute destruction of our common enemy. I only wish that some hon. Members of this House would take that view a little more instead of introducing in the discussion of such measures as this all kinds of minor and petty points which are not in keeping with a grave situation like the present. It is difficult to ask us to go about pleading for economy unless we can say that the Government are taking the lead in this matter. This Bill is conceived on lines of strict economy, and I am certain it will help us if we are able to put forward the Government as model economists. I think the House is now prepared to give this Bill a Second Reading. I am sure it is conceived on proper lines, and I am perfectly certain that it will be welcomed in all the constituencies of this country.
§ Mr. M. HEALY
After looking at this measure I concluded that if then was one Bill that it was likely every Member of Parliament would be agreed upon it is this measure. Nevertheless there has been a good deal of criticism upon it. Why is it desirable to have no revision this year? The answer is that there can be no effective revision. Why is that? This matter has been discussed as if the work was done by officials, but that is not so, and to suppose that is to mix up the process of preparing the lists and the revising of them. The officials prepare the lists 1860 and they are then distributed to the political parties. Why is it necessary to revise them? Because everybody knows that no matter how careful you are, or how well the work is done, when the lists are issued to the public there will be hundreds of names on them which should have been omitted and there will be hundreds omitted which should have been included. The revision of the lists consists of striking out the names which the officials have erroneously inserted and putting into the lists those which the officials have erroneously omitted. That work is done not by the officials but by the political parties, and the reason why the revision is impossible under present conditions is that political parties have all agreed that at the present moment that is a class of work in which they ought not to engage when the country is at war.
I have been engaged in Revision Courts, I am sorry to say, for nearly thirty years. In Ireland I suppose we are a little more pugnacious in these matters than the rest of the Kingdom, but we fight our revision contest with a great desire to gain an advantage over the other party. In a hotly contested Irish Revision Court very often five weeks is spent every year in a contest between the political agent of each side as to who shall be on the lists and who shall not. I have spent five weeks on two occasions in the constituency of West Belfast conducting a Revision Court, and I have also spent five weeks in a constituency in Derry conducting a revision. I have in my time been in nearly every constituency in Ulster, and for the past three years I have had very considerable experience in my own district, where for three years past it has taken two revising barristers, specially appointed, a period extending over a month to revise the lists. I do not pretend to be acquainted with the Scottish law, but I have had occasion to read a great many Scottish revision cases.
I remember reading in the public newspapers some three years ago of an extraordinary scene which took place in one of the Revision Courts in Glasgow. One of the great questions which arises in Revision Courts concerns lodgers, and the agents of each side are at their wits end to know how to settle whether lodgers are entitled to the franchise or not. In that particular Glasgow constituency it happened that there were 5,000 lodger claims that year, and the political agents decided that they could not possibly settle the question without having the 1861 whole 5,000 of them brought into Court. Accordingly, on some particular day subpoenas were procured. The Court was filled, the passages were filled, and all the adjoining streets were thronged with masses of lodgers coming up to prove their claims and to assert their rights. It is said, "Oh, yes; but that will not go on under the present conditions. Last year everything was lovely. The agents ton each side agreed that there would be no contention." Yes; but that is to say the agents agreed that there should be no revision. Revision involves contention; it involves conflict; it involves fierce fighting. You can have no revision without it. An innocent Member from Edinburgh said what an intolerable thing it was that the agents on each side should strike off persons who were entitled to be on the list and should try to get on persons who were not entitled to be on. That is the business of revision. That is what the agents are for. It has been said of the English system of jurisprudence that cases are conducted by each barrister putting his case in the unfairest manner possible in order that the judge in the end may come to a perfectly fair conclusion. Accordingly, correct and accurate lists can only be prepared by each political party doing its best to get the better of the other party; and, assuming that each party employs equal skill, you get a perfectly correct list, and you get it in no other way. All that goes to show that contention, fighting, and conflict are the very breath and life of the Revision Courts. You cannot have a Revision Court without it, and a Revision Court without it is a sham.
I was told that last year it was only possible to conduct the revision in the English Courts in the cases of lodgers by all the agents agreeing to do that which was illegal. The lodger must sign his claim with his own name. An enormous number of lodgers were at the front, and could not sign their names. Each party got round the law by agreeing to permit the claims to be signed otherwise than by the lodger. You cannot conduct the revision if you have to have it on these lines. You might as well not have it at all, because that means that you are accepting the lists as the officials have prepared them, and that you consider revision unnecessary. The real defence of this proposal to have no revision is that the political parties last year themselves decided that they would have no effective revision. 1862 This only carries out in legal form that which last year the political agents agreed to do in an illegal manner. What is the objection to it? "Oh," says the hon. Member for Lanark (Mr. Pringle), "you have a stereotyped register; you have a frozen register." It is quite true that you have a frozen register, but why you should you not in the existing circumstances? What is the register for? It serves two purposes. It is either to provide for the case of a General Election or for the case of a by-election. Everybody is agreed that on the register as now prepared there is to be no General Election. That being so, you do not want a register for a General Election. The hon. Member shakes his head. Does he want a General Election on a register from which the soldiers at the front are excluded?
§ Mr. M. HEALY
I can only say what the hon. Member who preceded me said. The holding of an election on the register which is now being prepared is unthinkable. I, at any rate, refuse to think it possible. I believe that it is entirely out of the question that any Government should be guilty of it. It would be an infamy to hold an election on a register from which some hundreds of thousands of soldiers are necessarily excluded because they are at the front. An hon. Member said that we could get over that because the agents would not object. It is not a question of whether the agents object. The official cannot put them on the lists without breaking the law. The official is sworn to do his work properly. It is one case where we have preserved, at any rate in Ireland, that form of making people do right. The official cannot put on the list any man who ought not to be there without breaking the law. It is not, therefore, a question of the agents agreeing not to object. It is a question of the official not being entitled to put them on. Accordingly, in the lists which are now being prepared, these men who are at the front are of necessity excluded. I think we may assume that for the purposes of a General Election there is no great harm in having the existing register. Is the case any worse when you take a by-election? We have all seen in the past twelve months, with some exceptions—one in Scotland and two in Ireland—that the 1863 political parties have agreed that there should be no elections. Take the case in which there was an election. Will anyone suggest that in the election at Glasgow the other day the result would have been any different, no matter what kind of register you had? It is perfectly plain that neither for a by-election nor for a General Election is a new register necessary.
Finally, it is said, "Oh, but all the expenditure has been incurred!" No, all the expenditure has not been incurred. The expenses of revision are divided into three parts. There is, first, that part which is the expense to which the officials or the public are put, and that has been incurred. I quite agree that has been thrown away. The lists which have been printed might as well be torn up. They will be useful for no purpose. I quite agree that it would have been better if the Bill had been produced a month earlier. There remains the other half of the official expenses. They consist in attending the Revision Courts and printing the register as finally settled. Finally, there is that portion of the expenses in which I profess to be greatly more interested than in the public expenses. There are the private expenses of the Members interested in the constituencies. Revision is conducted by the agents of political parties. It is a most expensive process. The bulk of the work still remains to be done, and the proposal is, forsooth, that the political parties and individual Members of this House are to continue to put their hands into their pockets and spend large sums in conducting these revisions merely in order to have a register which will not be enforced, or, it may be, in order to secure that some revising barristers in England shall get their salaries. I am not going to attack barristers. I am not one myself, but I have no desire to say a harsh word against them, but is it to be said that if there is a strong case on public grounds for this Bill we are not to pass it because these Gentlemen will rot get their salaries? I never heard such an argument advanced in this House before. I do not say a word against compensating them, if it is desirable, but certainly it cannot be suggested that we should hold Revision Courts merely for the gratification of paying these gentlemen to preside over them; that is an intolerable and grotesque proposition.
1864 That brings me to my last point. I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary why he takes power under this Bill to appoint revising barristers for the purpose of revising jurors' lists in Ireland? Wherever there are prolonged revision contests in the Revision Courts it is the practice to appoint barristers sufficient for the purpose, but, so far as I know, this particular work could be done by County Court judges, and I do not think—Dublin probably is the only exception—that there are gentlemen appointed for these positions who hold permanent statutory posts. Accordingly it appears to me that if under the operation of this Bill, with which I quite agree, it should be necessary to hold Revision Courts for the purpose of revising the jurors' lists, in that case surely that could be done by the County Court judges.
§ The CHIEF SECRETARY for IRELAND (Mr. Birrell)
I will consider the point whether the words "revising barristers" can be struck out. They were only inserted for safety, and in order to secure the revision of the jurors' lists. There are, no doubt, three permanent revising barristers appointed for the purpose, but I will consider the point raised by the hon. and learned Member.
§ Mr. PRATT
I am quite sure that on this occasion the hon. Baronet the Member for the Ayr Burghs (Sir G. Younger) is more actually representative of public opinion in Scotland than ray hon. Friend who sits near me. I support the Bill in the hope that when we come to the Committee stage there may be at least two Amendments of it: one to meet the point raised by the hon. and learned Member for Cambridge University, and I think that a House which refuses to break contracts with coal masters should be very chary and very slow indeed about breaking contracts with those gentlemen who have been appointed for this year to the office of revising barrister. In the second place, I hope, if the Bill is so amended, it will not be left standing until Parliament provides a special register, but that the present register may be continued for another year, and then it will leave the whole question open for the House of Commons to deal with at the end of that time.
With regard to the Bill itself, one can hardly anticipate carrying on the ordinary work of making up the register and of revising it, with all the other elements that enter into the process of making up a 1865 new register, in the circumstances in which the country finds itself to-day. The hon. and learned Member for Cork (Mr. Maurice Healy) quite rightly said that one of two things is bound to happen, either you will have the process of revision going on with all its concomitants of party feeling, or else you will have the agents entering into a more or less legal compact to make such a new register as may seem to them most fit. What would happen, for instance, in the city of Glasgow if the registration is to go forward this year as in former years? It means that almost immediately the party agents and a large staff of canvassers—the largest that could be obtained—would be scouring the streets, closes, and tenements of Glasgow to find out old lodgers, new lodgers, and possible lodgers. I say that at this time the agents of the two parties are doing much better work, work which is much more needed, and which is of the highest national value. In the next few weeks or so there will be a great deal of pressure on many of the public officials, the assessors and their staffs all over Scotland. These staffs have been depleted on account of the War, and, in addition to that, many public officials are devoting themselves, night and day, to other purposes more directly concerned with the prosecution of the first and foremost task before the nation. It would be a misfortune if all these energies, or even any part of them, were to be deflected from the purposes to which they are at present harnessed, merely to provide a new register, which could not conceivably be such a true and accurate register as the one which is at present in being.
One of my hon. Friends said that the new register would be an absolutely honest register of voters. I cannot conceive how a new register made in the circumstances which obtain just now can be as representative as the register that at present holds the field. I know cases, myself, in different parts of Scotland, where families, the male members of which have gone to the front, either as soldiers or sailors, have removed into smaller houses, and in many cases those houses have been taken in the name of the wife, rather than in the name of the husband. You would have many difficulties, of which that is only one illustration, which would make it impossible for the new register to be anything like as representative as the register at present existing. I am certain, like the hon. Gentleman who last 1866 spoke, that no Government would play with the House and with the country in this manner. If there is to be an election, I am perfectly sure, whatever Government may be in power will take care to see that a register of voters is made which will be fully and truly representative of those who are entitled to possess the right to vote. I heartily welcome this Bill. I believe it will prove most welcome in Scotland, and that the people there will rejoice that the energies which would be necessary for carrying out the revision are not to be deflected, or drawn away from those channels in which they are doing very much better work.
I desire to call the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Local Government Board to what I think is an omission from the first Clause of the Bill. I believe that some officials are elected yearly and others are elected triennially, but they are not included in this Bill. Their offices may be vacant, and there will be no means of electing others to fill them. The Bill provides for county and borough councillors, district councillors, guardians, parish councillors, members of committees, and so on, but not for any officials. I believe that auditors of municipal corporations are elected annually, and there are other officers elected annually or triennially whose offices may come to an end during the year if this Bill does not deal with them. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will make a note of the point and, if necessary, put in an Amendment.
With regard to the second Clause, the question of the register is not such a simple one as it looks. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to look at the matter from a little practical point of view. Perhaps the House will pardon me if I refer to my personal experience, which, I think, illustrates the point better than anything else. Some time ago my agent wrote to me asking what should be done about the preparation of the register. I was unwilling that it should be prepared, because it is a great expense to the constituency and myself personally. I thought it would not be necessary, because the Government were going to bring in a Bill, but when the Prime Minister made his statement we had to make arrangements for the register. My agent's remuneration does not depend upon the register, because he receives it annually, and he gets nothing extra for the register and is perfectly impartial in the matter. He said it would be better to have 1867 one made up, because you would get into an awful tangle if you pretermit it for one year. In my Constituency the number of removals which had to be traced was no less than 11,000 last year. Imagine what the tangle will be if next year or the year after, should the War last two years, you have to rectify that register! I do not know whether the Parliamentary Secretary to the Local Government Board appreciates that point.
It would be far better in the present circumstances to complete the register. It must be valuable, because the President of the Local Government Board told us just now that the overseers' lists would not be wasted and that they would be the basis of a future register. I quite agree, but it would be very incomplete and almost useless. That could be prevented by perfecting the register, for, if the overseers' list is useful, the effective list must be useful. The President of the Local Government Board, who has just come in, did not hear me say that in my Constituency last year we had to trace no less than 11,000 removals, and my agent said that if we did not continue the registration this year the tangle would be such that it would be almost impossible to get a complete register a year or two hence. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider that most carefully. Of course in a small constituency it is a small matter, but in a big constituency with 40,000 voters, and with removals on our side alone which we traced of 11,000, it is clear that the overseers' lists are of very little use indeed.
Again, what about the expense of £100,000? At the present moment it will be made up of two chief items, the revising barristers' fees and the printing of the register. If we take the case of the London boroughs, Fulham, for instance, the constituency represented by the right hon. Gentleman the Parliamentary Secretary to the Local Government Board, the preparation of the lists cost £93, while the printing costs £229, out of a total of £369. That fairly represents the proportion, for the printing costs about twice as much at least, if not more. Part of that printing cost is already incurred for the printing of notices, claims, objections, and so on. If you complete your register there is no necessity whatever to print it. In every constituency you could have a completed register, partly in print and partly in manuscript, revised by the revising barrister, which could be printed for any con- 1868 stituency if ever it should be necessary. I think we might fairly deduct from the £100,000 the whole expense of printing the register, leaving only the revising barristers' fees for all practical purposes, putting on one side the expenses of private individuals. That being so, what sort of register would you get if the revision is held as usual? I hope the President of the Local Government Board will do me the favour of thinking that I am sincere in this matter when I point out to him what a really small matter it is. He would get value for his money. I should be the last person in the world to suggest that revising barristers should get nothing. I think you would get full value from this register. Imagine that we are to have a General Election to-morrow on the present register. Nobody who was not in occupation of his present premises or a lodger before the 20th July, 1913, would have a vote. If the election is put off for another year, instead of being two years' old the register would be three years' old.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman and I appreciate that point. You do not want to use it and ought not to use it, but you may have to-use it.
You never can tell when there will be an unexpected Parliamentary General Election, and you would have to use it for every by-election.
§ Mr. LONG
No. The hon. Gentleman mentioned an unexpected General Election. Surely he knows that General Elections now only take place upon a Dissolution of Parliament on the advice of Ministers. That is an event controlled by Ministers. All that we are able to do is to take care that before the time of the General Election arrived we should have taken steps to prepare the ad hoc register. That will be done. In regard to by-elections, my hon. Friend knows that it is the universal opinion in the House of Commons and, so far as I know, of everybody outside the House of Commons, with the exception of a very small minority, that 1869 according to the full agreement at which we have arrived, vacancies should be filled by a representative of the same party to which the late representative belonged. In these circumstances the only elections that can take place are elections like the one the other day which, I believe, was held against the will or she vast majority of the people concerned.
I appreciate what my right hon. Friend says, but I am saying that I do not believe the Ministry of the day may be in a position to avoid it. If a General Election comes as a surprise, as it may do at any time, they will not be able to prepare a special register until after many months elapse, and it may be absolutely necessary in the interests of the country that the election should take place at short notice and without sufficient time to prepare a special register. There is a distinct danger that we may have forced upon us a General Election on an old register. At all events, I may be allowed to contend that that is a possibility which I hope will not occur, and one which we ought to provide against. A new register now would be very much better than an old one. That has been questioned to-day, and I will endeavour to show how it may be made as good as possible. If my right hon. Friend would put into the Bill a very short Clause to the effect that absence is not to invalidate any qualification that any person registered at present possesses, or prevent anyone claiming a new qualification or an altered one, this register would be able to be made as perfect as possible. I am only throwing out these suggestions for my right hon. Friend's consideration before next Monday. He will find it is not a question of much expense if he will consult with some of the heads of the department who know the technical working of this register, and at the stage at which they have arrived already of the work that has been done two-thirds at least of it has been thrown away, and with the small portion of the £100,000 which still remains it would be well worth while to go on with this register with an absence Clause such as that which I have suggested. I shall hope to have an opportunity in Committee of considering an Amendment to the Clause annulling contracts. It will facilitate matters very much. The right hon. Gentleman will discover whether in reality he has not thrown away four-fifths of the cost of the register, present and future, for nothing 1870 at all, whereas by expending one-fifth more he could get a comparatively accurate register with such people as alien enemies knocked off, and dead persons who might be personated, and so on, and get a register which would, in default of a better, be a safeguard for us in case a General Election is sprung upon us at an inopportune moment.
§ Mr. SHAW
In rising to address the House for the first time, I hope I shall receive that indulgent consideration which the House always accords to a new Member. I am here as one of the very few Coalition Members of Parliament. At my election both parties co-operated, and I was not merely the nominee of one party but the accepted candidate of both. Both parties, to quite an unprecedented extent, associated themselves with the election. It was rather a unique experience, because the chairman of what used to be the Liberal party proposed the health of the chairman of what used to be the Conservative party, and in all points touched upon they seemed to be agreed. But if there was any question upon which both parties were agreed more than another, it was the question which is raised by this Bill, and speaking as a Coalition Member, as a barrister, and as a Scotsman, in all three capacities I desire to support the Second Beading of this Bill. I have been somewhat uneasy in my mind since hearing the observations which have been made by the hon. Member (Mr. Pringle). He is a barrister, but I cannot think that in what he said about the attitude of the revising barristers he represented the opinion of the English Bar, because I am quite sure that any attitude which in any way could be construed as that of a small party of interested people in opposition to a national measure would be resented very much by the great profession to which I belong. In this, as in other things, at a time like this, we want to put some trust and confidence in the Government. Throughout all the negotiations which have been necessary in the present crisis for making adjustments in relation to private interests the Government have shown themselves most fair and most indulgent, and I trust that those who oppose the Second Reading of the Bill because of their fear that a most deserving class will be injured will repose that confidence in the Government which has hitherto been fully justified. I speak also as a Scotsman. With regard to the Scottish register 1871 the position is somewhat different from the position in England, because little or nothing has as yet been done. I will tell the House what has been my experience in the two constituencies with which I have been connected. An altogether new spirit has entered into the political life of Scotland. Both political parties are co-operating and have since August been co-operating together in national work. The entire energies of the organisations of both parties have been directed to one common object, and it has been my privilege, and, I am sure, that of the hon. Baronet (Sir G. Younger) and other Scottish Members, to speak on public platforms with their opponents either in the chair or as other speakers. All that is most relevant to this measure, because if this measure fails to pass two things follow. You have inevitably that spirit of comradeship in the common cause temporarily, at any rate, impaired. You have, in the second place, all these energies which have been devoted to a national object turned aside into the old party channels, and you have the party organisers hunting out removals and spending the vast amount of energy and time which is requisite for that purpose. Therefore, as a Scotsman, I support this Bill. I should like to read two letters which I received only this morning. One is from one of the most astute political organisers in Scotland, a man who, although of the Liberal party, has thrown his lot into the common stock and has been working and travelling all over the country with Unionist organisers and others in the national interest. He says:—I am strongly of opinion that it w ill be almost criminal to waste time, energy and money in the compilation of a register under existing circumstances. If the existing register remains in force until Parliament determines otherwise, I am certain that would meet? with the approval of the bulk of right-thinking people, not only in Midlothian, hut in Scotland. I know that view was held very strongly in the city of Edinburgh, and wherever I have travelled in a recruiting capacity I heard the same views given expression to.That is the view of both parties in that constituency. Then, from my own Constituency, I have this morning another letter on the subject:—With reference to the question of the voters' register, I think it may he taken that there is general agreement and that it would be a wise thing to suspend operations for a year. The memorial forwarded to the Secretary for Scotland by the Glasgow Corporation seems to me to meet the situation.I appeal on two grounds to my hon. Friends who oppose this Bill; first on the ground that no personal interests, however well justified in ordinary times, 1872 should stand in the way of this concentration of national effort upon national need. In the second place I would appeal to them as Scotsmen that a measure which eminently appeals to Scotland, which is pressingly required in Scotland, and which is enthusiastically supported by all sections of Scottish opinion, should receive the emphatic endorsement of Scottish representatives in this House.
§ Mr. KING
I am sure the House will have listened with great pleasure to, and with hopes of future speeches from, the hon. Member, after the maiden speech of which he has given us such a good example. His manner is as attractive as his arguments are sound, and personally I would like to thank him for putting so clearly and emphatically the case for this Bill. If there is to be a speech from the Treasury Bench before the Second Beading is taken, I hope the Government will give some indication that in some way or other the disappointment and loss to the revising barristers will be considered. I hope, also, that they will realise that they have been a great deal too late in bringing in this Bill. The whole question of the claims of the revising barristers, and other expenses which have already been undertaken, would have been met if they had introduced this Bill earlier. I myself asked the Prime Minister a question three months ago upon this point, and I received the usual answer from him that the matter was receiving his careful consideration. It has taken three months to produce this Bill, which anybody who had really set his mind to thinking it out and making some inquiries, might have produced in a week, not more. I appeal to the Government that if they have any other measures of this kind not to bring them in so as to inconvenience and irritate people who, otherwise, if they had brought their Bills in in good time would have been enthusiastic in their support.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House for Monday next.