HC Deb 24 July 1923 vol 167 cc391-404

For the purposes of any election under this Act the powers, duties, and rights con- ferred upon a candidate, agent, or returning officer by The Extension of Polling Hours Act, 1913, shall apply as if the election were a Parliamentary election.—[Mr. Neil Maclean.]

Brought up, and read the First time.


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

The purpose of this new Clause was explained to the Solicitor-General for Scotland when the Bill was before the Scottish Grand Committee, and the hon. and learned Gentleman, in response to the discussion which took place on a practically similar Amendment promised to consider the matter and let us have the opinion of the Government on the Report stage. That opinion evidently is unfavourable, unless the Government are prepared to accept this proposal. It would be interesting to know whether the Government intend to accept it. As was explained upstairs when we raised this question, in many parts of the country the electors reside a considerable distance from the places where they are employed. They have to leave home very early in the morning and do not return until late in the evening. As the election hours stand at present—fixed as they are by Statute—it means that often by the time these people get home the polling stations have been closed. All that we ask for in this proposal is that the candidate, or his agent, shall have a right, if he cares to exercise it, to apply to the Returning Officer to have the hours of polling extended. The purpose is to give an opportunity to electors who would otherwise be placed in an awkward position, and in many cases be prevented from exercising the franchise. Originally the hours of polling were alike applicable to Parliamentary and Municipal Elections, but under the new act, on which the 1918 election was fought it was found that the Registration Act only applied to Parliamentary elections. We want to extend it to Municipal elections. I do not know whether the Solicitor-General for Scotland is going to accept our Amendment, or whether he is going to say that the matter must be dealt with in a new Registration Act. If this were applicable to London it would be a great boon to many thousands of electors who work in the city, leaving home in the early morning and not returning until late in the evening. It might save London from being Tory ridden if opportunities were given to progressive Labour people to vote. That might be an objection on the part of the Government to accepting this Amendment; but Municipal or Parliamentary rights ought not to be considered from the point of view of interests of the party in power.


I beg to second the Motion.

I raised this matter on the Scottish Grand Committee and I want, here and now, to protest against the way in which the Scottish Grand Committee is conducted. That Grand Committee is a regular insult to Scotland by the way it is treated. I do not want to be out of order on this question.


I am glad to hear that. It will be as well to keep off that subject. The Committee is appointed by the House, and we must not criticise it here.


We have a Scottish Grand Committee of which an Englishman is chairman. Being an Englishman, he does not understand what we are talking about.


The hon. Member might criticise me on the same ground.


If I had occasion, I would do so. You know quite well that I would not scruple to criticise anyone. They do not scruple to criticise me. The criticism I am offering is very necessary from the Scottish point of view. The matter raised by this Amendment is very serious, particularly in the municipalities of Scotland. As I explained to the Committee, our experience is that it was all right under the old hours of work in Scotland, from six in the morning till five or six at night, but, owing to the War, the hours of labour were changed. No longer does the Scottish worker start at six in the morning. Thank God for that ! They start at eight. But when we started at six, there was a break at breakfast-time from nine till ten, and that hour was largely used for voting purposes. Moreover, under the old system of working, the men had not such a long spell at work. They got home to dinner, and were not so anxious to run borne for tea. Now, with the introduction of the English system into Scotland, there is only the one break. Employers have always advocated that, and now they have got it. The men go home when they stop work now, and their wives wait to make their tea, because they invariably do not vote until their husbands come home.

In Glasgow our experience has been that at eight o'clock they stop taking the votes, no matter if even hundreds of people have been queued up for an hour before closing time; and many candidates have stated that they did not get elected because their voters were not permitted to vote. I appeal to the Solicitor-General, on behalf of Scotland, to concede this point to us. It is becoming apparent to Scotland that we are getting lees from this Government, and less in this Session, than has ever been the case before. The Prime Minister the other day, when waited on regarding Scottish matters, had the hardihood to state that he had no time to deal with these Scottish matters, because there were other more important matters to be dealt with. [HON. MEMBERS:"Hear, hear.!"] Evidently you all agree with the Prime Minister. I do not object to that, but, surely, when we are doing our best to try to reason with you, to try to show you the point of view of the great majority of the people of our country, I hope you will agree to meet our request.


As the hon. Member for Govan (Mr. Maclean) stated, when this matter was raised in Committee, I promised to consider it against the Report stage. He has now put down a new Clause which carries out the purposes he was anxious to effect. I had an entirely open mind on this matter. Since the Committee, I have been in communication with the Convention of Royal Burghs in Scotland, and I find they are opposed to this change. When, in 1913, the Extension of Polling Hours Bill, which subsequently became the Extension of Polling Hours Act, was produced to the House, it contained proposals for dealing with Parliamentary elections, and also for municipal elections, and allowing extension of time for the municipal elections as for Parliamentary elections. That was subsequently dropped. There was the hottest opposition to it in Scotland. The Annual Committee of the Convention of Royal Burghs considered the proposal in 1913, and they unanimously opposed it and petitioned Parliament against it. They consulted the burghs of Scotland, and, out of 120 replies received, 114 burghs, through their town councils, expressed themselves opposed to the extension of polling hours in municipal elections; three were neutral; two declared themselves in favour of the change, and one was in favour of the change as regards the evening and not as regards the morning. Therefore, it is clear that municipal opinion is opposed to the extension of time. It is felt that it would impose a heavy task on the staffs engaged in elections. Their hours are now from eight o'clock to eight, and it was felt that their hours gave them a long day. It was felt that all electors, in a 12 hours' polling day, got a chance of recording their votes. To change the hours would mean some expenditure which the municipalities thought ought not to be incurred. This Bill was the result of a conference of representatives of five of the great Scottish cities They made various proposals, and never once has this change been suggested. Therefore I find myself unable to accept the proposal.


The reasons which the Solicitor-General has given now are different from the reasons which he gave when this matter was before the Committee. The only reason which he gave then for refusing to accept the Amendment was that the Act of 1913 gave the same powers.


As I have said, I had an open mind on the merits of the matter, and I got into touch with opinion in Scotland on it. With regard to the other point raised by the hon. Member, this matter came up suddenly in the Scottish Standing Committee, and I admit frankly that at the moment I thought that Section 49 of the Town Councils Act, 1900, applied to these elections. The Ballot Act, 1872, which is referred to in that Section, deals with both Parliamentary and municipal elections. The Acts of 1884 and 1885 deal also with Parliamentary and municipal elections, but the Act of 1913 deale solely with Parliamentary elections. It was introduced to deal with both, and was then restricted to Parliamentary elections. On reconsidering the matter I am of opinion that the view expressed on the spur of the moment was not accurate, and the Act of 1913 does not apply to municipal elections.


All these things were told to the Solicitor-General in the Committee. We could not convince him then that we were right. Having admitted that he was wrong, then he ought to admit that he is wrong now. He has stated that he has now learned that the Convention of Royal Burghs is against this proposal. There is scarcely the difference of a dozen words in the communication which the hon. and learned Gentleman has received and one which I have received. It is not a communication from the Convention of Royal Burghs who have not had an opportunity of considering the matter. It is a communication from an official and in this communication there is no reference to the opinion of the Convention of Royal Burghs. There is the statement that the Convention of Royal Burghs was opposed to this proposal in 1913. But there has been a tremendous change in public opinion since 1913 or there would not be some of the trouble which there is now in this House The change of public opinion which has sent a different type of representative into this House has sent a different type of representative into our local bodies, and if this question were discussed at the present time the unanimity described by the Solicitor-General as existing in 1913 would no longer be found to exist. There are also changed industrial conditions. There are changed hours in connection with the work of the labouring classes, and the very fact that such a large number of constituencies in the rural districts, in particular in Scotland, took full advantage of the extended hours applicable to Parliamentary contests proves to me at least—and I trust it will prove to this House—that, given the opportunity of the extension of the hours for municipal elections, candidates and agents of candidates taking part in municipal elections would take the same advantage as candidates and agents take for Parliamentary purposes. There are thousands of miners who have great difficulty in getting to the poll by 8 o'clock. We have various shifts in the Scottish mining districts which make it very difficult, because of the long distances they have to go, and it makes it more difficult to take part in the municipal elections. It is not making it compulsory. We are only asking that the concession shall be granted if the candidate or agent on behalf of the candidate makes application for the extension of the hours. There was not a single argument addressed upstairs against the extension of the hour so confident was the Solicitor-General that the powers were there. Now, when we get a communication from an official of the Convention of Royal Burghs relating to an historic fact dating back ten years ago, this House is seriously told that this is the opinion of the Convention of Royal Burghs. I suggest to the House that it is not the opinion, and I think I can speak with as much authority as the Solicitor-General, with all due deference to him. I trust that after giving no argument upstairs the Government at least will not take the advantage of having, shall I say, the English Members voting on a Scottish question and against the expressed opinion of Scottish Members.


The Solicitor-General says he had an open mind. Has he nothing to say against the merits of the proposal that has been moved? He suggests that he has changed his mind. He has changed it because of the representation made to him by the Convention of Royal Burghs. But it has been rightly pointed out by the hon. Member for Peebles and Southern (Mr. Westwood) that the Convention of Royal Burghs has not had an opportunity of dealing with this matter, because they have not met. The whole thing is now apparently in the hands of the officials. I should like to draw the attention of the House to the fact that even when the Royal Convention did discuss this question there were only 120 of them who gave a reply, according to the statement given by the Solicitor-General himself. I am sure the Solicitor-General is aware that there are nearly 300 members of the Royal Convention of Burghs in Scotland—I am giving round figures—and only 120 gave an answer even 10 years ago when the question was being discussed. I would submit to the Solicitor-General who is representing Scotland on the Government Benches on this question, that it should be treated on its merits. There is no question of doubt that there is a very considerable difference in the position, so far as facilities for voting are concerned, now in municipal and other local council elections as compared with 10 years ago. This statement is perfectly true. If the Solicitor-General had made the least attempt to make inquiry as to that aspect of the question, he would discover that the conditions and circumstances now were such as entitled us to claim that the same facilities should be given to the local elections as were given in Parliamentary Elections. Practically in every constitu- ency as recently as last November, the polling hours were extended to 9 o'clock, and in my own constituency there were numbers of men and women who did not vote because they were unable to get there in time even for 9 o'clock. I am sure it must be very much worse in a city, such as Glasgow. We have thousands of men in the mining occupation who live in Glasgow and who travel 12, 13, 14, and even 18 miles to their work, and it is absolutely impossible for these men to take part in the municipal elections if the hours were not extended, and in view of the change that has taken place in the industrial conditions, I hope that the Solicitor-General, who has not said anything against the reasonableness of the proposal, will agree to accept the Amendment; and I am sure he will find that he will be conceding something that will meet with the best wishes of the large majority of the people in every part of Scotland.

Captain BENN

I think we ought to clear up the first question raised by the hon. Member for Peebles and Southern Midlothian (Mr. Westwood). Did the Solicitor-General say that the ad hoe expression of opinion was practically unanimous of the Burghs of Scotland against this Amendment? I understand from the figures that he gave that on this particular Amendment the opinion of the Burghs of Scotland had been canvassed and had been found practically unanimous against the Amendment. The hon. Gentleman says that no such communication has been made. I think the Solicitor-General should tell us is this the opinion of the Convention of Royal Burghs or of other points, or is it merely the record of an opinion which was held ten years ago communicated to him in reference to this Amendment by some official? Even so, the argument lacks weight because what an Electoral Bill should do is not to consult a Convention only by officials, but to give the electors the fullest possible opportunity of expressing their opinion. That is the obvious aim of any Bill and that was the reason in 1913 the Government of that day passed this Extension of Polling Hours Bill But there is a further point which I wish to put. Upstairs in Committee this Amendment might have been carried if it had been pressed. After all, it is a Scottish affair. It does not concern English affairs at all, and how does it concern the hon. Member for Mossley (Mr. A. Hopkinson)—[An HON. MEMBER: "Purely an antiquarian interest."] It is purely a Scottish affair and would have been settled in the Scottish Committee in the sense in which the Mover of the Amendment desired, but he withdrew the Amendment under the impression that the Solicitor-General was going to consider the point. But being so, it would be very unfair now that we come down to the full House to find that it is to be rejected by the votes of English Members.

It would be extremely unfair if Scottish Members, who had a Committee set up so that Scottish opinion should prevail in Scottish affairs, should be voted down by English Members. I appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury to grace one of his last appearances in this House before his lamented departure by allowing the Whips to be taken off so that the House should vote freely. I would ask him not to use the force of an English majority to do a thing Scotland does not desire.


I have had experience of the actual operation of the present system of hours of polling, and I have also been a representative to this much-discussed Convention of Royal Burghs. I know how little worth its opinion generally is upon these matters, particularly a ten-years-old opinion sent by the permanent official who is the Convention of Royal Burghs for eleven months and three weeks a year. The point I would like to make is that if an elector goes into the polling booth at 7.30, he may have to wait in the lobby, or he may actually get into the booth, but if his voting paper is not in his hand at eight o'clock he is turned out of the door when the clock strikes and is forbidden to vote. I have seen over 100 electors turned out of one polling booth, though many of them had been there for half an hour. Who could justify that? I venture to say there is no Liberal, Conservative or Labour candidate who has not had experience of that kind of thing and who is not whole-heartedly in favour of such an alteration as has been moved to-night. The Solicitor-Gentral reads an answer from the secretary of the Convention of Royal Burghs; why does he not write to the Town Clerk of Glasgow, Edinburgh, or somebody who knows something about it? That is his only argument for preventing this necessary reform. It is not a political thing at all. The only objection he has got is this pettifogging reply from the secretary to the Convention of Royal Burghs, and I hope he will give in to the unanimous opinion of the Scottish Members of this House, and let us have this much-desired reform.

There is only one other point I wish to press. It is that owing to the present housing shortage in many areas, it is now necessary for thousands of workmen to work many miles away from home. Many of them have to go long train journeys to their work. These men are released at 5.30 or 6 o'clock at night. Some of them have to come 14, 15 or 20 miles to their homes. They cannot possibly be at the polling booths before 7.30, 7.45 or 8 o'clock. If there is a crush at the polling booth, as there often is at that time, and they do not happen to be given their polling papers before eight o'clock, they are turned out. I have seen what has bordered on a riot. I hope the Solicitor-General will not regard this as a political matter, but yield to the pressure brought to bear upon him by the Scottish Members. This reform will be universally accepted in Scotland despite the opinion of the Permanent Secretary of the Convention of Royal Burghs on a matter brought up ten years ago.


I only rise in order to be fair to the Solicitor-General. I was opposed in the Committee to the compulsory extension of the time. His opinion was that they had the right to apply for an extension of time. He was, admittedly, wrong. I want to remind him that this Clause does not make it compulsory. The district which does not require an extension will not apply for it. I think, under the circumstances, it would be wise to give way to Scottish opinion on the point.


I think the Solicitor-General is under a moral obligation to accept this Amendment which the Committee would have carried had it not been for his assurance that he would look into the matter. We assumed that if, on looking into the matter, he found that this was not in spirit the law he would, on Report, make provision for it. That was the understanding. Now he has looked into the question and finds there is no such provision and no way of making use of such a provision in town council elections. He was under a moral obligation, as soon as he discovered that he was wrong, to accept this Amendment. We had his sympathy and support, and it was only a case of taking a wrong view of the law. He asked us to postpone the matter until the Report stage, and we understood that if he was wrong he would make provision for what we desired. Now he resists it on the ground that 10 years ago the Convention of Royal Burghs was of opinion that it was act necessary. The whole trend of opinion is that with the increased number of voters there is increased necessity for extension, especially for those voters who have fewest facilities for getting to the poll. If what we asked is passed, Scotland would support it. It is only optional, and I appeal to the Solicitor-General not to resist this reasonable Amendment.


It is very necessary to get this Bill through before the November elections for the town councils, as there is a number of provisions for the improvement of the electoral machinery. I stated in Committee that I would consider the matter as against Report, and I would like the House to look at the thing with a perfectly unbiased mind. I have done my best to get into touch with the opinion of municipalities. I have no single representation in favour of this change.


Did you write to any of the municipalities or merely to the Convention of Royal Burghs?


We communicated with the Convention. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh !'] One must do one's best. There was another matter on which it was suggested by hon. Members themselves that I should ask the Convention's opinion. One knows that the representatives of the Scottish cities have been meeting together. It has never been suggested by anyone that they are in favour of this proposed change. The matter was perfectly clear in 1913, for the Annual Committee of the Convention passed a unanimous resolution opposing the polling extension, and they sent a petition to Parliament against it. There has not been a word uttered by any town council in Scotland since 1913 in support of the change which was mooted for the first time in Committee last week. I am told that opinion is the same in Scotland as it was 10 years ago when they strongly opposed it. I am anxious to get this Bill through in time for the November elections, and if there is a well-founded desire for the change I have no wish to oppose it If there is such a desire in the future I shall be prepared at a later date to consider the matter and introduce legislation to meet it. All the Burghs are represented on the Convention and I have done my best to find out what Scottish opinion is.


I know the Solicitor-General does not wish to misrepresent any communication that has come to him from the officials of the Convention, but I have an excerpt from the letter sent to the Solicitor-General, and there is not a single statement or reference in that to what the Convention thinks now. It all refers to what took place in 1913.


The promise given by the Solicitor-General was not to consult opinion in Scotland but to ascertain whether he was right in his interpretation of the law. The Solicitor-General gave us a certain interpretation of the law, and he said he would consider whether it was a right one. Now he finds that he was wrong.


On a point of Order. Is the hon. Member allowed to make his speech twice over?


On the questions arising out of the Solicitor-General's reply the hon. Member cannot make a second speech.


I do not desire to prolong the discussion further. According to the best information I have the Municipalities of Scotland are strongly opposed to this change. Hon. Members may think my information inadequate, but it is the best information I have at the moment. I shall go carefully into the matter. I cannot accept the Clause just now, but if I find there is any widespread desire for it, I will try to meet the wishes of hon. Members and I shall see that steps are taken to amend the law at a later date.


I want to ask—


Only the hon. Member the Mover of the Clause is entitled to speak a second time, not any other Member.


There are some other Members who wish to speak, and I will reserve what I have to say to a later stage.

Captain BENN

Is there any way in which we can move for the Recommittal of this Bill or part of the Bill, in order that Scottish public opinion can be ascertained.


There is no method at this stage.


We must come to the conclusion that the position is unsatisfactory. We have had a conflict of views as to what took place in Committee. It is represented by the Solicitor-General—quite honestly, I think—that the understanding was that he was to ascertain local opinion in Scotland. That is his statement. On the other hand, hon. Members on this side of the House, both above and below the Gangway, are clearly of opinion that in the discussion on Tuesday the hon. and learned Gentleman said that the Clause merely gave effect to the law as it at present stands, and it was on that ground and on his undertaking to ascertain that that view was correct that the Clause was withdrawn in order to make clear what the law was.


I beg to move, "That the Debate be now adjourned."

I really am desirous to get to the bottom of this matter, and to get further information from Scotland, and I there fore propose to adjourn the Debate until Monday.

Debate to be resumed upon Monday next (30th July).