Orders of the Day — Representation of the People Act (1918) Amendment Bill

– in the House of Commons on 8th May 1925.

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Order for Second Reading read

Photo of Mr Gervais Rentoul Mr Gervais Rentoul , Lowestoft

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

The general principle of this Bill is one which I am glad to believe must commend itself to all parties in this House, and it is, therefore, unlikely to arouse those storms of controversy and party feeling that are the natural and inevitable fate of most Measures that come before this House. All that this Bill attempts to do is to remedy a serious defect in our present electoral machinery owing to which thousands, and possibly hundreds of thousands, of persons are debarred, through no fault of their own but simply by reason of their various occupations taking them frequently away from their homes, from taking part in Parliamentary and local government elections. No matter what our political views may be, all of us who believe in constitutional, democratic government desire to stimulate and encourage the largest proportion possible of the electorate to express their opinion one way or the other at election time. and we must all realise that a somewhat deplorable amount of apathy, indifference, and lack of interest does prevail at the present time among all classes of the population

This is amply proved if one takes the trouble to examine the percentages of the voting at recent important Parliamentary and local government elections. Take, for instance, the last three elections for the London County Council. I find that last March only 30 per cent. of the electorate took the trouble to vote at all; in 1922 the proportion was 36 per cent. only, and in 1919 it was as low as 16 per cent. When one examines what has happened at General Elections, although the position is somewhat better, it certainly leaves ample room for improvement. In 1918 only 58 per cent. of the electorate of this country voted. No doubt that was due, to some extent, to the large number of men who were absent at that time overseas. In 1922, '75 per cent. of the electorate voted; in 1923, 74 per cent.; and last time, I think, the highest percentage on record, 80 per cent. of the electorate voted, and it is perhaps somewhat interesting to remember that just as this was the highest percentage of the electorate voting, you had the most satisfactory result. One may infer from these figures that this political apathy and want of interest is not confined to the supporters of any one political party or to any class of the community, or, indeed, one may say, to any democratic country, because, apparently, other countries where they have a widely-extended franchise have met with exactly the same difficulty. They have endeavoured to cope with it, for instance, in Holland and Belgium by introducing a system of compulsory voting and making any elector who fails to vote without reasonable excuse liable to fines or other penalties. We should all regret if it became necessary to introduce any such system into this country, because one must realise that it is a serious reflection on that feeling of responsibility which we would like to believe appertains to every citizen

I do not suggest for a moment that this Bill would provide a cure for that state of affairs, but I do suggest that it would certainly do something to improve it materially. It is quite true that there is already, as the House knows, machinery in existence for dealing with absent voters, but that machinery is, in my submission, totally inadequate, for reasons which I will endeavour to point out in a moment. Before doing so, however, perhaps I may be permitted to remind the House how the law on this subject at present stands. By Section 16 of the First Schedule of the Representation of the People Act, 1918, it is provided as follows; Any person entitled to be registered as a Parliamentary elector may, not later than the 18th day of February where the claim is for the spring register, and the 18th day of August where the claim is for the autumn register, claim to be placed on the absent voters list; and the registration officer, if satisfied that there is a probability that the claimant, by reason of the nature of his occupation, service, or employment, may be debarred from voting at a poll at parliamentary elections held during the time the register is in force, shall place the claimant (if registered) on the absent voters list. That procedure has two very serious defects, from the point of view of the elector who desires to avail himself of that machinery. In the first place, the claim to be placed on the absent voters list has to be made every six months. At the end of each six months it automatically terminates unless a fresh application is put forward, and, of course, that imposes a burden on the elector which many people are far too indifferent to carry, and, consequently, they are allowed to slip off the list. The second objection to the present machinery is that it leaves an unfettered discretion to the registration officer as to whether he considers that the applicant's occupation or employment is such as should entitle him to be treated as an absent voter, and I am told that many registration officers in different parts of the country have taken extremely arbitrary views of what is meant by the nature of the occupation, service, or employment. Then, if the claimant succeeds, his claim lasts for only six months, and that this does constitute a defect is proved by the fact that in 1920 it was found necessary for an Amending Order to be brought into force. That Amending Order applied only to fishermen and merchant seamen and others of that class, but by reason of that Amending Order they were exempted from renewing this periodical claim to be placed on the absent voters list. If that was found necessary in the case of fishermen and merchant seamen, I would submit that it is also necessary in the case of other classes of persons who are specified in this Bill

In a word, this Bill proposes to take away from the registration officers the very wide discretion which they at present have, and it lays it down that, if an elector follows one of the specified avocations mentioned in the Bill, then he has an absolute right, should he so desire, to be treated as an absent voter and placed on the absent voters list. The only discretion that would remain to the registration officer would be that he would necessarily have to satisfy himself as to thebond fidesand the veracity of the claims that were put forward, but, once he has done that, then automatically he is bound to place the persons, at their own request, on the absent voters' list. These specified occupations are set out in Clause 2, Subsection (2) of the Bill. I pass over for the moment Clause 1 and Clause 2, Sub-sec tion (1), because the only purpose of those is to assimilate the practice that has prevailed up to now in regard to Parliamentary elections, or which will prevail should this Bill pass into law, with what has to take place at local government elections; in other words, to place the machinery of local government elections and parliamentary elections in this respect on exactly the same footing. Coming to Sub-section (2) of Clause 2, it proposes that Any person who is registered as a parliamentary or local government elector and who is—

  1. (i)in service as a merchant seaman, pilot or fisherman, including the master of a merchant ship or fishing boat and an apprentice in such ship or boat;
  2. (ii)a commercial traveller
  3. (iii)a member of a travelling theatrical company;
  4. (iv)a railway guard, engine-driver or stoker; or
  5. (v)habitually engaged in an employment which compels him to be away from his place of residence for a period of not less than ten days in each month."
Those are the classes provided for by the Bill. I can assure the House, from personal knowledge and experience, that this is an important matter to a large number of persons in this country. In my constituency, I have a very substantial number of fishermen, and, over and over again, they have made complaint to me that they are utterly debarred from voting, because it practically always happens that when the elections come on —and I would remind the House that recent general elections have always taken place in the winter, a most important time of the year for the fishing industry —they are always out at sea, and are unable to avail themselves of the privilege of voting. The same thing, I am assured, occurs in regard to commercial travellers, another very numerous class. I frankly admit that it is very difficult to ascertain exact figures of the number of persons who would be affected by this Bill, but I am told by the Secretary of the United Commercial Travellers' Association of Great Britain and Ireland, that there are 35,000 commercial travellers who are recognised as eligible for membership of that Association. Undoubtedly, there are many many thousands of fishermen. With regard to railwaymen — railway guards, engine drivers and stokers — again, they must be a very numerous class, though, possibly, other hon. Mem- hers who take part in this Debate may be in a better position than I am to estimate the exact figures. Then there are the other classes, the travelling theatrical companies and the other occupations mentioned in the Bill. The secretary of the United Commercial Travellers' Association further tells me that a large number of these commercial travellers would certainly be disfranchised if the election takes place on any day but a Saturday, and he goes on to say that the difficulty always is the discretion allowed to registration officers in matters in which so much difference of opinion may arise, and in which the circumstances vary so much

The next thing that the Bill does, is to make it unnecessary to bring forward a fresh application every six months. The application is made once, and, provided that the elector satisfies the registration officer as to his bondfides,he is placed on the absent voters' list, and he remains on that list until he himself makes an application to come off. The Bill further provides for the voting of men who are undergoing their annual training in the Navy and Army Reserve or the Territorial Forces. It puts them on exactly the same footing in this respect as naval and military voters who are in the regular services of the Crown at the present time, and it would put an obligation upon the military. authorities concerned to send forward at election times the names of the men who are undergoing their annual training. The only other matter to which, I think, I need refer is the last paragraph of Clause 2, which lays it down that any elector who is incapacitated by illness from going to the poll, will be entitled to obtain a certificate from a qualified medical practitioner, and to forward that to the registration officer two days before the poll, when he will be entitled to be treated as an absent voter

Those, I think, are the main proposals contained in this Bill. I hope that it is a Bill to which the Government will give their blessing, and, possibly, afford some facilities for its further stages. I can conceive that it may be suggested that this is a matter which could be well postponed for a year or two, until that inquiry is set on foot to which frequent reference has been made, but I would like to point out that this Bill does not propose any extension of the franchise. It is merely a Bill for the purpose of reforming and regulating the machinery that exists at the present time. It does not place any additional persons on the register. It merely endeavours to assure that those who already have the franchise, who are qualified either for local government elections or for parliamentary elections, shall be placed in such a position that they are able to record their votes. Local government elections take place, as we know, far more frequently than parliamentary elections, and, possibly, from one point of view, local government elections under this Bill may be even more important than parliamentary elections, and, therefore, I would appeal to the Government to help forward the passage of this Bill

These, I say, are, I think, all the main points contained in the Bill. 1 hope they are such as will be unanimously approved by the House, and that, therefore, I may appeal to all parties for their support in this endeavour to remedy a serious defect in our present electoral system. If the Bill be passed, it is quite true that, possibly, a small number of persons may be deprived of a very good excuse for their own political apathy, but, at the same time, it will, in the case of many thousands of persons, remove a serious obstacle in their path when they desire to exercise one of the great privileges of citizenship, but who have hitherto been debarred from doing so, simply by the circumstances in which they are placed, the circumstances under which they have to earn their livelihood, and over which, of course, they necessarily have no control

Mr. GLARRY:

I beg to second the Motion

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for the Lowestoft Division (Mr. Rentoul), who so ably proposed the Second Reading of this Bill, has very rightly dealt with the legal aspect at some length, which I do not propose doing, and he also dealt with an aspect of it in his own particular constituency, the fishing industry. I have to look at it from the point of view of what, I believe, to be a typical industrial area, namely, the constituency I have the honour to represent. I fear that the subject-matter of this Bill is not the inspiring subject that one might get from such a Bill as the Women's Franchise Bill extending the vote, but, at the same time, it is a very necessary piece of amending legislation, and has the effect of giving the opportunity of exercising the franchise to a large number of electors who, at the present time, have that privilege denied them. The House has heard of the existing arrangement for dealing with absent voters. I have been at some little trouble to endeavour to ascertain how it would affect the particular industrial area of which I know, and I have estimated the figures, which necessarily must be very rough, at about 1,000, and, adding, say, 200 more for cases of illness, it would make, approximately, 1,200 in an average industrial constituency. That is a larger proportion, namely 21 per cent., than one might expect when dealing with this matter. It is, therefore, much more important

Another aspect which my hon. and learned Friend has not dwelt upon, and which be, apparently, has left to me, is that this Bill will tend, if passed, to prevent personation. That, I regret to say —and I think the House will agree with me — is a too frequent occurrence in elections. The fact, is that in some districts personation is reduced to- a fine art. I remember at the last election it came to my personal knowledge that a lady was endeavouring to record her vote, and gave a certain name. It so happened that a lady of the same name, the original one, was standing immediately behind her. Therefore it rather impaired the harmony of the polling booth, although it added to the interest of the scene. Of course, this Bill, although it will help in respect of personation, and the items specified, will not get over the trouble of the "removals" or the "deals," which is a matter for the agent and the returning officer

I want to point particularly to the first Clause of this Bill, which has the effect of including the electors at local government elections on the same basis as Parliamentary elections. You will find that in Section 23 of the Representation of the People Act, 1918, it says: (1) For the purpose of giving persons whose names are entered on the absent voters list an opportunity of voting at the Parliamentary Election (other than a University Election), or local government elections, the Returning Officer shall, and so on. This, therefore, puts local government electors on the same basis as exists, or will exist — if this Bill be passed — as Parliamentary electors

There seems to be no reason at all why local government electors should not have the same privilege as Parliamentary electors. The local election is, I will not say just as important, but it is still highly important, and I can conceive no excuse or reason why, say, a railwayman or a commercial traveller, whose business carries him out of tow n, should not have the opportunity of electing the guardians or councillors, as the case may be, in his own town. The fact that there is a great deal more apathy in local government elections than in Parliamentary elections is no excuse for not giving these people similar rights. It is no argument. My hon. and learned Friend has quoted figures relating 'to the last Parliamentary election. I believe the figures for the local Government elections represents a poll of 45 per cent. of the electors only. In connection with the London County Council, as hon. Members have heard, it is very much less than that. But the fact that they are getting these privileges will, I think, be an incentive to the electors to take a good deal more interest in the subject. I estimate, very roughly, that the effect of this Bill will be to give definite facilities to at least 200,000 more electors than they, without the privilege, are able to exercise at the present time

It may also be argued that the trouble the returning officer may be put to, or the electors themselves, is not commensurate with the end in view. But as any elector has a definite right to exercise the franchise, it is only just that we should legislate for the minority as well as the majority, and to see that they are able to exercise the privilege. This Measure, as has been pointed out, has no political flavour about it. I think my hon. and learned Friend must be congratulated in bringing forward this Measure on that basis when he had such a high place in the ballot, and could have brought forward many other subjects. The passing of the Bill would tend to stimulate interest both in Parliamentary and local government elections, and this will be all to the good. Every Measure, or private Bill, brought before this House by a private member is said to be "a much wanted Measure," and as being very desirable and necessary. Still, I think the House will agree that this Measure rightly falls within that category. So long as there are persons in this country who have the franchise, and who are debarred from exercising that franchise by their vocation, I consider it is only right and just that we, in this House, should use every means, and all the machinery possible, to remedy that defect

Photo of Mr Walter Womersley Mr Walter Womersley , Grimsby

On behalf of the fishermen of the United Kingdom, I rise to support this Bill. I myself am not professionally a fisherman, but I have lived and worked among the fishermen of Hull and Grimsby for the last 25 years, and I, therefore, claim to have some knowledge of their requirements in respect of the subject introduced by this Bill. Further, as representing Grimsby, which is the largest fishing port in the world, I know something of the difficulties of the fishermen in regard to their vote. It is no exaggeration to say that thousands of fishermen are debarred from voting under the present law. Take my own constituency. We do know the exact figures there because we have taken the trouble to find out, knowing, as we do, how this affects our men, and we have found that there are between 6,000 and 7,000 fishermen from that port alone at sea on the day of an election. These men go on sea trips of one week or four weeks —it depends upon the part of the sea upon which they are following their avocation; and it is absolutely impossible for them to be in port on the day of the poll. At the last election we took a careful count as to how many of these men were able t., register their votes. The number was between 600 and 700, so hon. Members can see that there is an enormous number of men who are debarred from voting at an election

We say that something over 6,000 men were not able to register their votes. If they had been able to do so, whether or not I should have been here addressing the House this morning, I cannot say, but I do say that I do not care what political opinions these men hold they have a right to he given the opportunity of registering their vote. It has been stated — not in this House this morning—but I have heard 't —that these men could surely register their vote if they took the trouble to conform to the Act of 1918. I have made inquiries into this aspect of the matter from the fishermen themselves. I have done something even more than that. I have written articles in our local Press to point out to these men how they can secure their vote and the method and procedure of it if they care to do so. The 1918 Act as has already been explained, provides that application must be made to the registration officer, and so on. These details were certainly published in the newspapers. One might say: "Why do not these men know of this?" But I would reply to that that these men are away for very many days on the sea and have not the opportunity that we who reside on shore have to read the daily Press

Photo of Mr Walter Womersley Mr Walter Womersley , Grimsby

I am told they do not miss much. I do know, however, that they discuss public elections, and they are apt to express their opinion in rather strong language if the matter at issue is detrimental to their interests as fishermen. This was amended by an Order of 1920, which provided that, once registered, the man was allowed to remain on so long as the registration officer was satisfied that the man was still following the same occupation

Ordinary electors have to go to no trouble whatever to secure the vote. Their names arc taken from the rate book, or obtained by sending men round to canvass at their houses, and I cannot see why it is not possible to register these absent voters in the same way. The fisherman looks upon the office of the Board of Trade in his port as his real harbour of refuge, and I would like to pay a compliment to the officials of those offices, particularly the office in the town I represent, who are very helpful to the men. Whatever a man's troubles may be as regards his avocation, the officials are there to help him, and are willing to do so, and on this question of the vote they have always been very willing to help men in making out their claims, and so forth

Whether this Bill be passed or not, I hope those responsible will see to it that the regulations enabling an absent voter to obtain the right to vote will be notified at those offices by the exhibition of posters in language that is easily understandable, not in the usual official language which some men cannot understand. If they were posted there, where the men go to sign on and to sign off, it, would be the most convenient place for putting the information before them. Fishermen whose opinion I have asked about this matter say that if a ballot-box were placed at the Board of Trade office, so that they could vote as they went to sea —of course after the nomination day —it would mean that the majority of those who go to sea on the large trawlers would be able to vote. That proposal is not in-eluded in this Bill, however, and we have to deal with it as we find it, but whatever happens I do ask that notices in plain language should be posted at the Board of Trade offices

As regards local government elections the absent voters have a great grievance. In my town I am a representative of a ward on the local council, I represent the fishermen's quarter, and we find that if we can poll anything up to 1,200 out of the 3,500 electors we are doing very well indeed. In the case of this particular district that is not on account of apathy because I can assure the House that the elections are fought very keenly indeed; it is simply because the men, being away at sea, are unable to exercise the franchise. These men have been described by Captain Evans, who was in control of the fishery patrol, as the" modern Vikings "of the sea, has been told by Admirals and others from our naval department that they are, indeed, the heroes of the sea, for the work they did during the War; and yet these men, on account of their avocation, cannot vote as to who should represent them on the local town council or on the local board of guardians. In remedying that defect this Bill is doing something which will be very much appreciated by the men on whose behalf I speak. We must bear in mind that although these men, being absent at sea, have heretofore been unable to exercise the vote in local government elections, the rate-collector does not forget to go round leaving rate demand notes at their houses. They have to pay their scot and lot the same as any other people who live ashore, and I think it is only justice to them that we should give them the vote

I like that clause in the Bill which provides for the sick and the infirm being allowed to vote providing they can furnish a doctor's certificate. I have vivid recollections of working at various elections, and helping on many occasions to carry people on stretchers to the poll. That should not be necessary because the sick, and also the very old and infirm. are not able to get to the poll, it is not right that they should be debarred from the vote. As far as I can understand it, the machinery that will be required to carry out the provisions of this Bill if passed into law will not be very elaborate. I am sure the present staffs will be able to manage all right, and I am certain the Bill will confer great benefits on thousands of people and will assure us that we are elected to this House and to the council chambers of our country by the will of the people who are entitled to vote

Photo of Mr John Bromley Mr John Bromley , Barrow-in-Furness

I rise to support generally the principle of this Bill, very largely on behalf of railway men, whose servant happen to be. I would like to interest the House for a few moments in this particular aspect of the question, and I promise not to cover any further ground. It is all to the good that railway guards, engine drivers and stokers are mentioned n the Bill, and on their behalf I ask the House to give it a Second Reading, because the nature of their employment has always debarred a very large number of these men, who in the main, 1 can say confidently, are quite interested politicians, from voting at either national or municipal elections. I will cite one or two cases to indicate to the House how the difficulty arises. It is generally known that railway train men, as distinct from the mass of railway workers, have to take both goods and passenger trains for so many miles away from their homes, and it, is impossible for them to return the same day. If they go away at any time during the night preceding the day of the election, or leave on that day at any time up to the hour of the opening of the polling booths, or even if they leave later than that, having regard to the fact that they have gone on duty, they have no time to record their vote. They arrive at their destination some time during the day, and there they lodge, and consequently lose the opportunity of voting. Even where men do not sleep away, and have left very early in the morning and may be able to get back the same day, they are not always able to get back in time to vote. Therefore, a very large percentage of 84,000 men in the footplate service alone, and possibly half that number of guards — I should say, easily, 120,000 men in all— are affected. I do not, mean the whole of them lose their vote, but they are all subject to losing their vote by virtue of their occupation

Take my own case, if I may be permitted to put it very briefly to the Rouse. I am prepared to agree that my case may have been exceptional, but at least it shows what is possible in 20 years' railway service, 15 years of which was footplate and train-working service, and I never had an opportunity of voting once during that time in a Parliamentary election, although I have been a keen politician for many years. From the same cause I have also been disfranchised in municipal elections. I confess there has been a little improvement since the shortening of the hours of labour, and therefore there are not now so many hard cases. At the same time these men are always liable to this possibility, and on their behalf I support the Second Reading of this Bill. If there are little parts in the Measure which require polishing up, that can be done in Committee. One improvement might be made in the Sub-section to which I have already referred, and it relates to the engine driver or stoker, because it is a fact that if this Sub-section is applied harshly it may debar another section, not having the necessary status, although they are still practised engine cleaners and qualified to act as stokers. I think that is a point which may be rectified without doing anything to extend the ideas of the promoters of this Bill

May I apply a gentle criticism with regard to the last paragraph of Clause 2? I am quite in agreement with the proposal to allow anyone who desires to re- cord a vote, quite irrespective of party or class, having that opportunity. I know the promoters of the Bill have that object in view in this particular paragraph, and they suggest that those who are ill may, on the production of a medical certificate, be placed upon the absent voters list, and shall be treated as absent voters. I believe this is proposed with the best intention, hut I would like to point out that it may act rather unfairly to working people. It may be all right for people who can call in a medical practitioner and who think nothing of paying 2s. 6d. for a medical certificate, but I am sure a very large number of working people would not be prepared to pay 2s. 6d. for a medical certificate, and this provision would operate against working people in this way. I offer that gentle criticism in order that it may be considered in Committee. Otherwise I give my hearty support to this Bill, and I hope it will pass into law

Photo of Lieut-Colonel Kenyon Vaughan-Morgan Lieut-Colonel Kenyon Vaughan-Morgan , Fulham East

I have listened with great interest to the observations which have been made by the hon. Member who has just sat down. There are one or two points to which he has called attention in the final paragraph of Clause 2 to which I should like to refer. I should like to add in the last paragraph of Clause 2, after the word "illness," the words "disability or infirmity." I see no objection to meeting the criticism which has just been offered, as it is not our desire to set up any kind of pecuniary distinction. I am sure we all desire to be fair, and not treat one class better than another in regard to producing a doctor's certificate

I would like to draw attention to the possibilities which may arise from the addition of those two words, or from the addition to the Bill as a whole of a further Clause of this kind. I make this suggestion because I wish to plead in particular the case of the disabled man. In my constituency we have already on our absent voters' list added on the last occasion 136 disabled men who live in a large institution known as the War Seal Foundation. I refer to that, because any part of the Kingdom which includes an institution of so benevolent a character as that may be justly entitled to a feeling of pride. The Member who has the honour of representing that Parliamentary Division must have in his mind, especially on occasions of this sort, the interests of those particular men. As everyone knows, these are the men who made the greatest sacrifice in their country's cause. They are men who are suffering the greatest forms of disability, and on their behalf I plead that provision should be included in this Bill, during the Committee stage, or at some other convenient point, which will permanently entitle them to register their votes as absent voters. At the last election a special provision was made for their convenience and advantage, but I want to see that provision made permanent, so that it will not in any way be at the mercy of some temporary or occasional ruling on the part of a regis tration officer. I do not suggest that a registration officer would be partial, unreasonable, or unfair, but I think those men should be entitled to that privilege s a right

Their case is one of exceptional difficulty. According to the rule of registration of absent voters, what I am suggesting would give these voters that small reward which the nation owes to them. I think the addition of the words "disability or infirmity" after the word "illness" in the concluding phrase of the last paragraph of Clause 2 would meet the case which I have been putting to the House. As an alternative a longer Clause which would specify more fully this object might be proposed at a later stage. As regards the Bill generally I give it my hearty support. As the Member for a typical London constituency, there are certain aspects of this question which are of special interest. Out of some 35,000 commercial travellers employed in the home trade, quite a substantial proportion of them reside in London, and no small proportion of them reside in my constituency. We have on our absent voters' list quite a good number of commercial travellers and others

In my constituency, the electors of which represent every section of the community, almost every occupation, and certainly every general class of employment is represented. In the Borough in which if; my constituency the provisions of this Bill will probably affect some 1,000 or 1,500 persons, and my Division would include about half that number. There are quite a substantial number of people who would be benefited by this Bill and are now suffering disabilities which the adoption of this -Measure would obviate. I have already referred to the case of commercial travellers, and I would like now to make a reference to those who are described in Clause 2 as "undergoing annual training in the Naval or Army Reserve or in the Territorial Forces at the time of a Parliamentary or local government election." I think it must be the intention of the drafter of this Bill to include words which would embrace the members of the Air Force undergoing training. I think that is only a slight omission of words

The disabled voter I have already dealt with. Generally speaking I do not think there can be any serious criticism offered against this Bill, and I hope the Government will see their way to grant it the necessary facilities. For London constituencies, this measure possesses features of very great value. As a rule in Parliamentary elections we register a pretty high percentage of the electors, but in most of our constituencies we lose an immense amount of votes, and the services of many electors on account of removals. If we deal as is suggested with the absent voters, of whom there are a large number, I think their difficulty will be met. There is also something to he considered beyond the provisions of the Bill itself which seeks to remedy defects experienced in the operation of the Act of 1918. The fact that there are defects is sufficiently shown by the amending order of 1920, and this Bill will go a little further to remedy those defects. There is a principle underlying it. It is a long time since the principle of no taxation without representation was admitted, hut at the present dime we have people who through no fault of their own are deprived of direct representation. It is quite true that this Bill does not extend the franchise, in any way. It merely says that those who are entitled to exercise the vote shall have a. proper opportunity given them in the special circumstances of their occupation. I think, as a matter of principle, a duty lies upon the community, in so far as the franchise is extended, to see that no injustice is done, and that every possible means are resorted to in order to maintain the efficiency of the machinery, so that all those who are entitled to vote shall have the opportunity of exercising their privilege as easily as possible

Photo of Captain James Fairfax Captain James Fairfax , Norwich

I am very happy to have the opportunity of supporting this Bill, because the last occasion that I had the honour of supporting a Private Member's Bill was an unfortunate one, as that Bill was somewhat harshly defeated by the Government. I believe it is generally realised that this Bill is one which has universal support. So far practically no opposition has been offered to it, and I have little doubt that it will receive general acceptance not only in the House, but also in the country. I heartily concur in the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Bromley) and I appreciate the point that he made as regards medical certificates being made more easily available, but an Amendment can be introduced to cover that point, and I imagine that the panel doctors would be ready to grant medical certificates free to all who require them. Certainly, that objection ought not to be a serious one. I also heartily concur in the Amendment suggested by the hon. and gallant Member for East Fulham (Colonel Vaughan-Morgan) that these special facilities should be extended to all those suffering from war disability. Many of us must remember the pathetic spectacle at the recent election that was often presented by maimed men making their way to the polling booth. We certainly ought to do something to relieve their hardship and to spare those men who have already sacrificed so much

The Bill seems to me altogether blameless in its intention and beneficent in its effect. The particular classes in the constituency that I have the honour to represent which are mostly affected are railway men and commercial travellers. The hon. Member for Barrow has pleaded so eloquently for the railwaymen that I shall say more about commercial travellers. If the total number of commercial travellers affected by the Bill be 35,000, I estimate that a very fair proportion are in my own constituency. I found, in the progress of the election and in the course of canvassing, that a great many commercial travellers, whether they wished to vote for my party or the party opposite, or the party below the Gangway, definitely expressed their doubt about being able to record their votes at all. Something should be done for these commercial travellers, because, although one does not wish to discriminate between one class of voters and another, commercial travellers undoubtedly are an extremely intelligent body of men. They have opportunities of moving about the country and of appreciating trade conditions all over the country, and their vote is very valuable, representing as it does A special knowledge of 12.0 N. industrial conditions. It is a vote which certainly ought to be recorded in the best interests of the State and of the country's prosperity. I want also to say a word on behalf of the Section in the Bill which includes the sick and which enables them to record an absent vote. Since there has grown up a regular tendency for elections to take place in the autumn and the winter, necessarily a special strain has been thrown upon the aged and infirm who sometimes have to be taken out in ram, snow, and blizzard, and who may have to pay the penalty of illness and possibly death for their party loyalty. I think that is a specially deserving class, and is one which this Bill meets. For all these reasons, and the reasons which have been so eloquently given by the Mover and other Members, I trust that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading, and that the Government will afford it further facilities

Photo of Mr Samuel March Mr Samuel March , Poplar South Poplar

I want to support the Bill, and to endorse the speeches which have been made in presenting the case of a number of other people who are not at present included in the Bill. The hon. and gallant Member for East Fulham (Colonel Vaughan-Morgan) has spoken of having a large number of commercial travellers in his constituency. He also has a very large number of men in the transport industry who do a good deal of the removal of people to various places and who very often are away from home at least for a week. I think some facility ought to be given to those men to record their votes if they are away from home on the day of election. I can also mention a very large number of other transport workers. It is nothing uncommon for them to be away all the week travelling about. from one place to another, and some facilities ought to be given to them. I was glad to hear the hon. Member mention the incapacitated and infirm. I suppose there is no district where more men are incapacitated through their industrial employment than the district which I represent It is not infrequent for a number of accidents to occur in our docks and for us to find two days before the election at least half-a-dozen in the hospital unable to record their votes. This Bill would assist those people to register-their votes if they desired to do so by enabling them to secure a certificate from the doctor at the hospital. I think that if these provisions could be considered in Committee and added to the Bill, it would carry out the desire of the promoters of the Bill to include as many people as possible who are on the register, and give them facilities to record their vote, either at a Parliamentary or a local government election. If that be the position, these facilities should be given, and I am sure it would satisfy a very large number of people who often find it difficult to record their vote

Photo of Mr Anthony Eden Mr Anthony Eden , Warwick and Leamington

I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Rentoul) upon the very valuable use which he has made of the flattery of the ballot box. We hear from time to time, and usually it is true, from members of the party most recently affected by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, of the many faults and flaws which exist and maintain themselves in our electoral system, and I do not suppose that any Member of this House will deny the existence of some such flaws. We are all the more grateful, therefore, when hon. Members, by the use of their own experience and powers of observation, produce a Bill such as this to try to remedy some of these defects. I suppose that all of us who still believe, or think we believe, in what we call a democratic form of government— I use the word in its modern and perverted sense— must, as a logical sequence, wish to make that form of government as truly effective as may be possible, and it is because this Bill is one stop forward in that direction that I welcome it

I do not mean by that that we should place before every voter a geometrical problem so perplexing and bewildering that the most minute of any political atoms shall obtain an undeserved advantage. Proportional representation, I think they call it. I do not think that that is desired, but I do suggest that there are one or two special reasons why this Bill should be welcomed now. We are continually having our attention drawn, after each election, to the percentage of voters who do not record their votes, and we are told from time to time, by theorists of one kind or another, that we should impose a fine, or in some other way make it compulsory for each elector to record his vote. Personally, I do not think that it is in the least desirable or indeed possible to instil political principles, still less party prejudices, by law. If an increased percentage of the electorate is to poll, we can only do our share by granting them every possible facility

The Clause, which refers to naval and military voters who are away on training, is important, because we may hope that we shall not always have our general elections at the worst time of the year, and facilities should be granted to these men, who might otherwise find themselves unjustly disfranchised. I would also draw the attention of the House to the latter part of Clause 2 which refers to the sick voter. I rather think that that last paragraph of the Clause, admirable though its motive may be, requires a further safeguard. It seems to me that as it stands it might be open to abuse. Perhaps the certificate of a justice of the peace might be added to that of a medical officer. The sick voter is entitled to consideration, and I would suggest to my friends on this side of the House that they, especially, should sympathise with the sick voter, because anyone who is in bed is a Conservative. They have more time to think. [An HON. MEMBER: Are all Conservatives in bed? "] However that may be, 1 have not heard that anyone who, by reason of sickness, was disqualified from recording his vote, was at the same time exempted from contributions to the revenue, and, on the ancient principle that taxation entitles one to representation, anyone who is sick is entitled to record his or her vote. It is hardly fair that at election time the sick voter should be faced with the alternative, either of running the risk of unwillingly swelling the coffers of the Chancellor of the Exchequer by his untimely but popular demise, or of not recording his vote in favour of the prejudices which he may hold or against those which he may abhor

There is in this Clause a substratum of justice, and I would especially point to the case of the rural areas, where it is a distinct hardship to the voter who is sick to have to go several miles to record his vote. I think that, in regard to the remedying of certain faults that do exist in our electoral system, this Bill is an admirable example of private Members' legislation, that is to say, infinitely superior, of course, to any Government Measure. I believe that within its small confines it does embody a large principle. Anyone who still believes in democracy should support this Bill, as also should anyone who wishes to render the working of our Parliamentary system more smooth, more efficient, and more just to the people of the country

Mr. W. M. ADAMSON:

There appears to be such general agreement with and approval of this Bill that it is hardly necessary for me to add anything. It is one of those small Measures which it is entirely suitable should be a Private Member's Bill, and I think it should appeal to the Government to-day as a Measure of electoral reform that could be suitably accepted as at least one step towards improving the methods of our electoral machinery. There are just three points that I want to touch upon which have not been mentioned in the course of the Debate. It seems to me doubtful whether one very important section of the community has not been entirely left out. Some of us, at least, will think that they are an important section of the community— I refer to Members of Parliament. A Member of Parliament cannot vote for himself if he is not living in his own constituency, and he may he many miles away from the constituency on the actual day when he might be voting in the constituency in which he is a resident. Paragraph (v) of Clause 2 reads as follows: "habitually engaged in an employment which compels him to be away from his place of residence for a period of not lees than ten days in each month. Whether the occupation of a Member of Parliament is an employment or not is, possibly, open to doubt, but this occurs at the very period when we happen to be out of employment, so that the definition is a very narrow and, perhaps, ridiculous cue. I am wondering if it would be possible to define this position more accurately

There is a second point in the same connection. Very often prospective or likely Members of Parliament bring their wives to adorn their platforms and await the result of the election, and they, too, are excluded, in the main, because of that fact. In my own case, during the past three elections I have been in the unfortunate position that three of my family have been deprived of voting powers, because I have a son in the Merchant Service who is entitled to a vote but who has never been able to exercise it. I should also like to know whether the promoters of the Bill, in connection with the Clause dealing with merchant seamen, also include and intend to include such as the Trinity House men, men who are engaged in the feeding of our lighthouses as it were, who are often away in small boats for three, four or five days, and I believe in exceptional cases even as long as a month. I think they should be included in the same category as merchant seamen, whose occupation is such that they might be away during a General Election, and would therefore have no opportunity of exercising the vote unless they were included in this Clause. With these slight suggestions and alterations, which can probably be made in Committee, I certainly support the Measure as a slight step towards overcoming some of the difficulties that apply to our registration and our electoral system

Photo of Commander Hon. Archibald Cochrane Commander Hon. Archibald Cochrane , Fife Eastern

I wish to offer my support to the Bill. Having myself been disfranchised by the nature of my occupation until 1918, I am very glad to welcome a Bill which is likely to increase the facilities for exercising the franchise of those who go to sea. I do so more particularly on behalf of the herring fishermen, who are often away from their homes in Scotland for many months during the year. These men, owing to the undeveloped state of the herring fishery in England, often spend many months in English ports carrying on the herring fisheries. It is very important that they should be able to exercise the franchise even if the requirements of their calling make it impossible for them to be home at the time at which an election may take place. This is not purely a case which affects male electors. There are also a large number of good Scotch lasses who come down to the English ports each year for the purpose of cleaning and curing the herring and I am glad to think they also, where they are entitled, will be able to exercise the franchise. I wish on these grounds to give a hearty support to the Bill

Commander WILLIAMS:

I wish to speak in general support of the Bill. I do not know that a Bill which in my opinion is rather small, and does not cover the ground quite adequately, really should have all the praise which has been bestowed upon it to-day. I agree that my hon. Friend who opened the Debate did so in a most excellent speech. He and my hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Womersley) have pointed out, very ably and very efficiently, how much advantage this Bill would be to certain interests which I have in common with them. Again, we had a most interesting speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Newport (Mr. Clarry). He made one or two remarks which rather led me to believe that in that part of the country, which is in Wales, there is a large amount of impersonation. Of course, we in England are innocent of anything of that kind. I know full well that it has happened in Ireland before now. I am glad my hon. Friend has brought that point out, because possibly the Government will be able to tell us how this very urgent matter can be dealt with. The second Clause deals essentially with merchant seamen, pilots, fishermen, etc. I was very glad to hear an hon. Member opposite mention lighthouses and lightships. There has been some rather notorious cases, one particularly in the Isle of Wight, where some of these men, rendering a very great and human service to our people, were left out of the voting at the last General Election, and I think it would be valuable, and worth while, if we could include those people in the list

With modern developments, I think it might be well to add to this class also those who are engaged in the Air Service, because if we are to deal with a Measure of this sort on a Friday afternoon it is as well to deal with it thoroughly and to get in every section of the community while we are about it. A great deal has been said about commercial travellers, a very excellent institution from the point of view of trade and of educating the community as a whole. Something has been said about Members of Parliament. It would be ill becoming for anyone to say very much on that particular section of the community, but there is another section engaged in the general dissemination of knowledge which I think might be added to this portion of the Bill. There are our friends who go from one part of the country to another and have a very difficult task reporting the speeches and incidents that happen up and down the country. I think they might very well be included within the scope of the Bill. There are also people who go about the country, and sometimes take long journeys abroad, who might be from time to time debarred from voting. Every now and then we hear that some great public speaker or other has been called away say to Bulgaria to make a few days' review of the country, and then comes back to report and to bring information for our knowledge. Think how perfectly appalling the loss would be if the right hon. gentleman the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Colonel Wedgwood) were called away on one of these expeditions and could not register his vote ! I think those cases might be brought into the Bill as well

I go on to the next Clause and here I bring in another section of the community. It is generally stated among the people of the country that the party to which I belong, throughout the course of their history, have done more for the trade unions than any other. I suggest that the ordinary trade union official— naturally the modesty of members of the party opposite, will prevent them from bringing this case forward — should be included within the scope of the Bill. I will leave it for them to put down Amendments in due course, as possibly they will. We have heard a considerable amount about railway guards and various sections of the railway community. Would it not be possible so to reframe this Sub-section as to include the whole of the railway workers, so that there were not possible omissions — that is to say those who might be away in the ordinary course of their work. We have heard of many instances where they would be away. There are conductors in the sleeping berth cars, waiters, and many other sections connected with this industry, who may be away from home at the time of an election. In transport to-day there has been an enormous development, of motor transport. The men engaged in that industry are very often sent great distances and they must very often be in such a position that they ought to come under the operations of this Bill. I would draw the attention of the mover and seconder of of the Bill to these various sections of the community

With regard to the aged and infirm voter, this is a much more difficult matter than is sometimes realised, because if you once begin giving a very large number of people exemption from actually going to the polling booth, you make it that the secrecy of the ballot is not as good or as sound as if a man actually goes to the polling booth and drops the ballot paper into the box himself. I would like to see these old and ill people given every facility to vote, where they cannot now vote on account of their age or ill-health, but the regulations in connection with the voting in these cases will have to be very close and carefully devised. I hope these facilities will be granted to them, and that the Home Secretary will see that the provision is worked in such a way that, while these people are enabled to vote, the secrecy of the ballot is preserved

Photo of Mr Robert Boothby Mr Robert Boothby , Aberdeenshire and Kincardineshire Eastern

; I want to say a few words in support of the Bill. My constituency is affected perhaps in a wider and greater way than almost any other constituency in the United Kingdom. There are many herring fishermen in my constituency who are compelled to leave Scotland and come to England during the months of October, November, and December through the idiosyncracies of the herring. I cannot think that they would do it for any other reason. They are to be found at Yarmouth or Lowestoft during those months. It will be within the recollection of hon. Members that there have been a succession of annual General Elections during the last two or three years, and the effect of this has been practically to disfranchise these herring fishermen in my constituency. I was informed that at the last General Election about 2,000 of these men were fishing at Lowestoft and Yarmouth on polling day. That is not all, because the herring season involves the transport of a large number of additional workers from my constituency to England, women workers and men workers who travel down from the North-east coast of Scotland to these English ports in order to carry out subsidiary operations, such as gutting and cleaning. It was represented to me that had these fishermen and fish workers been in my constituency during the election the result would have been very different. That statement I hastened to refute, but I would not like to be exposed to The same suggestion again, and therefore I am extremely anxious that these fishermen and fish workers should be given a chance to exercise their undoubted rights at the next election

Any hon. Member who, like myself, entertains some lingering sentimental belief in the value of democracy as such, will admit that it is an essential part of that system that everybody who has been granted a vote should have the right to exercise it. It is our boast as a country that, as far as democratic institutions are concerned, we have reached more or less the last word, but that boast cannot be sustained if it can he pointed out with truth that a large number of electors are arbitrarily disfranchised every year. Therefore, although I think very great care ought to be taken in working out the Bill, which I am sure the Government will do, the principle is sound, and I hope that at no future election will any considerable section of our people who have been granted the right to vote be deprived of that vote simply because the conditions of their employment necessitate their being absent from the constituency at any given time

Mr. THOMAS:

All hon. Members must feel that we are in a most charitable mood this morning. I have never seen the House of Commons displaying such disinterestedness as at the present time. Every speech has been a speech without any regard whatever to the constituencies, with no feeling that it can be read locally, no inclination that it should be copied into the local newspapers. Pure philanthropy on all sides! We have brought everybody within the category of the voter. I am waiting for some hon. Member to rise and ask what about the poor people in the gaols and lunatic asylums. I think those are the only people left out. It is because of the benevolent feeling existing to-day, and because it is Friday, and I have heard a lot of talk about Black Friday, that I want to make this a White Friday. No one is opposing the Bill, and remembering how our constituents will read with pleasure and interest of the self-sacrificing devotion to duty that we have displayed, and how they will say that this is a Friday, where there was no limitation of speeches necessary, and in fact that everybody had a job to make a speech at all, although they managed to do it; when all that has been said and done, and seeing that the next Bill on the Order Paper is one in which real efforts ought to be made for the blind people of this country, I hope we shall accept the rest of the speeches as being an indication of their desire to do the right thing, and to give an opportunity for the next Measure

Photo of Sir Gerald Hurst Sir Gerald Hurst , Manchester Moss Side

I should like to say something in favour of this Bill, in spite of the very true observations which my right hon. Friend has just made. I do not merely— I think I can say this in self defence — say ditto to what has been said already. I wish to offer a few practical suggestions with regard to the drafting of the Bill. Although the Bill is a very desirable one, it is liable to be amended for better in several material respects. First of all, the classification of callings, which are to be placed in a special position by Clause 2 of the Bill, is not an exhaustive classification. At a moment's notice, I might add to the classifications there referred to such an occupation as that of nurses, who are usually away at the time of an election from the constituency where they live, jockeys, barristers on circuit, and a very large number of other callings

It would be a very great improvement of this Clause if my hon. and learned Friend who introduced the Bill would be willing entirely to recast Sub-section (5). I do not see any need for imposing as a condition for receiving the benefit of an absent vote the necessity of being habitually engaged in an employment which compels a roan to be away from his place of residence for a period of not less than 10 days in each month. I suggest that it is only common sense and fair dealing, if you want to have a larger percentage of persons than at present effectively entitled to vote, that any person, man or woman, who reasonably expects to be away from the constituency where he has a voting qualification on the day of the election should be entitled to be on the absent voters list, even if he is not away from his actual residence one single night in the month. I put this point particularly from the point of view of my own constituency. In my own constituency in Manchester there are about 40 per cent. of the electors who never vote at Parliamentary elections. There are many people in my constituency who believe in the Second Advent, and these people will not vote on principle. They account for a certain percentage of the absentees, but there is no doubt that the high percentage is due mainly to the fact that all my constituents belong to the employed classes

A very large number of them leave their homes before eight o'clock in the morning, and only get back after nine o'clock at night. Hundreds of men in the Moss Side Division live in Manchester, but work in mills and other places of business in Oldham, Rochdale and other parts of East Lancashire, and are debarred from voting, although they sleep in the constituency every night in the month. That is why I ask my hon. and learned Friend to consider making this Clause very much wider than it is at present. I would also suggest that if husbands are exempted from personal voting, and are given the advantage of being put on the absent voters list, wives should be put on that list too. Everybody who has done a lot of electioneering knows that a tremendous number of married women will not vote except in the company of their husbands. I found that out in hundreds of cases on the last election day. Although the wives can vote very easily in the morning they wait until their husbands come home to vote with them in the evening. One of the most remarkable sights of that, what I may call, red letter day was the thousands of husbands and wives going from their poor homes in Manchester to vote for the cause of their country in the last hours of the election. Those women will not vote normally unless their husbands go too. If we want to see a larger percentage of the electorate voting, we should give the wives of these absent voters the same chance of voting in a different way from that we give to the husbands. There is a large class of absent voters who would take advantage of this provision of the Bill, and I have no doubt that instead of having 60 or 70 per cent. of the electors voting at an election you would have over 90 per cent. if this Bill were passed

It helps all sides. There is nothing partisan in it. Think of the very large number of people who are abroad when an election comes along. Some hon. Members opposite might rather boggle at the idea of enfranchising in this way the large number of people who, during many months of the year, are basking in the sunshine of the Riviera to recoup after the winter sports which they have been through in Switzerland. That, perhaps, would not help their party. On the other hand, they have the satisfaction of reflecting that if these persons are enabled to vote under this Bill there will also be the Labour leaders who attend conferences at Moscow, or those who try to persuade more moderate Socialists to become more extreme Socialists at Amsterdam, and they would have the same advantage as the other absent voters

I would like this Bill to be made the instrument by which a very large class of the best type of English people would have for the first time a chance of voting at elections. I refer to soldiers and men who are engaged on national service abroad, under the Foreign Office, the Colonial Office and the India Office, men who are more fitted by reason of their experience and their work in the world to record a wise vote than nine-tenths of the population at home. There are men and women of that type who live all their lives without being able to record their vote. There is nothing in the present law enabling them to vote because they have no normal place of residence in England. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will take advantage of the opportunity on the later stages of this Bill to provide facilities, so that persons who are qualified to vote by reason of their work in the world, who are in the service of the Crown overseas, and who live in dependencies or in countries like India and Egypt where they have no chance of taking part in the semblance of democratic government in these countries, shall have a chance of coming on to the home register. This would make the Bill more valuable than it is in its present form

In Clause 2 there is provision for sick and infirm persons, who, we are told, always vote Conservative. These people are very often old people, and probably they vote Conservative because they have seen a great deal of the world, and experience is, after all, the truest guide to political wisdom. Two clear days before the election is too long a period of notice, and I would suggest that three days before the poll would be a better time to put in. I suppose that "election" means nomination day, but people very often become ill between nomination day and polling day, and if you want to have as large a poll as possible, the time of notice should be as short as possible, and I would suggest that three days before the polling is sufficient. I am very glad to acid my blessing to the other blessings given to the Bill to-day, and I hope that the Home Secretary will do what he can to give facilities

Photo of Lieut-Colonel Hon. Cuthbert James Lieut-Colonel Hon. Cuthbert James , Bromley

It has been laid down on previous occasions that whenever the House of Commons is in complete unanimity it is certainly wrong. There is sure to be a catch in the Measure on which they are unanimous. Far be it from me to condemn this apparently innocuous and probably beneficial suggestion put forward by my hon. and learned Friend, but I think it necessary that we should examine its provisions with the greatest care in order to see whether the Bill will really provide the facilities which are necessary and desirable. It is possible that a certain amount of unanimity has been obtained on the other benches, because there is a ewe lamb waiting in a perambulator outside, and it is very desirable that this ewe lamb should see the light of day in this House at an early moment. I do not wish for one second to impede the passage of the perambulator, but I do think that we should examine the provisions of this Measure with great care before we bless it with that unanimous assent which appears to overhang the whole atmosphere of today's proceedings

Let me look at the preamble. There is nothing offensive in that. The hon. and learned Member for Moss Side (Mr. Hurst) brought forward one or two cases, particularly in regard to Subsection (2,v) of Clause 2, and mentioned the absentees basking in the sunshine of the Riviera. I am certain that hon. Gentlemen opposite would not desire to make the lot of these birds of pleasure easier, though no doubt compensating advantages might be derived in Moscow or in Amsterdam. But I pass that aside. Surely there must be somevia mediaT f people are away on pleasure I do not think that that is an excuse for recording their names on the absent voters' list, but if it is demonstrably proved that they are absent on duty an entirely different state of affairs is visible. For example, there are certain Members of this House, now out of this House, who were abroad during the last election performing valuable work on behalf of the Government. People of that kind should automatically be put on the absent voters' list. Ina list of this kind it should be the duty of the voter to prove that either business or health makes it impossible for him to attend, and without the business or health qualification no absent voter's pass should be given to anyone Who is absenting himself from the polling station for reasons of personal convenience or pleasure. There is nothing about that in this Bill, and something should certainly be inserted in it

That shows that we should examine the Bill rather more carefully than we have examined it, in order to see that there is not a catch in it. Lord Banbury, who was an old and trusted Member of this House and an ardent critic of every sort of political Measure, pointed out on more than one occasion that when unanimity was reached in the House you might rest assured that there was a very large margin of error in a Bill somewhere. Before we finally decide to pass this Bill, we should satisfy ourselves that there is no margin of error in it. I confess that there are certain clauses with which I am in complete sympathy. I have known in my own constituency voters who are bedridden owing to war wounds, men whom on polling day it was impossible to move from their lodging or home without causing a hæmorrhage, and possibly killing them — men who took an ardent interest in political affairs. It was very hard that men like that should be prejudiced. Then there is that big class, the class of commercial travellers. From my own acquaintance with commercial travellers in different parts of the world, it appears to me that they are a most intelligent class of voters, the more so because in the course of their business they go from one centre to another and mix with all political and so0a1 strata in what is called society. One day they will be in a country district, the next in an urban area, and then in the heart of some industrial centre. In every one of these areas, if they are intelligent — most of them are — they will be assimilating ideas and collecting opinions from all sorts and conditions of men. They should receive every encouragement in a Measure such as this. I feel that I have rather interrupted the easy progress of that infant to whom I alluded a few moments ago. I hope that the Measure will be carefully considered

Photo of Sir George Clayton Sir George Clayton , Widnes

I am in full agreement with this Bill. I feel that all Members of the House, of every party, wish that enfranchised persons should have an opportunity of registering their votes. But in Sub-section (2, v)of Clause 2, which has been referred to, there is no provision to assist a certain type of workman whose case I would like to put before the House During the last Election my attention was called to the fact that men who were away from engineering works on construction work, away from their homes — men who would not come under this Bill as being ordinarily away for 10 days per month — could not get back to register their votes. They are specially skilled men, whose vote we would like to see registered. They are sent away by their firms to do erection work, and that work cannot be interfered with; the men have to stay on their jobs, election or no election. Consequently they lose the opportunity of registering their votes. There are men of many industries, not necessarily confined to engineering, who are sent away from one works to another to start a new process. They go out of their own district. I would like to see them included in the Bill. I hope that the promoter of the Bill will be able to introduce some Amendment which will ensure that the specially skilled men are not deprived of their votes. Of course, one does not know for which party they would vote, but 1 cannot help thinking that as they are specially skilled men, and very intelligent, I would get a fair proportion of their votes in my constituency. Still, the principle is that all men entitled to vote should have an opportunity of voting. It is for that reason that I have intervened in the Debate

Photo of Mr Frank Rye Mr Frank Rye , Loughborough

I should have hesitated to join in the Debate, in view of the unanimous opinion shown, but for a remark that was made by the hon. and learned Member for Moss Side (Mr. Hurst). He suggested that classification should be extended, and that all those who are abroad should be entitled to the rights of an absent voter. I do not know whether the hon. and learned Gentleman 'has taken into consideration the fact that there are abroad to-day, and there have been for a considerable time, a large section of the community, who are deliberately staying away for more than six months for, the express purpose of avoiding payment of Income Tax and Super-tax. If we are to enlarge the classification, we should certainly take very good care to see that those ladies and gentlemen, who are basking in the sun in the South of France or elsewhere, and, in effect, at our expense, do not get the benefit of the vote. On the subject of the classifications, I also note that the hon. and learned Gentleman added to the list various people such as nurses, and he finally came down to jockeys. I wonder why he did not see that the Measure included those worthy people known as bookmakers? I assure the House I am not a bookmaker, neither am I a betting man, but if the classification is to be extended to include jockeys, I see no reason why it should not also include the bookmaker, who, as a rule, is away from his home 10 days in a month. I assume he is engaged not only during the flat racing season, but also during that period of racing which is, I believe, known as "over the sticks." Both he and his clerk are absent from home during these periods, and I think they obviously should be included

The hon. and learned Gentleman might proceed to enlarge the Measure further by including those engaged in circuses. I mention that because he has included members of travelling theatrical companies. Why not those performers who go about with circuses and give delight to the children of the villages and towns? I think we should have the greatest sympathy for those engaged in that occupation. I remember as a small boy when the clown came round with the elephant and all the other appurtenances of the circus. It was a bright and glorious moment of my life when Lord George Sanger arrived bringing with him all those things which are necessary to the circus. Why should these people be left out? I am surprised that the hon. and learned Member should have forgotten them. I suggest no censure upon him for the omission, but when he is considering travelling theatrical companies and those engaged in the music hall and variety profession, he should not leave out one of the oldest entertaining industries in the country. Reference has also been made to the inspectors of Government Departments and Board of Education officials who perambulate the country from time to time. I am not seeking to connect them in any way with the circuses. I am not suggesting that they are part and parcel of the circuses; they are going around the country doing their duty, and while they are so engaged they ought to have the privilege and the right to vote

I am strongly of opinion that the classification should be enlarged in the manner I have indicated so long as those who stay abroad and enjoy themselves without paying Income Tax and Super-tax do not come into the Measure. The hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. W. M. Adamson) referred to the position of Members of this House. I wondered at one time during the Debate whether in our endeavour to do justice to all other classes of people we were going to forget ourselves, and I am glad the hon. Member mentioned that point. It is a very serious matter for a Member of Parliament who is desirous of recording his vote in Parliamentary or local government elections to find himself debarred from that privilege if, as so frequently happens, he is engaged in his Parliamentary duties at the time of the election. He has either to neglect those duties and travel back to the constituency where he resides to record his vote — I presume at his own expense on such an occasion — or he must. lose the right to vote. Think of the position of those hon. Gentlemen opposite who are making history for Glasgow and for themselves. Think of those hon. Gentle-. men on the occasion of a local government election when they are anxious to see candidates who are right up to the, neck in Socialistic ideas and full of Utopian methods and intentions elected to local bodies finding themselves unable to record their votes. Think of their inability in such circumstances to help in bringing into the municipal government of Glasgow representatives of opinion who will do their best to put in force all manner of Socialistic ideas. Why it is a grievance, it is a terrible prospect to contemplate, and I only hope that if there are any hon. Members representing Glasgow here to-day they will join in the Debate and plead most strongly for the rights of the Member of Parliament

Photo of Lieut-Colonel Reginald Applin Lieut-Colonel Reginald Applin , Enfield

I rise to put the case of thatbête noireof commanding officers. the habitual absentee. The 1.0 P.M. habitual absentee who is absent for ten days can, under military law, get ten days' detention. Under this Bill the man who is absent for ten days gets the vote. I speak as a dreadful example of the want of this Bill in the past, for although I have been in a position to use the vote for the last 35 years, I never in my life had an opportunity of recording a vote until the first time I passed through the Division lobbies in this House. That 35 years of disfranchisement was due to the want of a Bill such as the 1918 Measure giving absent voters the power to vote. I have always been on service away from my home, and have never had that opportunity, though surely the nature of the duties I was performing rendered Inc as capable of exercising the vote as the ordinary man. It is in the public interest that the habitual absentee, that is to say the man whose business takes him away for 10 days in the ordinary way, should record his vote. The very fact that he travels and sees other municipalities and is able to judge of the working of rules and regulations made in other districts, renders him much more capable of deciding what is required in his own district. It is an extremely hard thing that he should be unable to record his vote and it is against the interest of the public in his own locality

An hon. Member has mentioned fishermen. I do not suppose he included the class of fishermen whom I represent, namely, those who fish with the dry fly in the charming streams of this country. The dry-fly fisherman is frequently absent for 10 days if the mayfly happens to rise at the same time as a local election, and I think we might include him in this Measure. I observe that the professional soldier and sailor as such are not mentioned in the Bill. The Territorial soldier is mentioned but not the regular soldier, I presume because the regular soldier will come into the class of general absentee. As the regular soldier is generally neglected in times of peace, I think he might have been put into the Bill specifically when the Territorial Army is included. I put that suggestion to the hon. and learned Gentleman. All those classes of people who are at present affected by the want of legislation will be very grateful for the Bill, which, I think, is in the interests of the community generally. There appears to be complete agreement, and I do not think we shall have any difficulty in passing it into law. There is only one doubt in my mind. I am tint sure that a Bill of this importance should be introduced by a private Member, and I should like to ask the Home Secretary whether it is not desirable that this Bill should be included in a Government Measure during the Session. I think that course would be more advantageous than dealing with it as a private Measure. With thatcaveat,I desire to add my word in support of this Bill

Photo of Mr William Templeton Mr William Templeton , Banffshire

I suppose it must be on account of my nationality that I rather resent the humorous vein of some of the arguments advanced in support of this Bill to-day. I represent a constituency in the North of Scotland, in which there are several thousands of fishermen. These men are essential politicians, and on the drifters, and on shore, and in such caravanserais as those who go in for these things frequent in the evenings, political matters are greatly discussed. Men of a sensible nature, who cannot or who will not go through the formula of making the somewhat elaborate application that has to be made in order to be placed on the absent voters list just now, will welcome the opportunity of being placed on that list right away with far less formality, which this Bill, if passed, will give them. It may prove to be against me, and it may be to my undoing at the next election, but the position is not altered by that consideration. If I might offer a word of criticism on the Bill, I would say that beside the fishermen who go to the fishings in England and the far north, and who may be absent at election times, there are the fishworkers, women who follow the herrings as sedulously as do the men, and these women are not all to be described under the title of fisher lassies. Many of them are of an age which makes them eligible to exercise the franchise, and this Bill does not give them the opportunity of becoming placed on the absent voters list. I should like to see that when this Bill goes forward, as I hope it will, we shall be able to include these women fish workers within its scope, and so give them an opportunity of joining those hundreds of thousands of women who put this present Government into power

Another thing I should like to say in regard to this Bill is something that may have escaped the notice of some hon. Members opposite. and that is that we British people —I speak for the Scots, at any rate— have a very fond and kindly attachment to the place where we were born and brought up, and which we regard as home. Though far removed from it now, I say, with somewhat bated breath in this Assembly, that I belong to Glasgow. My interests are pretty much with the Glasgow people, and, as a matter of fact, were it possible for me to do so, I might elect to vote in Glasgow; and it has just occurred to me, while listening to the great blessings that were showered upon the Bill, to think what an awful effect it might have upon the representation of Glasgow in this House if the Bill were so extended as to give the exiles from Erin the opportunity of voting in the Free State elections instead of sending representatives to the House of the cursed Saxon — here in London. Were it my privilege to vote wherever I pleased, I would vote in Glasgow, and so, I think, were I an Irishman, when I was out of the Free State I might be inclined to accept an opportunity offered to me of recording my vote there and of allowing the Saxon to carry on his work as best be might without my help. These things may not be in the Bill, but I would urge on the Government that they should see to it at least that the women in the fishing industry will be given the same privileges as are given to the men, and that Amendment is all that I would ask to he added to the Bill

Photo of Colonel Sir Walter De Frece Colonel Sir Walter De Frece , Blackpool

There seems to be general unanimity in the House that this Bill is necessary, but I have noticed that, with the exception of the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Rye), one class of the community mentioned in the Schedule has not had its views put forward at all. I refer to the theatrical profession. There is no more loyal and patriotic body of people in the country than the theatrical people, and they will welcome the opportunity which this Bill will give them, but, if I have any criticism, it is, as has already been expressed from these benches, connected with the drafting of the Bill. As the hon. Member for Loughborough said, Sub-section (2, iii) says that "a member of a travelling theatrical company" will be entitled to be put on the absent voters list, but the profession embraces, as has already been stated, circus performers, music-hall artists, cinema operators, menagerie attendants, and so on, and I think a more comprehensive term should be used in that paragraph than is used at present

The only other criticism that I have to make is again in regard to the drafting of the Bill. Those performers to whom I refer, to my own knowledge, have travelled great distances to record their votes on many occasions, but I am wondering whether, if the wording in the Bill remains as it is in paragraph (v), which states that a man must be habitually engaged in an employment which compels him to be away from his place of residence for a period of not less than ten days in each month, it will not act harshly on the man who is not habitually engaged. Music-hall performers and theatrical performers are not always engaged. As a matter of fact, they are mostly out of work, and I think we ought to be informed as to whether that wording would not tend to prevent a man who was not in employment registering his vote at all. The theatrical profession, travelling all over the country as they do, generally own houses in certain towns, and when they leave them they let them to other occupants. I do not know whether that would affect my argument, but I think it would be just as well to let them know that, as they have a vote now and will be on the absent voters list, the trouble they have had before in regard to voting will not occur again. I press that the paragraph to which I have referred should be made more comprehensive, so as to embrace the whole of the employes in the theatrical profession

Photo of Sir Clement Kinloch-Cooke Sir Clement Kinloch-Cooke , Cardiff East

This Bill has a very great interest to me, because soon after I came into this House I introduced a Bill relating to absent voters which dealt with a matter which has been put before the House by an hon. Member opposite, and that is in regard to soldiers and sailors. That Bill met with very great sympathy, with the result that in due course soldiers and men in the Royal Navy were included in the Representation of the People Bill. While that Bill was going through the House, I had the opportunity of making many suggestions, and, though I do not remember making the exact suggestions that have been made in this Bill, I certainly did make one or two which might be closely connected with the particular categories mentioned here. On looking round the House, I must say I am a little surprised at seeing not a single Member on the Liberal Benches

Photo of Mr John Palin Mr John Palin , Newcastle upon Tyne West

You are only talking piffle. You are only talking to kill the other Bill on the Paper

Photo of Sir Clement Kinloch-Cooke Sir Clement Kinloch-Cooke , Cardiff East

May I be allowed to proceed without interruption from the hon. Member opposite? I am exceedingly surprised to find the Liberal Benches empty on a day like this. I should have thought, considering the past record of the Liberal party, that we should have seen their benches very well filled, and that we should have had the opportunity of hearing a number of Members representing the Liberal party expressing their views on a matter like this. As they are not here, I must endeavour to make up for their unfortunate absence. A number of Members have spoken on the Bill. One hon. Member, who said he came from Glasgow, made a very interesting contribution, although I should have thought, from his accent, that he had long left Glasgow. Then an hon. Member opposite told us of his fishing experience. I quite understand that, as his particular hobby is fly-fishing, he would naturally desire it to be included in the Bill, but I would point out there is a very large section of the community who fish with a worm. People who fish with a worm go very long distances, and stay out in very wet weather in very awkward positions, and, perhaps, they ought to have been considered in drafting this Bill. I would rather consider the fisherman with a worm than the fisherman with a fly. However, I pass to Clause 2, which refers to merchant seamen. I do not think anyone in this House will deny that I represent a constituency which is very largely composed of merchant seamen, and that my old constituency is very largely composed of naval men and merchant seamen. Therefore, wit's all respect to the hon. Member opposite, I have some right to express their views and their desires in the House of Commons. When a previous Bill was going through the House, I tried to get merchant seamen included, but they were not. Merchant seamen are engaged all over the world

Photo of Sir Clement Kinloch-Cooke Sir Clement Kinloch-Cooke , Cardiff East

I am glad to hear that the hon. Lady is such a traveller. I have no doubt she has been in many boats, and in many parts of the world, and, therefore, I shall have her sympathy with the merchant seamen. It is quite impossible for those men to record their votes in the circumstances of the present day. It is not so much with regard to seamen who are far away. It is the seamen who are near at hand. They are engaged in a calling which entirely prevents them from catching trains or proceeding in motor cars. Therefore, they are absolutely cut off from any opportunity of recording their vote. I venture to assert there is no Member of this House who will not desire that the merchant seaman should be able to record his vote at the General Election. I see that apprentices are also included. As that rather necessitates a knowledge of the age of the apprentices, I had better omit any mention of them. I come to the commercial travellers. Now commercial travellers are a very important body, and they include a number of ladies. Therefore I know the hon. Lady opposite will be one of the first to desire that I should say something about the commercial travellers. I forget how many commercial travellers there are in this country, but I remember presiding over a dinner of commercial travellers, and there were a great number present, including some ladies. I do not think anyone would desire to take away the vote from commercial travellers. They are generally well informed, and, by their calling, are able to get into communication with many different people, and so acquire many different ideas and much knowledge. Therefore, these commercial travellers are not only a great asset to the nation, but one may be pretty sure that when the commercial traveller votes, he votes right

Passing on to the theatrical companies, I may say I have a great admiration for the theatrical profession, both ladies and gentlemen, and I have always desired to see that they should have the opportunity of recording their vote. Hon. Members opposite, I am sure, will be interested in their vote, because there are members of the theatrical profession, shining lights of that profession, who have shown a desire to join their party. I am sure they would not wish that any member of the theatrical profession wishing to vote for Labour or Socialism, as the case may be, should be deprived of the chance of recording their vote, and, therefore, I think they will join with me in desiring to see them included in this Bill. I pass to the railway guard. The railway guard is a man who certainly ought to have the opportunity of recording his vote. We know that a great number of them have not the opportunity at present, and I think that is a great loss to the nation. Railway guards are men who take a tremendous interest in political affairs, and in a great number of cases they take an interest in the affairs of the party opposite. Then there are the engine drivers and stokers—

Notice taken that40Members were not present; House counted; and40Members being present

Photo of Sir Clement Kinloch-Cooke Sir Clement Kinloch-Cooke , Cardiff East

Members seem in a somewhat excited state over the count, but I have no doubt in a few minutes they will cool down. When interrupted, I was saying that Sub-section (2), paragraph (iv) of Clause 2 speaks of railway guards, engine drivers and stokers. These are a very important section of the community, and I am sure that no one would desire to see them deprived of their vote. Unless some Measure of this kind is placed upon the statute Book, or unless the Government should decide to bring in an amending Bill to the Representation of the People Act, 1918, I do not see how it will be possible for this particular section of the community to record their votes. I am one of those who desire to see every elector record his or her vote, if it be possible. In some countries there is a penalty on the elector who does not record his vote. There is no penalty in this country, but at the last election there were many appeals made, and following those appeals a very large percentage of the electorate did vote. That, no doubt, was the reason for the result of the general Election. I pass on to paragraph (v) which refers to an elector— habitually engaged in an employment which compels him to be away from his place of residence for a period of not less than ten days in each month. In this paragraph the word "him" is used, and for the benefit of the hon. Member for East Middlesbrough opposite (Miss Wilkinson) I would say that that word "him "refers to the female sex equally as to the male sex. I am not quite so certain about the question of the ten days. That period, I think, will certainly have to be reconsidered, because it is a period which does not cover any-. thing in particular. The Clause generally includes practically everyone. Many Members in their speeches have referred to classes of the community who. they did not think were included in the Bill, but in my judgment Paragraph(v)does actually take in nearly everyone, even bookmakers. [Hon. MEMBERS: "Oh ! "] Hon. Members opposite know more about bookmakers than I do, but I think that bookmakers ere very important people, and are very nice people. All the bookmakers I know are excellent people. I mention them because they were mentioned by one speaker. There are a great number of people who would come in under this Clause, and everyone, I think, desires to know that they should at least have the opportunity of recording their vote. There are a great number of women, and I would refer particularly to the nurses

Look at the number of nurses all over the country who are called from headquarters to go, at a moment's notice, to. nurse some person who is seriously ill, or, it may be, dying, and who could not possibly leave the bedside of the patient even for a day. Such a nurse is deprived of her vote. I appeal to hon. Members of this House: would they wish to see a woman following the profession of a nurse, and doing all she could to relieve suffering or to nurse a patient back to life, deprived of her election privileges? Yet it is so at the present day. Many nurses who pay great attention to political matters desire to record their vote, Unfortunately the nurse is not, as circumstances go, placed on the absent-voters' list. This Bill would remedy that defect. Therefore, for that reason alone-I support the Bill. I cannot, however, take the House through all these various provisions because I am afraid that would take up too much time

There are, I know, many speakers in all quarters of the House—except on the Liberal Benches—who desire to join in this Debate, and I do not want to stand between the House and them any longer, except to say that there is one section of the people mentioned here, who, I do not think, have been mentioned, and that is the people who are ill and are unable to vote. At the last election, in the course or my going a round of visits, I found one or two seriously injured people. They had hoped that they would be able to vote. One man who was paralysed said: "You know I cannot come and vote," and he continued," I do think it is a very great hardship that here I should lie, day after day, month after month, for I am a keen politician and I desire to record my vote, and I am unable to do so because I cannot get to the poll." His suggestion was—I merely throw it out because I think it would be a very useful Amendment when this Bill comes before the Committee—that some constable or officer of the police force should go to him with a voting paper, and should enter his room, or pass the paper into the room —no one but himself being in the room—and that the man should put his cross on the paper and hand it out to the constable, who would then take it back to the polling place. I think that suggestion might be considered. I put it to the Home Secretary, who naturally is very much interested in the work of the police. Here is an opportunity for him to exercise that great brain power which he possesses. It is a point to be considered before the next election whether he cannot devise some means by which the constabulary can be introduced into the election machinery and be of some assistance in enabling people in hospitals and those who are lying on sick beds to record their votes

I know that hon. Members are desirous of going to lunch, therefore, although it is very distressing to me to leave off the advocacy of a case of this kind, I think 1 must sit down. Before I do so I would thank hon. Members opposite for the very patient hearing they have given me. I repeat my regrets that we have not had support from the Liberal Benches, although it is a great satisfaction to me that so many Members of the Conservative party are here in support of a Bill the object of which is to enable every man rind woman in this country entitled to a vote to record it at the next general election

Photo of Sir Henry Craik Sir Henry Craik , Combined Scottish Universities

Quite apart from the guidance which my own national propensities afford me in the matter, I shall be pleased to follow the advice which has been given us by the hon. Member for Banffshire to treat this as a serious matter. I am anxious to speak seriously, though, in spite of all I have heard, the attitude I take towards this Bill is very different from that expressed in most speeches which we have heard. I have listened with edification and amusement to varying styles of banter and earnestness in the advocacy of this Bill, but it is a curious psychological fact that if you look for a certain time at the most apparently indisputable proposition, and if you hear a sufficient number of arguments in favour of it, you begin to feel there must be something on the other side. I hope my arguments, if they are wrong, will be met by some of the hon. Members who are supporting the Bill; but I see certain very serious defects involved in it. In the first place, it will increase the number of absent voters. I have had some experience o that class of the electorate, because all my supporters vote in their absence. Do hon. Members understand that that practice puts an end to the secrecy of the ballot? Have they considered that aspect of the case—that all those voters who are to vote by means of voting papers sent to their addresses are virtually giving an open vote?

The hon. Member who has just spoken has given us a fine picture of how the vote should be taken. Absentees are to be visited by a police constable, armed with all the dignity of the law, who is to produce a paper, and that paper is to be marked in his sight. Is the constable to be put under an oath of secrecy about it, and will his conscience, strong as no doubt it is, be strong enough to prevent him from lapsing into some slip by which he betrays the identity of the voter and the way in which he votes? The proposal will also greatly increase the expenses of elections, increase them out of all proportion to the small number of additional people who will be enabled to vote. It is, no doubt, important that every citizen interested in the great political movements of the day should have an opportunity of voting if it can be secured to him, even if there be some little difficulty involved. To a limited, a moderate and fairly satisfactory extent, that object has been provided for in previous legislation. Why on earth is it necessary that those wandering souls, who spend half their time in one place and half in another, should be regarded as important factors in the local government of a place where, apparently, they pass so very little of their time? In matters of local government, surely the people on the spot are better able to judge? The hon. Member for Enfield (Colonel Applin), who gave us the advantage of his eloquence in favour of the Bill, partly in earnest and partly in banter, suggested that those people who travel about, strolling actors, circus players, commercial travellers are infinitely better guides as to local requirements than local people, because they see all varieties of local government, and can come back to tell the people living at a particular place that,-without their powerful wisdom and prudent guidance, they are not fit to direct their own local affairs. It is all very well to extend this absent voter privilege as far as you can safely and carefully do so, but do let us leave local affairs to be managed by those on the spot. It has also been pointed out that many persons frequently fail to take advantage of certain provisions of the existing law. If people really are so careless of their privileges as citizens—

Photo of Mr James Couper Mr James Couper , Glasgow Maryhill

I beg to draw attention to the fact that there is not a quorum present

Photo of Sir Henry Craik Sir Henry Craik , Combined Scottish Universities

The hon. Member cannot repeat that process; he cannot expect the House of Commons to occupy all its time in counting its Members. It has been pointed out that many people fail to avail themselves of their opportunities, and so it is proposed that the registration officer, without any application having been made to him, is to occupy his time and undergo all the risks and difficulties of putting those people on the register who have not the public spirit, or who have been too dilatory, to ask to be put on it. In all seriousness, this kind of thing is reducing electioneering to an absurdity. I ask the House to remember the danger involved in this Bill of there being a breach of the secrecy of the ballot, and to consider how many new opportunities this Measure will give for personation, and that is not a small evil at certain elections. Is it at all certain that this Measure would be used to catch up and detect all those cases which will be presented of absent voters who will leave their papers in the custody of an agent of one party or the other. There are very serious dangers involved, and I hope hon. Members will not allow their own unanimity on this Measure to blind them to the real dangers that may lurk behind a Bill of this sort

Photo of Miss Ellen Wilkinson Miss Ellen Wilkinson , Middlesbrough East

I want to make an appeal to the House It has been perfectly obvious for some time that everybody with the exception of the last speaker is in agreement with this Bill. The Government can have our wholehearted support at any moment, and while all this may be very amusing, I would like to remind the Home Secretary that there are thousands of blind persons who are anxious about the adoption of this Measure. The Conservative party have the fullest control and they can carry n this half-serious discussion and talk out the Bill if they like. Whether they will feel proud of it after talking it out, I do not know. I ask the Home Secretary to close this Debate, and let us deal with these thousands of blind people who so desperately need what we are proposing for their benefit

Photo of Mr Herbert Williams Mr Herbert Williams , Reading

I am one who has not received any communication from anybody whatsoever about the second Order on the Paper to-day. I confess that I had not read that Bill until I read it in my place in this House this afternoon in order to find what the second Order was. Because there happens to be no particular desire that the second 13111 should be pressed forward, I see no reason why I should give up my right to take part in a Debate on this Bill, in which I happen to be particularly interested. I have listened to the whole of the discussion on this Measure, with the exception of the time I took to get what the Chancellor of the Exchequer calls "reinforcement." I was interested in the statement made by the hon. and learned Member for Moss Side (Mr. Hurst) when he said that in Manchester on some occasions as many as 40 per cent. of the electors had abstained from using their franchise. To me that is a little surprising, because I know that Manchester takes a deep interest in political problems, and what the hon. Member said contrasts very unfavourably with my own experience, where we have frequently recorded 85 per cent, of the electorate and in one case it was 92 per cent. I agree that that is a little wide of the argument, but I mention it because the point was raised by the hon. Member for Moss Side. Any proposal to change the franchise or enlarge it or facilitate its use ought to be, viewed from a broad point of view and the responsibility of the elector

I will go so far as to say that at the present time there is a large section of the electorate who do not use their vote with the full responsibility with which they ought to use it. There are many electors who record their votes with a certain measure of contempt, and that is borne out by the deplorable apathy which may be found more in the large cities than the smaller towns. Take, for example, the elections in connection with guardians, borough councils or even the London County Council, and you will at once realise that there is a deplorable amount of apathy. I think we ought to do our best to increase the responsibility of the voter, and I believe this Bill will have that effect because it calls upon the elector to take advantage of this privilege. The elector has to communicate with the registration officer before ho can obtain the very valuable privileges, and they are valuable, contained in this Bill. Every hon. Member of this House, and a great many persons who have never been Members of this House, realise that our present franchise law, much as it was improved in 1918, is still full of inconsistencies and inequalities and injustices, and it will be a long time before we get a simpler from of franchise so far as registration is concerned, or so far as its use is concerned. I also realise that any great change in the franchise law is a matter not for a private Member but for the Government of the day to deal with, and a Bill should be. introduced on the responsibility of the Government. We find ourselves on a Friday discussing a big change in the franchise—

Photo of Mr James Hope Mr James Hope , Sheffield Central

I think the hon. Member is getting rather wide of this Bill

Photo of Mr Herbert Williams Mr Herbert Williams , Reading

I thought I might be allowed to refer to certain matters which might have been included in the Bill, and in fact have not been included. The scope of this Bill is very limited, but I should like to ask the Home Secretary whether the Government will be prepared to give this Bill facilities in its later stages, having regard to the announcement made some time ago that the Government were proposing to set up a Committee to consider the whole question of the franchise. It is an important point, which the Bill meets at least to some extent, that the Parliamentary franchise should be placed to a very large extent on the same basis as the Local Government franchise. I agree that what we may call the lodger no longer has the Municipal vote, and that a number of women enjoy the Municipal vote who do not enjoy the Parliamentary vote. But when you come to the use of the franchise, I certainly think the terms ought to be identical, and therefore I am glad to see Clause 1 of this Bill

When, however, we come to Clause 2, there are material omissions which can be put right in Committee. I think they come within the scope of the Bill. May I mention one which comes within my own experience? Some reference has already been made by other bon. Members to the position of Members of Parliament in the matter of the Local Government franchise. What about the case, not of a Member of Parliament, but of a prospective Member of Parliament at the time of a General Election? Since I have been old enough to be qualified to be a voter, I have never yet at a General Election given a vote in respect of the constituency in which my home is situated. I have, owing to the fact that I am a university voter, been able to cast a vote on two occasions, but, if I had not had the luck to have this additional franchise, I should never have been able to vote at a General Election. It seems an extraordinary thing that a man can pass through rather more than half his life, and, though an earnest student of politics, taking a real interest in them, yet be debarred from casting a single vote in respect of his home division. That happens to have been my personal experience, and it. is probably true of a considerable number of Members of this House who have happened to be candidates for constituencies in which they do not live. It is a definite injustice which ought to be put right, and I doubt if Sub-section (5) of Clause 2 covers the point, because membership of this House does not compel me to be away from my place of residence for a period of not less than 10 days in each month. I am able to sleep in my own home every night, but the election in which I am concerned takes place at such a distance from London that it is practically impossible for me to exercise my franchise at the time of a General Election

Considerable reference has been made to commercial travellers, and as one who happens to represent a provincial town which perhaps has an unusually large number of commercial travellers, due to the excellent railway facilities which my constituency possesses, I rejoice that these men in future—there are more men than women, though the hon. Member for East Cardiff (Sir C. Kinloch-Cooke) suggested that there were a large number of ladies —are going to have an opportunity of recording their votes. At the last General Election these commercial travellers, many of whom. I know perfectly well, were debarred from voting, and it is a definite injustice. In addition, this Bill is of great concern to my constituency, because we have in it. a very large number of railway workers. Two of the main lines have not only railway stations, but important rail1.;ay works, and a large number of drivers and guards live in the constituency. I should not be surprised to find that I have 2,000 railway workers in my division. A large number of them in the past have been debarred from exercising the franchise, and I want on their behalf to express my satisfaction. I doubt if Subsection (9) goes far enough. There are a large number of platelayers who at times arc taken a considerable distance from their homes, and who, if there happens to be a fog —and we have had experience of fogs at election times lately —are prevented from exercising their vote. I mention these things to indicate that there are in this Bill, if I may use an Irishisms, a great many omissions which ought. to be put right in Committee

Then there is a rather serious defect to which no other hon. Member has drawn attention. The Bill 2.0 P.M. provides that any of the five classes of persons referred to in the Sub-section may at any time make application in the prescribed form to the registration officer to be registered as a travelling voter, and the registration officer, if satisfied as to the bonafidesof such application, shall thereupon register him as such. I see certain practical difficulties unless some limitation be put on the words "at any time." It would be grossly unfair to the registration officer and returning officer if an application of that kind could be made at any time that the town hall happened to be open, say, up to 5.30 on the day previous to the poll. It would be impossible to make adequate arrangements to ensure that there was no personation of a peculiarly undesirable form. Therefore, in Committee it would be necessary to insert appropriate words to indicate that the words "at any time" must have some limitation when you approach very nearly to the day of the poll

The Sub-section which relates to the Navy and Army Reserves and to the Territorial Forces is one which I think we all ought to support. I regret in a way that willingness to take part in the defenses of the country does not carry with it some peculiar advantages in the matter of the franchise. The use of the franchise means that you are electing a Parliament which through its support of the Government does in fact imply the control of armed forces. You are morally giving support to the principle of the use of armed forces for the preservation of public order. Those who by their action — principally those in the Territorial Army who do it in their spare time and not as a means of livelihood—express their willingness not merely to vote for Parliament but to fight for its existence, ought to have some peculiar advantages. If they do not have such advantages at the present time, this Bill at least will preserve for them the advantages which citizens who will not join the Territorial Army possess and which they might conceivably lose by their very loyalty in joining the armed forces

I come to the last paragraph of Clause 2. It. is a very important one indeed, and it, is one which, I think, excites the sympathy of everyone who has taken part in a contested election. We have in all our constituencies bedridden people who in the main are elderly people and who have taken an active part in the life of their country. Sometimes they are quite unfitted to go to vote, and on other occasions they can only vote if climatic conditions are favourable. Since, for public convenience, elections in this country generally take place between the beginning of October and the middle of January, they impose a distinct disability on these old people. We endeavour by our party machinery to provide means of conveyance to the poll for these people, and I suppose the Conservative party is rather more fortunate in being able to get the loan of vehicles for this purpose than the party opposite. We have some advantage over them in that respect. We have, if I may so put it quite frankly, an unfair and undesirable political advantage over our opponents

If we introduce this system of giving persons confined to their house through the state of their health the right to vote in exactly the same way as the University voter casts his franchise, or the other absent voters, we shall very definitely enable a large number of people to take part in the government of their country under conditions which impose no hardship upon them, and we shall be equalising to some extent that preference in regard to election machinery which the Conservatives happen to have over the Labour party, and which I have always regarded as an unfair preference. But there is the problem raised by the hon. Member for Barrow (Mr. Bromley) of the medical certificate—as to whether it should be made the duty of the panel doctor if the person happens to be an insured person, which would cover a very large number of the poorer people, in fact nearly all of them—to give a free medical certificate

That might be a solution, but my hon. Friend the Member for Royton (Dr. A. V. Davies), who is sitting near me, and who is a member of the medical profession, shakes his head. We might be imposing upon the panel doctors a very heavy burden of work. On the other hand, there is a suggestion which was made to me it conversation when the hon. Member for Barrow was speaking, that, if you went to a doctor of the right politics, you might get a free medical certificate. I do not know, but I think that conceivably that might be an illegal or even a corrupt practice, and possibly the Home Secretary will give his interpretation of the law in that regard, as to whether it would in fact be an illegal or corrupt practice for a medical man to give a free certificate and enable a person to vote as an absent voter. Very naturally, they would be far more willing to give their certificate to someone with whose political views they were in sympathy than to someone with whose political views they disagreed. If, on the other hand, it became perfectly legitimate to give free medical certificates, I see a personal difficulty, because my opponent at the last election, who is also likely to be my opponent, I understand, at the next election, happens to be a very distinguished member of the medical profession, and I do not want him to have this peculiar advantage over myself. do not know whether I am in order in quoting a remark made in this House yesterday which bears upon this question of the franchise, but if my remark is out of order, I have no doubt that you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, will very quickly make it clear to me, and I apologise in advance, because I do not want through inexperience to commit any breach of the Rules of Debate. In the Debate yesterday, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Snowden) was a little disrespectful, as it seemed to me, because he suggested that the Members of my party were returned to this House by the votes of hundreds of thousands of old women who were dragged out of their homes. That, of course, is an elegant phrase—

Photo of Mr James Hope Mr James Hope , Sheffield Central

Those were not absent voters

Photo of Mr Herbert Williams Mr Herbert Williams , Reading

Many of those who were dragged out of their homes, so far as the phrase is true, were those invalids who, if they had been registered as absent voters, could not have been said to have been dragged out of their homes; and I was going on to say, when you suggested, no doubt quite properly, that I was out of order, that, if this Bill becomes law, the very large number of people of whom that remark might have been true will no longer be affected in that way, and, if they vote, there will be no question of dragging them out of their homes. For some of the reasons which I have mentioned, I wish to say that it is my desire to support this Bill, but also to say that, if it receives a Second Reading and happens to be referred to the Standing Committee of which I am a member, I shall seek to put down very numerous Amendments in order to bring about those changes which I think are essential if it actually becomes law

Photo of Mr Robert Bourne Mr Robert Bourne , Oxford

In the course of the somewhat lengthy Debate on this Bill, I think one fact has clearly emerged, and that is that any attempt to alter the electoral law of this country is a matter of great difficulty, and one which requires the entire information at the disposal of the Home Office. My right hon. Friend the Member for the Scottish Universities (Sir H. Craik) has drawn attention to the effect that this Bill might have on elections for local government purposes—how there might be introduced into the local election lists people like the members of travelling theatrical companies, who are not resident in the town in question. Such difficulties need to be thought over and met with very careful consideration on the part of those who are responsible for the Bill. But there is another point of view which I do not think has been put at all in this Debate, and on which I want to touch, namely, the question of the absent voters' list as it exists at present. As hon. Members, doubtless, know, under the present law a person who is an absent voter, if he is in England, records his vote through the medium of the post, while if he is on foreign service he records his vote through the medium of a proxy

As those who have had any experience of elections are aware, this system is one that causes great trouble, not only to voters themselves, but to those who are responsible for the registration and for the conduct of elections. Cases occur of absent voters who, returning to their constituency on the eve of the poll, are extremely indignant when they find that they can vote only through the post, or, if they come from abroad, only by means of a proxy, although they themselves are in the constituency and wish to register their votes in person. It seems to me, also, that this duplicate system of voting by proxy in the one case or voting through the post in the other, is one that is in itself highly undesirable. We all desire that the poll should represent the opinion of the largest number of electors that is possible, and, so far as the Bill embodies that principle and will tend to bring it into operation, it has my support. I do not feel, however, that the machinery of this Bill is altogether well designed, and I sincerely hope that my right hon. Friend, when he sets up the Committee which he has promised to consider the whole electoral system of this country, will add this question to their terms of reference, because I feel certain that it is a matter which his Department should initiate and with which it should deal

I venture to suggest that the Clauses of this Bill which relate to absent voters will be very nearly inoperative. A man it to be registered as a travelling voter, and is, presumably, to vote through the medium of the post; but what machinery is there to ensure that his ballot paper will reach him in time to be returned by him so as to be included in the poll? If he is a commercial traveller, he may be away from home for a week or a fortnight. He does not necessarily know in which direction he will be going, or in what towns or at what addresses he will be staying, and it is quite possible that through inadvertence he may give wrong information to the Returning Officer, and his ballot paper may chase him from town to town and be finally returned through the Dead Letter Office too late for use. I think that all those who are, unfortunately, prevented from exercising the privilege of voting in person should be given something to enable them to vote by other means, and I believe, that justice to absent voters in this respect can only be given by means of an extension of the proxy system, that is to say, by allowing any person on the absent voters list to nominate some other person to exercise the right of franchise on his behalf. It is already done in the case of those who are serving overseas, and it, at least, means that the vote will be given, and given to the best of the belief of the person who gives it as to what are the wishes of the absent voter. It seems to me that this is the only method that can ensure the privilege of votingin, absentia,and I sincerely hope that the right hon. Gentleman will give the suggestion his careful consideration when he comes to apply the Bill. Voting by post is, I feel certain, a very illusory privilege, and I hope that better machinery will be devised to enable every person in this country to record his vote who is willing to do so

Photo of Major Sir Richard Barnett Major Sir Richard Barnett , St Pancras South West

Comparatively few Members of the present House of Commons were Members of the House at the time the Representation of the People Act was passed, and as one who was in the House at that time, and who was responsible for some of the provisions of that Measure I have always felt that we did not go as far as we might have gone in the application of the principle of she registration of absent voters. The great pre-occupation of that time was to provide voting facilities for soldiers and sailors. It seems to me that there is no reason why we should not have given the same privilege in local government as in Parliamentary government. The problems of local government are extremely important and many people would value the right of becoming absent voters on the local register as much as they do that of being absent. voters on the Parliamentary register. T am glad to see that this Bill provides for the registration of absent voters in local government. Looking at the classes of people the Bill proposes to include among absent voters, I take first of all merchant seamen, pilots, or fishermen. In view of the services which were rendered in the War in maintaining our food supply I cannot think how we failed to put that provision into the Act of 1918. It ought. to have been there. Commercial travellers are a very large class, who will have their own opinions on the proposed Silk Duties, the McKenna Duties, the gold standard and other fiscal questions, and ought to be entitled to express them at an Election. It seems to me a good ease can be made out for them also. Nothing has been more noticeable of late years than the rise in the status of the theatrical profession. They are no longer referred to as barnstormers or rogues and vagabonds. It is recognised that an actor can be a good patriot. Nothing will detract more from his efficiency, if he is really devoted to the politics of his country, as a good citizen ought to be, than that he is debarred from voting at a General Election

I speak for a constituency which has a very large railway vote. I believe some of them are misguided enough not always to vote for me, but that does not prevent me from advocating their being given the privilege of voting against me if they wish to as absent voters. Then we come to the fifth class—persons who are habitually engaged in an employment which compels them to be away from their place of residence for 10 days in each month. I am told that a very great number of junior hank clerks are disfranchised. Reference has been made to Members of Parliament. and Parliamentary candidates. I speak very feelingly on this question because I have 10 stout supporters living in my own division who are Members of the House, nine of whom were unable to vote for me, having been engaged in their own constituencies on the important day. I dare say hon. Members opposite similarly have Members of Parliament living in their constituencies who would like to vote for them, but were unable to; do so. I speak: for another very large class indeed who are disfranchised. It has been my privilege to do something, in the House and outside, for the nursing profession. I have had many letters, not during the past week or month, but during the past two years, from members of that noble profession who say they are utterly debarred from voting in the present condition of the franchise. A registered nurse, like a soldier, has to go where she is sent. She is doing her work miles away from where she is registered, and the result is that she is disfranchised. I trust that when the Bill comes into Committee, as I hope it will, a provision in favour of registered nurses will be included

Another provision of the Bill is that any person who is registered as a Parliamentary or local government elector and is likely to be away from his residence by reason of undergoing military training is to be put upon the register the moment the Registration Officer is satisfied that he is entitled to be so put on. In other words, the onus is now to be on the Registration Officer himself that a particular man ought to be on the Absent Voters List, and if he is so satisfied, without any application from the soldier or sailor or territorial he is bound to put him on the. register. That. is an excellent provision which ought to be part of our law, and I hope it will be. We all know cases of people who are debarred from voting through serious illness. We also know many cases of patriotic people who, in spite of serious illness, at great risk to their lives go to the polling booth, and I have known more than one instance of people doing their patriotic duty in that way who have paid their lives as the forfeit for it. There is no reason whatever why this provision should not be admitted. The question of a medical certificate is not very difficult, and it is a right and proper provision that on adequate notice of the existence of grave medical disability a person should be entitled to vote. There are a good many persons who are selfish and will not vote although they could very well afford to go to the poll, but there are a great many others who want to vote and are not able to do it. I think the Bill is a much needed reform. It dots some of the i's and crosses some of the t's which were undotted and uncrossed in the Act of 1918. I hope it will receive the support of the Government and get a Second Reading and will be shaped in Committee into a useful measure of reform

HON. MEMBERS:

Divide!

Photo of Mr John Whitley Mr John Whitley , Halifax

Hon. Members will not get to another subject in this way

Photo of Mr Robert Richardson Mr Robert Richardson , Houghton-le-Spring

On a point of Order. We have listened to repetitions all the afternoon. The points which are being put to the House are really Committee points

Photo of Mr John Whitley Mr John Whitley , Halifax

I understand that, after the hon. and learned Member has spoken, the Home Secretary is going to reply, and then T hope the House may come to a decision

Photo of Mr Richard Deans Mr Richard Deans , Sheffield Park

I can assure hon. Members that they will not hear any repetition from me. I do not trouble the House so often that I need be subjected to raucous noises when I do rise, nor, I flatter myself, do I talk egregious nonsense such as I am bound to say I sometimes hear proceeding from those who are trying to stop me to-day. I do not, for instance, get up and try to abolish the British Army. I rise to offer a very serious criticism upon this Bill. It cannot have escaped the notice of the House that nearly every hon. Member who has spoken has given the Bill his blessing, and has said what a fine Measure it is, and yet the Bill has been riddled with criticism. It has been discovered that the Bill is unfitted to carry out the principles which it is supposed to he intended to carry out. That principle I take to be this: that everyone who is really unable, not from fancy or from whim, but from necessity, arising either out of his occupation, his public duties, or out of something which is unavoidable such as sickness, should be enabled to exercise the franchise, which has ceased to be a privilege and has in our modern system become a right. It has been pointed out time after time, in case after case, that this object is not obtained by this Bill. One after another, hon. Members have said, "You have missed out this class or that class," while other hon. Members have said, "If you put in such and such a class, you will include a lot of unworthy people, such as those who leave the country for six months in order to avoid the payment of Income Tax

I grieve to criticise the Bill of my hon. and learned Friend so drastically, but all these criticisms suggest that the Bill is ill-drawn. What the hon. and learned Member has tried to do is to enumerate a variety of people, when all that is really needed is to state a principle. That is one of the great mischiefs of ill-considered and ill-drawn legislation. We always meet. with it in the Courts. We find that very often Parliament in attempting to remove one anomaly has created a dozen. You try to meet an exceptional case and you leave out ether cases equally exceptional. I almost despair of this Bill being so amended in Committee as to make it really workable, and to make it, carry out the principle which it is intended to carry out. I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that., seeing, that everybody believes in the principle of the Bill, it will be far better to bring in another Bill under the auspices of the Government., and try in that Bill to proclaim the principle, and leave the details to be worked cut in some other way. It is hopeless to get a coherent system if you simply try to enumerate classes of persons in various occupations and pursuits

I told the House that I would not repeat anything that had been said by anyone else, and I have carried out my promise. I have not been guilty of vain repetition, and I trust that the next time I rise to speak, I do not know how far distant that may be, I shall be accorded that courtesy which I have always accorded to hon. Members opposite, however nonsensical their observations have been

Photo of Mr William Joynson-Hicks Mr William Joynson-Hicks , Twickenham

I have listened more than anyone else in the House to this Debate. A great deal has been said in regard to the Bill which deserves very sympathetic consideration by the Government and the House. In the early part, the Debate was a very good one. Hon. Members representing different constituencies and different classes of voters put the case before the House with great fairness and with great ability, and gave reasons why this Bill should be considered from the point of view of their own constituents. Among the classes mentioned were fishermen particularly, railwaymen, commercial travellers, people who were ill, old women who could not get up, people who were in prisons and lunatic asylums, and Members of Parliament, who were unable to vote. Some hon. Members were particularly anxious that the wives of Members of Parliament who adorn the platforms of their husbands, should be considered. Someone suggested that the Bill should include the men employed by Trinity House, but I noticed that the elder brethren of Trinity House were not mentioned. The inclusion of the latter class might have given a vote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Other classes were mentioned. A great many of the cases came from the North of Scotland

In spite of all that has been said to-day, the proportion of voters at elections is steadily increasing. In 1922, the total poll was 73 per cent.; in 1924, 74 per cent.: and last year, 80 per cent. The hon. and learned Member for the Moss Side Division of Manchester (Mr. Hurst) told us that his constituency only polled about 50 per cent., and that they never polled much more than 60 per cent. I am rather surprised at that, and I cannot understand it, with such an able candidate, and I have no doubt with an able candidate on the other side. When I was a candidate for Manchester, I remember that at one time we polled 95 per cent. That was at a time when we polled our dead men early in the day. [Laughter] Yes, and on both sides. In those days, 95 per cent. was almost the record. If hon. Members will look at the Bill, they will see that an attempt has been made to introduce into it different kinds of voters. My advice is—and I am not at all sure myself —that the Bill will not have the effect which the promoters and hon. Members hope it will have. Every class of voter who has been mentioned to-day is already within the ambit of the present law. I cannot understand how it is that in the whole of the Debate nobody has referred to the present law. The law is quite clear. The Representation of the People Act, 1918, Schedule 1, Rule 16 says: Any person entitled to be registered as a Parliamentary elector, may not later than the 18th day of February, where the claim is for the Spring register, and the 18th day of August where the claim is for the Autumn register, claim to be placed on the absent voters list, and the Registration Officer, if satisfied that there is a probability that the claimant, by reason of the nature of his occupation, service or employment, may be debarred from voting at a poll at Parliamentary elections held during the time the register is in force, shall place the claimant (if registered) on the absent voters list. All these seamen and fishermen and others about whom we have heard the whole of to-day have now power to go to the registration officer and point out that by reason of their occupation, they may be debarred from polling and ask to be put on the absent voters list

Photo of Mr Herbert Williams Mr Herbert Williams , Reading

Can they do that at any time?

Sir W. JOYNSON-HCKS:

No, it must. not be later than 24th February for the spring register, and 24th August for the autumn -register

Lieut.-Colonel WATTS-MORGAN:

Will you send a copy of the extract to the hon. Member?

Sir W. JOYNSON-H IC KS:

He will get it in the Library. My attention was called to this point by a question in the House on the 7th of last month. I am afraid that my answers to questions do not always receive as much attention as they should get. I replied: I am told that in some cases commercial travellers have experienced difficulty in voting at Parliamentary elections, but I do not think that there is need for legislation. In my opinion"— it is not my opinion but that of the legal advisers of my Department— Commercial travelers, as well as other classes of electors who are likely to be away from home at a parliamentary election are entitled to the benefit of Rule 16 of Schedule I of the Representation of the People Act, 1918, which enables electors in such circumstances to claim to be placed on the absent voters list. Each claim under the rule however has to be decided by the registration officer according to the circumstances of the particular case. In some cases, I believe, decisions adverse to electors have been reversed on appeal to the County Court '' It is clear that the existing law is wider than the Bill. Every one of the classes covered by the Bill, fishermen, commercial travellers, railway guards, and others, including those who are engaged in employment which takes them away for 10 days at a time, come under the existing law. Everyone of those men can go to the registration officer to-day and get put on the absent voters list, and if under the proposed new law a commercial traveller or fisherman came to inquire whether he was under the new Act of Parliament, the tendency of all legal gentlemen. I am afraid is to minimise the law, the Registration Officer would probably say, in view of the provisions of the new Act, "Are you likely to be away for 10 days? "There is no need for such a person to be away 10 days at present. All he has got to do now is to show the registration officer that he may be debarred from voting at the next election

I shall be perfectly frank and admit that I have had cases put before me in which certain registration officers have not used this provision of the existing law as I think they ought to have done. I propose sending round a circular calling attention to this question, and to the answer which was given in this House, explaining that men who may be absent from the polling station should be put into the absent voters list I believe that that will do more good than the provisions of this Bill, but I am told that the existing law involves a claim every time there is a new voters' list, and though not so much reference has been made to that point as to the other points, I think there is something to be said for the plea that when a man or woman is on the absent voters list he should be allowed to continue on that absent voters' list without having to make these constantly recurring claims

Reference has been made to seamen, men in the mercantile marine and fishermen, and one hon. Member very definitely claimed that these men should have special privileges in voting because they were engaged on behalf of the Navy in some form or other during the War. They have got that under the existing law. All merchant seamen and fishermen who were naval or military voters during the War have, by an Order in Council, which has also been overlooked in this Debate, been put permanently into the absent voters list. The Statutory Rules under the Representation of the People Act, 1918, page 10, Clause 9, provide that where the name of any merchant seaman or fisherman has been placed on the absent voters list in pursuance of a claim on that behalf, his name shall be placed on the absent voters list for each subsequent register so long as he continues to be registered for the same qualifying premises, and the registration officer is satisfied that he continues to be a merchant seaman or fisherman, as the case may be, unless he himself gives notice to the registration officer that he wishes no longer to remain on the list

Photo of Mr David Williams Mr David Williams , Swansea East

The difficulty arises very often when a person who did happen to be away returns home on Election Day. I have had cases of that sort

Photo of Mr William Joynson-Hicks Mr William Joynson-Hicks , Twickenham

I have a note to speak on that point, but I want to say that under the existing law there is on the whole better provision than under this Bill, and there is decidedly better provision on behalf of the merchant seamen and fishermen about whom we have heard so much. As I have said, I will send a Circular to the registration officers calling attention to the existing provisions. I will also consider with my advisers whether we can ask for another Order in Council to be made with regard to keeping absent voters on the list,, s has been done successfully in the case fishermen and seamen. I do not see any grave difficulty myself, but I am not giving a pledge that it shall be done. The only pledge I am giving is to consider whether it is possible to frame an Order in Council which would, at all events, until the matter is more fully considered by the House, as I hope to show the House it will be shortly, enable people to remain on the, absent voters list

Photo of Mr Richard Wallhead Mr Richard Wallhead , Merthyr Tydfil Merthyr

Until they take themselves off

Photo of Mr William Joynson-Hicks Mr William Joynson-Hicks , Twickenham

Yes. Now with regard to the point raised by the hon. Member for East Swansea (Mr. D Williams), he will see the difficulty. It cannot be got over. If a man deliberately puts himself on the absent voters list, he ` has got to vote as an absent voter. 1 had cases of that kind in my own constituency at the last election. I remember one absent voter who was in a violent temper because he had lost his voting paper and he wanted to go and vote at the poll. I said it was perfectly impossible for him to do so. The hon. Member can see at once that if you allow an absent voter, who may receive his ballot paper direct, to go to the presiding officer at the polling booth and to say, "I am sorry. I was on the absent voters list, but I came back last night, ' the position is impossible. Anyone who is once put on the absent voters list must stay there

I do not know that I need refer in detail to the provisions of the Bill. But look at the last provision in Clause 2, relating to persons who are ill. That really presents a very grave difficulty. In the first place, the proportion of ill voters is not very great. I think one may say roughly that as many ill voters vote for one side as for the other. They, therefore, cancel one another. The moment you decide that the person who is ill should have an absent voter's paper you are making a very grave difficulty. You must have a medical certificate; that is agreed. Already it is claimed that the medical certificates should be either free —you cannot expect a doctor to work for nothing—or that the certificate should be paid for by someone, presumably the State. I do not think that that provision is workable. Look at the position. The person who registers must, two days before an election, submit the certificate to a registration officer. That is at a time when the whole constituency is in a turmoil and the registration officer is beside himself running up and down to make arrangements for the polling booth, the presiding officers and clerks, and so forth. At that time he is to receive these certificates from duly qualified medical practitioners, that this person or that is likely to be ill

The police have told me that there are certain medical men in London who make rather a good practice by certifying that en occasions certain people are not as drunk as the police doctors think they are. Think of the chance for the medical profession when doctors have to certify that someone is likely to be ill in two days' time ! This Bill has been proposed by an hon. Friend of mine, and I do not want to make too much fun of it, because I like to keep on good terms with my friends. But I do not think that that provision could be allowed to pass. On the whole it would be very difficult to establish any Clause enabling voters who are ill to vote at parliamentary elections. The late Chancellor of the Exchequer complained only yesterday that we were put into power by the votes of the old women of the country

Photo of Mr William Joynson-Hicks Mr William Joynson-Hicks , Twickenham

I do not think the hon. Member can have heard the statement. That was the complaint which I heard made by the late Chancellor of the Exchequer. This Bill might add a few more of what the right hon. Gentleman regards as an undesirable element of voters. Let me put one rather serious matter under the existing law. That is, that a large extension of the principle of absent voting will do away with the secrecy of the ballot. There is no doubt about it. Take the case of large institutions, where large numbers of people are elderly. The case I have in mind, for I happen to be a Commissioner, is Chelsea Hospital, where there are 1100 old soldiers, a great many of whom are not capable of going to the polling booth. How would their votes be marked? They would go to the governor or the matron

Photo of Mr William Thorne Mr William Thorne , West Ham Plaistow

They do now. As a matter of fact, even the candidates do not know the people who vote for them. It is the town clerk who knows

Photo of Mr William Joynson-Hicks Mr William Joynson-Hicks , Twickenham

That is not the point. The point is that when people get their polling paper there is no power on earth to prevent their consulting someone else as to how the paper should be marked. We have heard a claim by the hon. Member for Barrow (Mr. Bromley) on behalf of the railway engine drivers and other railwaymen. He is a leader in the trade union of these men. I can imagine that if there were a large extension of absent voting in the railway world, these men might say— the hon. Member will excuse me for mentioning his name —" Here, Bromley, how should I fill up my paper? "That is a great deal of power to give to anyone, and I am not sure that it is desirable to give it. You would give it to the governor or the matron of an institution. You could not keep the secrecy of the ballot. The policy of this country for years has been to preserve the secrecy of the ballot absolutely inviolable. I believe that such secrecy is good for all sections of the community. No one should know how a voter is voting. 1 am going to suggest to the Mover of the Second Reading of the Bill that after what I have said in regard to the existing law, he will be making a mistake if he presses this Bill. I think he will be limiting rather than improving the position of the voters concerned. I have promised that I will issue a circular to registration officers calling attention to the existing law. I will consider also the question of an Order in Council. The House knows that we propose to ask Mr. Speaker to call a conference next year upon women's votes. In that conference I hope that. all parties will take part. I suggest that this matter should be brought before them with a view of seeing whether any improvements are desirable or necessary in the methods of voting by absent voters

It is only fair to say that there is another part of the Bill to which I take considerable exception, and that is the provision for extending the absent voters' right to local government elections. There are in England and Wales 509 Parliamentary constituencies. There are for local government 9,804 constituencies. The proposal of this Bill would extend the absent voters' rights to county council, municipal borough, urban district council, rural district council, boards of guardians and parish council elections. Really, that is regard for the absent voter run riot. All this method of arrangement, all this complication of electoral machinery, in order to enable the parish council voter who is going away for a few clays, to vote for a parish councillor, really is not necessary. After what 1 have said with regard to the existing law and the pledges which I have given, I hope it will not be necessary to carry the Bill

Photo of Mr Walter Womersley Mr Walter Womersley , Grimsby

Will the right hon. Gentleman take into consideration the suggestion which I made to have instructions printed, showing how these absent voters' papers can be obtained, posted up at the Board of Trade offices at the sea ports

Photo of Mr William Joynson-Hicks Mr William Joynson-Hicks , Twickenham

I quite agree. I think it is right that the Government should take all possible steps to carry out Acts of Parliament, and I shall certainly see what can be done to make plainer, not only to the registration officer, but to the fishermen and others who might be absent voters, what their rights are and how they can carry them out

Photo of Major Sir Richard Barnett Major Sir Richard Barnett , St Pancras South West

Will the right hon. Gentleman make it clear in his Circular to registration officers what classes of persons are to be entitled -nurses for example?

Photo of Mr William Joynson-Hicks Mr William Joynson-Hicks , Twickenham

The law is that everybody who is on the register of voters, whether engineers or fishermen or nurses or what not, can go to the returning officer and say, "T am debarred by employment, by service or by occupation from voting at the General Election put me on the absent voters list." That is wider than the proposal of the Bill

Photo of Mr John Jones Mr John Jones , West Ham Silvertown

The right hon. Gentleman did not refer to the fact that there is part of this Bill which deals with the question of absentee voters in municipal areas. Is it intended that a man who may have a business in a district. but who lives away from it, can claim the right to be a voter in a municipal election in that district apart from the fact that he has already got a vote elsewhere?

Photo of Mr Robert Bourne Mr Robert Bourne , Oxford

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider whether there is any possibility of carrying out the suggestion which I made in regard to an alteration of the system in connection with absent voters?

Photo of Mr William Joynson-Hicks Mr William Joynson-Hicks , Twickenham

I think not. The proposal of my hon. and gallant Friend was that, instead of absent voters, there should be proxy voters. Just think of what that would mean to a trade union leader who might have 5,000 proxies in his pocket

Photo of Mr Thomas Johnston Mr Thomas Johnston , Dundee

In connection with the question of absent voters in municipal areas will the right hon. Gentleman consider this point—that there are numbers of fishermen and fisherwomen who, unless they get an absent voter's ballot paper, can never in any circumstances vote at a local government election?

Photo of Mr William Joynson-Hicks Mr William Joynson-Hicks , Twickenham

At present my view is against the extension of this complicated machinery to municipal elections, but, as I have said, I hope to be able to bring the whole matter before a full conference next year

Photo of Mr Gervais Rentoul Mr Gervais Rentoul , Lowestoft

In view of the support which this Bill has received I propose to press it to a Division. I am surprised

that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has not dealt with what is the main object aimed at by the Bill, and that is to remove the discretion that at present exists in the hands of the registration officer

Question put, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

The House divided: Ayes, 76; Noes, 79

Division No. 91.]AYES[3. 0p. m
Adamson, W. M. (Staff., Cannock)Galbralth, J. F. WSanders, Sir Robert A
Applin, Colonel R. V. KGraham, Rt. Hon. Wm. (Edin., Cent.)Savery, S. S
Barnett, Major Richard W. 'Grenfell, D. R. (Glamorgan)Scrymgeour, E
Beckett, Sir Gorvase (Leeds, N.)Grotrian, H. BrentScurr, John
Benn, Captain Wedgwood (Lolth)Guest, Dr. L. Haden (Southwark, N.)Shepperson, E. W
Bird, Sir R. B. (Wolverhampton, W.)Gunston, Captain D. WSimms, Dr. John M. (Co. Down)
Broad, F. AHacking, Captain Douglas HSkelton, A. N
Bromley, JHarrison, G. J. CSmillle, Robert
Brown, James (Ayr and Bute)Hayes, John HenrySmith, Ben (Bermondsey, Rotherhltho)
Burman, J. BHeneage. Lieut. -Col. Arthur PSmith-Carington, Neville W
Cadogan, Major Hon. EdwardHolbrook, Sir Arthur RichardSnell, Harry
Cape, ThomasJacob, A. ESomerville, A. A. (Windsor)
Cochrane, Commander Hon. A. DJohn, William (Rhondda, West)Stanley, Lord (Fylde)
Colfox, Major Wm. PhillipsLansbury, GeorgeTempleton, W. P
Couper, J. BLivingstone, A. MThomson, F. C. (Aberdeen, South)
Dalkeith, Earl ofLowth, TVaughan-Morgan, Col. K. P
Dalton, HughLunn, WilliamWalsh, Rt. Hon. Stephen
Davies, Evan (Ebbw Vale)Makins, Brigadier-General EWebb, Rt. Hon. Sidney
Day, Colonel HarryMorris, R. HWilliams, A. M. (Cornwall, Northern)
Eden, Captain AnthonyOwen, Major G.Williams, Com. C. (Devon, Torquay)
Edwards, John H. (Accrington)Parkinson. John Allen (Wigan)Williams, Herbert G. (Reading)
Evans. Capt. Ernest (Welsh Univer.)Pethick-Lawrence, F. WWomersiey, W. J
Fairfax, Captain J. GPrice, Major C. W. MWright, W
Falls, Sir Charles FRice, Sir FrederickYerburgh, Major Robert D. T
Forrest, WRichardson, R. (Houghton-le-Spring)
Fraser, Captain IanRobertson, J. (Lanark, Bothwell)TELLERS FOR THE AYES. —;
Mr. Rentoul and Mr. Clayton
NOES
Agg-Gardner, Rt. Hon. Sir James THayday, ArthurShiels, Or. Drummond
Albery. Irving JamesHenderson, T. (Glasgow)Sitch, Charles H
Alexander, A. V. (Sheffield, Hillsbro')Henderson, Lieut. -Col. V. L. (Bootle)Slaney, Major P. Kenyon
Baker, J. (Wolverhamton, Bilston)Herbert, Dennis (Hertford. Watford)Smith, R. W. (Aberd'n & Klnc'dine, C.)
Barnes, AHirst, W. (Bradford, South)Smithers, Waidron
Barr, JHopkins, J. W. WSprot, Sir Alexander
Batey, JosephHume, Sir G. HSutton, J. E
Beckett, John (Gateshead)Johnston, Thomas (Dundee)Thorne, W. (West Ham, Plalstow)
Berry Sir GeorgeJones, J. J. (West Ham, Silvertown)Thurtle, E
Bourne, Captain Robert CroftKelly, W. TTinker, John Joseph
Bowerman. Rt. Hon. Charles WKennedy, TViant, S. P
Brocklebank, C, E. R.King, Capt. Henry DouglasWallhead, Richard C
Broun-Lindsay, Major HLord, Walter Greaves-Warner, Brigadier-General W. W
Campbell, E. TLuce, Major-Gen. Sir Richard HarmanWatts-Morgan, Lt. -Col. D. (Rhondda)
Charleton. H. CManningham-Buller, Sir MervynWestwood, J
Charteris, Brigadier-General JMarch, SWignall, James
Cluse, W. SMitchell, Sir W. Lane (Streatham)Williams, David (Swansea, East)
Cove. W. GMontague, FrederickWilliams, Dr. J. H. (Lianelly)
Crookshank, Cpt. H. (Lindsey, Galnsbro)Naylor, T. EWindsor, Walter
Curzon, Captain ViscountNelson, Sir FrankWise, Sir Fredric
Davies, A. V. (Lancaster, Royton)Nuttall, EllisWood, B. C. (Somerset, Bridgwater)
Davison, Sir W. H. (Kensington. S.)Oakley, TWood, E. (Chest'r, Stalyb'dge & Hyde)
Doyle. Sir N. GrattanPilditch. Sir PhilipYoung, Robert (Lancaster, Newton)
Gault. Lieut. -Col. Andrew HamiltonPotts, John S
Gosling, HarryRaine, WTELLERS FOR THE NOES —
Greenwood, A. (Nelson and Colne)Ritson, JColonel James and Mr. Storry
Groves, TRobinson, W. C. (Yorks, W. R., Elland)Deans
Hartshorn, Rt. Hon. VernonShaw, Lt. -Col. A. D. Mcl. (Renfrew, W)