HC Deb 19 April 1926 vol 194 cc909-13

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill.


We now come to a bright spot in what has been a rather gloomy Bill. Hon. Members must not think that, any saving is to be effected here, because, as far as I can see, the saving will he infinitesimal. I may, however, say, for the information of hon. Members, that this is a matter which has been under consideration for several years, and that all parties in the Islands are agreed upon it. To whatever political party they may belong, they are all agreed that they ought to have greater facilities for polling. Under the old law, two days were allowed us, because it was considered that, if the weather was bad on one day, it, might be better on the next, and so people might have an opportunity of getting in on one or other of the two days. Experience, however, has shown that people are very often inclined, if they have an opportunity of polling on two days, not, to poll on the first day, but to put it off until the second; and then, if the weather on the second day is bad, and they are not able to get across the Sound, there is no particular advantage in having a second day. Experience has also shown that a 12-mile walk across the hills is just as long on Saturday as it is on Friday.

The only manner, therefore, in which we can get over our present difficulties is by having a very largely increased number of polling stations. I may point out that, since the electorate was largely increased under the Representation of the People Act, no further facilities have been granted to the Islands for polling, and, if it is difficult for a man to walk 24 miles to the poll and back across the hills on a winter's day, what about his wife? Personally, I rather question whether, under these conditions, many women do poll. In order that the Committee may realise what these difficulties are, I may point out that, at the last contested election, which was a very hotly contested election, the total percentage of the electors that got to the poll was mothing unde 40.

I have to thank the Scottish Office, who have always looked with a kindly eye upon any efforts to get over our difficulties in Orkney and Shetland, but I must say it was with some surprise that I found what was my own little Bill snugly esconced in the middle of this long Economy Bill, especially as I have to appeal to the Government for an assurance that they will not endeavour to effect an economy here at the expense of the number of polling stations that have been asked for by the two county councils. The present number of polling stations is 16 in Orkney and 12 in Shetland, making 28 in all, and the lowest number that we think we can do with, in the case of a single-day election, is about 54, or practically double the present number.

The Committee will realise that, in the case of an electorate such as this, when there are two days for the poll and long distances have to be covered, the country is put to considerable expense, and there is no doubt that it will be to the advantage of all concerned if the poll can be held on one day, and if the cost incurred owing to the two days' polling can be spread over a very much larger number of polling stations, so as to give the electors an opportunity of recording their votes. From some figures given to me by the Scottish Office a year or two ago, it appeared that the General Election of, I think, 1922, cost £660, or, for the polling stations as they then existed, an average of about £23 10s. each. With a one-day poll, putting the average cost of each polling station at about £10 and having 54 stations, that makes a total of £540, giving an economy of about £120 whenever a General Election might occur. That, however small it may be, is worth having, I admit, in these hard times, but I would ask for an assurance from the Government that they will not endeavour to effect an economy at the expense of the number of polling stations that have been asked for by the two county councils.

The SECRETARY for SCOTLAND (Sir John Gilmour)

As the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Sir R. Hamilton) has said, and as the Committee knows, the hon. Member's Bill is here brought to practical effect, and will be carried out under this Clause. That, I think, is in accord with the general wish, not only of the county councils, but of the great mass of the voters, and, indeed, of the returning officer. I have taken the trouble to discuss this matter with the Sheriff and with others concerned, and the conclusion I have come to is that, by securing this Clause, we can increase the number of polling stations and give increased facilities to the people in these admittedly very difficult districts, and I think that polling on a single day will be of great advantage to everyone concerned. As to the actual economy, it may not, indeed, be a very large one, but I believe, without prejudice—and as to this I am as anxious as the hon. Member—that these elections shall be carried out in accordance with the knowledge which those concerned possess, that an economy can still be achieved, though how great that economy may be I do not at the moment know. The Committe will agree that we are not doing this with any idea of lessening the facilities for voters in this area, or of interfering with the proper procedure at elections, and I think the Clause is a reasonable one to insert in this Bill.


I should like to support the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Sir R. Hamilton) in his claim that all the money should he expended in giving proper facilities for the people in these districts. Some of us have had experience of wandering round large constituencies, and I have been struck by the unfairness, to the poorer people in these districts, of providing so small a number of polling stations. I simply rose for the purpose of impressing upon the Secretary of State for Scotland that, as a good guardian and representative of the interests of the people of Scotland, he should turn a deaf ear to any representation of the Chancellor of the Exchequer which is going to do an injustice to these people.


I want to congratulate the Government upon the efforts they arc making towards economy. I suppose that before very long the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be introducing a Budget which will range somewhere in the neighbourhood of £800,000,000, and that may go on for the next year and the year after that. It is well to know that, in about the third year after the introduction of a Budget of that description, we are assured by the right hon. Gentleman that the Government think there will be an economy, so far as this is concerned, that may amount to anything from £120 to £150. These economies are highly interesting. They do great credit to the Government. I congratulate the Chancellor of the Exchequer upon his eagle eye. The people will be glad to know that he is watching so carefully the expenditure of this country. He reminds me of a small shopkeeper trying to evade bankruptcy by petty economy, and it is interesting to learn that it will go down to history that this country, with a Budget of £800,000,000, was congratulating itself in the House of Commons upon an effort to save £120 once in five years. I again congratulate the Government.

Clause 13 (Short title, construction, and extent of Part III), ordered to stand part of the Bill.