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County And Borough Councils (Qualification) (No 3) Bill

Volume 65: debated on Monday 20 July 1914

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Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

This is a Bill which proposes to allow an additional qualification for the election of county and borough councils. Under the law as it now stands for local governing bodies a twelve-months' residence within the area is a qualification for election. That is the case in regard to Parliament, borough, urban district, rural, and parish councils, and boards of guardians. In regard to county councils this qualification does not exist; consequently there are great numbers of people who might be eligible as members of these bodies who are prevented from standing for them. Incidentally, this provision of the law has the effect of excluding all married women, except in London, from election anywhere as members of town or county councils. Whatever our ideas may be as to Women Suffrage, the House, I think, generally will agree that this disqualification should not prevent women, on account of marriage, from presenting themselves to the voters for election on these local bodies. I propose, therefore, in this Bill, to ask the House to allow the same residential qualification for county and borough councils as already is allowed by law for all other local governing authorities in the country. As the House knows, there are difficulties from time to time in the selection of suitable persons as members of these bodies, and it is desirable to allow the widest possible choice to the electors in choosing their representatives. I hope, therefore, the House will pass this measure; it is keenly desired by numbers of persons interested in our local, government affairs.

I am not at all sure that this is desired by the unfortunate ratepayers. The right hon. Gentleman has not really told the House what the effect of this Bill is. The effect of the Bill is this. As the law stands at present no one can be elected as alderman or county or borough councillor unless he has an occupation qualification. An occupation qualification means that the particular person has to pay rates; that is to say a person cannot be elected with the power of imposing rates upon other people unless he himself pays rates. [HON. MEMBERS: "No, no."] That, as I am informed, is the law at the present moment. The right hon. gentleman now proposes for that merely a twelve months' residential qualification. Therefore, any lodger who lives in a room for which he pays 3s. or 4s. per week for twelve months is to be qualified to sit upon a body which imposes rates upon other people.

I say that is quite wrong, and because it has been done in Metropolitan borough councils, district councils, or parish councils is so far from being a reason for doing-it in this instance that I think it ought to be reversed and the law left as it is in the case of county and borough councils. It is one of the very greatest misfortunes of to-day that the people who imposed both taxes and rates in many cases do not have to pay a single penny towards them. It tends to extravagance, and it is not good either for the administration of the particular body or for the pockets of the unfortunate ratepayers. With regard to the inclusion of married women, I do not know I particularly object to married women sitting upon those councils except that the duty of the married woman is in her home. The spinster has nothing to do except to go and waste her time upon one of those particular bodies, but the married woman should be at home looking after the baby and her children. I do not know that it is worth while dividing the House at this stage, but I shall move Amendments when the Bill gets to Committee.

This Bill proposes a very important change in the law and I really think we should have some more explicit statement upon it before we pass it. I do not agree with the hon. Baronet that a person must pay rates before he can be elected to a council. Under Section 11 of the Municipal Corporations Act a person only requires to be on the roll of electors before being entitled to sit upon a council. There is no qualification as to the payment of rates directly.

I never said so. I said the occupation qualification in the majority of cases meant payment of rates.

There are thousands of electors who do not pay rates direct in the sense which the hon. Baronet means. I should like to ask the President of the Local Government Board one or two questions. In the first place, how is it possible to know unless a list is kept of the persons entitled to sit on the county councils under the new law. Any person can declare that they have resided in a town for twelve months. The law is that a man must have been on the register as a voter. [An HON. MEMBER: "No."] I am speaking of persons in municipal boroughs where the law is quite clear. This Bill alters the law with regard to county councils and municipal boroughs and it says that a person shall not be qualified to be a councillor unless he is entitled to be enrolled as a burgess. Any person who lives in a town for twelve months will be entitled to sit on the council under this Bill. What provision is there to ensure or guarantee that such a person has lived in a borough or county for twelve months? There is no indication in this Bill of such a qualification or that such a list is to be prepared.

Clause 1 provides that a woman, if elected as chairman of a council shall not by virtue of holding or having held that office be a justice of the peace. Every Mayor is a justice of the peace and presides over the Bench for the year ho is holding office. If a woman is holding that office she will become the chief magistrate for the year. That is an important point, because the chief magistrate has important functions to perform during his year of office. There is no provision in the Bill with regard to that point, and I think some provision ought to be put in the Bill making the senior justice of the peace chief magistrate for the time being in case the mayor happens to be a woman. These are all points which I am afraid have not been considered by the draughtsman of this Bill. The mayor is an important personage and has very many duties to perform, and if that office is held by a woman she is disqualified to act as chief magistrate, and some provision ought to be made to rectify that error.

I can assure the hon. Member opposite that there is no difficulty in fixing the qualification by residence at the present time. All electors for district councils can vote upon a residential qualification and no sort of difficulty arises. It is merely a question of preparing the lists upon which the overseers place all residents for twelve months. What has really caused the necessity for this Bill is a mistake made by Parliament not removing a disqualification, but from the fact that very few women are qualified as voters for county and borough councils, they cannot stand for election.

All that this Bill does is to make real the removal of the disqualification which was purported to have been removed seven years ago. I myself introduced a Bill for the same purpose, and it is an act of tardy justice that I hope the House will pass. Clause 1 provides that a woman who is elected chairman of a county council or mayor of a borough shall not be a justice of the peace ex officio. I cannot see why she should not be. Let the House consider the matter. She first of all has got to stand for election to the county or borough council, and, if she is elected by the ratepayers of the district, she has further got to be elected as chairman of the county council or mayor of the borough, and any woman who passes through these two tests is very well qualified to act as a justice of the peace.

I am a little astonished at the lack of information which some hon. Members have on a simple question like this. The hon. Member for Stockton (Mr. Jonathan Samuel) and the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. J. W. Hills) do not seem to know that for twenty years the disqualification has been in full vogue, both with regard to boards of guardians, urban councils and rural councils. There is no list required. When a man or woman stands they simply have to satisfy the returning officer that they have resided there for twelve months. When I went into my present residence, I was there about thirteen months before the election for guardians took place for the Ponte-fract Union, and when the year came round they begged of me to stand, and I was elected on a residential qualification. I put it to the hon. Baronet that if I had not chosen to go the probability is that a workman would have gone in my place very unwillingly, because he would have had to sacrifice his wages in order to go. He was living in a house rented at 1s. 6d. per week, and he came and begged me to allow myself to be nominated, and said he would retire.

There are cases within my knowledge where a man has married a woman of property, and his mother-in-law being alive, he has chosen to live in the house, which is in her name—a man of great education and of great substance—rather than take the daughter away from the parental roof. Such a man of very-great substance indeed without having any qualification becomes a candidate. The urban district councils had a conference last week, and it may be information to hon. Members to know that some of them are larger than many boroughs. There is Tottenham and important places in Lancashire where they choose to be urban districts in preference to being boroughs. A district council is a simple direct authority and, in my opinion, the model authority for local government. Residence there has been the only qualification, and it has worked well. It has not resulted in putting people of no substance upon the council. This is a one-clause Bill, which I say candidly and somewhat shame-facedly is very well drafted, and I support it with all the enthusiasm I can muster for anything.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House for to-morrow (Tuesday).