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Parliament (Qualification Of Women) Bill
12 November 1918
Volume 31

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.

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My Lords, the Bill that I have the honour to submit to the consideration of your Lordships and to ask that you should read a second time this evening is a simple and short Bill consisting of one operative clause. Its brevity is no indication of its importance in the future constitutional machinery of Parliament. It grants a far-reaching extension of discretion on the part of the electors in deciding who is to represent them in the House of Commons. It proposes that women should have the same opportunity of securing seats in Parliament as is now afforded to men. Therefore, it removes one of the last sex barriers that now exist in our constitutional system and affirms that women are to have an equal right with men to the primary privilege of citizenship.

It is only a few months ago that your Lordships, by a large majority, affirmed the principle that women should have the privilege of voting for candidates for Parliament, and, by the enactment of the Representation of the People Bill, six million women are to-day on the Register. The proposal now to enable women to obtain admission to Parliament is the natural and inevitable consequence of that decision. If passed into law it finally terminates the old theory that women's interest in the common weal of the State is inferior to that of men. This Bill has come up from another place where it has been fully debated. It passed there through all its stages without amendment.

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In one day?

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Not in one day. It is not suggested that this Bill should pass through all its stages in one day in your Lordships' House either. It experienced little opposition. It was moved by Resolution by Mr. Herbert Samuel, and was then assumed by the Government as one of their own measures. At this late period of the evening, with the empty benches I see around me, I do not feel that it is necessary for me in moving the Second Reading to occupy your Lordships' time at any great length by repeating in detail arguments which are familiar both to your Lordships and those outside this House in regard to this question. However, I realise that the proposal is one admittedly of such a far-reaching importance in the possibilities of change, both as regards the character and personnel of future Parliaments, that your Lordships have every justification in giving it your full consideration before signifying your decision. None the less, I venture to hope that in forming your decision you will have in mind the fact that the House of Commons, who are especially affected in regard to it, have already accepted it, and that the rejection by your Lordships would be unfortunate at this juncture, and might give rise to a serious feeling of protest outside this House among those who feel earnestly on the question.

It may be contended by those who disapprove of the enfranchisement of women that it is premature immediately to grant this further privilege to them. I find, however, that those who were most prominent in opposition to the Bill for enfranchiseing women are to be found supporters of this Bill, their support being based on grounds, to my mind, both logical and intelligible—that the acceptance of enfranchisement must lead to the privilege of eligibility to sit in the House, the one step inevitably involving the other, both on grounds of precedent, policy, and consistency. If this Bill is not passed now, it will certainly form a prominent place in the demand by the constituencies at the coming Election, and it is pretty certain that the demand will be invariably acceded to by candidates when the question is placed before them. I would venture to say, therefore, that it is better that Parliament should decide this question now, and that it should not be allowed to be left, as it would otherwise be, in doubt at the General Election, and that Parliament, which is the proper place where it should be decided, should deal with it now rather than postpone it to the new Parliament, which will have so many heavy burdens of urgent work placed upon it. I venture to hope that this aspect of the question which I have briefly put before you will commend itself to your Lordships.

There are many who look with apprehension, and even aversion, to the inclusion of women in our constitutional system. I have not to look very far round from where I am standing now to find those who hold that view. I hope, however, that noble Lords will give their support to this measure, even though in some cases it may be a support strongly tinged with reluctance and in a spirit of resignation. It will be observed that this Bill does not lay down any conditions regarding the age of eligibility of women as candidates, whilst only those above the age of thirty are eligible to vote. At first sight, this may seem somewhat inconsistent, perhaps; therefore I may be allowed, very briefly, to anticipate this charge which may be made. Your Lordships will remember that the age of thirty, which was prescribed for enfranchisement of women, was made not because women of a younger age were considered less competent to exercise the vote, but rather because the inclusion of women between the ages of twenty-one and thirty might lead to women-voters being in a majority on the Register, and this was considered, too drastic a departure in the realms of constitutional experiment. Therefore the embargo on any woman below the age of thirty was placed in that measure.

In the case of eligibility to Parliament, this age condition is not necessary. The whole question of age, suitability, and competence can safely be left, and should be left, in the hands of the electorate to decide, who are perfectly capable of doing so. If a woman of twenty-five years of age, and even younger, possessed the necessary qualities in the minds of the electorate, there is apparently no reason for refusal of admission on ground of age. If we are to judge by the experience in other countries where this privilege already obtains, we may anticipate that if this Bill is passed it will not result in a large number of women candidates, still less in any appreciable number of women being returned to Parliament. A woman who stands for Parliament in one of our new constituencies, as recently reformed and enlarged, will have to undergo a very severe ordeal. She will have to satisfy a very critical electorate as to the competence of a woman to represent them, and I venture to say that certainly by no means the least critical of and the most indulgent to a woman candidate will be the women voters in the constituency; and I think it may be confidently anticipated that a very large number of the newly enfranchised women will record their votes against women, on the very principle that they are opposed to women representing them in Parliament. Therefore, my Lords, if a woman succeeds at the polls in one of our new broad-based popular constituencies, I venture to say that she will have to have shown exceptional qualities of energy, ability, and ex- perience to justify her selection as a capable Member of Parliament. She will have to have shown herself to be one, quite apart from sex, who is able to contribute her share to the deliberations and decisions of the nation.

There is one more point that I would like to advance in favour of this Bill before I conclude. The work of Parliament in the immediate future will be the most onerous and difficult, probably, in the history of our country. Settlement and reconstruction will present problems of the very gravest character. We may have to face times as difficult and as anxious as any during the last four years. I venture to say it is of the first importance that the Parliament that has to deal with the perplexing situation which will be before us should represent in the very fullest sense every interest and opinion in the country. And I venture to say, in this connection, that there are women who during the past four years have shown a competence and capability in responsible positions that certainly lead to the presumption that their presence and influence would be of value and service to the State.

The war has enabled many women to become familiar with various aspects of our public life in which they may have hitherto been unversed, and I venture to say that the mind and sympathy of a woman brought to bear on some of these questions which require urgent reform and redress will be very valuable, as enabling them to represent, often, an aspect of these questions which may not occur to men. It is not only on the floor of the House of Commons that a woman, if successful at the polls, will be of service in the future Parliament; neither will it be only on the public platforms of the country. Your Lordships will, I hope, agree that their influence and advice will be of the greatest value in those Committees which will have to be formed to work out the details of the vast number of questions that will arise in the years to come. Under the present system a woman may be placed upon a Departmental Committee, but until she becomes a member of Parliament she could not be a member of any of our Parliamentary Committees, Select Committees, or Joint Committees of both Houses. Such questions as the condition of woman labour, public health, infant welfare, education, housing, employment of women, and pensions for those who are bereaved as the result of the war, and those who have been maimed in the war, and kindred subjects, are conspicuously amongst those which women are competent to assist in and render great service to the State. Many of those subjects have been in abeyance under the emergencies of the war during the past four years, and many of them have accumulated until they have become very acute subjects. Some of them have been created as a result of the war, and they now await attention and action by Parliament as vital elements in the reconstruction of our social system. In conclusion I hope that your Lordships will support this measure, because it will enable the country to have in the future a Parliament based on the widest and most popular representation that can be devised, and that I believe is essential in the troubled days that lay before us. I venture, therefore, to ask your Lordships to approach the Bill in this spirit, and to endorse the decision of the House of Commons and give the Bill a Second Reading this evening.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a .—( Lord Islington.)

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My Lords, I am the last person in this House to dispute for a single moment the statement made by the noble Lord, that there are doubtless many women in this country whose presence in the House of Commons would be an advantage. For what is it that the noble Lord has told us? That in the next House of Commons the work will be onerous, difficult and hard to a degree, and that it will require the ablest and most experienced of women to deal with it if it is to be dealt with in an adequate manner. When I heard those statements from the noble Lord I thought that they afforded the strongest possible ground for the severest criticism upon the members of the Government in the House of Commons who have laid before us such a Bill.

I did not have the advantage of seeing this Bill until I came into the House this afternoon. And what do I find from it? A woman shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from being elected to, or sitting or voting as a member of, the Commons House of Parliament. I have ascertained from those whom I believe to be unquestioned authorities that a woman under this Bill is a woman of twenty-one years of age or over. The noble Lord agrees to that. Then, when he tells us that the most experienced women in the Kingdom are needed to fulfil the duties which will devolve upon Parliament, he reminds us almost at the same time that under the Reform Bill not one of these women of twenty-one years of age can have a vote, and yet they are entitled to sit in the House of Commons. Obviously this is an absurdity. How such an absurdity can ever have been allowed to come into a Bill sent to us in the last hours of the Parliament, at a time like this, is something that I cannot understand, and the Bill certainly requires a much better defence than has so far been offered to us.

This absurdity can be rememdied by an Amendment. You could, of course, amend this Bill ad libitum by giving votes to the women of twenty-one years of age who are to be entitled to sit in the Houses of Commons, but if you do that you are at once confronted by the fact, which the noble Lord himself appears to have had in his mind, that you will then be transferring the whole power of governing this kingdom from the men to the women of the country, because, as the noble Lord himself told us, they will be in a majority. Moreover, in view of the enormous losses among the heroes who have been fighting for us, that majority will be a very large one. Do you suppose that the women themselves, unless they disapprove of women sitting in the House of Commons, will permit the present state of things to continue when they have a vote? That is a question which might have suggested itself to noble Lords at the time of the Reform Bill, because the facts as to the numbers of women were well known then. There is another fact, which I ascertained from the high authority of gentlemen who had served upon the Speaker's Conference, that at least five millions out of the six millions of women would be directly or indirectly connected with organised labour. This Bill seems to me to be an instance of the folly of scrambling legislation through Parliament at a period when the session is coming to a close. It deals, as the noble Lord himself told us, with matters of the highest and indeed of supreme importance, but which appear to have been forgotten altogether by the Government when this Bill was being passed through the House of Commons.

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May I remind the noble Viscount that the House of Commons very fully debated it. There was a long debate on Second Reading, and a full debate in Committee.

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I think, then, that there was less excuse, because they ought to have had all these facts before them if the debate was to be worth anything at all. The noble Lord would not then have been placed in the very unfortunate position which I think he occupies to-night. The position is made worse in this respect. If ever there was a question which ought to be submitted to the women themselves before it was made law it is this. Who is my authority for that? Why, the noble Lord himself, for he has just told us that probably very few women at all will be elected. And why? Because women do not think, as a rule, that they ought to be Members of Parliament. Then why on earth, if you believe that, did you not postpone this Bill till after the Election and submit the question of women coming into Parliament to the women themselves?

I suppose that this Amendment could be moved at a later stage of the Bill, but I believe we made a great and hurried mistake in introducing controversial legislation of this character at all in defiance of all the pledges and statements, made by man after man occupying leading positions in the Government at that time in the House of Commons, where I was myself, when it was declared that there should be no controversial legislation during the war. This is one of the evil consequcnes of departing from pledges of that kind. I shall propose no Amendment in Committee—I should not gain my object in that way; but what I shall do is to move, as I ask your Lordships to allow me to do now, that this Bill be read a second time on this day six months.

Amendment moved—

Leave out the word "now" and insert at the end of the Motion "this day six months."—( Viscount Chaplin.)

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My Lords, I feel it necessary to dissociate myself from my noble friend. He presents a magnificent spectacle of one left high and dry upon the beach. The currents are flowing into the ocean, and it is perhaps as well that his bark is not in peril on that ocean. He reflects upon the Government for having weakly and inconsiderately given way to an impulse. The Government did nothing of the kind. They have been merely interpreting the vast manifestation of opinion which has taken place in every stratum of society, and which has been enormously stimulated by the war, which has revolutionised things. The war has had enormous effects outside these islands—greater far, fortunately for us, than within these islands; but within these islands it has brought about a great change of opinion, and one of those changes which we cannot neglect, and which a wise Conservatism will prevent us from neglecting, is the new recognition of the status of women. They have already got the franchise, and this Bill is merely a consequential Bill. We cannot inconsistently prevent them from taking a part in legislative work. To say that it matters that a woman cannot vote until she is thirty, and yet can be chosen for sitting in the House of Commons at the age at which Mr. Pitt was chosen, seems to me beside the point. I have the very strongest conviction that this Bill is irresistible, and I am glad that the Government have been the interpreters of public opinion in bringing it forward, and if my noble friend divides the House I shall support the Government.

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My Lords, I should like to define my position with regard to this Bill. I do not think it is quite reasonable to move without notice the rejection of the Bill. The course which I personally intended to pursue when the Question was put was to say "Not-content," because I wished to dissociate myself from any responsibility for a matter which I think a perfect outrage upon Parliamentary procedure. But if I were going to attempt to stop the Bill, I think it would have been reasonable to give notice for that purpose.

The noble Lord, in moving the Second Reading of the Bill, said this was the natural and inevitable consequence of what we did earlier in the year. Then why was it not done then? I think the obvious answer is that, if it had been done then, it would have enormously strengthened the opposition to the enfranchisement of women, and that I believe to be the reason why it was not done then. A good deal is made about the Division and discussion in another place. Everybody knows that that was a decision arrived at by sheer funk. No one dared to vote against the women who was going to stand again, because he knew that, had he done so, he would have been a marked man. Everybody knows it from conversation with Members who took part in the Division.

But though I think it an outrage upon Parliamentary procedure, I do not think it would be reasonable for this House to reject the Bill on this Motion, because that cannot be undone without the Bill passing again through the other House of Parliament, and I will not take the responsibility for that. Therefore if the noble Lord persists in his Amendment I shall simply withdraw. I want to ask when the next stage of this Bill is to be taken. Because we are very near the end of the session. On that stage is it intended to do anything towards the franchisement of Peeresses? Is any Amendment to be moved on that matter? An Amendment was moved in another place, and I think was withdrawn on the ground that it was a matter for this House, and not for the other House of Parliament. As time is short, I think it is not an unfair question to ask the Government whether they intend to make themselves responsible for any change in the qualification for this House.

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My Lords, we suggest that the Bill should be put down for Committee stage the day after tomorrow. The Government does not propose to make itself responsible for such an Amendment as the noble Lord refers to, but, of course, if any of your Lordships move it, the matter will have to be considered. I would venture to suggest to Lord Chaplin that he should adopt the course outlined by Lord Balfour, who, like myself, did not expect that any Motion to reject the Bill would be moved; and I especially point that out to him, in view of the fact that the hour is a little late and the House has ceased to be representative, and that other Peers imagined that no Division was likely—

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That was the general impression, I understand; and I would especially make that point clear, if I may, to the noble Lord because the great objection he took in his speech was one which in my opinion was emphatically a Committee point, and which is not prejudged in any way by the Second Reading; and he could, of course, raise the question of the age, to which he attached so much importance, at the later and, perhaps, more natural stage of the Bill.

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My Lords, I am sure that we all listen invariably with great interest and attention to anything that falls from the noble Viscount. While he was speaking I felt that he was to a great extent making a speech against the granting of votes to women. I need not say that on that subject I was in cordial agreement; I voted against giving the vote to women.

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May I explain? I was not doing that, and for the best possible reason that it is too late. They have got the vote.

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I do not think that would have prevented my noble friend from making a good many observatoins which would have been in order on the other Bill. However, I will say no more about that. My noble friend referred with some bitterness to the fact that women under thirty would be admitted to the House of Commons under this Bill. It is true that women under thirty do not at present have votes, but it is not necessary that any person sitting in the House of Commons should be qualified as a voter.

I desire to say a very few words to explain my reasons for thinking it undesirable that the House should reject this Bill. The question of the qualification of women to sit in the House of Commons is a different one from the question whether they should sit in this House—that is a very different question, and one which depends upon different considerations. The broad distinction between the two cases is that, in order to sit in the House of Commons, you must have been elected by a constituency, and no such test, of course, is imposed with regard to the right to sit in this House. In these circumstances it seems to me that it is difficult, when Parliament has given votes to women, for this House to reject a Bill coming from the House of Commons proposing to give the right to sit in the House of Commons to any woman who is returned there by a constituency. When the clause in the Representation of the People Bill enfranchising women was under discussion it was pointed out, I think, as an objection to it, that it would probably lead to a demand for the admission of women into Parliament. But that and all other objections were overborne, and it is now established that women have votes. I refer to that only for the purpose of saying that it makes it extremely difficult in my view for this House properly to refuse a measure of this kind coming up to it from the other House of Parliament.

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I do not see that.

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When we have adopted votes for women, is it wise for this House to give a contrary decision as to the right to sit in the House of Commons of a woman who may be returned? There was no Division upon the Bill in the House of Commons, but there was a Resolution which was discussed and voted upon before that House proceeded to deal with the Bill. The Resolution in favour of women sitting in the House of Commons was carried by 274 votes to twenty-five; that is, roughly, eleven to one; and not unnaturally no Divison was taken on the Bill after these figures.

The case of women sitting in the House of Commons really stands by itself; it does not govern the question whether it would be proper or wise to admit them to sit in this House. That question must be determined on its own merits. But I feel that it is very desirable that we should not have a quarrel with the House of Commons on a matter affecting the constitution of that House, a contest in which I am sure this House would ultimately be beaten. Regarding this as a matter standing by itself and apart from the question of the constitution of this Chamber, I propose to vote for this Bill if there should be a Division; but I appeal to my noble friend to consider whether it is desirable to challenge a Division at this period of the evening and in the circumstances to which attention has been called. As my noble friend is aware, if there are not thirty members present the result would be that the debate would go over to the next sitting of the House. In these circumstances I appeal to my noble friend not to press the Amendment.

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My Lords, I am very sorry if I seem to oppose the views of men who have been couch longer members of this House than I have. On the other hand, I doubt if there is anybody present at this moment who has had a longer political experience than myself in the other House of Parliament; and I am bound to say that the effect of all that experience upon me is that I am not in the least moved by the figures of the Division taken in a panic in the House of Commons the other day, for the reasons which were stated very bluntly just now by my noble friend Lord Balfour of Burleigh. I very much doubt if the opinion of the House of Commons in the country at the present moment would have much more weight than I or my noble friend attach to their decision the other night.

I have to consider the question of what my duty is upon this occasion, and I must say, with the greatest respect to the Lord Chancellor and to all the other members of this House, that I feel I should be departing from my duty if I wavered. I have not done this without careful consideration. I could not give notice for the simple reason that I have been away on account of illness, and it was not until this afternoon that I had an opportunity of reading this Bill, when it appeared to me to be a Bill which in no circumstances ought to have passed the House of Commons in the shape in which it now is.

On Question, whether the word "now" shall stand part of the Motion, it appearing that thirty Lords were not present, the LORD CHANCELLOR declared the Question not decided: Further debate on the said Motion adjourned until to-morrow.