§ Order for Second Beading read.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."
§ Sir EDWARD CARSON
Before I proceed to make some observations upon this Bill, I should like to ask your ruling, Sir, on two points with reference to the Bill. I have intimated to the Prime Minister that I intended to do this, and it is, first, as regards the title of the Bill. The Bill is a Bill to make provision for framing a special register of electors. The two points I wish to ask are, first, whether on a Bill with that title it would be possible in Committee to raise the question of extending the franchise to soldiers and sailors as such, and, secondly, whether under such a title it would be possible to so amend the Bill that machinery might be set up to enable sailors and soldiers and other persons who are absent on war work to record their votes?
§ Sir JOHN SIMON
May I put this further question? Is the title of the Bill such as to make it possible in case of need to propose in Committee extension of the franchise to women?
§ Mr. SPEAKER
The matter is not free from difficulty and doubt. I have had the opportunity of consulting the Chairman of Ways and Means with regard to it. I have come to the conclusion that the general scope of the Bill is to enable those persons who are engaged in war work and who have forfeited their qualification as electors to have that disability removed, and also to enable persons who under ordinary circumstances would have been qualified as electors had war not taken place to come into those rights 1892 which they would have obtained if the abnormal conditions under which we have been living for the last two years had not prevailed. I do not think that an Amendment to enfranchise soldiers and sailors and women and other classes of the community, which are not specially contained in this Bill, would be admissible in Committee. If accepted, the result would be that instead of the Bill being a Bill for setting up a special register, it would come out as a Bill adding large numbers, millions, to the franchise, and that, therefore, it ought to be really a Franchise Bill. On the other hand, a certain number of people who have no qualification are under this Bill to be admitted to the franchise, and if the House thinks fit to enable others to be registered, I think the House might do it by means of an Instruction. The proper course, therefore, if hon. Members wish to have soldiers and sailors as such, or women, qualified and introduced on to the register, would be to move an Instruction to that effect, and then the House will have a clear opportunity of deciding whether or not those classes are to be admitted. Having taken that decision, the admission could afterwards be made and the necessary provisions could be inserted in the Bill to enable those particular classes to appear on the register.
With regard to the second question, as to whether an Amendment could be moved setting up machinery to enable those included on the register to record their votes wherever they may be serving away from the constituency in which they are registered, I do not think that could be done either by Instruction or by an Amendment. That is clearly an Amendment of the Ballot Act, and it would require a separate Bill to enable polling booths to be set up in Mesopotamia, or in other places, and to institute modifications of the Ballot Act—e.g., the taking of votes openly, as in the case of university elections, or whatever other process might suggest itself to the House as being a suitable one. I think that would have to be done by a separate Bill.
§ 4.0 P.M.
§ Sir E. CARSON
I shall have something to say later on the two points which you, Sir, have just ruled. They are, as the House will at once see when we come to examine the Bill, very important points upon the question as to whether this is a real Bill or whether it is a sham Bill. In any view of the matter, I cannot 1893 help regretting that this Bill has some on at this late period of the Session, and I am not saying that for the purpose of Scoring any critical points as regards the Government, but solely and only because of the very vast and far-reaching importance of this Bill, as I hope to show in a few moments to the House. A Bill is brought in which assumes that there may be an election upon this register during the War, and I ask the House at the outset to notice that that means that upon this register you may have a Parliament elected for five years, which Parliament may have the whole conduct;—that is, through the Ministry of the day of course—of the peace negotiations, and which may have the framing of the whole policy in the three or four years after the War, and the whole question of provision and status as regards our sailors and our soldiers returning from the front. A Bill like that is probably of more importance to the country and is immediately connected with the emergency war legislation, more immediately than people at first sight might imagine, and all we are told about this Bill is if you like to take it as it is and as we have framed it, you can have it before the Recess, and if you do not it must go over. I think that that is an extremely unsatisfactory way of dealing with such an important matter. Who is to elect the Parliament of which I spoke, and the importance of which nobody can deny? In a rough calculation which I have had given me, and which I do not put forward as being anything more accurate than a rough estimate, it is calculated that there are 2,000,000 men with the Colours who would, but for the War, have the vote. That is a quarter of the whole electorate of this country. I believe that the electorate is, roughly, about 8,000,000. I am not for the moment going to touch upon any question of enfranchisement. I shall say something about that before I sit down. Let us see what the Bill does. It purports to retain their qualification for those 2,000,000 people and for some others who, to put it shortly, are not in khaki, but who are engaged on important war work and have been moved about. So far as that goes, not only do I think it is reasonable, but I think it is just and essential.
At the same time, while it does that which appears so fair, a very cursory examination of the Bill and consideration of the circumstances will show that, in 1894 reality, it leaves the sailors and soldiers disfranchised during the War. Therefore they are to be debarred from having any say in the election of this important Parliament which is to regulate, or may, if there is an election, regulate, the destinies of this country, and certainly the conditions of these men who are fighting for us. You cannot stand over that proposition. Look what our Army is! We are not now dealing with professional conditions of these men who are fighting civilians who have left their jobs and their work, most of them out of a pure sense of patriotism, all certainly with a desire to win a victory for their country. They have not gone on a choice of profession in which you may foresee that you will be disfranchised, but they are men, the very heart of the country, who have gone out to fight its battles. Not one of these men, or hardly any of them, will for five years have a vote in regulating the destinies of this country should an election take place. Why do I say that they cannot vote? I suppose there are at least 1,500,000 of them at home. Can they vote? I think not. Can you bring up the 400,000 or 500,000 men, or whatever the number is, of your Army on the East Coast? Can they be marched off to the constituencies to vote? I believe it to be absolutely impracticable. Can you get even the munition workers to vote? Munition workers who have been taken perhaps from the Tyne and brought down to Woolwich, or sent to other distant places, from the North of Scotland to somewhere in the South of England—how are they to be brought to vote? I do not believe it is possible. Take the case of the wounded at home. Are they to be brought from the hospitals to the South of England, to the North of Scotland, or to Ireland, or wherever it may be? It is perfectly plain that they cannot vote. Then, as regards the men abroad. Of course, under the Bill, it is a physical impossibility that they should vote.
A Parliament elected in these circumstances would not be a Parliament representative of the people. The worst part of it is that in my opinion it is the most deserving element in the country that is being left out. If we accept the Prime Minister's offer and let the Bill go through as it is, that is all we get. Well, it is of no use. We must have an opportunity of raising this question. Your 1895 ruling, Sir, says that we cannot raise that question upon this Bill. Then we must press the Government to bring in a Bill which will enable us to raise it. Of course, the Prime Minister says, and there is a great deal of argument to be used on that side, that it is impossible to evolve such a machinery as would be necessary to enable these men to vote. It certainly is not impossible in this country, whatever it may be abroad. But I do not believe that, if you approach it with good will and with the desire to do it, it is impossible. You can very easily draw an amusing picture, as the Home Secretary did the other day, of ballot boxes in the midst of the trenches, and all the rest of it. The truth of the matter is that officers, to many of whom I have spoken, have told mc that, although, of course, it would be a troublesome thing, there is no real substantial difficulty in carrying out a procedure to enable these votes to be recorded. I would remind the House that Australia, New Zealand, and Queensland, have all set up machinery for that purpose, and so have British Columbia who, within the last few days in this country have been taking the votes of the soldiers at Bramshott Camp. I have here a letter from a gentleman, whom I have not the pleasure of knowing, who has been engaged in carrying out that election. He says:I last week held a poll at Bramshott Camp for the I British Columbia General Election. There was no difficulty. I had a hastily collected band of amateur helpers, and we polled about 1,700 men in eleven hours. It was a rush, because the Regiment was just off to France, as you know. The voting qualification was six months residence in British Columbia immediately previous to enlistment, one month of which must have been in an electoral district. Being British subjects, no age limit at all. Bach man had to make an affidavit to the effect that he was qualified, and I then gave him his voting paper. It was all very simple, and I think we polled over 75 per cent, of possibles. It seems to me a very good example for us to follow.It is not necessary for me at this stage to argue the different ways in which it could or might be done. All I can say is, that I do not believe the House ought to allow these sailors and soldiers to the extent of one-fourth of the electorate to remain disfranchised during the War without having the matter properly threshed out in this House. I know that putting forward these points will cause delay. Nobody is more anxious than I am that there should be no delay. Therefore, I make two propositions. First, if the Government will themselves undertake to set up machinery by Order in Council, get- 1896 ting a very short Act for that purpose, to try and have the votes recorded, I am quite willing that this Bill should become law even as it is, although there are many things in it, as I shall show, which I do not like. Secondly, so that there may be no delay in going on with the registration, if the Government will undertake to bring in a Bill after the Recess with a view to having that discussed and seeing if we can set it up, I as far as I am concerned will allow this Bill to become law so that we may proceed with the registration. But I do not think we should be doing our duty to these sailors and soldiers, nor indeed to the country at large, if we were not to make any effort or to have any discussion as to how these matters can be carried out. I would like to make this suggestion. I hope, if the Bill is to go over, that my right hon. Friend, who is such a thorough expert in these involved and complex electoral laws, will consider whether he cannot simplify the machinery under this Bill. He will really find when he comes to carry out the Bill that he has undertaken a Herculean task. If you are really going to trace under present circumstances every man who was qualified and every man who might have been qualified if he had stayed here, if you are going to submit that matter to canvassing agents, party agents, overseers, and revising barristers, you will have a fund of litigation and an amount of delay to which it is difficult to set any limit.
I do not profess to be an expert upon these matters, nor do I profess even to know the law in regard to them; but I would suggest to my right hon. Friend that he might consider this point: Can you not make a comparatively full list without going through all these difficult steps? For instance, take the soldiers and sailors—and I am giving not my own suggestion now, but -a suggestion from a very experienced town clerk who wrote to me this morning. He suggests that there ought to be separate lists for soldiers and sailors, with their registered number, their name, and their home address, and that these should be forwarded to overseers, or clerks of the Crown, or peace, or whoever are the proper officials, and in that way you would get just as good a register as going through all the usual formalities. I do not believe in many places there are these canvassing agents, or even election agents, and I am perfectly sure there is 1897 a considerable shortage of all the necessary official resources. I believe, however, that we would make a great advance in registration law if some sort of system that would be more or less automatic could be set up, and I am not at all sure that this is not a very good time to commence it—when driven to see what you can do! There are one or two points which are Committee points, but I only want to show the reasons why I do not think the Bill should be hurried through. There are other points which require consideration. One is in the second Section. I am told by election agents—for I have not had time since I got a copy of the Bill to examine into the various Acts—that this would probably allow certain of the electors, or certain of the claimants, to be registered in two places. That is a matter which certainly ought to be looked into so as to take care that there is no duplication of voters. [Laughter.] I quite understand those cheers, but I am not going to be drawn into party politics, even although there may be a question of party politics arising on the next Bill—at least, I am told so by some of my Friends; but I do not attach very much importance to it myself.
§ Sir E. CARSON
My observation is germane to the cheers, or ironical cheers, which I have just received. There is another point—and I have not been able to look into it in the short time at my disposal—but I am told that Section 4 has a good deal of the usual legislation by reference. I am told that under that there is a considerable power by Order in Council to enlarge the definition of war work. I think this House ought to say who is to vote, and who is to be put upon the register, and not an Order in Council. Those persons who are war workers may be settled by Order in Council! These are matters which, I think, require some consideration. That is all the criticism that I have to make upon the Bill as it stands at present, but I have, I think, said enough to show that I do not think the House ought to part with this Bill without seeing whether we are really fairly dealing with these people who constitute a quarter of the electorate. As regards the wider question, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made a very powerful app[...] to the House upon the 1898 last occasion when this matter was before us. Nobody would deny the force of what he said. I am sorry that he said that even if we wished to go on to give the soldiers and sailors votes, neither he nor his colleagues would help us.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
Will the right hon. Gentleman allow me? What I said was that, for reasons which I gave, it would let in so many other things and flood the whole thing.
§ Sir E. CARSON
As I have already said, I believe that the enfranchisement of soldiers and sailors stands upon a different basis from any other extension of the franchise. I do not believe that those who put forward the franchise for women do not themselves see that distinction. I cannot for a moment believe that they would think—and certainly I know that some of them do not think—that by opposing soldiers and sailors who are out in the trenches, going over the parapets, and facing machine guns, their cause will be fostered or improved, or by saying in the middle of the War, "We will not allow these men to be enfranchised unless we are." As you, Mr. Speaker, have given a ruling that it can be done, certainly, so far as I am concerned, I believe that in creating any register after such a war as this, and in giving any facilities for getting on the register, in depicting, in picturing to ourselves the sufferings and the hell through which these men have gone and are going, it would be beneath the dignity of this House to refuse, at all events, to discuss in a friendly manner, as I hope it would be in every quarter of the House, whether you would not confer the freedom of the country upon our heroes.
§ Sir J. SIMON
The right hon. and learned Gentleman has shown clearly enough that this Bill could not possibly be regarded as a Bill which provided on wide or logical lines for an extension of the franchise to all who are entitled to exercise it, and so far, I believe, the whole House will be of his opinion. Indeed, the Prime Minister, when he sketched out this Bill a couple of days ago said as much, for he told us that the Bill could 1899 only be regarded as a makeshift and as a stop-gap, and was perfectly willing to join any who might hold that large classes would remain excluded who ought to be included in the scope of a national franchise. I should like, in a few sentences, to point out, even if we were to accept the scope of this Bill as covering all classes who ought to exercise the vote, it is, as a matter of fact, a Bill which can only be made to work after a great deal of complication and technicality. It seems to me quite certain that this special register, whether or not it be the best that can be devised, is a special register which will be very difficult to make, and which, when made, will be very difficult to use. It is very difficult to make, because of these very technicalities to which my hon. Friend referred. Take a single instance, the instance of the lodger. If it is right that the war worker should have a vote, the real ground on which he ought to have his vote is because he is doing war work, and not because before he started doing it he happened to be a lodger. It is perfectly plain that the inquiry which will have to take place before you ascertain who ought to be put on such a register will be of a most anxious and difficult kind. You will have to ask whether in the days before the War a given individual had begun to lodge in lodgings, of a value of, and, in circumstances which, in course of time, would give him the vote. Very possibly the identical individual in the meantime has not only joined the Army or the Navy, but unhappily has been invalided from wounds or illness, has returned to civil life, and is a lodger or an occupier somewhere else, and is all the time, in course of getting his vote somewhere else. Whether it is intended that party agents or local officials shall find out these things I am perfectly confident it will be a task extremely expensive to discharge, and a task which, in the nature of things, cannot possibly be discharged at all well.
Then comes the second point. After you have made your list, what are you going to make of? How are you going to set up your register? It will be, so far as men are added to it by this Bill, a register of absentees. Every man who has taken part in a contested election—I am not quite sure whether an exception must not be made in the case of University Members—
§ Sir E. CARSON
I have had a very heavy contest with a great many absentees, and with some voters from Switzerland.
§ Sir J. SIMON
My right hon. Friend will agree with me about this—with the experience that he has shared—that the difficulty, even with a comparatively small proportion of your voters are absentees is extreme, and this is really a Bill which is going to add a series of absentees to the register, and going to do nothing else! When this is all done, what have you got? You have, on the common admission of everybody in the House of Commons, a register which does not represent the people who are fairly entitled to vote. I should like to illustrate that for a moment, not by a reference to the case of the soldiers and sailors—though for my own part I agree with my right hon. Friend that I cannot think that anybody who is in favour of a wide extension of the franchise wishes to limit the vote to soldiers and sailors, or to those particular persons who hold certain technical qualifications—I would illustrate it by a reference to another class that comes prominently forward as an illustration in these Debates. Just consider what, at this moment, is the position of women in this matter? My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when he spoke on Monday, referred to the women citizens of this country. After referring to the work which they were doing during the War, and the claim which it might be said to give them for consideration in enfranchisement proposals, the right hon. Gentleman went on to say:What is more, and this 15 a point which makes a special appeal to me, they say that when t he War comes to an end, and when these abnormal and, of course, to a large extent transient, conditions have to be revised, and when the process of industrial reconstruction has to be set on foot, have not the women a special claim to be heard on the many questions which will arise directly affecting their interests, and possibly meaning for them large displacements of labour?—The Prime Minister went on to say:I cannot think that the House will deny that, and I say quite frankly that I cannot deny that claim."—[OFFICIAL, REPORT, 14th August, 1916, col. 145.2]To return to the question: What is the purpose for which this special register is going to be used? The speech of the right hon. and learned Gentleman shows quite clearly that it is in his contemplation, as it must be in the contemplation of others, that it may be used for the purpose of creating this Parliament of reconstruction which is required after the 1901 War. As it appears to me, whatever be the view taken by the advocates of women's enfranchisement of this Bill, they are standing on very firm ground when they say, whatever else you do you must not set up this special register, admittedly so imperfect, admittedly excluding large classes which possibly ought to be included from one point of view or another, not merely for the purpose of a by-election during the War, or peradventure for a General Election during the War, but for the purpose of creating a Parliament which, after the War, is going to deal with and try to solve these problems of reconstruction. I know it is said—it was said by the Prime Minister—that you cannot approach this difficult and vital question now because of the inevitable preoccupation and strain and stress which lies upon any man who has a public duty to discharge in guiding the destinies of the country. Does anybody really think that the moment the War is over we are going to find ourselves in a time without stress or strain, and that that is the moment we are going to have abundant leisure for considering these difficult matters? I believe that, great as is the strain and stress under which the public business is now being conducted, the strain and stress which we may expect when we enter upon a period of reconstruction will be, in its own order and manner, quite as great. It is a hopeless proposition to say that these matters cannot be considered now, and that once the War is over we shall all have leisure and opportunity to solve them.
There is a second reason. In order to solve these questions, you need not only time and opportunity, but you need atmosphere and temper in which they can be solved, and it would appear to me that, whatever may be the overwhelming preoccupations of Ministers—and I know well they are infinite—still there are an atmosphere and a temper both in the House of Commons and in the country now which are favourable to considering problems of this sort. Are we, therefore, really acting wisely if we proceed on the assumption that the atmosphere and the temper will be better and more hopeful for the solution of such problems when the anxiety of War is over, and these complex questions of reconstruction are pressing to be solved, Therefore I would, with great respect, j[...] the right hon. and 1902 learned Gentleman opposite, if I may, in saying I do hope the Government will consider whether there is not a simpler way of dealing with the class of question now presented for consideration. Whatever else is done, I submit it cannot be right, it cannot be justified, to say to the women in one breath, "You are persons who, when problems of reconstruction come to be solved, will have a right to be heard," and yet to say, "We propose a special register from which you are necessarily excluded, and we provide in Clause 3 of our Act that this special register may continue to operate and be the basis of a new Parliament long after the War is over." I do not know whether the House has observed the language of Clause 3, which provides that the special register now proposed shall be created, in the course of the next few months I suppose, and shall come into operation next May, 1917. It is then to exist for a year from May, 1917, to May, 1918, and the Clause provides and authorises that, unless Parliament otherwise directs, there is to be a repetition of the process. There is to be a recreation of the special register, not in the coming winter, but in the winter after. There is to be a special edition of the register which is to come into operation in May, 1918, and will continue in operation until May, 1919. But, supposing that the War is concluded by our own victory before that time; supposing it is brought to a conclusion in the course of next year, surely you cannot, in common fairness, ask women suffragists to say, "Never mind, we accept the special register, from which we are excluded, on the ground that such subjects cannot be considered in time of war," and pass a Bill by which that special register may be the basis on which Parliament can be elected even as late as May, 1919?
Whatever else is done, if this Bill is to be carried through, surely it ought to be qualified by saying that this special register is a special register for the period of the War, and it may be for a few months after, and not a special register which may last through 1917 and 1918, even although during the whole of that time we were actively engaged on the work of reconstruction. I would use the right hon. and learned Gentleman's illustration of the soldiers and sailors. Both of them represent the same point to this degree; both are classes in respect of 1903 whom a very strong argument can be made that no Parliament of reconstruction is reasonably possible unless their views are represented and expressed. That is why I think there is real common ground between what the right hon. and learned Gentleman opposite has said and what I have endeavoured to put from the women suffrage point of view, in urging that we must face such a Bill as this as being at the very best a mere stop-gap, a stop-gap which, I dare say, it may not be able to improve more than here and there, but which is a stop-gap that does not solve any franchise problem whatever. Since there has got to be, by the admission of the right hon. Gentleman opposite, as well as the Government themselves, some little delay, would not it really be better to see whether a simple residential qualification for adult suffrage could not be the basis on which the Parliament of reconstruction should be built up? If that were resolved upon, I cannot believe that, in the present temper both of the House of Commons and the country, it might not be possible, I do not say to devise one scheme, but, at any rate, to devise alternative schemes on which the House of Commons might be invited to judge. Unless something of that sort is done, we are sailing straight for a position where we should all agree that soldiers and sailors should have votes because they are brave men, but where a very large part of the House of Commons and the country would feel that exactly the same argument shows that women should have votes because they have been brave women. The new Minister of Munitions, who has not been distinguished for his advocacy of women's suffrage—[HON. MEMBERS dissented]. I beg his pardon. At any rate, in the speech he made yesterday, he put the argument as strongly as it could be put. I would like to quote two sentences. He said:It is not too much to say that our Armies have been paved and victory assured largely by the women of the munition factories … I ask the House to consider this, together with the work done by women in hospitals, in agriculture, in transport trades, and in every type of clerical occupation, and I would respectfully submit, when time and opportunity offer, it will be opportune to ask: Where is the man who would now deny to woman the civil rights which she has earned by hard work?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th August, 1916, cols. 1700–1701.]
§ Sir F. LOWE
I rise to a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. You have already ruled that the question of votes to women could not be raised under this Bill, as it 1904 is not a Franchise Bill, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman opposite is devoting himself to a long argument in favour of women having the vote. I ask you, Sir, whether in view of your ruling earlier in the afternoon, that is in order?
§ Mr. SPEAKER
The right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Trinity College had raised the question of the soldiers and sailors, and went at length into their case. I think, therefore, the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Walthamstow is entitled to put the case of women.
§ Sir J. SIMON
I do not think my hon. Friend opposite has quite appreciated—it is my fault—the argument I was putting. I am not putting an argument per se for a particular franchise; I am pointing out, first, that the special register which this Bill provides is a makeshift, a miserable makeshift, which would be satisfactory to nobody; secondly, that from different points of view strong arguments can be put forward for extending the franchise and avoiding the technicalities which at present make it such a hopeless tangle, and the argument is intended to lead to this suggestion, that the Government could even now take advantage of the spirit of the House, and the obvious necessity of solving those problems, before we try to reconstruct the State, by seeing whether some short residential qualification could not—as a result, it may be, of referring this Bill to a Select Committee, with an instruction or suggestion—be evolved which would really meet the views both of one side and the other. It will never be the case that we shall all agree on this matter, but the temper in which this problem may now be approached is a temper which is not likely to be repeated, and upon the solution of this problem depends all sorts of things in the future. Take, for instance—I use it by way of illustration—the utterly absurd tangle in which Redistribution is going to be after the War. You obviously cannot approach the problem of Redistribution unless you know what you are going to redistribute, and with the return of the soldiers and sailors and the shifting of large bodies of population it is obvious that we cannot go on much longer without devising a Redistribution scheme which presupposes a reconstruction for the purposes of the franchise, and I would appeal to the Government to see that their own Bill is never going to 1905 satisfy anybody. It is impossible to try and bring other classes within it, without immediately raising claims from other classes with just as good claims. Consequently the real solution is to say now that the House of Commons shall have an opportunity of propounding a simple scheme for a national franchise which is based on a simple residential qualification.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
I am not going to detain the House long. I expressed my views in almost excessive detail two days ago, but I think it is right at once I should rise to say, with regard to the two speeches to which we have just listened, that I do not quarrel with any of the general propositions laid down by either of the right hon. and learned Gentlemen, though I may quarrel with particular details later on. Let us see exactly how this stands. I believe there is a universal opinion in the House, and, if I may say so, in the country, that a General Election in time of war is a calamity; in fact, it is attended by so many disadvantages and drawbacks that there is not a single responsible man among us who contemplates it with anything but apprehension, and more than apprehension. I do not believe that any of the great free Allied democracies of the West of Europe, Italy and France, nor do I think Russia, contemplate a General Election in the course of this War. We certainly ought not to. Can anybody in this House or out of it imagine a more disastrous state of things at a time when, as we hope, our Armies, after long months of trial, will be approaching victory, when all the energies of the country, when all the hopes and all the thoughts of the country, will be absorbed in the War, that we should descend into the political arena and revive the old catchwords, restart the old party machinery, and devote ourselves to a futile and unmeaning controversy? I do not believe there is any difference of opinion in any quarter of the House. Then you may say, "If that is so, why do you have a register?" The answer, of course, is very simple: Under the law this Parliament comes to an end, unless it otherwise determines, on a certain date, and when that date arrives—I am not prejudging at all for a moment the question what the date ought to be—but when that date arrives, you must have in existence some machinery for the elec- 1906 tion of its successor. What is the alternative? In the first place, to bring about the great heroic measures which my right hon. Friend has just adumbrated, franchise reform in which the suffrage will be put on a solid and an equitable basis, in which soldiers and sailors, munition workers, and, as he says, women—I have already expressed my views about that—have an opportunity of recording their vote, you must devote weeks and months of Parliamentary time to a reconstruction of the Constitution of this country. Everybody agrees that is out of the question—no one more than my right hon. Friend.
§ Sir J. SIMON
I really do not agree. I believe that such a solution will be found, not more complicated, but less complicated, than this Bill.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
If my right hon. Friend will allow me, it is not quite material to what I was going to say. I agree entirely with him that with regard to the Parliament which is going to undertake the work of reconstruction after the War, it is eminently desirable that you should provide an electoral basis which will make that Parliament reflective and representative of the general opinion of the country, and give to its decisions a moral authority which you cannot obtain from what I may call a scratch, improvised and makeshift electorate. Let us by all means use the time—those of us who are not absolutely absorbed in the conduct of the War—in those months to see if we cannot work out by general agreement some scheme under which, both as regards the electorate and the distribution of electoral power, a Parliament can be created at the end of the War capable and adequate for discharging these tasks, and commanding the confidence of the country. More than that, in the meantime we have to deal with the actual situation. What are the alternatives? The present register is two years old; for effective purposes it is three. Suppose you have to have a General Election, which all would regrets—suppose by a chapter of accidents or by the effluxion of time this happens, can anyone contemplate without concern an election on a register three years old? A Parliament so elected would command no moral authority either in this country or in Europe.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
At any rate this Parliament was elected constitutionally with a full electorate. The War has produced such a displacement, of population that you cannot now, by any device whatsoever, bring into existence a register which will really represent the electors of the country as they ought to be represented. Take the case of soldiers and sailors. I am in entire agreement with my right hon. and learned Friend about their claim. I do not want to repeat my right hon. Friend's eloquent appeal to sentiments which are universal in all quarters of the House. If there is anyone entitled to be heard in the choice of the Parliament which is ultimately to determine our destinies after the War it is our soldiers and our sailors. Of course, you cannot stop there. But for the moment we must content ourselves, if we are to have a register at all, with something which is better than the existing one, though far short of what we should all desire. That is what we propose in this Bill. I know it is illogical. You can riddle every Clause with criticisms and objections. I do not defend it in the least as anything more than a stop-gap to meet an emergency. I never put it higher than that when I was speaking two days ago, and I do not put it any higher now. But it is better than the existing register in this respect, that it brings in people whose lives have not been disturbed or displaced by the War up to the 1st of November next, who have satisfied a statutory qualification and enables them to get upon the register where at present they are not. To that extent it is good.
Further, as regards the war workers, including soldiers, sailors, and munition workers and all the other categories of workers enumerated in that class, it will enable a very considerable number who would have been disqualified by the interruption of the qualifying period to get upon the register, and if they are here, and if they can, record their votes. So far, I think everyone will agree that these are distinct improvements in the case of an election held upon the existing register; but that a Parliament so elected could claim to represent the considered opinion in the country I do not for a moment assert. As regards the mechanical difficulty to which my right hon. Friend alluded, I think he made a very good point—I mean the difficulty in regard to soldiers and sailors and others, who are not in the constituencies in which they are 1908 registered owing to the requirements of the ballot having to go back to their constituencies before they can exercise their votes. That is a real difficulty which ought to be met, and we shall propose to-meet it by a very short amendment of the Ballot Act, although it is not germane to-this Bill, which would provide machinery to deal with that case. My right hon. Friend must not misunderstand me—I am speaking of those who are here.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
We have heard the case of British Columbia. There is a very interesting experiment going on at this moment in which the votes of British Columbia soldiers resident for the time being in this country who are inmates of this country temporarily, are being taken at the various camps; I do not know how far the experiment has been a success, but it is not proposed to take the votes of British Columbia soldiers who are at the front. That cannot be done and for reasons which I gave yesterday which might be elaborated, but which are not germane to the present Bill. I think that will prove a very difficult process and possibly an impossible one, and in this I think the military authorities will agree. As regards those who are here, I agree some modification of the Ballot Act ought to be made to meet these abnormal conditions. Now I come to the other point raised by my right hon. and learned Friend (Sir J. Simon). I think what he said was very just, namely, that the Parliament elected on a register of this kind ought to be of a purely temporary character, and ought to exist only as long as the term of the War, with perhaps some few additional months, I will not say how many, and which should be regarded as a transitory, passing expedient to meet an emergency, and which, when the War is over, will cease to exist. The Government are quite prepared to accept an Amendment to meet that point. This is not confined to the case of women, but includes also the case of the soldiers. They will be coming home at the conclusion of the War, and they certainly ought to be in the same position as the women, and ought to have the same opportunity, and the register ought to be- 1909 shortened and treated as purely temporary in regard to both classes as, indeed, to all classes of voters.
Having made those points as clear as I can, I want now to ask the House what course they propose or would suggest we should now take. The Second Heading of this Bill everybody will agree should be taken, but are we to take the Committee stage now or are we to hold it over until after the Adjournment? The right hon. Gentleman suggested that the complexity of these various questions is so great that we had better hold it over. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] We cannot proceed without general consent, and I think my right hon. Friend holds the same view. If that general consent is not given we shall be content to ask the House to accept the Second Heading. On the other hand—I speak in no controversial spirit as far as the Government are concerned, because they have no interest in the matter—I would point out the great advantage of getting the thing into operation, imperfect as I think it is in all respects, as soon as you can. I say this for a special reason. This register, according to the terms of the Bill, is to come into operation on the 31st May. That date was chosen because my right hon. Friend and those who advise him who are conversant with local conditions assured us that it was impossible to compile a register so enormous before that time. I agree with all that was said about the labour which will be put upon overseers and local authorities. It is something enormous, because they are short-handed, and a great number of their ordinary assistants are away at the War. The machinery of party organisation usually applied for this purpose is paralysed and is practically non-existent, and the difficulties are much greater than under normal conditions. It is for this reason that the 31st of May was fixed. This has a bearing on the other point. In view of the extension of the life of Parliament, which is fixed also to continue until the 31st May—I will not say it is the sole reason, because we have followed the precedent of the last extension, which was for eight months—
§ The PRIME MINISTER
I think we proposed twelve months at first, and Parliament cut it down to eight months. This 1910 time we are proposing eight months, a repetition of what Parliament agreed to last time.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
I am not arguing that now, because it is not relevant to this Bill, but primâ facie it does not seem logical to extend the life of Parliament to a date at which there will be no register in existence. The same considerations which determined the various dates at which the register comes into operation determined also the date at which Parliament shall expire. It was for that reason the date was fixed as suggested in the Bill for the prolongation of the life of Parliament. If the Committee stage of the Registration Bill is left over until after the Recess it will be difficult to accelerate as I should like to accelerate it.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
Why should we not? [An HON. MEMBER: "Sit on Saturday!"] I am not arguing this point in a controversial spirit at all, and I am sure my right hon. Friend is not. I am only pointing out what seems to me the considerations in regard to time which we ought to have in view before we come to a final decision. If this is the general will of the House, the Government will be perfectly prepared to agree to take only the-Second Reading before the Adjournment, at the same time promising, as I have promised, that we will make provision in a supplementary Bill for such an adjustment of the Ballot Act machinery as will remove the practical difficulties referred to by my right hon. Friend. As regards the Bill itself, I repeat once more that it is put forward not as a logical or a complete scheme or as anything but a very halting, lopsided, and temporary makeshift, which may or may not be seaworthy, and which,. I hope, we shall never have occasion to use, but which is better than any substitute which exists or has been suggested. I think that is about as modest a claim as has ever been made by a Minister. That is the actual state of the case, as everybody knows. I ask the House now to give the Bill a Second Reading, and we shall be guided by the general sense as to whether it will be a useful consumption of time to take the Committee stage before the Adjournment or wait, as the right hon. Gentleman opposite suggests, until after the Recess.
§ 5.0 P.M.
§ Sir E. CARSON
If the matter stands over, would the Government consider the question whether we could not have a simpler procedure and in that way accelerate the register, though in the meanwhile we may have lost a few weeks?
§ The PRIME MINISTER
Of course, we will consider that question. My right hon. Friend (Mr. Long) is inclined to think that it might be done by Order in Council under the Bill as it stands.
§ Mr. R. MCNEILL
The Prime Minister spoke with extreme modesty of his own recommendation of the Bill that he is asking the House to read a second time, and after the speeches that have been made there will be agreement in every part of the House that no very high claim can be put forward in favour of the measure, but I am bound to confess that the prospect is very much more attractive after the speech of the Prime Minister than it was before. The whole character of the Government proposal for dealing with the situation has been altered by the short speech which the Prime Minister has made, and we ought to be duly grateful for that change. It is perhaps a little bard to understand how the right hon. Gentleman has brought himself to make the announcement which he has just made to the House, for only a day or so ago, when speaking on the introduction of this Bill, he referred to the possibility of setting up machinery for enabling absent voters to record their votes, and he then said,We have tried our very hardest to deal with that problem, but so far we have found it insoluble.I for one am very glad that the problem which was insoluble two days ago has been found soluble to day. The right hon. Gentleman now tells us that by a perfectly simple amendment of the Ballot Act which he is prepared to bring forward this insoluble problem of a few days ago can be easily got over. Everybody must have been struck the moment that announcement was made with the reflection that if by a simple amendment of the Ballot Act the difficulty can be got over with regard to voters who happen to be at a distance from their constituency the moment an election takes place it might be possible by the same process to give the vote to men serving out of the country, as has been demanded by my right hon. and 1912 learned Friend below me (Sir E. Carson). The Prime Minister referred to the precedent of the election going on for the Legislative Assembly in British Columbia, and he told us that at the present moment votes are being given throughout this country in that election, but he laid great emphasis upon the fact that British Columbia soldiers, while voting as long as they are in England, are not voting when they are at the front. I should like some member of the Government to explain to us exactly what the Prime Minister meant when he drew that distinction between soldiers who are away from their constituencies and soldiers who are at the front. If under the amendment of the Ballot Act, which the right hon. Gentleman contemplates a Scottish Highlander who happens to be quartered at Salisbury Plain is to be allowed to vote in an election, is he to be debarred from giving his vote if he happens to be at Havre or Rouen, or some other place just across the water? So far as the British Columbia soldier is concerned, I do not know by what process of thought or language he is any more at the front if he is serving in a hospital or in the commissariat department in Normandy or in Brittany than if he is at Salisbury Plain, or anywhere else in this country.
I entirely fail to see that the right hon. Gentleman draws any clear logical distinction between the soldiers who are serving their country when he lays emphasis on the fact that they are not to vote when they are at the front. Of course, we all recognise that it might so happen at the time of an election that a certain proportion of our troops might be engaged in operations and so occupied that it would be impossible for them to record their votes, just as at ordinary election times there are a certain proportion of voters who are either out of the country on Government duty or engaged at sea, whether in the Navy or in the mercantile marine, and who, by virtue of the operations in which they are engaged, are precluded from recording their votes. That is a principle which we should all recognise, but if it has been found possible to solve this insoluble problem and by a simple amendment of the Ballot Act to give votes to voters absent from their constituencies, I would press very strongly upon my right hon. Friend (Mr. Long), who I suppose will be in charge of the Bill, that that principle should be extended so as to give the vote 1913 in the way we all desire to the soldiers and sailors who are serving their country.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Walthamstow (Sir J. Simon), in his speech just now, brought forward an illustration of the sort of franchise question which he said would be involved if this Bill were enlarged. He claimed that the illustration that he gave of the demand for women's suffrage was on a par with the demand of my right hon. and learned Friend for the enfranchisement of soldiers and sailors. The right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Walthamstow is and has been a distinguished advocate of women's suffrage. I, too, have been an advocate of women's suffrage, differing from him only in that I am undistinguished. But as an advocate of women's suffrage I do not for one moment suggest that at the present moment the two claims are or can be put upon an equal footing. I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dublin University that, however difficult it might be by any strict process of logic to show one claim to be paramount and the other claim to be negligible, the country as a whole will recognise the perfectly intelligent distinction to be drawn at the present time between men who are actually fighting and anybody else. The Prime Minister, the other day, when speaking about the munition workers, said they were doing equally important work in relation to the War. We all agree, because the fighters could not fight if they had not the munitions. They are both part and parcel of the same job; but, although they are doing equally important work, no one for a moment could allege that the munition workers are making the same sacrifice, and it is as a recognition of that sacrifice that we ought to treat the claim of these men to be directly represented in this House by the votes which they could give at the next General Election.
The Prime Minister has said that it is vitally important that we should get this Bill through as quickly as possible, and with that I am in entire agreement. I am as anxious as anybody can be, and I have been anxious for a long time, that some improvement of the present register should be made; but surely it is a little remarkable that the right hon. Gentleman, the other day, in introducing the Bill, should have spoke of the urgency of getting a register of some sort in operation at the 1914 earliest possible moment and should now ask, "Can anyone contemplate with equanimity an election on the present register?" when many of us in different parts of the House for months past have been doing our best to get him to come to some decision as to an improvement of this register. I remember putting questions to the Prime Minister as long ago as last January, asking him whether the Government were not going to do something to set up a register. We made that demand time after time, but we were always told, generally by the Prime Minister and sometimes by other members of the Government, that the matter was receiving their earnest consideration—that they were thinking it over, and would make their decision known as soon as possible. This House and the country at large have got a little tired of being told with regard to all these important matters that they are receiving the earnest consideration of the Government, and of the Prime Minister coming down to the House at the latter end of the Session, when the time before a six or seven weeks' Adjournment is to be measured by hours and not by days, and speaking of the urgent importance of getting some sort of register. It makes it difficult for us and for Members on all sides of the House to come to a decision in their own minds as to the course which ought to be adopted, because of the very short time that is left for the consideration of this or any alternative proposal. I think it is not going beyond our rights to make a most earnest protest against the Government treating us in this way. The chief reason it is so difficult for the House as a whole to come to a decision on the ultimatum—it is nothing less than an ultimatum—which has been fired at us from the Government Bench, that we are to take it or leave it, is that this Bill, as has been already said by the right hon. Gentlemen who are conversant with the working of these measures, is the most complicated and difficult Bill to work that you can possibly imagine.
I venture to say that to deny that this Bill is a Franchise Bill as well as a Registration Bill is a mere pretence. After all, upon what does the suffrage in this country, under the existing law, rest? The basis of the suffrage is length and continuity of residence in some shape or form, either as owner, occupier, or as lodger. Under this Bill people who have not got, and never have had, the length of residence or the continuity of residence which 1915 has hitherto been considered as essential for the possession of the vote are to be given the vote. Therefore, if you are doing that, you are doing exactly what in 1867 and in 1885 was done by Franchise Acts; you are merely altering the length of residence, or the continuity of residence, which is essential for the franchise. Therefore, I say again that to declare that this is a mere Registration Bill, and that it does not radically alter, extend, and enlarge the suffrage is a mere playing with words, and is a misleading of the House with regard to the real nature of the Bill that is before us. In these circumstances, I do think it is very hard that we should have to determine in the course of an hour or so whether we are to incur the responsibility of hanging up this Bill for some months, with the possibility of making for a considerable time to come a distorted and obsolete register, or whether, as the only alternative to that, we are to accept a Bill making large changes in the franchise which we have not had time to consider, and making changes for which, as the right hon. Gentleman opposite has very clearly pointed out, there is absolutely no machinery in the measure to make it effective. On paper we are making changes, but as two right hon. and learned Gentlemen who have already spoken have conclusively shown, we are merely setting up these changes on paper without creating the machinery by which the Bill can be made effective. For these reasons the Bill seems to me to be of very little value as it stands. Whether or not we are to accept the new position outlined by the Prime Minister, and the new proposals for making the Bill better, as I confess they do, is not a matter for me to decide. I have no doubt my right hon. and learned Friend, whom I look upon as my leader in this House, will consider the matter, and that he will advise those of us who usually act with him as to what course we ought to take. I shall be quite content to follow him.
With regard to the situation as a whole, while I am inclined in the new circumstances to get the Bill into Committee, and to get on with it as far as we can, to improve it as much as we can, I must say that after the months and months of delay and long expectation held up before the country of improving and strengthening the register and providing for an eventuality which we all know may occur at any 1916 time, I am afraid the position in which we find ourselves to-day is extremely disappointing.
§ Mr. DICKINSON
The Prime Minister has with great force appealed to the House to allow this Bill to go through all its stages before the Recess. I believe that is practically impossible. I have given most careful attention to its provisions, and I feel confident that when once this Bill gets into Committee the House will insist upon thoroughly testing its proposals, and that they will see that these proposals are quite unworkable. If that is so, what is the object of setting up a system which is not by any means perfect? We are told by the Prime Minister that he does not anticipate that this register will be used for any election during the War. He says it is almost unthinkable that there should be an election during the War, and with that contention I think almost all of us must agree. He also says that any Parliament after the War, a Parliament charged with reconstruction, ought not to exist except it is representative of the whole nation, and based upon a new franchise. If that is so, surely this register is going to serve no useful purpose, and it is going to involve the local authorities, Members of Parliament, candidates, and party funds all over the country in an enormous expense in doing a work which is almost impossible to be effective—and I shall show the House a little later why I say that—and, shall I say, for no practical purpose whatever that we can see at the present moment. What is proposed by the Prime Minister? He suggests that there should be some ultimate register upon a new basis. When is that going to be thought out? Are we going to be left again, as we were left a year ago or two years ago, under the idea that the Government and this House was really going to tackle the question of the franchise? Are we going to be left like that until the War comes to an end? Then we should find ourselves face to face with the necessity for having a General Election with this very inadequate register, the new or the old one. Are we not going to be given some chance of really thinking out this great question on the lines suggested by the right hon. and learned Gentleman opposite Sir E. Car son), on the lines of setting up a franchise which will really represent all the people of this nation? I am sorry the Prime Minister is not here, but the right hon. 1917 Gentleman who is in charge of the Bill (Mr. Long) is, and I do hope that we shall not complete this discussion to-night without some assurance from the Government that they do mean to set up some kind of Committee of this House to set to work at once and devise some scheme for the franchise which is to take effect immediately after the War. The right hon. and learned Gentleman opposite is not blameless, for it was he, to a large extent, who prevented us having that Committee set up a little while ago. I believe a Committee of that kind would help us very considerably, because one sees all through this House and all through the country a desire to come together on this great question of the franchise. What we want is to get some system by which the people of the country shall be fairly represented, and I do not believe that it is impossible, when we have laid aside party politics for the time being, for a Committee of this House to devise a scheme which shall really be a complete solution of the question.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman opposite claimed a right to votes for soldiers and sailors. I do not believe there will be any difference of opinion in this House in regard to that. I believe that most people are anxious and willing to give the right of franchise to every man who has given a service to the country, and a sacrifice to the country, and it is because we are willing to take that as a new basis of electoral franchise that we at the present time who have stood up for women suffrage say that the same right must be conceded to women as is given to men. Women do not say, "Men shall not have the vote unless we have the vote." What they say is that if service and sacrifice of the individual are to be the basis of the franchise, where service and sacrifice are shown to have been exhibited by women they should give the same right to women as to men. The Prime Minister says that men have sacrificed and lost their lives in the trenches. Whose death was it that sounded like a clarion cry throughout the Empire more than any other? It was the death of a woman—Miss Cavell. Who have sacrificed their lives in the same way as men through fever, in the wards of hospitals, and elsewhere? Women. There is no doubt that when you go to the bed-rock of this question you will find that where service and sacrifice are to be a right to anything, that service and sacrifice has been 1918 given by women as well as by men. That is the only position we take up now. That is one question that will have to be considered by a Committee of this House, and I believe that in the present state of public opinion the Committee and this House will assent to that proposition. I do not want to argue women's suffrage. As has been pointed out, it is impossible, except by an instruction, to get it into this Bill, but it ought to be considered before the War comes to an end, and before questions of reconstruction are reached, questions which, as the Prime Minister says, concern women as well as men.
Apart from that general question, I should like to say a few words upon the details of this Bill. The Bill has been suddenly thrown upon us. I do not remember any occasion, even during the present War, on which a Bill of this nature has been put into our hands with so little time for consideration before Second Reading, and I think it is probable that very few Members have really understood, or have had time to grasp, what is proposed with regard to registration. I have said that the scheme to be set up would be quite unworkable, and the more I consider it the more I am convinced that that is the case. At the present moment the local authorities, or call them the overseers, because that is the technical term, are the persons responsible for preparing the register. That task has been difficult undoubtedly, but it is, and has always been, restricted to their own area. The overseers have had to go round their own districts, and some have done their work well and others have done it badly, in order to find out the men entitled to vote in respect of qualifications within their own districts. That has been the system hitherto adopted. They have not been concerned with anybody who is outside their district. What will this Bill come to in effect? Let me take the first part of Clause 2. As I understand it, everyone who is on the old register—that is the 1914–15 Register—will, primâ facie, be entitled to have his name left there, but if he is not found in the constituency his name has to go off; it is not there. If, however, he happens to be a soldier, or a sailor, or a munition worker, or any of this large class of persons who are going to have this particular privilege given to them, he is entitled to have his name left on the register. How is that problem to be settled, as to who is to go off and who 1919 is to go on? It is a very big problem, I assure the House. In my own Constituency, 33 per cent. have already removed on that register, and I could point to other constituencies where no fewer than 50 per cent. have removed. Half the old register has gone, and what is to happen to them? Someone will have to go through that register and find whether each individual man is or is not entitled to go on. As I read this Bill, if he had served a single day only as a munition factory worker he is entitled to stay on the register. If he has not served a single day as a munition factory worker he goes off. I do really ask the President of the Local Government Board whether he has asked a single registration agent as to how far it will be possible to solve that problem. It is the easiest problem in the Bill! The men on the list have to go off or stay on according as to whether or not they are in a munition factory. But you cannot find these men. It is difficult enough at the present time to trace their movements. How are you going to find two or three hundred thousand men who have gone away, perhaps two years ago now, and ascertain whether they have the right to go on or go off? The result will be that the Bill will be a farce, and that the people will not be put on. The munition workers who have gone away will be lost for ever, and you will get no better register than if you had adhered to the one as it stands with regard to that point.
The next problem is infinitely more difficult—that is to say, to get people on the register who were not on the first register at all, but who have a sort of theoretical right to get on it, because it is assumed that if the War had not happened they would have lived for twelve months in a particular dwelling. In what dwelling? As I understand it, it is this: Say I find a man in a Glasgow munition factory on 1st November, 1916, and he says to me, "I lived in No. 1, Smith Street, South St. Pancras, on the 1st of November, 1915." He has a right to go on the register for South St. Pancras, provided always that the dwelling he lived in was an ordinary dwelling, or a lodging worth £10 a year. That is all he has to say, but, of course, he has to prove it, and the man himself has to be found. I want to know how the Local Government Board imagine that all these munition workers in Glasgow, Liverpool, Leeds, and all over 1920 that part of the country, who a year ago used to live in London, or anywhere else, are going to be found and have their names put on the register for the places where they lived. Whose duty is it to be? Is it to be the duty of the overseers of St. Pancras or of the overseers of Glasgow? It cannot be that of the overseers of St. Pancras, because they cannot travel to Glasgow and find their men. It must be for the overseers of Glasgow. But how are the Glasgow people going to do that? Under the Bill, as I understand it, Glasgow people will only have the right, to do what they might do under the old law, namely, send round circulars to the people living there and find out who are entitled to vote in their own constituency. First of all, you have to get a system by which the overseers in the places where the man is living can send the name of the man to the overseers of the place where he is not living, or else you have to leave him off altogether. Of course, the result will be that he will be left off altogether.
I must confess to the belief that nobody in any town in England, unless told to do so, will trouble his head about people who are going to vote somewhere else and not in his own constituency. The result will be that these men will be left off and will be no better off than they were before. I believe that the whole of these two proposals by which you imagine you are going to put on soldiers, sailors, and munition workers will prove absolutely inoperative. That is the reason why I earnestly beg the Prime Minister and the Government to consider whether it is really worth the trouble and the enormous expense which is going to be put on various persons throughout the constituencies in order to try to get, what you will not get, a register of the munition workers, soldiers, or sailors. I say nothing whatever about voting, because even if they get on the register, I do not see how you are ever going to get them to vote. As ~o the suggestion that each of us will have to bring up from the munition factories all the electors who have been living away, perhaps for twelve months or more, it, of course, means that they will not come, and will not get the vote. It is rather difficult to give them the system of voting which has been suggested for the soldiers in the trenches, namely, voting by proxy, or in any other way. I have ventured to point out to the House two important points of detail, because I cannot help thinking that when we get into Committee we shall find 1921 it is so difficult to carry out the provisions of this Bill that the Bill is not worth the paper upon which it is written.
I have only one other point to make. The Prime Minister said that this does not affect the question of franchise, and that it is merely a preparation of the register upon the existing franchise. I venture to differ from that considerably. Under this new scheme, as I have already pointed out, a man is going to get a vote for a particular place on 1st November, 1916, for no other reason than the fact that, possibly for one night or for one week, he has lived in a place miles and miles away in a tenement which would have qualified him if he had stayed there. I submit that that is a considerable alteration in the franchise. There is no residence and there is no occupation. Simply because a man is working on munitions he is given the right, which nobody else has, to say that because he lived somewhere else a year or two before—he might have wandered about all over the country for the previous twelve months—if he can show that he occupied a lodging worth £10 a year, or a dwelling-house to which no particular value is attached, at any particular place, he is entitled to vote in that place. That is really an alteration in the franchise. That being so, I do not think we ought to contemplate such an alteration as that, without making it part of a much larger scheme which shall embrace these various other classes, such as soldiers, sailors, and women, on the electoral rolls of the country. I have ventured to put forward these few remarks to the House in the hope that we shall find a way by which, without losing time, we can really have this bigger question considered by a Committee of this House immediately after the Recess and bring up some proposals which will be capable of adoption when the War comes to an end, as we all hope it may do very soon
§ Sir R. FINLAY
There is one portion of the Prime Minister's speech upon which there is general agreement, namely, when he stated the objection to anything in the nature of a General Election at the present time. Everyone appreciates those objections, and all of them were emphasised by the language used by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dublin University (Sir E. Carson). At the same time, the whole object of this Bill is to provide for the proper conduct of a General Election, if by any mishap it should be forced upon 1922 us during the continuance of the War. Therefore the Bill is wanted purely as an emergency measure. I confess I look forward with some apprehension to the possible widening of the scope of the discussion in various directions which I need not enumerate, by Instructions before we come to the Committee stage of the Bill. If this is an emergency measure, in my judgment it would have very awkward consequences if by such Instructions we were plunged into an elaborate discussion of all the aspects of the franchise question. As regards the merits of the measure itself, the Prime Minister disarmed criticism by the terms in which he spoke of it. I do not think I have ever heard a Minister in charge of a Bill speak of his measure quite as the Prime Minister has spoken of this emergency measure. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for North St. Pancras (Mr. Dickinson) has not been deterred by the modesty of the Prime Minister from expressing, in very plain terms, what he thinks of the Bill. I am not going to enter into the question as to whether the Bill is so bad as the right hon. Gentleman thinks it. I do not think it is so extremely bad. At least it has one merit, that it will not enfranchise anyone who does not belong to a most deserving class—that is, either the fighters or those who have been engaged actively in helping the conduct of the War by munitions work. In the criticism passed by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North St. Pancras on the measure, he overlooked one fact, namely, that in order to get the benefit of Clause 2 it is necessary that the person whose period of qualification was interrupted should have been in occupation of the premises at the time the War broke out or when his service ends, whichever is the later. That answers a good deal of the observations of an unfavourable nature which the right hon. Gentleman made upon that part of the Bill. However, I do not desire to enter into these matters. They are matters we need not go into at this stage when we are considering whether the Bill, as an emergency measure, should be read a second time.
I listened with great satisfaction to one statement made by the Prime Minister in answer to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dublin University, to the effect that the Prime Minister recognised that it was necessary that some provision should be made enabling persons, who would get votes by the operation of 1923 this Bill when it becomes an Act, to record their votes. It is no use whatever giving the franchise if those upon whom you confer it are so circumstanced that they cannot come to vote. The very same causes which led to the interruption of their period of qualification will be in existence if the occasion for an election should arise, and in that case their absence with His Majesty's Forces, or their being engaged as munition workers at other places within the constituency where they have now begun to qualify, will make it practically impossible for them to exercise the franchise in the ordinary way. Unless some such provision were made the measure would be purely illusory. It would profess to give something, but it would really give nothing at all. I hope that on consideration the Prime Minister will realise that any measure such as he foreshadows by way of amendment of the Ballot Act ought not to be confined to those who happen to be in this country. You have, with regard to the persons in this country serving with the Forces, a practical impossibility of voting in the ordinary way. You are going to make provision for them. But you have still more men who are on the Continent and who are engaged in serving the country there. I do not suggest, of course, that it would be possible that the troops in the field should have anything in the nature of an ordinary election. I remember reading that when, in the time of Louis XV., the French army invaded Germany, they took a theatre with them. One day there appeared this notice—No performance to-morrow as there is to be a battle.You could not have a notice the other way—No fighting to-morrow as there will be an election.The idea of anything like an election in the ordinary fashion being conducted in one day by the troops in the field engaged in active operations is, to my mind, a most difficult question. Surely the problem can be solved in a much better way—that is, by giving voting papers to the men, allowing them so many days to fill up the name of the candidate for whom they are voting, then having the papers attested before some officer and transmitted. That is not a new proposal. A practice of that kind has prevailed in all the university constituencies in this country. There has been no difficulty in working it. A simplified form of voting paper might be filled up a day or two or even a fortnight before 1924 it was necessary that the vote should be recorded. The problem would then be solved. The voting paper might be in a simple form. I confess I do not appreciate the enormous difficulties that some of my hon. Friends seem to feel in the matter. Difficulties there may be, but those difficulties must be faced and overcome. Some of my hon. Friends do not realise that the Army with which we have to deal to-day is not the Army to which we have been accustomed. It is not a small professional Army, but a nation in arms. You have the very flower of our poulation solving in the Army, and it is absolutely essential, if any election under this Bill, if it becomes an Act, is to have any reality about it, that you must not confine the voting to the men who stayed at home. You must provide for those who are at the front. I believe the difficulties are not very great, but, whatever they may be, they must be faced, unless the result of the election is to be one which would command neither the confidence of this country nor the confidence of our Allies. Some objections have been made by military men to anything in the nature of election proceedings in the Army in the field. I do not think soldiers very much like politicians, and they very much object to any idea of politics in the Army on active service. I cannot help thinking that these objections to some extent at least overlook the very great difference which exists now between our Army as it is and our Army as it was in the days when it was a small professional Army. Should a General Election be forced upon us the issues to be decided may be most momentous, and I cannot help feeling that a General Election conducted under circumstances which excluded the fighters from any possibility of taking any share in it would be most unsatisfactory. For these reasons I hope the Prime Minister will supplement this measure, if it should go on successfully through the perils that beset it in the House, by an adequate measure for enabling those who, on account of public service, are unable to attend at the polling booth to record their votes in some manner which will not in the least be inconsistent with military discipline and with their duties in the field.
§ Mr. PRINGLE
Seldom, I think, has a Bill on its Second Beading been received with such a universal chorus of condemnation. The Prime Minister himself, who is its parent here, has abused it more 1925 thoroughly than any of the critics, and the more abusive the epithets he used the more responsive and enthusiastic was the House. The Bill, he said, was illogical and lopsided, and would probably turn out to be unseaworthy, but at the same time he recommended it to the House as the only practical way. I think those who have listened to the speech of my right hon. Friend (Mr. Dickinson) will agree that he has proved conclusively that this Bill is the only impossible way of dealing with the register. It gives rise to innumerable anomalies. You are creating all sorts of practical difficulties. I wonder if those who framed this Bill took the trouble to consult a single registration authority as to its effect and as to its practical working. If they did I am quite sure this Bill would never have been introduced into this House. The only excuse for its introduction is that the Cabinet is so absorbed in the conduct of the War that they have not been able to read it. If they had read it, it would never have been put forward as a practical suggestion. I can well understand why the scheme has been devised. The Government were solely thinking of the Parliamentary situation. They had, they thought, to solve a Parliamentary difficulty, and they believed that if they did it the whole question was settled. The Prime Minister found, on the one hand, the right hon. Gentleman (Sir E. Carson) claiming votes for soldiers and sailors simply on the ground of their service—an absolutely sound ground—and, on the other hand, he found at his elbow in the Cabinet the Noble Lord (Lord Robert Cecil) informing him that if soldiers and sailors were to receive the vote the women must also be included, while another Noble Lord seemed to indicate that the introduction of women would lead to the irreparable disaster of his resignation. These were the Parliamentary difficulties which he had to face. He was able by introducing this Bill to introduce a Franchise Bill in fact, though not in form. By ostensibly only dealing with the register he is enfranchising many people without apparently dealing with the franchise at all. But when you turn to the practical difficulties, one sees that this expedient, no matter how admirable it may be for dealing with a Parliamentry difficulty, is the most futile that could have been conceived for the purposes of a General Election. My right hon. Friend (Mr. Dickinson) spoke of the great difficulties of seek- 1926 ing out the men who are to be entitled to be placed upon this register—men who may have removed but whose qualification is in a district far remote from the place in which they now reside. Only yesterday I saw a list of men who are at present resident in the constituency of Kirkcaldy. In it one saw men removed from Portsmouth, others from Devonport, others from Chatham, others from Glasgow, and others from different parts of the United Kingdom. All these were war workers, and on the ground of their war work they would be entitled to be registered in places as remote as Glasgow, Aberdeen, Portsmouth, Devonport and Chatham. Could any system of registration more absurd be conceived? Obviously the only way to deal with a situation of that kind is to put the men on the register in the place where they reside.
But that is not the only ground. It is not only the difficulty of seeking them out, but you may be perfectly certain that when you have solved the difficulty of finding the men who are rightly entitled you will equally find large numbers of bogus voters being manufactured.
§ Mr. PRINGLE
There are absolutely no penalties against it. Indeed, this is an invitation to the bogus voter. The register, indeed, would not be worth the cost of printing, and in these days, when we are short of paper, I do not see why we should waste all this paper and all this printing on a thing that is going to be absolutely valueless. But there are not only the difficulties of finding the bonâ-fide voter and the facilities for bogus voters to get upon the register, but you have to consider the enormous amount of time which would be occupied in making up this register. We know how difficult it is in ordinary times, and the length of time that is occupied in making all the inquiries necessary to obtain a sound register when we have the normal machinery of registration in operation—that is, when the local authority for the purposes of registration has the former year's register in existence as a basis upon which to work. But this register will be based upon facts existing three years ago. The register compiled in the autumn of 1914 was compiled in a most perfunctory way. The War broke out in the middle of the registration period, and large numbers of the registration agents all over the country simply suspended their operations. 1927 There was no real question of the claims in the Registration Courts of 1914. So that the register which is to be the basis for this special register is one which is based not on the facts of two years ago but of three years ago—in other words, on a qualification which began to run in July, 1912. Could there be anything more monstrous and absurd? Surely the House can hardly give this a Second Reading, at least on the supposition that they are going to proceed with it at all The Prime Minister even suggested that we might give it its Committee stage before the Recess. There can be only one possible explanation of that suggestion, and that would be his belief that had it received a moment's consideration it would never have passed this House. The only chance of its passing was to get it through before the Recess. If hon. Members took the trouble to read all the Statutes which are referred to here they would never find themselves in a position to give a real consideration to the Committee stage.
§ Mr. PRINGLE
The right hon. Baronet is a master in dealing with legislation by reference, and he knows all the difficulties which are involved. This is not practical; it is quite impractical. I see a right hon. Gentleman from Australia. Perhaps he would give us the simple and practical expedient which prevails in that country. That would be valuable. A conclusive case has been made out that this Bill is futile and absurd. It is no use to anyone, and if we give it a Second Reading to-day we are merely giving it a Second Reading pro forma, so that in the future we may thrash out a better scheme. What is to be the better scheme? It seems to me that we ought to aim at simplicity in the first place, for the purpose of enabling us to get a register ready; and it seems to me that a short residential qualification is the ideal system, and you could include the soldier and the sailor by providing that his period of service should be equivalent to residence. Your machinery for doing that would be comparatively simple. You only require a single survey of the people actually in residence throughout the country at present, and discover from them how long they have been in this country. The matter of putting soldiers 1928 and sailors on the register upon this simple qualification is a very simple matter indeed. You obtain both simplicity and speed by this method.
There is, of course, the other thorny question of woman suffrage. Unlike my right hon. Friend (Sir J. Simon), I have in the past, on every occasion when I have had an opportunity of voting on the question, voted against woman suffrage. But I am inclined in this matter to follow the Prime Minister. I have not been so slavish in my adherence to him that on this occasion I can be accused of having determined my course owing to any particular partiality for the advice of my right hon. Friend. It seems to me, however, that the arguments which he has put forward are of the very greatest weight. During this War we have brought into industry in this country women on a scale and to an extent which no one ever contemplated in the past. The women in fact are running the Industry of the country for the first time, and that involves very serious problems in the period of reconstruction. I think they are problems which must be determined by Parliament, and consequently problems in which I think the women have a right to be heard. At the end of the War you are going to bring back to industry large numbers of men who have been taken from industry for fighting purposes. How are you going to adjust the rights and claims of the returning soldier with the rights and claims of the women, who for national purposes you have asked to go into industry during the War? I think that for the right adjustment of this question you require to give the women a vote in the election for the Parliament which will determine them. I think both ought to be, consulted. That is why I think that both the soldiers and the sailors, on the one hand, and the women on the other hand, are entitled to be on the new register which is to elect the Parliament of reconstruction. Attempts have been made to draw distinctions between the quality and extent of the services and sacrifices of the soldiers and the sailors, on the one hand, and of the women on the other hand. The hon. Member for St. Augustine's (Mr. Ronald McNeill) suggested that a soldier took far greater risks than a munition worker, and that, great as might be the services that women on munition work rendered, the same value was not to be placed on that because she did not undertake risks of the 1929 same quality as the soldier did in the foreign field.
But if this analysis of the extent of the risks of different people is to be followed, it would be only the men who go into the front trenches who would receive the franchise. You would have to withhold it from the Staff, from the members of the Royal Army Medical Corps, and the Army Service Corps, and the people at the bases, because they do not go into a position of danger. Obviously the risk run cannot be used as a criterion for granting the franchise. If you are going to accept soldiers and sailors on the ground of sacrifices and services, equally you must yield on the same grounds the suffrage to every other war worker. It seems to me that the arguments which have been put forward are conclusive; that the present scheme is absolutely impracticable, and that if we give it a Second Reading to-day it can only be a pro forma Second Reading, in the hope that the House of Commons will devise something. The question arises as to what is the best procedure for us to adopt in order to arrive at something definite. If we adopt the procedure suggested from the Chair, we can only act by means of an Instruction to the Committee of the whole House. I doubt whether that is the best method of achieving our end, and personally I have always thought that the right hon. and learned Gentleman opposite (Sir E. Carson) walked very unwarily into the trap which was laid for him by the Home Secretary when the Select Committee was suggested by the Government. I think the Home Secretary deliberately intended to kill the idea of a Select Committee. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, oh!"] I understand that the House acquits the Home Secretary of any felonious intent. There was no mens rea, to us a technical legal term.
I regretted the decision to have a Select Committee at that time. I happen to be a member of it, and my career as a member of Select Committees of this House has been exceptionally unhappy. I was appointed a member of another Committee which sat only once, and as regards this Committee, it is not going to sit at all. Probably it is my unhappy experience which has led me to my conclusion. On this occasion, after giving a Second Reading to the Bill, we might quite well refer it to a Select Committee with a view to obtaining a report as to a simpler and better method of obtaining a new register. 1930 This need not involve delay. It is possible for the Select Committee to sit during the Recess, and for it to prepare a report which will be presented when the House meets again. I do not say that such a report would settle the question, but undoubtedly a Select Committee would be in a position to gather valuable material and place it before the House, and upon that material the House could give a final decision. Undoubtedly the Government itself is too preoccupied to think out either a logical or practical scheme. The duty must therefore fall upon Parliament, and in particular upon this House, and it seems to me that the proper procedure and the only constitutional procedure is by way of a Select Committee.
§ Captain S. GWYNN
I entirely agree with the general conclusion of the House that it can scarcely be reasonable to ask the House to carry through its Committee stage as an emergency measure a Bill which is admittedly one of the worst Bills ever presented to Parliament. For that reason I join in the general view that we should go no further than to give this Bill a Second Reading, and try then to get further on with the matter. I have risen simply and solely for the purpose of supporting the appeal made by the right hon. and learned Member for Waltham-stow (Sir J. Simon). Between him and the Prime Minister there appeared to be a difference of opinion whether this House could usefully during the War approach a question that really involved a great change in our Constitution. The right hon. Gentleman said there existed at present, just precisely because we are at war, a state of mind and temper in which we can hopefully attack problems which in normal times we should despair to attack. I do not know whether it is a very happy precedent to recall, but it is worth recalling, that the House within recent times approached one of the thorniest of all questions and one which has most divided politics in the past. And I think the House will agree that if the Irish question was not settled it was not, at all events, the fault of the House. The thing that gave a chance to us, a chance which I hope may recur, though I do not know whether it is probable, was precisely the same peculiar temper of the House which exists under present conditions.
The hon. Gentleman who has just sat down said, I think quite truthfully, that the Government at the present time had 1931 no leisure of mind to approach such problems as the reconstruction of our franchise system, and he said that what had to be done in this matter must be done in fact by the House itself, whether by a Select Committee or directly in discussion here. I think that was a very sound observation, if I may say so, because, after all, what is the House of Commons doing at the present time? When one comes back here from outside one finds a most extraordinary atmosphere of unreality about the procedure of this assembly. I think the House of Commons might very usefully occupy itself in settling what is, after all, a House of Commons question. Members are qualified to say what shall be the qualification for a vote. It is not a matter on which the House wants expert direction. It is a matter on which every Member of the House considers himself an expert, and is, at all events, as well entitled to advise as Ministers. You have this temper which exists now and which is evidenced in speech after speech, and it is hopeful. We are all agreed that soldiers and sailors should have the vote—at least I have heard no dissentient voice. We all agree that soldiers and sailors should receive the rights of citizenship without the consideration of residence or anything else. At the present time we have the nation in arms, practically speaking. When you admit Conscription, you admit universal suffrage for men; that is perfectly clear.
Then there is the other great question of women suffrage. Let me say this, this question has been approached in terms of sacrifice. I would like to ask any other soldier here, Who is it that really makes the greater sacrifice—is it harder for the boy to go into the trenches or for his mother to let him go? Do you think you would have 5,000,000 voluntary recruits in this country if the women had held back their men? Do you think you can test this question as to whether women should have votes on the basis of whether they can make shells or do service like men? Women are entitled to the vote on their work as women, on the work they do in governing the house, in the education of children, and in their work of preparing men to go out and take their part in the trenches. That is why women deserve the vote. When the matter comes to be thrashed out, whether by a Select Committee or otherwise, I do not think that you will find this difficulty will be in- 1932 soluble. I do most earnestly hope that after the House gives the Bill a Second Beading now there will be some Committee instituted which will take up the whole question under the auspices of the temper which prevails at the present time; and what I would say to the Government is this, that there is not the least use of the Government waiting. The Government must give the House a lead in this matter. If they want the House of Commons to attempt a solution of the question they can set up the machinery; they do not need to detach any more than one Minister for the work, and out of the twenty-three or twenty-four members of the Cabinet they can easily spare one for the purpose; but they must institute proceedings, and I believe, when they have instituted them, they must come to a good end.
§ Major HUNT
I beg to move, to leave out the word "now," and, at the end of the Question, to add the words "upon this day three months."
The Prime Minister said that this Bill would give up a better register than the present one. I cannot agree with that statement, because in practice it will leave out the great majority of the men who have saved us. The Prime Minister also gave us to understand, after all the tragic blunders that he has made himself, that anything would be better than a General Election. I cannot agree with that. It certainly was not the opinion of President Lincoln. President Lincoln in 1864 was faced by just the same problem that now confronts our anti-democratic Cabinet—the problem of holding an election in wartime. He did not hesitate in the matter. He felt that, however great the difficulties might be, they must be surmounted. He said:We cannot have a free Government without election, and if the War could force us to forego or postpone a national election it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruled us.Surely that is a good example of the necessity of having an election before the terms of peace are even thought of. A General Election would do much less harm than to allow this wretched Government to go on and have the making of the terms of peace—terms which would be the result of this Bill, if it is carried. I am opposing this Bill because it is a practical disfranchisement of the huge majority of the men who have the best right to have a vote in the Government 1933 of the country, the men who have risked, stand, both or, at all events, are liable to have risked, their lives in defending us from the hideous barbarities of the Germans.
We must surely, in justice and in fairness, have a register to include all men over eighteen years of age who have served or are serving in the Army and Navy or who are under the direction of the naval or military authorities for fighting purposes or for purposes, of course, of healing the wounded, and the register certainly ought to be completed as soon as possible in order to prevent the danger of an election in connection with the terms of peace from being taken under the present helplessly defective register as it is, and I think that, women having never had votes before, we must of necessity ask them to stand aside before the end of the War under, I think, the definite promise that there shall be a Women's Franchise Bill passed through Parliament as soon after the War as can be managed, and, at all events, at the first election after the War. The men of the nation are under arms and are safeguarding the future of our existence and of free peoples with their blood. Does the Prime Minister really think that he has got any right to settle the terms of peace if the men who have made that peace possible are to have no voice in those terms? It was the soldiers' vote which saved the American Union, and I have already shown what President Lincoln thought about it.
Are our men who have fought and suffered to have no voice in the settlement on which the whole future of their race and their country depends? Under this Bill there are many thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of men who have actually fought and suffered from wounds or from disease as the result of war who, even in this country, will not have a voice in the settlement of the country's destinies, while the usually hypocritical conscientious objector, the shirker, and the peace crank will have perhaps an unusual chance of getting the vote because they have stayed at home and looked after themselves. The Prime Minister is trying by this Bill to gerrymander registration in favour of himself and his party. When millions of our best men are out of the country a way must be found, either by voting by proxy or in some other way—that was done in the American Civil War, and it has been done, I under- 1934 stand, both in Canada and Australia—by which as many men as possible of the men serving abroad may be able to record their votes, and the same must be the case with those men who are serving in the United Kingdom. Many of them, even in this country, will have suffered wounds inflicted actually at the front. The Prime Minister, who is really the Cabinet—because the Unionist Members do not count since they did not resign with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Dublin University—has put off this question purposely month by month in the hope of rushing this Bill through a weary House of Commons at a time when all the Members want to get away as quickly as they can for the Recess.
I really think that Members may fairly consider what the millions of soldiers will say after the War when they find that the Members representing their part of the world deliberately decided that the huge majority of men who saved their country should have no voice in the Government. I really think the Back Benches might think that over. The Bill is not going to give the huge majority, even of the men who are serving at home, a vote because, according to the absurd argument of the Prime Minister, it would not be fair to some of those abroad who might be too far away to record their votes, and they might be jealous because they did not receive a vote themselves. The Bill has been pretty well riddled as it is. Under the Bill it is almost certain that the huge majority of those who have gone through all the horrors of modern warfare will not be able to have any influence on the Government which decides the terms of peace. I do not think that anything could very well be worse than that. These men will have paid the piper, and the Ministers who refused to prepare for war, though they knew it was coming, and have made the most hideous blunders during the War, are the people who are to call the tune. The lodgers who stopped at home in peace and comfort are to have every chance given to them of acquiring the vote. The lodgers in the Government camps in this country, or the great majority of them men with no limit, mind you, to their hours of work and no holidays even on Sunday, are to have no vote at all. The huge majority of men lodging in the wet and shell-torn trenches in France and Flanders, according to this Bill, are to have no voice in the conditions of peace. That 1935 is to say nothing of the men who have saved us from starvation by keeping watch and ward in the storms of the Atlantic and the North Sea.
The Prime Minister claims that his plan is the one that proceeds on the lines of least resistance. That has been his plan both at home and abroad. In Ireland and with neutrals his plan has been to do nothing, however necessary action may be, if action can possibly be avoided. The Coalition has, to a great extent, muzzled the House of Commons, and, as far as it dares, it has muzzled the Press. We are living under the despotism of an oligarchy, and unfortunately it is not only a feeble one but a bad one. The Prime Minister having proclaimed himself and his colleagues to be indispensable, is treating us to a new edition of the Long Parliament under something very like the same conditions. I dare say that some of the right hon. Gentlemen will remember what Cromwell said about the Long Parliament. He said that they were chiefly engaged in looking after the interests of their friends and relations. The people hate the rule of this Government, which was elected in peace, and is totally unsuited for war. They are most anxious to get rid of the Government, but unfortunately they are helpless because the House of Commons refused to do its duty by giving the people a chance of electing a new Government on a fair register, and a Government which, unlike this one, can be trusted to look after the interests of its own country.
§ Amendment not seconded.
§ Sir RYLAND ADKINS
I have listened with great interest to the very characteristic speech of the hon. and gallant Member (Major Hunt), who hit various parties very hard, and used various epithets in an address that was embroidered by various curious passages. From the historical argument of the hon. and gallant Gentleman, there seems to be in his mind the idea that it is the people of our land who are now fighting abroad who are to vote in an election while the War is going on, because in America they had a second presidential election for the return of Mr. Lincoln, which took place before the finish of the Civil War. Whatever else we may differ about, I take it that we all appreciate that it is one thing to vote for a dictator or president, and another thing to vote in the way in which people are 1936 called upon to vote for a fresh House of Commons. It is not the election of an individual to govern a whole Empire, but of local representatives on grounds of general public policy. The undoubted difficulties of the position in which we all find ourselves are not made less, I submit they are made more, by these misleading analogies of other places and other times. I take it that we are all agreed that no General Election will be satisfactory in this country until it is an election in which those who are now fighting, either in the Army or in the Navy, are able to vote, and do, as a matter of fact, vote. Listening to all the speeches delivered this afternoon, they go to show, in my opinion, that a mistake was made when this House declined to prolong the life of this Parliament to the end of the War, and six months after. If that had been done we should have had no election until the whole British nation could vote, and any election before that time, even if it does include casual votes by soldiers and sailors who are fortunate enough to be able to vote, will be an election without that moral sanction and power behind it which are necessary where we have to deal with the great constructive problems of the War. Therefore, I shall not try to reply to speech after speech, first on one side of the House, then on the other, in which the whole argument tended to show the impossibility of having a really valid election until the War is over. In one or two speeches delivered on that side it was suggested that not only soldiers and sailors in England but soldiers and sailors abroad, might, by arrangement, be able to take part, if there were an election during the War. The hon. Member for Dublin University argued that it might be done by means of voting papers, or by machinery with which some of us are familiar in university elections. I submit that all these methods are no good unless you can thereby secure the votes of the vast majority of these men in whatever part of the world they may be. I am glad to see the hon. and gallant Admiral (Sir H. Meux) in his place, and I would like to know what he thinks of these proposals as to sailors voting by voting papers at a time when their ship, at the call of the country, is to go abroad to take its part in the War?
§ Sir R. ADKINS
I felt confident that would be the opinion of the hon. and 1937 gallant Admiral, who knows the conditions and knows the absurdity of the proposal. It is most undesirable that there should be a register which professed to give soldiers and sailors votes, but which, in fact, did not do it, and it would be most undesirable that there should be a small number of soldiers in France who might conceivably take part in an election among their comrades in this country, but you would have no time to get votes from men who are in Mesopotamia or Egypt, or from men who are with the Fleet in various parts of the world. The dilemma is that if you are really going to get the vote of the Army and Navy you will require an electoral period of many weeks. Who imagines that the War would be benefited by an electoral interval of many weeks, and with all the uncertainties and personal issues, all the speculations as to results, which mark far too much the two or three weeks' election intervals in time of peace? The best we can do this afternoon, no doubt, is to give a Second Reading to this Bill, because of the reason given by the Prime Minister, that it may be a few shades better than the present register. In Committee we can make improvements and alterations, but, whatever may be suggested in Committee, I hope every Member of the House will set his face against a bogus register, or any register or any plan which professes to give the Army and Navy the vote we all want them to have and yet does not, in practice, do it. I may be wrong, but, for my own part, I am convinced that there is no chance while the War goes on of the men who constitute the Army and Navy—even though they may be a controlling influence in an election when they come home—exercising their votes properly. Therefore, I submit that when this Bill comes on the House should make the period of the extension of this Parliament as long as possible, because I am convinced that any election before the War must be mischievous. We all want the War to end as soon as possible, if only it ends successfully and victoriously, and after that the sooner we have an election the better. But I shrink from deciding problems of vast importance when the Army and Navy cannot vote at all. The hon. and gallant Gentleman (Major Hunt) spoke about the Army and Navy being consulted about the terms of peace. What possible) method is there of suspending the terms of peace until the Army and Navy and the whole electorate have been consulted?
§ Major HUNT
That is not the question. The question is whether the men of the Army and Navy have any influence over the Government when they make peace by their votes.
§ Sir R. ADKINS
A very large proportion of them have already voted for this House of Commons; they have voted either for that part of the Government which was in power when the War broke out, or that part of it which is generally supported by Members opposite. At the present time a vast proportion of soldiers and sailors have exorcised their votes for one or other of the great political organisations represented in this Government. But if you have an election before the War you have no guarantee that you can devise a method by which any appreciable number of the Army and Navy could exercise their votes. Besides these considerations, there are other very wide matters; there is the question of women's suffrage. I agree with the hon. Member for Galway and other hon. Members that the work which women have done in agreeing to the voluntary enlistment of 5,000,000 men is a work for which the country cannot be too grateful, and it establishes their claim for any of the electoral privileges which they demand. Are we to have an election to decide a great question like that before the men of the Army and Navy come back to England? Surely that is a matter of social construction in which everybody is concerned. All these considerations point to the essential fact that you cannot have a satisfactory election while the War is going on, and I hope all those energies which are devoted to the Bill, and all those energies which are devoted to these dialectic suggestions and discussions may be diverted from both in order that we may all join in a united endeavour to shorten the War, and the sooner that result is attained, the sooner will we bring this problem to a solution.
§ The PRESIDENT of the LOCAL GOVERNMENT BOARD (Mr. Long)
This is the first time that it has been my privilege, as a member of the Government, to introduce a Bill which certainly does not seem to commend itself to general support. I do not rise to defend it, for I have no misgiving whatever about it, and I have not the least intention of apologising to the House in respect to the measure, for the reason that, with the exception of one or two speakers, it is not the Bill which has formed the subject of their 1939 speeches, but it is the situation with which they have found fault and which they have refused to recognise from the beginning to the end. I do not agree with the speeches of my right hon. and learned Friends who opened the Debate, and right through hon. Members have declined to face the situation, which is a real one, and the question is do those critics of ours deliberately propose or contemplate that there shall be a General Election, with all its divisions of opinion, its bitterness, and its methods at a time when we are carrying on a War of this kind? Unless you are deliberately prepared to advocate the holding of a General Election during the War, what is your interest in the register? Our critics have refused to recognise the position which they ought to face, if they are really going to condemn the Government, and, whatever register you may have, nobody, I believe, contemplates, whatever may have been done elsewhere, a General Election at this time.
§ Mr. LONG
I do not know whether my hon. and gallant Friend wants an election during the War, but if he does, I will qualify my remark in any way he likes that will make it in no way offensive to him. It is my view which I am putting, and I believe, from my own knowledge, that those who advocate a General Election during the War are so small in number as in no way to affect the real feeling of the people to whatever party they may belong. My right hon. Friend the Member for Dundee says, "Why then have a register?" He knows the answer. He knows that under the Parliament Act for which he and others are responsible the life of Parliament was shortened from seven years to five years. These difficulties would never have arisen if that change had not been made. But as we have made the life of Parliament five years instead of seven, we have either to have an election or prolong the life of Parliament. It was made perfectly clear to the Government that a very large section of this House would resist any attempt to prolong the life of Parliament unless it was accompanied by a Bill providing a register which would be at all events better in some respects than the register we have now got. There was a strong feeling that we should have a more modern register than we now have, and, in accordance with the view of the House, we have produced 1940 this Bill, and I maintain that not a single word has been said to-day in any of the criticisms which have been addressed to us that goes to show that you could produce a better register in any other way. Why, I do not know an easier task for the least informed Member of this House than to criticise a Bill dealing with either franchise or registration. It is the easiest subject anyone could criticise. There are hon. and right hon. Gentlemen here who are authorities on this subject. The right hon. Member for St. Pancras North (Mr. Dickinson) is a well-known authority, and has probably a more complete knowledge of the mysteries of franchise and registration than probably anybody in the House. It was an easy task for him to criticise the Bill, but even he, in his criticism, showed that he had not mastered the Bill, and to his criticisms there is a very full answer. Another hon. Member wondered whether the Government in preparing the Bill had consulted with anybody who knew anything about registration or with the practical experts. Yes, they did, and I cannot imagine the hon. Member who asked that question thinking that we should not take all the advice and all the help we could command in the preparation of the Bill. My right hon. Friend criticised the Bill, and what was his, alternative? An hon. Gentleman in another quarter of the House criticised the Bill and said it was a bad Bill. The hon. and gallant Member for Galway City (Captain S. Gwynn) said that this was the worst Bill that has ever been presented to the House of Commons.
If I may be forgiven for saying so, that is all cheap rhetoric, which was very common to our Debates some time ago, but is less common, happily, now than it was in the time of an ordinary Parliament. But it is ineffective and valueless unless it is followed by alternatives which would give the House and the country something better; and that we have not had. We have got a proposal for the enfranchisement of soldiers and sailors, and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Waltham-stow spoke of the enfranchisement of women, and then we have the suggestion of the enfranchisement of munition workers. But what does that mean? That is not registration. That means opening up the whole question of the franchise from beginning to end. Next to a General Election during the War I cannot imagine anything more unworthy of this House and of the country than that we should plunge 1941 into a question of that kind at this moment. My right hon. Friend who advocates giving votes to soldiers and sailors as such draws a distinction between their case and the case of the woman. In the first place, let me say this: Supposing he and I were agreed that that distinction could be drawn, and that the great majority of the House also agreed to that, by no power that Mr. Speaker, who is the greatest authority in this House, has could he prevent those who did not hold that view from pressing their views on this House, and therefore plunging us into debates on women suffrage, and on every branch consequently of the franchise question. That is the only alternative which has been proposed so far to the Government proposals. There has been mention of a shortened term of qualification that would involve an alternative in the franchise, and therefore at once you introduce the question of the enfranchisement of women. I do not think a distinction can be drawn between the enfranchisement of soldiers and sailors and women and other workers, and for these reasons. It is, I dare say, possible, I think it is possible, to draw a distinction between the enfranchisement of soldiers and sailors, those who are fighting for us, and munition workers, and the enfranchisement of women as a simple question, although I do not call it a simple question, as a question as it stood before the War.
What are we asked to do? We are asked to enfranchise soldiers and sailors because of the great sacrifices they have made and are making for us. Who is there who is likely to attempt to deny a proposition of that kind? But if sacrifices is to be the basis of our franchise, or of a special franchise, what of the women who in the Royal Army Medical Corp, and in many other capacities, have taken as great risks and have made as great sacrifices as almost any of our soldiers. I do not think it would be possible to draw this distinction. Therefore, the alternatives proposed so far have been alternatives, not of registration, but of franchise, and to plunge ourselves into that question of the franchise at this time would, I believe, be a criminal act on our part. It is bad enough as it is. This is a very short measure. I need not describe it, as the Prime Minister has done so already. I subscribe, not out of obedience to my chief, but out of entire agreement with his views, to everything that he said.
§ Mr. LONG
I agree with the views which he expressed, and I share them. This Bill has given the Government and those who are responsible for it and my Department a good deal of work. Even this small measure has made demands on the time of Ministers and on the Prime Minister which I think ought not to be made at a time like this. Those of us who have been connected with the preparation of these two measures have had to put other work on one side in order that this should be done. That was necessary and could not be helped. Are you going to make it worse? Think what it would be if you got into the question of franchise with all its peculiarities, and just think of the burden you would throw on the Government and, above all, on the Prime Minister! Whatever attitude the Government might take, and supposing they made up their minds and said "No" to various proposals made to them, they must be present here and must argue the case here, and whoever the Minister in charge might be he would have to refer to the Prime Minister for authority to take certain action, so that the Prime Minister must be available for consultation at a time when all his energies are wanted for other work. He would be called upon to be always available for the settlement of very difficult questions which would arise during Debates in the House. I have been challenged, for of course it is my Department, and the Government have been challenged, to-day for their delay in dealing with this question and for not producing this measure earlier. I want to say quite frankly I take full responsibility for any delay in this matter. It is my duty, as head of the Local Government Board, to advise the head of the Government as to what the practical possibilities are in dealing with the question for which my Department has to be responsible.
What was the condition of things I found when I examined them at the time my hon. Friend the hon. Member for St. Augustine's (Mr. R. McNeill) raised the question, and what is the condition now? There is not a single individual who is connected with the preparation of the register in the country who was not then, and is not now, working full time and overtime at work which is essential in the interests of the country. That was the case when I 1943 set myself to examine the condition of things in the country, and to make up my mind, which it was my duty to do, in order to advise my chief. It was my duty to ascertain whether I could tell him that I thought there was material in the country available for this work if it had to be done. I could not so advise him, and I am not prepared to do so now. On the contrary, I told him, and I said so in this House on more than one occasion, that all the people connected with the work of registration, which as everybody knows is very difficult and very laborious work, were already working overtime. When I was asked the other day what should be the date in this Bill for the completion of the register, after consultation with my advisers and experts, and after expert advice, I came to the conclusion that the 31st May was the very earliest date which could be safely put into the Bill.
We have been criticised in some quarters, and I see the extraordinary proposition advanced that this date has been taken for the register in order to justify the Government in taking longer time for the prolongation of the life of Parliament. It is absolutely ridiculous to make a suggestion of that kind. This date has been taken for the reason I have given because in my opinion it is the earliest time in which it could be worked out. Otherwise you will be adding to the labours of men who were already engaged on work of vital importance. What is that work? They are engaged, for instance, as clerks or members of tribunals. Already the work of the tribunals in many parts of the country is in arrears through no fault of the tribunals, but because of the enormous number of cases, and because of their complexity. Some of them are engaged in work connected with the maintenance and keeping up to date of the National Register. The overseers and assistant overseers, who are the officials who first of all deal with this work, have already work to do in connection with the rates, and they have their ordinary local government duties to perform. In many cases those overseers do not exist, because they have gone to the War or are doing war work; and in many eases, too, there are no clerks to the local authorities because they have gone to the War and other men have taken their places temporarily. In nearly all cases the officials are shorthanded, and places are filled by inexperienced men, and that is the time we are 1944 asked to throw an extra burden on them. It cannot be done unless you are going to interfere with the work which those men are doing and which is vital to the country. It is my duty to represent them and, so far as I can, to protect them in this House. I do not hesitate to say that I will not be a party to consenting to any extra burden being thrown on those men if it can be fairly avoided. I will not do anything, and will not advise my chief to do anything, the result of which would be to force those men to put war work on one side in order to do other work for the preparation of registration, and which would not give them reasonable time and reasonable provision under which a register, not a very good one, but better than the present, can be produced. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for St. Pancras drew a picture—anybody who knows anything about registration could do it—of the town clerk and overseers of St. Pancras and of Glasgow, and he thought that under the Bill the duty would fall on the overseers of Glasgow. I think be is mistaken. The duty, so far as it exists, certainly falls on the overseers of the place where the man has left, and not the place to which he has gone. He has overlooked the fact that we have taken power in Clause 1, Sub-section (3), and the following Sub-sections, to issue the necessary Orders in Council for the machinery for this register.
§ 7.0 P.M.
§ Mr. LONG
I am dealing with the remarks of another right hon. Gentleman. I am dealing solely with the question of how these men are to be got on to the register. There are two ways of getting on. They can go on through the overseers in the ordinary way, but we give them what is very much more important, namely, the right to claim that their names should be inserted either by themselves or by a friend. All that you can really do in an emergency measure of this kind in reason, and all that I think the House ought to ask the Government to do, if I may respectfully say so, is to give to those men who would have had the right to vote had it not been for their patriotic service the right to claim that their vote should be made good in that way. We have done that, and we have also thrown this duty on the overseers. We are criticised, but what is the real cause of the criticism? It is not this Bill; it is 1945 not our proposal. It is the fact that both parties in the State now, for a long period of years, have allowed our laws in this country in regard to registration and other cognate subjects to remain so absurd, cumbersome, and ridiculous that the work cannot be effectively done. We have heard criticism after criticism passed on this Bill to-day. We have been told, "Your register will be no good; it will be incomplete." I should like to ask anybody who has ever made the most cursory examination of our Parliamentary register whether a register in ordinary circumstances is ever complete? Is there any man who will pretend that that is so, and that our register is really made in a satisfactory way? Why, what is the way in which our registers are compiled? You have the assistant overseers in the country outside London. In London you have an infinitely better system. There your town clerk is your overseer, and the whole duty of preparing the register is in central hands. In the country you have a totally different machine. This is the real fault. It is not this Bill. Of course I admit that this Bill is a good peg on which to hang a grievance, but the real truth of the matter is that the system is at fault, and much has to be corrected if you really intend to get better results. I have said, with regard to the general position, that I deny altogether the charges that have been so freely made.
That this scheme is a bad scheme, nobody denies. I go on, and I say that during the War, and until you are able to face the question of reform, you will not get a better scheme. We are talking about a situation when we are really thinking about the reform of our franchise. Until we face that, and deal with it, we shall not get anything better than this. I believe, on the whole, that this scheme is going to work out better than many of our critics anticipate. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Shropshire (Major Hunt) said, in moving terms, "You are going to leave off all these soldiers," or at least, he said, the large majority. I ask anybody who says that how he arrives at that conclusion. I should be very much interested and very grateful to any of my critics who will tell me how they arrive at such a conclusion, because I am sure they would not make such a sweeping statement if they had not behind them some fairly reliable figures to support it. I should be very grateful to anybody who could show 1946 me these figures, for, although I have the assistance of great experts in my Department, I have not been able to form any correct opinion as to the numbers which will be placed on the register. But we have certain information. We know, for instance, the large number of men who have joined the Colours, and who are married, and who come from settled occupations and have homes, and who were either on the register or would have come on in the ordinary way. We know the large number of single men who joined, who were lodgers, and who either were on or who would have come on. My belief is that if this Bill passes into law, and if it is worked with good will and with a desire to make the best out of it, you will find you will get on a very much larger number of sailors and soldiers, and others who have been serving in the War, under its provisions than seems to be contemplated.
§ Major HUNT
Might I ask if there would be any chance of their getting the vote in time to influence the peace terms?
§ Mr. LONG
My hon. and gallant Friend asks me a very difficult question. It is no good my trying to say when peace will come. If I am right, they will get a vote very soon, and the sooner that is so the better I shall be pleased. But, as my hon. and gallant Friend knows, getting a vote and exercising it are two totally different things. As he knows, that is proposed to be dealt with in a different way. I am only dealing with the right to vote, and with getting it.
§ Mr. LONG
I think that number is very near. Many critics have said that this Bill will not do anything, that it will not put any number on, and that it will not work. I say that it is a makeshift measure, but I have heard nothing to-day from anyone putting on one side the question of the enfranchisement of soldiers which leads me to believe that anybody in this House has got a better alternative suggestion than this. It is a most ungrateful and distasteful task to have to appear to offer any opposition to the enfranchisement of those who have made this supreme sacrifice for us and who are fighting so gallantly for us on sea and on land, and who also are working for us so hard, because, although I agree that there is no comparison to be made in actual sacrifice between the men working at home and 1947 those fighting in the trenches, yet there are hundreds, and I expect thousands, of men egaged in different forms of work at home who have been kept at work, in many cases not from their desire and against their desire, under an arrangement made by which it was thought desirable to keep men at home for certain purposes connected with certain works. It is a most ungrateful task to appear to be deaf to the questions raised about these men. I am no authority on this question at all, and have no right even to do more than to quote the opinion of those whom I have consulted. But I have consulted more than one distinguished officer, and they have told me, without exception, that as to the practical difficulty of holding an election at the front that is not a matter for them; they know nothing about it, and they are not concerned. But they have told me, without exception, that they would view with the greatest concern and anxiety any attempt to hold a contested election with any party feeling and with all those troubles that exist here, amongst the Army whilst it is occupied in fighting in France. I only say this because other opinions have been quoted, and I think it is fair that opinions should be quoted on both sides. I do not take refuge behind that opinion alone, although as an ordinary civilian I entirely share it. I hope the House will realise that it is not because the Government do not feel the debt they owe to these men, and that there is nothing that we are not willing to do for these men in order to show how real and sincere our feelings are. It is only because we believe that, as practical proposals possible to Parliament for the time being, the one we have made is the only one that can be justified.
Might I just say this word. Suggestions have been made as to the future. Well, I may be allowed to say that I stand here as an old Conservative, and so far as I know I have never concealed my opinions nor have I been afraid to defend them when necessary. But I believe that to-day to a large extent—I cannot say how far but to a large extent—the old shibboleths are dead. I believe that this War will have refined our people to an extent that none of us can realise or appreciate at the moment, and I think it will be not only distasteful but impossible to revert, during our time at least, to those conditions which obtained when we fought and 1948 squabbled about things which seem so far away and so small to-day; and when, in order that we might win a particular seat, we paid men to keep men off the register in order that our friends might get on. It seems, to my mind, that these days can never return. I belong, at any rate in age, to an older generation, and I cannot and do not expect to take any active part in public affairs very much longer. I have had my full turn. It may be said, "Oh, it is all very well for an old thing like you to talk like that, but what of the younger men who have their thoughts and aspirations?" I say that I believe that those who are to be the men of the future, the men who are to make a greater Empire and to keep the land we love, will find plenty of work to do congenial to them without having to take refuge in these tawdry questions over which some of us have wasted some of the best years of our lives.
But certain principles must remain. Take these questions that we have been debating to-day. The House has found fault with the Bill, and has criticised the Government. But the fault is not with the Government or the Bill, but with the law of the country as it stands owing to the refusal of this House and previous Houses and previous Parliaments to face these questions and to deal with them as they ought to have been dealt with But, there are three main principles on which we can agree. We all wish that there should be fair and reasonable representation of the people, and that there shall be a reasonable distribution of political power having regard to the people and their interests. We all desire that there shall be good and efficient machinery for securing to the people their rights. Is it not ludicrous that under our registration law up to a particular day in July you can make a claim, but if you do not get a vote then you will not get one for eighteen months or two years? How much better is the Canadian system, which has a continuous register, and where the work is done by registration officials? I have no right to speak in these matters on behalf of anybody but myself, but it has been suggested that we ought to send this Bill to a Select Committee. I do not think that that would really be a practicable proposal. I hope that the House will pass the Bill, not because they love it, or perhaps I should say, because they like it so well that they will be glad to see the end of it! I hope they will pass it. I believe 1949 the Bill will turn out very much better than the critics think. There are some who have been listening to this Debate to-day, not on these benches, but looking on, and they have said to me that much of the criticism that has been offered is without foundation, and that the Bill, on the whole, will work very well. My hope is that the House will pass this Bill. Let us pass it, and make the best of it, and then set ourselves to find a solution of these greater questions.
I myself believe that if we agreed amongst ourselves, and the Government offered any assistance which they could, and which, I believe, they would gladly do, to set up—I will not say a Committee, because that is not exactly what I mean— but a representative conference, not only of parties, but of groups, a conference which would really represent opinion on these three subjects: electoral reform, revision of your electoral power when you have got it, and registration, I believe— and I do not speak altogether out of books—that such a conference of earnest men, holding strong views, bitterly opposed to each other, if they were face to face with these difficulties, when we are all longing with a great longing to see something of a better prospect for our country in the future, would produce an agreed system for all three questions upon which the great mass of opinion of the people of this country could come together. How easy, then, would be the work of Parliament? These differences having been removed, this Bill having been passed, the necessary legislation could be put through in a very short time, then you would, I think, once the War is over, and peace returns, have as a result of the labours of practical men a machine which would give them the power which they will be entitled to have. As my right hon. Friend says, you would make them a gift, not a barren one, but a real one, and provide them also with the opportunities and the machinery by which they could record their votes, and so add to the services they have already rendered to their country by giving to it the invaluable privilege of their votes and opinions as to the future of the Empire which they have done so much to serve. I believe that a conference such as I have suggested would have a great result. I hope that in the short time during which Parliament is released from its duties we shall all turn our attention to this question. If my hon. Friends in any quarter of this House, or outside of 1950 this House, were to invite me to help to get together such a conference I would do it with the utmost pleasure. I believe that is the way in which we are more likely to find a solution to these problems than any other plan of which I have yet heard. It was recommended by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Stockport in a speech lie made, as being put forward either in public or private by many of those who-have given time and attention to this question. I venture to say to the House it is our duty, one and all, not to criticise the Government or to find fault with this Bill, but to set ourselves to find a solution which may be a lasting settlement of a very old and difficult problem.
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
In the course of the latter portion of his eloquent speech, to which the House listened with much pleasure, the right hon. Gentleman accused those who had taken part in the Debate of not facing facts. Is the Government facing facts? Have the Government faced the facts of this question now before us? First of all, let me ask the right hon. Gentleman, Has he yet faced the fact that it is quite impossible for this Bill to be regarded as an agreed Bill? The course of the Debate must, at any rate, have made that fact plain to him. So far as I have heard the Debate—and I have listened during nearly the whole of its course— almost every speaker, consciously or unconsciously, avowedly or by accident, has condemned the measure for which the House is now asked to vote. The right hon. Gentleman himself was no exception to this general rule. He told us he agreed with the Prime Minister. This is what he now says to us: That Bill is an unseaworthy Bill, an illogical Bill, a bad Bill, a Bill, as the hon. Member behind said, for setting up a bogus register—all these defects, all these evils! Therefore what? Therefore pass it! Pass it at once. Pass it with scarcely any study. Pass it with very little discussion. But pass it with general acclamation! Surely, Sir, when measures of consequence are put forward in such a very half-hearted fashion, and with such evident lack of conviction behind them, those who make themselves responsible for them should not blame the House if it asks for reasonable time and opportunity, and if it declines to pass propositions of this character without reasonable time and opportunity for considering them. There is no reason whatever, as has been said repeatedly during this Debate, why we 1951 should have been placed in this position. The Government have no right to come to us and say that this measure is urgent because of the immense delay, without any purpose, which has placed us in our present position. I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman why he wants this Bill? I listened very carefully to his speech, and to the speech of the Prime Minister, and I could not discern in any of those utterances anything which showed the use to which they proposed to put this measure.
First of all the Prime Minister pointed out in the most eloquent and powerful manner that it would be absolutely absurd to use a measure like this to elect a great Parliament of reconstruction. That is not to be thought of, and when the Prime Minister had demolished the utility of this register for a reconstruction Parliament the right hon. Gentleman, with not less vigour, demolished its utility in regard to a war Parliament, any war Parliament, be cause he said: "It is unthinkable that there should be a General Election in time of war." So it is not to be used for a reconstruction Parliament, nor for a war Parliament, nor what then is it to be used? Why has the right hon. Gentleman burdened the harassed officials he told us about? He spoke about his time being abstracted from his vital war work, which, he says, absorbs him. After all, can he find any practical use for this Bill? He believes in his heart it is wholly unsuited to serve as a basis for any practicable political operations. The right hon. Gentleman was extremely frank—in fact, I hesitate to use such an expression about a Minister so universally respected in this House, but I really bad almost said that he was indecently frank. What did the right hon. Gentleman give as his reason for bringing in this Bill? We want, he said, to get a prolongation of Parliament. He said there was a general feeling in the House, and not confined to one House only—
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
Not confined to one party only! Possibly my addition may after all not be incorrect. Not confined to one party only, and possibly not confined 1952 to one House only. There was a very strong feeling that the register ought to be put in working order before Parliament was committed to a new prolongation of its own life. The right hon. Gentleman said that. He said, if I understood him, that he had to give way to that strong feeling, so that really as a matter of fact this Bill is introduced by the Government—this unseaworthy, illogical, bad Bill—is introduced by the Government under duress. Left to themselves they would never have introduced it. Can anybody doubt, having heard the speech of the right hon. Gentleman, that left to themselves the Government would never have introduced this Bill, or that the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues at the present moment are only doing it reluctantly and under duress? I am one of those who think that the register ought to be put in order, but I must say that I believe the Government would gain power and weight if they acted up to their convictions. If you really believe that the business of setting up this register is injurious, if that be your opinion, and has been your opinion all the time, would it not have been better to have said so boldly and to have faced the consequences? The burden of the right hon. Gentleman's whole argument was designed to show the disadvantages of the course which the Government has adopted because the House is placed under duress in the matter. I really think the right hon. Gentleman, and other of his colleagues, would really find their paths easier if they were bolder and simpler, and prepared to take the consequences of honest opinion — whatever the consequences of that opinion might be. The line of least resistance is not always to be found by the avoidance of difficulties. The latter part of the speech of the right hon. Gentleman was designed to show, I think, that the circumstances of the present time may be very favourable to much larger resolutions than those within the scope of this Bill.
I heard with the greatest sympathy, as doubtless did hon. Members in other parts of the House, and with the feeling that the right hon. Gentleman was expressing true views when he said that the petty party questions of former days are, during the continuance of this great struggle, dead, and consequently the whole series of solutions for questions of the franchise and registration which are not open at any time of party strife are now within the range of practical politics. I know the 1953 arguments of over-burdened Ministers, of war-burdened Ministers. I hope, however, the House will not take that too much for granted. I have seen a good deal of the Government both in peace time and in war time. There are a great many Ministers in the Government whose work during the War is much lighter than it was in time of peace. The War Committee have, no doubt, most absorbing duties, and so have the great executive officers. The right hon. Gentleman, too, has very arduous work. But on the whole the work of the ordinary Minister, not directly engaged in the War, during this War, has been much less than it was in time of peace, when hotly contested measures were going through Parliament, when Sessions were almost continuous, and sittings prolonged night after night, and far into the night. I do not think the House will for one moment accept the statement that the Government have not the mental resources available to make a very sincere and earnest attempt to settle the problems which lie before us. We are told that local officials, the overseers, will be overburdened, and that those who have to prepare this register will be overburdened. It is possible, however, as my right hon. Friend has suggested, that with a simplification of qualification that burden might be greatly lightened, and might be lightened to such an extent that the whole process of forming the register might be accelerated. It is said that Parliament is overburdened. The Prime Minister said what a shocking thing it would be to draw the attention of the House and the country off the War; hut surely it is hardly reasonable to say that sort of thing on the eve of the House of Commons going away for six or seven weeks' holiday.
After all, these questions which lie before us are very great questions. If they could be settled in a satisfactory manner they would be an inestimable boon to this country, and if this hour should be apt and ripe for the settlement, if, in spite of the fact that the War is going on, the conditions of the party truce at home render the passage of these measures easy and possible, surely we ought not to let this chance slip by, perhaps for ever. The right hon. Gentleman will, I am sure, find that an earnest effort made by a united Government with real guidance and leadership would enable, without undue labour or loss of time or friction, a much happier solution to be reached upon these 1954 questions than any provided by this Bill. It is necessary sometimes to face difficulties. What is the attitude which the Government have adopted? They recoil from everything. They discuss this matter in their conclaves and find difficulty in coming to a decision, and so they postpone it. The House of Commons demands a decision, and so they go back again to face the difficulty. Then they come down and suggest a Committee. That is not acceptable, and they go back and face the difficulty from which they previously recoiled. So we come to this measure, and we are told that if there are difficulties in the passage of this measure it will be postponed. The Government should govern and its leaders should lead. They should have a conviction, and a strong one. It need not be a conviction which carries with it everybody else's conviction in every quarter, but if the spirit of conviction animated their action they could say, "That is what we are going to do, and if you do not like it, get someone else to do it." This would get them a position very quickly here and in the country which would render the solving of these problems, which now seem to them so difficult, and which are difficult, so long as they are approached in a niggling fashion, very much easier of solution.
Take this question of what is called facilities for soldiers' votes. I am just as hostile to a General Election as the right hon. Gentleman or anybody else on that bench in time of war. There is a universal feeling that it would be a deplorable event if it should occur; but it might occur. It might be forced upon us, as has been repeatedly pointed out and admitted. It might be forced upon us by a break-up of the Coalition Government in one of those recurring crises. It might be forced upon us by great personal differences in the Administration. It might be forced upon us by the House of Commons withdrawing its confidence in the Government. It might be forced upon us by the House of Lords refusing to prolong the life of Parliament or refusing some indispensable measure. If an election did come, although it is an event which ought to be avoided by every possible means—and it would be one of the greatest misfortunes if such an election did come during the course of the War—is it not perfectly clear that the soldiers who are fighting our battles ought not to be excluded? We are not now considering at all the question of an election; 1955 we are considering the question of placing our Parliamentary and political machinery in working order, so that if an election were forced upon us the supreme means of settling constitutional questions should not be denied to the people of this country. If that is so, why should the Government so hastily dismiss the means by which soldiers could be enabled to record their vote? The Prime Minister has conceded the principle already of soldiers recording their votes, and of soldiers recording their votes when in a position of danger and in possible contact with the enemy. The soldiers in the East Coast garrison towns and fortresses are liable to attack at any moment from the sea, and those towns have been bombarded. While the Prime Minister is perfectly ready to concede a machinery—he has promised it to my right hon. Friend—which shall enable those soldiers to record their votes, at the same time we are told it is an absurdity to suggest that men who happen to be the other side of the Channel in France should have similar rights and facilities. The objections to persons under military discipline recording their votes and taking part in elections are no greater in regard to the Army abroad than they are to the Army serving at home— [HON. MEMBERS dissented]—in principle.
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
Then let the practice be extended. I hope hon. Gentlemen will consider the matter patiently, because it is a very important matter indeed. I say that the Prime Minister has conceded the principle of large numbers of soldiers under military discipline in this country, where they are in contact with political influences of various kinds, recording their votes at an election, should an election come, and I contend that to go a step further and to say that soldiers who are serving in France, if the circumstances render it possible, should also record their votes, is no difference of principle. Let us see whether in practice it would be a great difficulty. I am speaking all the time on the basis that it is extremely undesirable to have an election during war time, and every resource of the Constitution must be resorted to so as to avoid it, but, if you have an election, soldiers must vote, and if soldiers vote no distinction can be proved between the man who is in danger abroad and the man in safety at 1956 home—certainly not an invidious distinction. A great exaggeration of view prevails as to the difficulty of getting soldiers to vote when they are in the trenches or in the fighting zone. I know what I am talking about in this matter, and I am certain there are other Members in the House with experience of the Service abroad, who are fresh from France, who know perfectly well that the difficulties are largely illusory and greatly exaggerated of the mere mechanical process of collecting the votes of, we will say, a battalion of Infantry in the field. Why there is no organisation in the world so complete as the organisation by which a military unit is maintained. If an officer commanding a battalion were asked in the morning for the most minute details as to men in the battalion, which required the filling up of papers and forms, by nightfall they would all be in.
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
There would not be the slightest difference. Of course, there are objections, but there are objections to electing a Parliament and excluding enormous classes of men so deserving of enfranchisement. I believe that if a fortnight's latitude were allowed to the commanding officers of ships and battalions to take the polling, the actual process itself would not take more than a few hours, and would not be the cause of the slightest inconvenience or injury to the Service in any way, nor be the least detrimental to discipline, because the disciplinary powers possessed are so overwhelming, so efficient, so effective, that nothing like disorder or want of discipline would occur. The House would make the greatest mistake to deride this matter. I am not in the least disturbed by; an attitude of derision with regard to it. Of course, opinions naturally differ, but what my right hon. Friend has asked for is, not that this matter shall be decided by the House, but that it shall not be brushed aside as unworthy of discussion and be regarded as so absurb and ridiculous as not to be treated of in Parliament at the proper opportunity, and that we are to make up our minds quite willingly to create a register, which may be the basis of the election of a Parliament, from which the whole of this great body of men should be excluded. In all these things you have a choice of courses, to each of which there is objection, and in 1957 this case the balance of objection lies far more on the side of those who wish to create a register to the exclusion of the soldiers than it does on the side of those who are making an effort to see whether the practical and admitted difficulties cannot in some way or another be solved, just as they have been solved and adjusted in other great crises of the history of the world. The right hon. Gentleman must not look forward to a smooth passage for his Bill. Certainly it seems to me a measure which requires most careful detailed examination in Committee. I do not see in the least why, when the Government have not their hearts in the measure, do not believe in it themselves, abuse it in language hardly Parliamentary, deride their own measure like they did the proposal for a Committee, they have any right to expect Parliament to subscribe cheerfully to all the anomalies, all the unseaworthiness, and all the, illogicalities which the Prime Minister and the Secretary to the Local Government Board declare there are in this measure.
§ Sir H. MEUX
It seems to me my misfortune to have to disagree with the right hon. and gallant Member. He said just now that he did not see any practical difficulties in giving the vote to sailors at sea during the War. I think the difficulties are absolutely insuperable. How long is it between the decision to have an election and the election? [HON. MEMBERS: "Six weeks!"] What is going to happen during those six weeks? Will not the soldiers and sailors all that time be fussed about by politicians who want their votes? Of course I except the hon. Member for Shropshire (Major Hunt), for he is the most honest man in the House. As for the speeches which have been made to-day, how do you think they will be read in the trenches and on the ships? Do those speakers imagine that their speeches will make them more popular in the future? Without any hesitation at all I say that I believe the leading admirals, if this proposal is put to them, would say, "No, certainly not." What does General Haig say about it? Are we allowed to know that? [An HON. MEMBER: "Not yet!"] But those on the Treasury Bench know. I feel very uncomfortable in opposing, not only the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Dundee (Mr. Churchill), but also the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Dublin University (Sir E. Carson), whose 1958 felicity of phrase and modulation of tone leaves me overcome. I feel towards him like a very bad admiral felt in regard to a very distinguished person of whom he said, "You remember what Mark Antony thought about Brutus." I think the same about the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Dublin University, for if ever there was a gallant and honourable Brutus it is he.
Since I have been in the House there are two subjects which are on the tapis: one is that there is a large body, but by no means a majority, of Members in this House who think the way to win this War is to get rid of the Solomon at the head of this Government. I say "Solomon" because I do not think there is any hon. Member who will deny that he is by far the cleverest man in this House. But we must remember, when Solomon left this world, who succeeded him. It was Rehoboam, who broke up the old Hebrew Empire. Who is going to step into the right hon. Gentleman's shoes and break up this Empire? Is that a question you are going to ask the Army? Are they going to vote on that subject? The only question they are very anxious about at the front now is the attempts of various ecclesiastics and other well-meaning people to stop their grog. Are you going to have a General Election on that? I do not propose to say anything now in favour of our soldiers and sailors, but I hope you all know what I think of them. I wish to repeat once more that, seriously speaking, to think of having a General Election for our troops abroad or our sailors at sea, to my mind would be absolutely fatal, and if this House was foolish enough to adopt that scheme we deserve to lose the War.
§ Commander BELLAIRS
I think the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board commanded the general assent of the House when he said that party calls and party ties have died down during this war. Where I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman is in regard to what he said when he dealt with the question of a General Election during the War. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Dundee showed that circumstances might arise under which a General Election may be forced upon us by causes over which the Government and this House have no control. The whole object of criticising this Bill is to prepare the electorate for that General Election. I cannot agree with those who 1959 say that it will be impossible to take the votes of the soldiers and the sailors. On this point I do not agree with my hon. and gallant Friend (Sir H. Meux). I think our soldiers and sailors who have had their minds concentrated on this war more than any other body of men, are more entitled to a vote even during the War than anybody else if a General Election should take place. Nor do I see any difficulty about the machinery or any interference with discipline. It only requires the good will of the candidates to arrange that their election addresses shall go in the same envelope, and that no General Election literature should be sent to soldiers and sailors. If there is that good will on the part of the candidates there will be no question of any interference with the discipline of the soldiers and sailors by the fact of their voting.
I had not intended to intervene in this Debate and should not have done so but for the fact that I was called out during the Debate by the representatives of an important section of the organisation amongst women to repudiate the statement made by the Prime Minister. First, let me say that I entirely disagree myself with the view that if you are going to give the vote to the soldiers and sailors you thereby drag in the question of women's suffrage as well. Because you do a fair measure of justice to those who have risked their lives—and all sections of soldiers risk their lives who go to the front, whether they are in the Army Service Corps or in any other section—it does not follow that you must at the same time bring in the women. I am sure the women would repudiate the idea that you should necessarily bring them in because you give the vote to soldiers and sailors. The quotation from the Prime Minister's speech, which I have had brought to my notice and which is repudiated by this very important section of women, is as follows:I have received a great many representations from those who are authorised to speak for them, and I am bound to say that they presented to me not only a reasonable but, I think, from their point of view, an unanswerable ease. They say they are perfectly content, if we do not change the qualification of the franchise, to abide by the existing state of things, but that if we are going to bring in a new class of electors, on whatever ground of State service, they point out— and we cannot possibly deny their claim—that during this War the women of this country have rendered as effective service in the prosecution of the War as any other class of the commtvmty,"— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th August, 1916, col. 1451.]1960 I have been authorised on the part of the Women's Social and Political Union, with whom I have always differed in the past, to say that they repudiate that statement altogether made by the Prime Minister. They express the utmost anxiety that the soldiers and sailors should be given the vote, and the statement I have made I am authorised to make by Mrs. Pankhurst on behalf of the Women's Social and Political Union, who, after all, brought this question of women's franchise to the forefront, however much we may differ from their methods. They authorise me to say that they will not allow themselves to be used to prevent soldiers and sailors from being given the vote.
§ The SECRETARY of STATE for the COLONIES (Mr. Bonar Law)
The Prime Minister has left the House within the last half hour, but he has asked me to say on behalf of the Government, and I think the whole House will agree, that the Debate has shown that it is really no use whatever trying to proceed with the Committee stage before the Adjournment, and we do not propose to do so. I am not going to take any part in the discussion except to say with reference to what has been said by my hon. Friend who has just eat down, that what seems obvious to us we cannot help thinking must seem obvious to others, but unfortunately they do not always take that view. What the Government have to consider in framing a register is not what in itself may be right for the time being, but whether or not it can be carried through the House without fighting, and without that kind of thing which everyone should try to avoid at a time like this. That is our whole consideration. It is not a question of what any of us would wish. My right hon. Friend the Member for Dundee pointed out what the Prime Minister himself had said and its effect, but nobody denies it. May I point out that neither the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Dundee nor anyone else offered any alternative except one which would mean, in my opinion, raising the whole question of the suffrage at this time, which would, to my belief, be one of the most absurd things that could be done. I am almost tempted to enter into this discussion, but I do not wish to do so. I think it is obvious that we cannot proceed further, and I hope the House will give this Bill a Second Reading. I also think that the House should give a Second Beading to 1961 the Bill for extending the life of Parliament. We shall not ask the House to go beyond the Second Reading to-night, and to-morrow in Committee the points which require to be cleared up can be dealt with. I hope now that the House will agree to give us the Second Readings of these two Bills.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House for To-morrow.— [Mr. Bea.]