§ [SECOND READING.]
§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ THE FIRST COMMISSIONER OF WORKS (EARL BEAUCHAMP)
My Lords, this is a small Bill, and I think it will be better if I say something of the history with regard to it before explaining its actual provisions. When originally introduced the Bill was a good deal more ambitious in character than it is at the present time. It was not only compulsory, but applied to all local government elections as well as to Parliamentary elections. In this condition it passed its Second Reading and also through Standing Committee in another place, but when it was discussed upon the Report Stage in the whole House an Amendment was introduced limiting it to a considerable extent. Your Lordships will see that it now applies only to Parliamentary elections, and it does not apply at all unless a duly nominated candidate requests that it may apply to that particular election.
There are many differences and diversities between the character of one constituency and another. While there are a great many constituencies in which the voters live all round the polling booths, there are suburban constituencies which the voters leave early in the morning, soon after the polling booths are opened, and return not more than an hour before the polling booths close, and there is apt to be a great rush at the last moment. In the latter constituencies there may be good reason for making the hours longer which would not be the case in regard to the former constituencies. It is interesting to notice in the case of constituencies of the second character to which I have referred how very large a proportion of the electors record their votes late at night—something like 50 per cent. of them vote within the last two hours. The next most popular hour for voting is the earliest hour of the day. Therefore it really does seem as if there was a real demand for discriminating between the two classes of constituencies, and allowing further facilities in the one class to the electors to record their votes earlier in the morning and later in the evening. Then your Lordships will see that the extension of the hours for polling is only to apply at the request of a duly nominated candidate, and it is obvious that any candidate who made this request unnecessarily would 700 incur an unpopularity which might lose him a certain number of votes. We therefore think it unlikely that a candidate would ask for this extension unless there was a very real ground for it.
This power of extension already exists in regard to most local government elections. The Local Government Act, 1894, for instance, gave the Local Government Board power in the case of rural and urban district council and parish council elections to extend the polling hours, either allowing the booths to be opened earlier in the morning or to remain open until a later hour at night. There was a case only this year in Finchley, where the polling booths 'for the urban district council election were kept open until nine o'clock at night under a Provisional Order made, I think, a good many years ago by the Local Government Board. It is also possible in the case of elections to boards of guardians for the polling booths to remain open until ten o'clock at night. Therefore your Lordships will see that this Bill only extends to Parliamentary elections a privilege which is already enjoyed by voters at local government elections.
This Bill was originally introduced as a private Member's Bill, but now that it has been subjected to scrutiny at the hands of the official draftsman it is thought that further Amendments are desirable in order to make its provisions perfectly clear. There is, for instance, some little doubt as to what "duly nominated candidate" means; and we know how easy it is for lawyers to pick holes in phrases which are not perfectly clear. The word "agent" and the words "after his nomination" are also in need of amendment. Consequently, if your Lordships are good enough to give a Second Reading to the Bill, I propose to move rather extensive Amendments; and I think it might be more desirable that the Bill should be taken through Committee pro forma, and that I should make these Amendments on Report., and then that the Bill should be re-committed—a procedure not unknown in this House, and one which is very convenient in cases of this kind. I hope your Lordships will allow me to take this course. The Bill will then be printed in the form which His Majesty's Government think desirable, and it will be easier to make further Amendments if any of your Lordships desire to do so.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Earl Beauchamp.)701
§ LORD ST. AUDRIES
My Lords, I am certain that none of my noble friends on this side of the House will vote against the Second Reading of this Bill. But I must enter a protest against the practice of bringing ill these small electoral measures—there is this measure extending the hours of polling, and a measure will reach your Lordships from the other House before long dealing with the subject of plural voting—when the better course would have been to bring in the long promised and long overdue Bill to deal with the franchise, redistribution, and everything else. As regards the general principle of the Bill now before us, I agree with the noble Earl that there are two classes of constituencies to be considered. There is the constituency which is close to the polling places and polls easily, and there is the constituency which polls with difficulty either because of its size or because a large number of the electors work at a distance from home. In the latter case every facility should he given to the electors to record their votes.
But there are other considerations. There is a certain class of people in this country who always put off everything to the last moment. Some people are always late for trains, others are always late for church, and there is an abominable class who are always late for dinner; and from long experience as a candidate I can assure your Lordships that if the hours of polling were extended to eleven o'clock or even to midnight there would always be a certain number of voters who would be late. Where the working-classes have difficulty in recording their votes during the present hours of polling I would gladly give them extended facilities, but when you come to small constituencies of 4,000 or 5,000 electors it is quite unnecessary to keep the poll open during the hours proposed. The presiding officer is pretty hard worked now. He and his staff have to be in their place at half-past seven in the morning, half an hour before the polling booth opens, and they are compelled to remain until half-past eight at night. Where you have a big constituency these gentlemen, of course, would have to put up with the extra work, but in the case of a small constituency I do not believe that it is necessary to extend the hours.
There is another objection. An extension of the hours of polling would mean 702 that the result of the election would be declared very late at eight, and the later the declaration is delayed the more likely you are to have scenes of disorder. I do not think the extension should be made at the request of a candidate, because it is obvious that if one candidate expressed a desire that the hours of polling should be extended the other candidate would be bound to agree or he would be accused of wanting to disfranchise electors. This Bill, if passed, should, I suggest, be limited to large constituencies of 10,000 electors and upwards. I am just as anxious as the Government that working men should be given an opportunity of recording their votes, but an extension of the present hours is not required in other than large constituencies. I hope that before the Committee stage is taken the noble Earl in charge of the Bill will consider the points I have raised.
§ LORD HAVERSHAM
My Lords, if this Bill is adopted in its present form I am afraid that it will land us in a predicament. The first clause provides that when a duly nominated candidate or his agent has given notice in writing on the day of and immediately after nomination to the returning officer that he wishes this Bill to apply at such election, then the poll shall commence at seven o'clock in the morning and be kept open until nine o'clock in the evening of the same clay. But suppose the candidate on the other side certifies to the returning officer that he desires that the hours should not be extended. To which of the two would be given the choice? It appears to me to be entirely wrong to give to one man the power of extending the hours of polling in the way proposed. It ought to be limited to large constituencies—which I do not think is so good a plan—or else the candidate ought to be required to be supported in his request by a certain number of the electors. If this Bill passes in its present form a candidate may extend the polling in his constituency at his own sweet will. That would not be allowed even in the case of an election in a London club. I think we ought to require a backing of a considerable number of the electors before any extension is made.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE
My Lords, I only rise for the purpose of saving that the course which the noble Earl in charge of the Bill suggests seems to us to be 703
entirely advisable. I understand that he will insert the Government Amendments in the Bill and then re-commit it for the purpose of discussion. I have no doubt he will consider the observations which have been made by my noble friend behind me and by the noble Lord on the Back Bench opposite, both of whom speak with authority upon all subjects connected with elections. The only suggestion that occurs to me is much less far-reaching. Under the Bill I understand that at the request of the candidate or his agent the polling hours may be extended so that instead of the poll remaining open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. it may remain open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Might it not be possible to add a little elasticity to the arrangement by permitting any extension within those limits—I mean, for example, an extension 704 which would leave the poll open, say from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. or from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Perhaps the noble Earl will consider that point before the Bill comes up again.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House To-morrow.