HC Deb 02 July 1913 vol 54 cc2151-7

No nomination paper shall be invalidated by the fact that the registered elector signing it is not entitled by the reason of the provisions of this Act to vote in the constituency.

Clause brought up, and read the first time.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a second time."

We are all familiar with the importance of the nomination paper. We know that at least one nomination paper has to be carefully scrutinised by the returning officer to see whether it is in order or not, and one of the most common grounds of scrutiny is to see if it is signed by some person who is not a registered elector and is not therefore capable of nominating a candidate. The nomination paper has to be signed by twelve electors, every one of whose qualifications must be carefully and accurately stated. The object of putting down the Clause is to make it clear that the registered electors shall not be disqualified from signing a nomination paper. We have provided that no person shall vote or shall ask for the ballot paper twice, and that if he does he shall be guilty of a corrupt practice. But the House will understand that a corrupt practice carries with it important consequences to the person who transgresses. We have dealt with the case in which a man has been convicted perhaps of a minor offence, but that carries with it a very important disqualification. At least my Amendment will define that any person who is a registered elector in the constituency may nominate the candidate in that constituency. The Solicitor-General may tell me that it is a matter which is not likely to arise, but it will give rise to great difficulty because the candidate or his agents cannot allow a person to sign a nomination paper unless they are satisfied that he is not laying himself open to dangers from this Act. I think it is in the interest of all parties, I think none of us want to have the danger of technical points arising at a critical moment on a critical day. At any rate, this will be a safeguard, and it will be perfectly plain and workable. I have endeavoured to be brief, and perhaps the Solicitor-General will accept the Clause or some Clause of the same nature.


I can assure the hon. Gentleman who has moved this Amendment that if there was any ground for it there would be no objection on the part of the Government, but the fact is that it does not come within the scope of the Bill. The new Clause entitles a man to sign a nomination paper; that is not affected by the Bill at all. There is an enormous difference between the fact of being a registered elector and the provision in this Bill with regard to plural voting. Our Bill does not touch or affect the register of electors, and it does not disentitle a man to sign a nomination paper. There is nothing in the Bill to prevent a registered elector from doing anything which every registered elector has the right to do to-day. I hope I have made the point clear, and that the hon. Gentleman will believe me when I say that it is really not a passionate desire on my part to resist Amendments, but a real desire to prevent a Bill which may become an Act from really containing a distorted, disfiguring Clause.


The Solicitor-General has just explained to us that the qualification of a person to sign a nomination paper is that he is a registered elector and consequently he has the franchise. We heard in the earlier part of the discussion that any person committing an offence which would come under this Act would immediately be disfranchised.


There really is a misunderstanding. If the hon. Member had ever been present when a nomination takes place he would know what happens. Your agent hands in a piece of paper and the presiding officer searches the register to see whether the ten names are there. If they are on the register, whether they ought to be there or not, that is a good nomination. If they are not on the register, it is a bad nomination, and it has nothing whatever to do with the plural vote.


I quite agree that at this time in the morning we are not fit to consider this kind of question. The object of insisting under the Ballot Act of 1872 that the person who signs the nomination paper should be a registered elector was that he should be someone qualified to vote. Why were the words "registered elector" put in.? Why did the Act insist that it should be a registered elector? Because the object of the Act was that there should be at least ten persons who were qualified to vote at the election. The Act of 1872 insisted that there should be ten persons who signed the nomination paper for every person who was qualified to be a candidate for the election, and insisted that those persons should be qualified electors. Under this Bill the situation might arise during the course of a General Election that one, two, three, or even ten of the electors might, before the particular election took place have voted somewhere else. It might be that they had voted at an election in a borough or county previously to the election in which the particular nomination is signed by them. The position of these persons is that, having already cast their vote at the previous election, then, under the provision of Section 1 of this Bill, those particular persons will be disqualified from voting for a particular candidate whose nomination paper they have already signed, because, having already voted elsewhere, they are debarred from voting for him, so that the particular object of the Ballot Act to secure that ten persons shall be qualified to vote is not complied with.

I say the question will arise and will have to be decided then and there as to whether that candidate is properly nominated. There is no more important question than that. It throws a doubt on the whole procedure of the election There is nothing more important than that you should have absolute certainty that if a man does cast his vote it should be cast for a candidate who is qualified to be an elector. Surely there can be no question about making that clear. What possible harm can these words do. In the absence of any suggestion of harm it is wise, reasonable and prudent to put in a clause which will have the effect of removing the possibility of doubt as to whether a candidate is properly nominated. I ask the Government to look into the question, and if they can see no possible harm I hope they will take the precaution of making this clear, so that no one can make any mistake.


I hope the Solicitor-General will not think that I wish unnecessarily to prolong the discussion, but there is one point which I should like to lay before him. He says that the Register will be conclusive, and that if the nominator is on the Register nothing more can be said. There are cases, I believe, in which the Register is final and conclusive, and there are other cases in which you may go behind the Register and it is not conclusive. For example, there is a case of an infant who may get on the Register, but the returning officer being aware that he is an infant would be entitled to refuse his vote. I think the same thing would happen with a woman or with a peer. The other case is that of poor relief, and so on, in which the Register is conclusive. So far as my knowledge goes, I think there is ground for making the thing absolutely certain by the insertion of a new Clause.


In reply to what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said I must first reply to what the House will recognise as a startling suggestion, that. I am likely to be able to put him right on certain points, in view of the fact that my knowledge comes very largely from a very learned book he has written on the matter. There is no doubt whatever that supposing a nomination paper is signed by ten registered electors, every one of whom is being employed as a clerk during the election, so that none of them can vote, that that is a perfectly good nomination paper. A nomination paper does not depend for its validity on whether the registered elector who has signed his name is entitled to vote or not, but on whether he is a registered elector or not.


Will the right hon. Gentleman reply in regard to the case of a woman?


I am certainly not prepared to deal with that difficult case. Some people think you are entitled to refuse a woman a vote on the simple ground that under our existing law the qualification of sex is absolute. I am quite satisfied that no sort of objection of a nomination paper could be made on the ground that one of the signatures was a clerk in an election.


I understand that that the learned Solicitor-General made the point that a registered elector, and one qualified to vote, are not interchangeable terms, but are two very different things. The object of the Mover of the Amendment was to avoid the possibility, in any circumstances, of a nomination paper being invalidated by the fact that an elector who had signed it had previously voted in another constituency, and therefore was not qualified to vote in the other one. If the right hon. Gentleman tells us that the position is amply safeguarded, under the law as it stands at present, I do not think my hon. Friend will be wise in pressing his Amendment. But I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will agree that there is no part of our law which is more in doubt than that which affects those who are qualified to vote and those who axe allowed to vote We all remember the "latch-key" case (Kent v. Fittal), which caused an immense amount of litigation to centre around it. In passing a Bill of this kind it is most important, if there is any possible loophole for injustice to persons nominated, that those loopholes should be closed up.


I do not wish to stand here and lay down the law—I am not qualified to do so. If the suggestion which the Noble Lord now makes is accepted, I will undertake not to regard this as a closed matter, but will make it my personal duty to look into this very point, and will take any help I can get from the other side. I cannot consent to putting this in at this stage, as I am convinced it is quite unnecessary.


My hon. Friend is the person to decide what action he should take. The only point I wish to make, while thanking the Solicitor-General for the courteous explanation, is that while there is apparently a doubt with regard—for instance, the position of women—it is very desirable that no possible doubt should be left in this Bill as to the position of any qualified elector if the Bill passes.


If the learned Solicitor-General were able to divide himself into many parts and promise to be with all 670 of us when we are nominated, so that we might have his assistance and advice, I should be perfectly happy to withdraw the Clause, and to take courage. Under Section 13 the Ballot Act, 1872, provides that:— No election shall be declared invalid by reason of a non-compliance with the rules contained in the First Schedule to this Act, or any mistake in the use of the forms in the Second Schedule to this Act, if it appears to the tribunal having cognisance of the question that the election was conducted in accordance with the principles laid down in the body of this Act, and that such non-compliance or mistake did not affect the result of the election. I quite agree that there is power therefore, in the election court, when some thousands of pounds have been spent, to give relief to the person who has made a possible mistake. Peace of mind may be brought to an election candidate, that is to say, after a petition has been presented and heard, and after he has spent a large sum of money and devoted an enormous amount of trouble to getting relief. But, personally, I am never satisfied with letting a man seek that relief at immense cost and trouble. I am anxious to make the matter plain in the Statutes so that there should not be this enormous burden thrown on members of the community. When the Solicitor-General says to me that he will look into the matter carefully and see whether there is any danger at all, I am quite prepared, especially at this hour of the morning to accept what he says. Having received that undertaking, I think, perhaps, I should best consult the interests of the Committee and undoubtedly the wishes of the Committee—because I am speaking on behalf of both sides of the House—if I ask leave to withdraw the Clause.

Proposed New Clause, by leave, withdrawn.


I wish here to say that when the Committee began with the New Clauses I should, in accordance with the rule, have called successively on hon. Members who had New Clauses standing in their names. At the end it is open to any hon. Member to move the Clauses which have not been moved owing to the absence of hon. Member who have put them down. I call upon the hon. Member for Salisbury—As he is not present, the hon. And learned Member for Warwick and Leamington may now move the New Clause standing in his name.