§ (1) For the purpose of giving persons whose names are entered on the absent voters' list an opportunity of voting at a Parliamentary election, the returning officer shall, where an election is contested, as soon as practicable after the adjournment of the election, send a ballot paper to each such person at the address entered against his name on the absent 1728 voters' list in the register together with a declaration of identity in the prescribed form.
§ (2) The ballot paper marked by the absent voter and accompanied by the declaration of identity duly signed and authenticated shall, if it is received by the returning officer before the close of the poll, be counted by him and treated for all purposes in the same manner as a ballot paper placed in the ballot box in the ordinary manner:
§ Provided that the returning officer shall not count any ballot paper marked by an absent voter if he is satisfied that the paper has been marked on a day subsequent to the day of polling.
§ (4) During the continuance of the present War and a period of twelve months thereafter, the following special provisions shall apply for the purpose of enabling persons whose names are entered on the absent voters list to appoint voting proxies in certain cases:
- (a) His Majesty may by Order in Council direct that voting by proxy by persons registered as naval or military voters shall be permitted afloat or in any area on land abroad mentioned in the Order if it appears to him that ballot papers sent to that area by post cannot reasonably be returned before the votes are counted, and that the case cannot be met by an Order under this Section postponing the counting of votes:
- (b) A person whose name is entered on the absent voters' list, if he satisfies the registration officer—
- (i.) that he is registered as a naval or military voter and is serving, or about to serve, afloat or in any area on land abroad in which voting by proxy is permitted in pursuance of an Order in Council made under this Section; or
- (ii.) that he is a merchant seaman or fisherman, and that there is a likelihood that he will be at the time of a Parliamentary election at sea or about to go to sea;
- (c) No ballot paper shall be sent for the purpose of voting by post to a person who has appointed a proxy under this provision while the appointment is in force:
- (d) The provisions set out in the Third Schedule to this Act shall have effect with respect to voting by proxy.
§ Mr. PETO
I beg to move, in Subsection (2), to leave out the words "Provided that the returning officer shall not count any ballot paper marked by an absent voter if he is satisfied that the paper has been marked on a day subsequent to the day of polling."
In the case of the merchant service I cannot see why, if the time for counting the votes is postponed under the following Sub-section, the votes that may be registered—not proxy votes, but personal votes that may be actually filled in on the ballot paper after the poll has closed—should not be allowed. If a man engaged in the merchant service does not expect to be engaged on a very long voyage and prefers the personal vote to the proxy vote, he might take his chance of reaching port and registering his vote, but the ship might arrive in port two days after the poll closed and four or five days before the counting took place. If this proviso is left in, that voting paper, marked by an absent voter after the date of the polling, would not count. It does not appear to read in connection with the next Subsection. I think that the matter was mentioned in Committee and that the Home Secretary intended to leave out this provision. So far as absent voters are concerned, to whom only it applies, I cannot see any reason for the restriction.
§ Colonel LESLIE WILSON
I beg to second the Amendment. Not only would this affect very vitally the merchant service, but it would also affect to a large extent the Navy. I take it that the Order in Council will state which men and consequently which ships and which fleets are going to vote by proxy and which by ballot. It will be quite impossible for the naval authorities to say which ships will be close to port at the time of an election. It is essential that this proviso should be left out in order that the men on board His Majesty's ships should have every opportunity of voting.
§ Sir G. CAVE
I accept this Amendment. I do not think that the words are necessary. In any event they are in the wrong place and should not come in here, but in Subsection (2). Apart from that, I think that the difficulty in the way of the returning officer coming to this conclusion is so great that really it is not worth retaining the power. If he gets the vote in time to count it, he should be entitled to count it.
§ Sir R. ADKINS
I quite see the force of the arguments put forward in favour of the Amendment, but at the same time I am sure that the House will see some difficulty in allowing the reception of votes which had been given after the polling day with the knowledge of the persons giving them. We require that all votes shall be given before the result is known. A vote given with the intention of affecting the result, either merely adhering to the result already known or trying to minimise it, is quite a different matter I hope the right hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill will reconsider the point in another part of the Bill, so that we should not encourage the holding over of a vote.
§ Colonel SANDERS
It is quite clear that these words are unnecessary, because the case is already governed by the words in Sub-section (2),shall, if it is received by the returning officer before the close of the poll.He could not receive it before the close of the poll if it has been marked at a date subsequent to the close of the poll.
§ Amendment agreed to.
§ Mr. PETO
I beg to move, in Subsection (4), to leave out the words "during the continuance of the present War and a period of twelve months thereafter."
We now come to the Amendment which the Home Secretary left over on the Committee stage to the free decision of the House, namely, the question whether the right of proxy voting should be limited to the continuance of the present War and a period of twelve months thereafter, or whether, having given this right, it should be an enactment like any other part of this Bill. It is not necessary for me to go into the arguments at any length, because the matter was fully debated in Committee and most hon. Members are seised of the arguments. I hope very much that we shall have a decision of the House on this subject without a Division. Perhaps it would be as well to point out very briefly 1731 the principal arguments which influenced the Committee. I mentioned then that the demand for adequate facilities for registering the vote and consequently for substantial enfranchisement on the part of the merchant service has been put forward for certainly twenty-five years. No appreciable proportion of the whole of the officers and men of the merchant service have ever had any opportunity of exercising their rights of citizenship and voting for members of this House. Having once decided that proxy voting for the period of the War and twelve months after was necessary in order to give a substantial number of the men of the Navy and the Army an opportunity of voting, and having extended it, as the Home Secretary admits to be necessary in the existing circumstances, to the men of the merchant service, you arrive at an obvious difficulty if it is proposed to limit it to the duration of the War and twelve months after, either in respect of a part or the whole of the men affected. You cannot give this opportunity to vote to a large portion of the civil community, namely, those engaged in the merchant service, for a single election and then withdraw it for all future time. That is a proposition which must meet with practically universal acceptance. It seems to involve this, that we are going to discriminate against the Navy and the Army and say that, while we continue to give these facilities to the merchant service, we are going to withdraw them in respect of the whole of the personnel of the Army and the Navy, who may be abroad and unable to vote personally.
The events of the War have proved that the men of the Army and Navy and of the merchant service are, for all time, much more closely connected. They are, as it were, interlocking forces, each fulfilling its full function, not only in the carrying on of the War on its military side but in feeding the civil population and maintaining the open way of the sea, which is absolutely necessary for this country in the waging of war. That being so, it would be still more absurd, if the House will excuse me for using so strong a word, to distinguish between men of the Navy and men of the merchant service, and to say that we will give facilities to that one class and give them the constant right to vote, while the other shall only vote during a single election. During the War the merchant ser- 1732 vice has been an integral part of the defensive as well as the offensive operations we have undertaken. At the present moment that service is absolutely vital, not only to the prosecution of the War, but to our very existence as a nation. It is certainly vital to the feeding of the civil population and the Army, and without it we could not carry on the War for a single week. After the War the position of the merchant service will be that it will be one of the great connecting chains uniting every part of the British Empire, and the men who form the personnel of the merchant service are certainly voters whom I do not think any Member of the House would willingly exclude from their fair proportion of the influences of our political life. It has often been pointed out that the vote is not a reward, and is even not a right. I quite agree, but it is a duty and a privilege appertaining to citizenship, and therefore we have only to consider whether these men of the merchant service, as well as those of our Navy and Army, are not entitled as well as any other class in the whole country to the opportunity of influencing the Government of the country. As far as the merchant service is concerned, they stand in a class in one respect, quite apart from the rest of the population. They have opportunities of seeing every part of the British Empire, and seeing how the trade and commerce of the world is carried on, and it inevitably gives them a wider outlook on many of the national problems which will have to be dealt with after the War than the ordinary average voter who stays at home.
With regard to the Navy and the Army, if there is an election, say, in the course of next year, clearly by the Bill as drafted all these men are to have an opportunity of registering a proxy vote if they cannot register a personal one. The result of that election may well be the formation of a Government which will be in power at the time of peace negotiations, and very probably at the time when peace is actually concluded, and such a Government may, and I hope will, be a strong Government, which may survive for at least a couple of years after peace is finally concluded. If that is so, what is the position of the Navy and the Army with regard to this question of voting? The Bill as drafted would only give them an opportunity of voting at a single election. At the next one those who are far 1733 away would not have any opportunity of voting. So it must be plain that, apart from soldiers in India, at Aden, in Ceylon, it is very probable, as the outcome of this war, that for at least five years after the conclusion of peace we may have a joint army of the Allies in occupation of, for instance, Palestine, and very possibly Mesopotamia, and we shall certainly have troops in Egypt—and it would not be easy for troops garrisoned in Egypt to register a vote in any way except by proxy—and we may have troops very possibly in what was German East Africa and in other parts of Africa. But all these men will require a proxy vote if they are to vote at all, and surely it would not be contended in any quarter of the House that it would be reasonable to give identically the same men an opportunity of voting at the first election, and when, owing to the necessities of the country, owing to the necessities of their military service, they are still on duty in distant parts of the world, to withold their votes at the next election, which may be just as important. Having given these facilities to vote once, it seems to me an impossible proposition that we should withdraw them after a single election.
By an Amendment which the Home Secretary has just put in Clause 18, in the case of a by-election the election may be held four days after the nomination. With regard to the absent voters question, at any rate, we in Mr. Speaker's Conference came to the conclusion that eight days was the minimum between the nomination and the polling to allow any appreciable proportion of absent voters to register their personal votes. I was not in the House, unfortunately, when the Home Secretary moved that Sub-section. No doubt he has given some good reasons for it, but there will be only four days for the registration of the personal vote, and the proxy vote becomes practically the only means by which the absent voter can record his vote. For all these reasons I hope, as this matter has been before the Committee, and as the House has had an opportunity of thinking it over for something like a month, we shall unanimously decide that it would not be reasonable to withdraw these voting facilities from the Navy, the Army, and the merchant service having once given them, and we shall be able to pass the Amendment without a Division.
§ Colonel L. WILSON
I beg to second the Amendment.
1734 When we were dealing with Clause 5 these words occurred in the original drafting at the beginning of the Clause. They were then removed by the Home Secretary, and the House passed the Clause as it stands to-day. Therefore, to leave these words out now is really more or less a consequential Amendment. I certainly understood it was the intention of the House that every facility should be given to the soldier, the sailor, and the merchant seaman not only now, but for all time in the future. I understood that one of the main objects of the Bill being presented to the country was to enable the sailor, the soldier, and the merchant seaman to have a vote not only now, but for all time, and to remove a disability from which they have suffered in the past for all time. There is no one in either Service who does not realise that he has not had an opportunity to vote in the past. Many men who have been in the Service for twenty or thirty years have never yet been able to register a vote at any election for any candidate. The object of the Bill, as I understood it, was to remove that disability, and I cannot see what argument can be brought forward to support a removal of this disability for the period of the present War and twelve months afterwards which will allow that disability to be put in front of the soldier, the sailor, and the merchant seaman again in the future. I think it was the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Samuel) who put forward the argument, the last time this was being discussed in Committee, that it would be just as well to leave this as it stands now, and, if it was considered desirable that proxy voting should be continued in the future, Amendments could be made to this Clause. Speaking for myself and, I think, for some of my hon. Friends, we think this ought to be removed from the Bill as it stands now. Judging by the way in which soldiers and sailors have been given the opportunity of voting in the past, and how, when their services are sometimes not any longer required, their necessities are very often forgotten, I should like to see every facility given to them at the present time. If it is right, and it is right, that they should have a vote for the period of the present War and for twelve months afterwards, I really cannot see any reason whatever why this right of being able to register their votes in the only possible manner in which they can register them—by proxy—should not be given them for all time.
§ Mr. DICKINSON
I rather regret that this proposal has been forced on at this moment. The whole point really is this: We have decided, I think very rightly, that for the purposes of this War we should have the system suggested by the Conference of proxy voting. It is a very great experiment, there is no doubt. One cannot see very well how it will work, and I believe if we treated it as an experiment and allowed it to be made use of for the next General Election, as is agreed, we should be in a better and a freer position to decide whether or not we should re-introduce it. A great deal can be said for making the proxy vote a permanent system for the merchant seamen. I have always sympathised with the hon. Member (Mr. Peto) on that question, but if we could do that this evening I should be perfectly willing to make the proxy vote permanent for that purpose. But if we are going to make it permanent for all soldiers and sailors we have to bear in mind—I do not say it is right or wrong; it may be right—that the Army in India, for instance, men who are away from the country for years, are being given an opportunity to record their votes in Parliamentary elections. I cannot help thinking that that proposition requires rather more thought on the part of this Assembly than we can give it at this moment. So far as regards soldiers and sailors, we are undoubtedly pressed by the peculiar circumstances of the War. I am very anxious that we should give every possible opportunity to the soldiers to make use of the means of voting by proxy, and one of the reasons why I spoke against the proxy proposals on the last occasion was that the Schedule which the Government has drafted is in my opinion, so faulty that it would be almost impossible for it to be of any real, practical use to soldiers at long distances from this country. I pointed out that, in order to give a soldier in Bagdad a right of voting by proxy, you would have, once every six months, to convey to and from him two distinct documents. [Interruption.] I think most people would take the Schedule to mean that the soldier has to send an application for a proxy, and the proxy has to be sent by the registration officer to the soldier, and then the soldier has to send the proxy form, signed, back home again for it to be used.
So far am I convinced about that that I put down an amended Schedule, and my 1736 proposition, I believe, from the point of view of the soldier, at any rate, is far more satisfactory, because I suggest that the soldier who is going off to one of these distant districts, or a sailor who is going to be afloat, shall have the right at once to execute his proxy in the presence of his officer, so that there is no doubt about about the signature, and that proxy would then be delivered to the registration officer and should last for the continuance of the War. I think that is a far better system than the one which has been suggested. I do not see how these soldiers are going to change their proxies every six months or have to abandon or reassert their right to a proxy according to the particular place in which they are going to fight.
You must say to the soldier and sailor, "If you want to exercise your right of voting by proxy you shall have that right during the War wherever you are," but such an improvement of our system, as I think that is, is only available for the War. You cannot give the soldier in times of peace the permanent right of voting by proxy. Therefore, I submit that you might make this experiment, so far as it affects soldiers and sailors for the duration of the War and twelve months afterwards, and you might get a better system by leaving Parliament free afterwards to see what permanent arrangements they will make to meet the position of the Army and Navy. I still hope that something of that kind can be done, and I suggest to my hon. Friend who moved this Amendment that he would achieve his prime object by getting this as a permanent method of voting for the absent merchant seamen. If he gets that now he will have got something of great value for that service which has been demanded for a very long time; but by tacking on this permanent right for the Army and Navy he is making a mistake. We had better agree unanimously that the proxy voting system for the soldiers and sailors should be for the duration of the War and twelve months afterwards, and then let it be reopened for consideration.
§ Brigadier-General CROFT
I cannot understand the reasoning of the right hon. Gentleman. He admits that the merchant seamen should have the proxy vote after the War. How can he then say that the position of the Mercantile Marine differs from that of the Royal Navy? There can 1737 be no argument from that point of view. Those who are serving with the Royal Navy are equally as entitled to exercise the rights of citizenship as those who are in the Mercantile Marine. Let us take the case of those who may possibly be serving in Bagdad. True, a man there is a long way off, but surely he has earned a still greater right of citizenship by going still further from the sea coast. How can we split straws over this business? Surely the mere fact of the Army being in India a long way from the country ought not to deprive them of the right of citizenship. Once we have accepted this principle, surely the House can agree that it is a simple matter. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will not in any way press his opposition, as I believe the last thing that any hon. Member desires to do is to deprive anyone in our Army or Navy of the right of voting by proxy which we are admitting ought to take place in the case of those who are serving their country.
§ Mr. STEWART
I listened with interest to the speech of the right hon. Member for St. Pancras, and I wish he had made the same speech in Committee. We have been arguing about this matter for a considerable time, and it would have been useful if we had had the suggestion he has now made during the Committee discussion. We must press for the carrying of this Amendment. Perhaps the Home Secretary can do as he did in regard to the decision on the conscientious objectors, and that is, to accept this Amendment in principle and perhaps improve it in some of the wording. The men of the Mercantile Marine have no great Service to support them as is the case with the Army and Navy; but I think there a very general feeling in the country that the merchant seamen are now in a position when they ought to have a say in the policy of their country, wherever they may be. We do not want to do anything to discourage men from joining that Service because after this War is over there will be many openings for people, and if there is any stigma attaching to the merchant seamen it may operate against it and to our detriment by keeping men from joining the Service. We should be very wise to accept this Amendment, and to give to merchant seamen a charter ungrudgingly, and with all goodwill. I believe the House will not be content with empty words of appreciation, but that they will accept the Amendment as signifying their intention and desire that these men should 1738 have a real privilege granted to them, and not a temporary measure, but that they should for all time be allowed an opportunity of voting. Let it be said by this country, which depends more upon our merchant seamen than any country in the world, that no British seaman is disfranchised because he goes to sea.
§ Colonel SANDERS
I appreciate the line taken by the right hon. Member for St. Pancras, and I think the House ought to appreciate the way in which he has come on in his views on this question. I say that in no offensive spirit at all. I know that he has gone carefully into the subject, and that although he did not at first like proxy voting, he has been convinced by debate that has taken place that if we want to get a vote for the distant soldiers and sailors, as we all do, this is really the only way by which a considerable number of them can get it. Coming back to the particular question before the House, my right hon. Friend said he thought that the case for the fishermen and the merchant seamen was practically made out, and I gathered that he was in favour of the merchant seameń and fishermen having a proxy vote as a general right for all time. That solution was, I think, proposed when we were in Committee, and I think it is a solution that has many attractions; but I do not see why when you have once admitted this right to the merchant seamen and to the fishermen that you can deny it to the men of the Royal Navy. How is it possible to say to one man, "You are in the merchant service, therefore you shall have a vote, but your brother, who is an A.B. in the Navy shall not have a vote."
There are two parts of this Amendment which refer to two different classes. One deals with soldiers and sailors, and the other with merchant seamen and fishermen. With regard to soldiers and sailors, this Clause is only consequential on what we have already decided in Clause 5. Clause 5 puts these men on the register not for one election only, but it puts soldiers and sailors serving abroad on the register, not only for this War, but for the whole of our future history. That point was not casually decided as the Bill first appeared. Clause 5 only applied to soldiers and sailors for the duration of the War. It has been advisedly altered. The Government and the House have come to the conclusion that not only for the duration of 1739 the War, but for all time the soldier ought to be entitled to get on to the register for the place which he would have inhabited but for his services. That principle having been decided, surely it must stand to reason that, having acknowledged a man's right to a vote and having given him the opportunity of getting on the register, it would be a farce not to provide him with the means of voting. I cannot think that either the Government or the House would wish to say to a man, "We have put you on the register, we give you the right or the privilege of voting, but although you are on the register you will have no chance of voting. Such a thing would be a fraud on the soldier and the sailor, and would not lead to that condition of things which the House desires to see carried out.
With regard to the question of the merchant seamen and fishermen, their case is not a temporary one. It will be just as strong after the War as it is during the War, if not stronger. Fishing and the merchant service will go on just as much if not more after the War than now. Merchant seamen and fishermen have got a very strong case for this privilege; because I think it is undoubtedly a fact that they must either vote by proxy or they will not be able, in a great many cases, to vote at all. The hon. Member who is sitting next to me (Mr. Tickler) represents a division where the fishing vote is very large. I remember elections taking place at Grimsby where the matter was most carefully canvassed as to the day on which the polling would take place, because the election was expected to be a close one, and it was not certain whether the fishermen would be home or would be out at sea. Surely that is making representative government an absurdity. Elections ought not to turn upon the state of the wind or the turn of the tide. The fishermen ought to have their votes, whether they are at sea or ashore, and if we do not give them that vote by proxy they cannot have it in any other way. Someone earlier in the evening said something about turning this Debate into a party affair. I would be the last to do that; but if I represented a fishing constituency, and I was a party man and wanted to make a party point, I could not want any stronger point than to impress upon the fishermen that this was the only way in which they could get the vote, and that the party to which I was opposed had done everything they could 1740 to prevent them getting the vote in that way. I want to advance an argument which was mentioned in Committee, and which has not been mentioned to-day. It was said that you will find that the merchant seamen and fishermen will leave their proxies with their trade union leader. I do not believe that that will happen. From what we have seen, I think that the men who belong to the Seamen's Union are far from being a particularly subservient set of men. I should say they are rather an independent body of men, and I think it is far more likely that they will leave their proxies with their wives or parents than that they will leave them with their trade union secretary. But even if they do leave their proxies with their trade union official, I think a bit too much can be made out of that argument; because if a man leaves his proxy with a trade union official it shows that if he had been at home he would have voted in the way the trade union officials wanted him to vote. After all, that only means carrying out the intention of voting in the same way that the man would have voted if he had been at home.
There is one last argument against this Amendment. It is said try it and see how it works. But opinions may differ as to how it works. Those for whom the soldiers and sailors and the fishermen vote will say it works very well, but those against whom the soldiers and sailors and fishermen vote will say that it works very badly. I do not see who is to decide between the two. Even if the principle were adopted and it were acknowledged to be working well, a special Bill would be needed to renew it. Surely it is very much better to settle the question now. We have been told time after time that the reason for bringing in this franchise Bill is that we want to get the whole question settled because Parliament will have so many important things to go on with after the War. I believe that to be absolutely true; I believe that the pressure on the time of Parliament will be very severe indeed, and I should be very sorry to see this right to the proxy vote, which after all is not a very big question and which in times of peace will not affect an enormous number or men, should ipso facto cease unless another Bill is brought in. We have now got an opportunity of settling the question. Why should we not settle it for good and all? One can say that the principle is accepted, it is agreed that these men have a right to vote, and surely we might 1741 further agree that not only have they a right to vote, but that they are entitled to an opportunity of exercising that right.
§ Sir R. ADKINS
With a great deal of what has fallen from the hon. Gentleman who has just spoken I entirely concur, and I only rise for the purpose of putting forward this point of view: We are all agreed, I hope, that all soldiers, sailors, and merchant seamen should have a vote and exercise it in the way which corresponds most closely with their own honest opinions on the issues which may be involved. But what one does feel is that while proxy voting may at the present moment seem to this House to be the only way of enabling these men to vote, yet the system itself is most imperfect and unsatisfactory. Mr. Speaker's Conference gave a great deal of time to this problem and did not see its way to go further than the postal vote. Whatever may be said about the postal vote, it is at any rate the vote of the man himself wherever that is possible, and it is obviously preferable to the proxy vote, because you are getting the voter's direct personal decision. One would not like this decision to be come to to-night, however, without registering the view that the proxy vote in itself is so imperfect that one cannot abandon the hope that in future some better method will be found. From the moment a man gives his proxy a divergence of opinion begins between him and the person to whom he has given it, and the longer he is away from the country the more are his opinions likely to differ from those of the relative or friend whom he has left at home, owing to different conditions, different influences, and a fresh knowledge of changed circumstances. I am sure hon. Members would be sorry to think there would be the slightest ground for thinking that the votes of our finest citizens, for such are our soldiers, sailors and merchant seamen, should be given under a misapprehension or by people whose views did not really correspond with those of the person for whom they are acting as proxy. Our object is, I am sure in every part of the House, to secure that these people should vote in the sense in which they wish to go, and I therefore venture here and now to express the opinion that the proxy vote at its best is a very imperfect and inadequate method, and the passing of this Amendment to-night, while it may stereotype a most imperfect method, will not, I hope, in the future stand in the way of a better method 1742 being devised, because our electoral system will not be all we want until every vote represents the judgment of the person giving it and especially so in the case of those who are serving their country in risk and danger outside.
§ Sir G. CAVE
The position which the Government have taken up in this matter is, I think, very well known. So far as the seamen's claim is concerned, it is a very strong claim indeed. I remember when the point was first raised in Committee I expressed a great desire to meet the ca se of the seamen, but then came the question of how to deal with the soldiers and the sailors. The original proposal made in Committee had been that the right of the soldier and sailor to vote by proxy should be confined to the period of the War and the Clause was introduced in that shape, but the difficulty was to make the Clause read without applying the same limitation to the seamen, and there was considerable debate on the matter. It was suggested at one time that we might be unanimous if we agreed to keep the right of the soldier and sailor for the War only and to make the right of the merchant seamen permanent. I made that proposal for the sake of unanimity, but I found that it was not only not accepted but that it was very strongly deprecated. That convinced me that the only way to deal with the matter satisfactorily to all of us was to make the right permanent all round. After thinking the matter over we came to the conclusion that we ought to leave the matter to the judgment of the House on the Report stage, and in accordance to the promise I then made, the Government Whips will be taken off in regard to this Amendment. Personally, I support the Amendment; I think we must take a broad view of this matter. Probably the best thing is to make this provision in the Bill permanent, and if it does not work—if as my right hon. Friend fears it does not prove practicable, then we can try and amend it when the War is over. I am not without hope that the House will be unanimous in accepting this Amendment.
Mr. H. SAMUEL
We have debated this matter on many occasions and at almost excessive length. This particular Amendment is of very small importance compared with the Amendment we discussed in the Committee stage. Then the point at issue was whether the bulk of our Armies, the millions of men who are in 1743 France and Flanders, should be prevented from voting except by proxy. That was the proposal which was then before the House. Many of us have regarded and sitll regard the proxy vote as a very inferior form of voting. The man does not record his own vote at all; he simply nominates an additional elector, and we resisted strenuously the proposal that the proxy vote should be substituted for the postal vote. The House, in Committee, after prolonged discussion, decided that whenever the postal vote is possible it should be applied, and that the man himself, secretly and by ballot, should record his own opinion directly into the ballot box with the assistance of the post. We even went so far as to indicate that the date for the counting of the votes should in the special circumstances of this War be even postponed for the whole country for as much as eight days in order to allow more time for the votes to be thus recorded. Then there came the question of what was to happen to the sailors and soldiers who were in distant parts of the world, and we agreed unanimously that in their case it was not practicable even with the extension of the date of counting for them to record the postal vote. We agreed also, on the other hand, it would be undesirable to exclude them from the elections altogether, and therefore the principle of the proxy vote must be admitted in their case and similarly in the case of seamen and fishermen.
Now we come to the very narrow point whether such a provision shall apply only for the period of the War or be regarded as part of our permanent law. I am still of the opinion personally that it would be much wiser for this Legislature to test this system at an election before making it permanent. It has never been tried in any part of the world; it may give rise to great abuses, in addition to which, as my right hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras (Mr. Dickinson) pointed out, you are saying that a man who may be five or ten years in the Army, quite out of touch with public affairs at home, taking little interest in our parties, and not knowing what the course of events has been, shall be allowed to nominate an additional elector in the constituency from which he originally came. Everything may have altered since he went away. New parties may have sprung into existence and some may have died, but still he is to be communicated with every six months, and 1744 during all these years he is to be invited to nominate an additional elector at home. I confess for my own part that seems to be a proposal of very doubtful wisdom. It has been said it would need a special Bill to continue this provision if it is found to work well, but I would point out it could be continued by a single line in the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill.
These are the opinions I then expressed in Committee and which I still hold. But I am desirous of responding to any appeal that comes from the Home Secretary. He has suggested that general assent might be given to Amendments where it is possible. There is here no great principle involved. We have secured the main purpose for which we have been contending in this House. I confess I view with some alarm and disquiet a tendency which I regard as an unfortunate tendency that has revealed itself in the later stages of this Bill for Divisions to take place more or less on old party lines. [An HON. MEMBER: "Who began it?"] It will only make matters worse if we indulge in recriminations across the floor of this House. I think it arose partly from the fact that the Government have allowed a little too much latitude in regard to Amendments departing from the original proposals of Mr. Speaker's Conference. But I do not quarrel with it on that account. The fact remains that the tendency has to some extent shown itself, and for my own part I should feel disposed to deprecate its being adopted where it can be avoided. I would suggest, therefore, while there are many hon. Members on both sides who attach considerable importance to the passage of this Amendment, and very few who attach importance to its rejection, therefore on this matter we should, if possible, give general assent to its acceptance, but of course on the understanding that the main provision in the Bill to which we do attach importance, namely, the Section which provides for a postal vote, shall stand. I see there is only one Amendment down to omit it, and if it is not moved, as I am told it will not be, I hope that this House will not be troubled with a Division on this occasion.
§ Amendment agreed to
§ 8.0 P.M.
§ Sir G. CAVE
I beg to move, in Subsection (4, a), to leave out the words "afloat or."
1745 This is a drafting Amendment. The House will see in paragraph (b) (i.) a provision relating to a man who is registered as a naval or military voter and is serving or about to serve afloat or in any area on land which can be scheduled for the purpose of proxy voting. We do not need to schedule the area in the case of a man afloat.
§ Mr. PETO
I should just like to ask the Home Secretary, if he leaves out these words and limits this to an area on land, whether he is not really making a restriction which he probably does not intend. Surely it would be as well to leave out the words "on land" as well, and to make the paragraph read that this shall be permitted in any area abroad mentioned in the Order. In that case no difficulty would occur as to whether the area included a certain portion of the sea or a certain portion of the land, whether it was an island or a bay. At any rate, it would leave the Home Secretary perfectly free, and would even cover troops on a transport vessel, or anything of that kind.
§ Sir G. CAVE
I do not think the hon. Gentleman understands the effect of the Amendment, which is that a person afloat can always vote by proxy. If we leave these words we shall have to schedule the sea as a proxy area. There is no need for that. It ought to be by itself a proxy area. If the hon. Gentleman resists this Amendment, he is really cutting down the right to vote by proxy. We cannot distinguish between one part of the sea or another. A ship may be in one place one day and in another on the next. It is better to treat the whole sea as one area.
§ Amendment agreed to.
§ Mr. PETO
I beg to move, in Sub-section (4, a), after the word "that" ["that the case cannot be met"], to insert the words "it is not advisable that."
This is a drafting Amendment. It does appear to me that to say as strongly as the Bill does in this paragraph that "the case cannot be met by an Order under this Section postponing the counting of votes" is hardly the wording to which the Home Secretary would wish to adhere. I only want to leave His Majesty, by Order in Council, the most complete freedom to decide whether it is advisable to put method A in force or not, and I entirely agree with the right hon. Member for Cleveland (Mr. H. Samuel) in wanting to 1746 see method A—the actual personal vote—in force wherever it can possibly be given. I, therefore, think it would be better to have the words "it is not advisable that" inserted here. In every case where there was no strong reason to the contrary the Government would then presumably decide to give the widest opportunity possible to the personal vote, and would limit the proxy vote as far as possible.
§ Sir G. CAVE
I do not quite like the form of this Amendment. It seems to me to leave the matter rather too open. I would not mind the insertion of the word "satisfactorily" after the word "be" ["cannot be met"], in paragraph (a). I think that would meet the hon. Gentleman's point, and would be a guide to the Council.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Mr. H. SAMUEL
Does not that narrow this provision a good deal? Would it not be an indication to the Privy Council that they need not make this order postponing the counting of votes in certain cases in which, as the Bill now stands, they would make the order? I do not want to narrow that. The hon. Gentleman's speech was directed to widening it and to securing that the postponement of the counting of votes should take place wherever possible. I am afraid that the Amendment now suggested would not have that effect.
§ Sir G. CAVE
This has nothing to do with the counting of the votes. We are dealing now with paragraph (a), which enables the Privy Council to schedule an area as a proxy area if it is so far off that you cannot deal with it by the postponement of the counting of the votes. There may be a case where it is not quite satisfactory to deal with it by postponing the counting of the votes, but if you leave the Bill as it is, the authority responsible for the proxy order may say that it can be dealt with by postponing the counting, and that, therefore, they will not make a proxy order. 1747 The effect of the proposed change is that if they say that it can be dealt with formally but not satisfactorily by postponing the counting, then they can make a proxy order. It gives a little more elasticity to the authorities dealing with the scheduling of an area.
That is just what I thought, that the effect of inserting this word would be that the authorities would not make an effort to secure quick transit by post, or in other ways to expedite the postal vote in a certain case, but will say they cannot do it very satisfactorily, and that they had much better let the persons vote by proxy. I want to limit the proxy vote and to have the personal vote wherever possible. The hon. Gentleman (Mr. Peto) wants to do the same thing, but now we are giving an indicaton to the Privy Council that they need not trouble, and that if this cannot be done satisfactorily they need not make an effort to see that it is done satisfactorily, but can dismiss the postal vote and make a proxy order, in that way extending the area of proxy voting and restricting the area of postal voting. That is just what we want to avoid, and the hon. Gentleman himself wants to extend the area of personal voting.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Sir G. CAVE
I beg to move, in Subsection (4, b), after the word "seamen," to insert the word "pilot."
§ Mr. JOYCE
I desire to express my thanks that the Government should have seen their way to insert the word "pilot" here, because in many cases where elections have taken place the people have been disfranchised because men have been called away for service on the very day that the polling would take place. Now we are sure that the pilot, when he is brought in under the terms of the mercantile marine, of which he is a very important part, will be able to register his vote, if 1748 not personally, at least by proxy. I wish to thank the Home Secretary for inserting the words.
§ Amendment agreed to.
§ Further Amendment made: In Subsection (4, b), after the word "fisherman" insert the words "(including the master of a merchant ship or fishing boat and an apprentice on such a ship or boat)."—[Sir G. Cave.]