HC Deb 05 November 1943 vol 393 cc1010-24
Major Sir Derrick Gunston (Thornbury)

I beg to move, in page 6, line 5, at the end, to insert: Provided also that it shall be the duty of the inspector of taxes for the appropriate area to send within the prescribed time to each person assessed by him under Schedule D a copy of such form and to draw his attention to the provisions of this subsection. On the Committee stage the other day we had a Debate upon a somewhat similar Amendment, which the Government were unable to accept. The Under-Secretary gave, as his reason for not accepting the Amendment, which incidentally commends itself to a large section of this House, that it would leave out certain people and would go to other people who were not qualified. This Amendment is an attempt to meet the objections which were raised by the Under-Secretary. The Inspector of Taxes will know who is assessed under Schedule D, and it will be easy for him to send a copy of the form mentioned in the Bill to the electors who are assessed under Schedule D. Therefore we do not leave anybody out.

Mr. Ammon (Camberwell, North)

On a point of Order. Was not this point decided by a Division of the House on the last occasion when we discussed this matter? The Amendment differs only in its wording from that which we already considered; is it possible for an hon. Member upon the Report stage to reintroduce an Amendment which has been defeated upon the Committee stage?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Charles Williams)

It may be a mistake on my part for having called it. Sir Derrick Gunston.

Mr. Ammon

Surely that is an extraordinary Ruling. If a Member of the House draws attention to something which is irregular and out of Order, and this is half admitted, can it then be imposed upon the House?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I am informed that although it may seem to be the same Amendment, it is actually slightly different.

Sir D. Gunston

I assure my hon. Friend that this is a different Amendment. The other dealt with the rating authority, while this proposes that it shall be the Inspector of Taxes. I assure the Under-Secretary that nobody will be left out. The form will be sent to people entitled to vote. It would create disappointment if they got the form and found they were not entitled to vote. I do not see any objection to putting on the form that the form was sent merely to call attention to the provisions of the Bill. I think that could be done without any difficulty. I would remind hon. Members opposite that we are not discussing in any way business firms, although some of my hon. Friends thought the other day that we were. We are merely discussing the best means of acquainting business men with the fact that they are entitled to this vote. The hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) may not approve of the business vote, but I am sure, he being a fair-minded man, that he would be the last to try to prevent the knowledge being given to any man that he could vote. In a speech the other day the Home Secretary himself paid a great tribute to the small busines man and said he did not want to see the small business man swallowed up by the big, bad wolf of business. We want to safeguard the small business man. Under the Bill the register will be very much larger than it has ever been before, and we feel that the business man who is entitled to a vote should be so acquainted.

There is another fact. It was very difficult to deal with all our difficulties the other day, but to-day we have the very good fortune of having the Home Secretary on the Front Bench. I congratulate him on recovering from his indisposition. I know that he in no way opposes the small shopkeeper and small business man and does not want him to be swallowed up by big business, but both to be swallowed up by the State. Personally, I should not mind whether I was swallowed up by a red or a blue wolf. He must recognise that this business vote does exist, and he would be the last man to want to prevent people from using it. It may be that the words of the Amendment are not the best possible ones. I appeal to the Home Secretary, if he cannot accept these words, to meet us by considering the matter very carefully to see whether he can substitute another form of words in another place. We do not want to divide the House again or the Government to run any narrow risks. It is in the friendliest spirt that I move this Amendment.

Lady Apsley (Bristol, Central)

I beg to second the Amendment. I do so with the greatest, pleasure and sincerity, speaking on behalf of the small business people scattered throughout the country, particularly in the big towns and ports which have suffered so severely under war conditions. I feel that this Amendment would be greatly welcomed by them. It would assist them, for once in a while. I urge my right hon. Friend to do his very best to meet us over this matter.

Mr. Maxton (Glasgow, Bridgeton)

The hon. and gallant Member did me the honour of saying that I am a fair-minded man. I hope I am. I have always regarded him as a fair man. I listened the other day to the discussion of an Amendment which was not very dissimilar from the one that we are discussing to-day. I cannot see why it is considered necessary to make this special application to one section of the community. I am a plural voter. I think it is all wrong, but I am, and obviously will exercise my plural vote. My second vote is on the ground of my academic distinction, of which the hon. and gallant Member may not be aware, but which is very real. Because I have an additional vote, do I need a special provision to remind me of the fact that I have a privilege which is not available to the general community? As I understood the hon. and gallant Member, the section of the community about which he spoke is regarded as being somewhat superior to the average manual worker. Is it necessary to tell these people that they have rights under the law and it is not necessary to tell an unskilled labourer in an engineering works?

Sir D. Gunston

Under the Bill there will be a larger register. The business vote is part of it. There will be a new form of register, and many shopkeepers will not know where they are. Much of this information would go to them.

Mr. Maxton

The point is that they are citizens the same as the rest of us, and they should know what is going on in the community and be aware of their rights. I do not think the point is a big one or that it affects the small shopkeepers. In my own division the small shopkeeper usually has a residential vote. It is not the small shopkeeper in my division who would be affected by this Amendment but the large absentee owner, who has residential qualifications in some more agreeable area. I do not want owners of big business to be able to come into the Bridgeton Division to vote during the General Election. It is wasting the time of the nation for them to do so, when they can cast their votes with more prospect of making them effective in some other division. It seems to me that the reply of the Home Secretary which was made last week is completely adequate, namely, that for all this means from the point of view of the number of people concerned it is unfair to add to the already complicated job we are putting on to the local officers charged with the preparation of this register which is frankly admitted to be an emergency register for war purposes.

I do not think the hon. and gallant Member should worry so much about the possibility of those people being disfranchised. I am surprised—and this is what really brought me to my feet—that he went out representing the House to Newfoundland and spent three months investigating the problems of democracy out there, has come back, and, so far as I know, he is not disturbed about the fact that people in Newfoundland have not got a vote at all, He comes back here without any propaganda for the restoration of votes to the people of Newfoundland, yet here he is shouting about securing a second vote for people who have already got one on the basis of their residence. It seems to me a great inconsistency, which I am surprised to find in the character and mentality of the hon. and gallant Gentleman. I think that no injustice is being done if the Home Secretary continues in his refusal to make special provision for this particular section of the community.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Herbert Morrison)

I should like to express my appreciation to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Thornbury (Sir D. Gunston) for his kindly reference to my slight indisposition; I am glad to say that I feel much better. It was very kind of him to have said that. I thank him also for the friendly and considerate tone of the speech he has made. Everybody seems to be on his best behaviour to-day, both on the Workmen's Compensation Bill and this one, and I welcome the change, being a man of peace myself. There is a great deal to be said for having a row; it is often conducive to friendliness thereafter, I find, in the House of Commons. On this subject now before the House my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary had quite a rough time the other day, and I have to thank him again very warmly for the stout defence he made and the ability with which he conducted the Committee stage of the Bill. Some of the things that were said were rather severe. The hon. Member for the Hulme Division (Sir J. Nall) said: … this is one more of those dirty tricks we are getting from certain Members of the Government. …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd November, 1943; col. 730, Vol. 393.] I think that was a pointed reference to me, and that the hon. Member was getting, near the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. A. Bevan) in the vigour of his expressions, which I think was rather to be deprecated.

This is a problem of real practical difficulty, and it has so far defeated me to find a solution which Members on this side would like, not through any lack of wish to uphold the law as it is, even though I might like to alter it, but because of the practical difficulties. I may say also that it has defied the solution they would wish not only from me. I admit that I may be a subject of suspicion, because on the merits of the business vote everybody knows where my political party stands and where I stand. I make no secret that I think it is a difficult thing to defend. But I start on the basis that it is part of the law, and that it is my duty as Home Secretary and the Minister concerned to facilitate the operation of this law fairly. I can assure the hon. and gallant Member that I am absolutely genuine about that. If ever we want to alter this law it will be for Parliament to alter it in a straightforward, upright way. It is not for me to evade it by creating administrative difficulties or by administrative evasions. I hope the House will agree that I would not do that. But it really is a very difficult matter. We are basing this Bill on National Registration. While the National Registration people can easily ascertain who are the adult popula- tion over 21 years of age, and where they live, and they can be classified in constituencies by the National Registration and the electoral registration officers between them, when it comes to trying to find out who is entitled to the local government vote or the business premises vote the National Registration machinery simply does not help us at all.

Then there is the problem that if the business premises register were to be compiled, we should be back to the ordinary system which it is the purpose of this Bill to avoid, substituting instead another system based upon the electoral registration organisation. To set the local authorities or the electoral registration officers on the enormous task of an extensive canvass would involve a considerable amount of man-power in respect of by-elections, that is to say, the stage 1 class of election. It would set them the impossible task of ascertaining and compiling the register between the initiation of the election and the making up of the register itself. Everybody knows that the local authorities are very heavily driven, that their staff position is exceedingly difficult, and it really would not be possible to impose that job on them, because if the electoral registration officer is himself to be made responsible for the compilation of a register we must be sure that he can do it. If he fails, if he leaves a number of people off for some reason or equally he puts some on who have no right to be on, he is open to very serious criticism from one quarter or another.

I assure the House that it would not be practical politics to present the electoral registration officer with the problem of compiling this register between the intiation of the election at a by-election and the publication of the register on the date we are proposing to appoint for the purpose. Between now and stage 2—not a war-time General Election but a post-war General Election—it may be possible that something additional may be found practicable, and I assure my hon. and gallant Friend and those associated with him that if between now and stage 2, that is the General Election stage, we find a means whereby the administration can be improved and tightened up, believe me, I will not hesitate to see that is done, so long as in the meantime Parliament has not altered the law about the business electoral qualification.

Major Lloyd (Renfrew, Eastern)

The right hon. Gentleman has suggested that stage 2 would be the General Election stage. Is it not possible that stage 1 might also include a General Election?

Mr. Morrison

It is possible of course, but I thought I made myself clear. It is possible that there might be a wartime General Election in the sense that it would be administratively practicable under this Bill—we all have views as to whether it should happen, most of us think not. I admit that if that happened I could not help the House very much on the point except as far as it is covered by the general observations I shall make presently. I admit that in a war-time General Election we should be in much the same difficulty as I am in about wartime Parliamentary by-elections. The proposal before the House is a rather different one. It raises practically the same principle as was raised in the Amendment on the Committee stage. That Amendment would have used the machinery of rating. This uses the machinery of national taxation. I think the present idea is less practicable than the other was because rating is more relevant to the matter than imperial taxation. Moreover the rating officers live in the locality—they are usually officers of the local authority—and for this reason could probably handle the matter better.

I do not blame hon. Members for being ingenious in trying to find a solution, but will give the House some facts which I think indicate that the proposal really would not work. The Inland Revenue—and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer takes the same view—do not like the idea of the officers concerned with tax inspection and collection being concerned with electoral machinery at all. They think it is a strange field, in which to bring them and they would sooner that they were out of it. Let us see what the facts are, and how far this Amendment gets away from the field of qualifications. Out of a total electorate in England and Wales of some 28,000,000, it is estimated that the total business premises electorate on the existing basis is 354,864, and of that number 214,932 qualify by their own occupation of the business premises, that is to say, they are not qualified merely by virtue of the independent qualification of husband or wife. The total of persons assessed to Schedule D on the last return was some 800,000. Therefore the first thing that would happen would be that an enormous number of people, somewhere between 450,000 and 580,000, with no right to be registered at all would be getting these particulars about the business vote, and the facilities for registering. Moreover, there may be on the other hand some people, I do not say many, who because of unusually low incomes are, although in occupation of business premises, not assessed to Schedule D at all and would not get the form.

I think there is nothing more annoying to the average citizen than to find that some Government official, especially if he is a tax gatherer, has been scattering forms to hundreds of thousands of people who have no concern whatever in the matter with which the form deals, and I can imagine irate questions to the Chancellor of the Exchequer asking him what he meant by distributing these forms to hundreds of thousands who were not concerned. While it would be right and just that my hon. and gallant Friend should be the Chancellor of the Exchequer who had to answer the questions which his Amendment might promote, nevertheless I cannot be certain of that. Otherwise if only to witness his embarrassment I would be happier at accepting the Amendment. But there would be great irritation and considerable criticism of the scandalous waste of effort. Other people who would not get the form at all but who ought to get it—I admit the number would be quite limited—would be still more annoyed. But even if all the people who ought to get the letter or form did get it in addition to all those who ought not to get it, there is no guarantee that although they got it they would do anything about it. It is an unhappy fact in the experience of us all that the electorate is rather apathetic, especially when it comes to doing anything, even if it is the getting of the vote. Each party believes that its own supporters are the most apathetic, but the fact is that we have all got to lead them by the hand and take great care with them, or democracy would not work. As I say, there is no guarantee whatever that when the form or the letter has been delivered the elector will take any notice of it, and I think that the value of this from the point of view of hon. Members is being very much exaggerated.

The other point is that the taxing officers could not, I am afraid, classify the constituencies. I do not know that that would be fatal, but I am sure that officers of taxes know nothing about constituency boundaries and could only send a very general statement wholesale all over the country asking you to apply to your local registration officer or what not and giving you that kind of advice. Honestly, I do not think the scheme would work. I think it would be largely ineffective. After all, it was not I who invented the idea that the business electors should claim. It was the inter-party or non-party Departmental Committee which recommended that business electors should claim, because they could not see any other alternative. This was a very good Committee, representative of pretty well all the political parties in this House. In addition, we had on it the principal agents of the political parties, including the principal agent of the Conservative Central Office, some expert registration officers and officers of the Home Office and Scottish Office. You could not have had a more representative or competent Committee or one in which all the interests concerned were more fully represented, and they did suggest that this was the best way of doing it.

Having said that and returned a negative reply to my hon. and gallant Friend, which I do with no pleasure, because, as I said, my business is to see that the law is carried out, let me add this. We are promoting an Amendment which will be helpful to some extent, particularly in the case of the husband who is absent during the war. We are making it possible for the husband to claim on behalf of the wife or the wife to claim on behalf of the husband, and the wife being at home while the husband is at the war will be able to claim in her own respect and in his as well. I think as far as it goes that will not be unhelpful and should be conducive to the operation of the law.

The next point about which I will give an undertaking is this. We will see that there is suitable publicity. For instance, as by-elections occur, we will have suitable publicity immediately advising the potential business voter how to set about making his claim and tell him all about it. As I have said, at the post-war General Election, assuming that the law remains as it is, we will do what we can to be even more forthcoming.

Finally, may I say this? I hope the House will forgive my talking about party machines. They are things that we all use, but somehow or other we seem to think it indelicate to talk about them. As one who has had something to do with them, I perhaps feel more affection for them than hon. Members who have had nothing much to do with them but who have got the benefit of them and who feel at the same time that they cannot talk freely about them. Anyhow the organisation that is concerned with this matter is the party machine. I do not think that those of us who think that the business vote is on the whole a liability, like the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) and myself, will be unduly excited and get our party machines going, but others like my Noble Friend the Member for Central Bristol (Lady Apsley) and my hon. Friend the Member for the Abbey Division (Sir H. Webbe), who is not here to-day but whose interest in the matter I fully appreciate and understand, will have a great interest in seeing that the business electors are put on the register, and from their point of view I do not blame them.

If I may give advice to Conservative Members on how to go about this—I do not know that I should, but I just want to manifest my complete impartiality and good will on this subject—I should say set the party machine on this job at once. Let them take their time. There is no great hurry as long as you do not expect a by-election soon. Let them accumulate a list of potential business voters. There is no reason why that should not be done quietly and unobtrusively and steadily straight away in the constituencies. When the election comes they will then have a substantially complete list of the potential business voters of the constituency. This is what I should do if I were running the Conservative Central Office, which Heaven forbid. They know as much about electioneering as I do—nearly—and they have done very well on many occasions, but not always. Having accumulated these lists of potential business voters, when the election comes you can set about canvassing them and seeing that they fill up the form and make the application to be registered. I will see to it as far as the Home Office and the local registration officers are concerned, again on the basis that my busi- ness is to administer the law and not to interfere with it once it exists, that the Home Office and the local registration officers do everything possible to see that proper official co-operation exists between the registration officers and the party organisations, all or any of them, so that the work of the Party organisation in getting their people registered can be done with all smoothness and alacrity. The forms can be available, and we can arrange it so that the Party organisations—whichever one of them is concerned or all of them—can have from the electoral registration officers and the Home Office proper facilities to enable them as smoothly and swiftly as possible to do the jobs which I think they will have to do in the circumstances.

Having said that, I think I have manifested a fair spirit, especially as it is well known that I would have other opinions about the merits of the business vote. But it is there, it is the law, and my business is to see it operating and not to make any trouble about it. Therefore I suggest that it would not be wise to press this Amendment. It is an Amendment which does not stand up to factual examination. I have given my hon. and gallant Friend free expert professional advice on how his Party machine should work. I have given an undertaking that as far as official co-operation is concerned we will not be standoffish but will be as helpful as we properly can be. The Government intend to do what they can to be fair in this matter; I would ask hon. Members to accept my bona fides and in the circumstances I hope they will see their way not to press the Amendment.

Major Lloyd

While I have not found myself in agreement with all that my right hon. Friend has said, I must say that after his speech I feel considerably happier than I did during the Committee stage of the Bill. He has certainly gone a long way towards meeting our very genuine and sincere apprehensions that individuals who were qualified as voters for business premises were—perhaps unwittingly—being handicapped under this Bill. They still will be handicapped to some extent. I was particularly interested in the right hon. Gentleman's point that there would not be time in the first stage, to set up machinery on the lines that my hon. Friends and I are advocating in this Amendment or those advocated in other Amendments of a different character in the Committee stage. I appreciate that there may be substance in what my right hon. Friend said in answer to our contentions on that; I also appreciated immensely his, indication of the steps that would be taken in the second stage, which is, after all, far more fundamental because the first stage may not involve a General Election but merely a by-election, and the second stage is certain to involve a General Election in any case. I hope that by that stage my right hon. Friend will have been enabled to do something even further than he has indicated to-day and in taking practical steps to give the business voter better facilities for reminder, in order that he will be under no handicap whatever.

To a large extent my misgivings and apprehensions are met by the assurance of the right hon. Gentleman that he will do everything possible to give publicity to the business voter's entitlement to vote and how he can claim and so on. If those assurances are implemented, as I am sure they will be, in full measure and running over, as it were, I would feel considerably happier than I did before. It was because I felt that the business voter was not going to get the fullest opportunity of learning his position, and the fullest encouragement to make his application, that I had misgivings. My right hon. Friend gave some excellent advice, as from an expert on the subject, on how the Conservative and Unionist Party should run its party machine in connection with this matter. In the second or subsequent stages the Conservative and Unionist Party will need no assistance or indeed advice in this connection, because it will have, as all other parties will have, its agents and its full staffs and its machinery. But in the first stage about which I am still concerned—though as I say I appreciate the arguments of my right hon. Friend—no political party will have facilities to operate this machinery or to follow the advice of my right hon. Friend. With the best will in the world, however perfect the advice, it could not be followed because the agents are not there. Many constituencies have no agencies. Many organisations have honoured the party truce, which all of us on this side have kept, so strictly that they are almost shut down. My own organisation is almost non-existent. I have no agent and the same applies to large numbers of my hon. Friends and no doubt to hon. Members on both sides of the House. Therefore, the advice of my right hon. Friend, that the party machinery should undertake this very complex and difficult work at any rate in its initial stage cannot be followed. I wish, generally, to thank my right hon. Friend for the way in which he has taken our point of view in this matter. We have been very genuine and serious about it, and I think, on the whole, he has been sympathetic towards it. I only regret that he was not able to make a further concession on the first stage. I hope we can rely on every possible step being taken in the second stage to ensure that, by some means or other, not necessarily by the method advocated in this Amendment, what is behind our point of view will be fully and amply met.

Sir D. Gunston

Will my right hon. Friend look at the recommendation of the Committee, in regard to the second stage, that a notice should be sent out, and set up some machinery to notify people on that stage?

Mr. Morrison

I have forgotten the exact point, but I will certainly look into it sympathetically.

Sir D. Gunston

May I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said, and for his advice? I hope that if I fight a by-election one day he will be seconded to help me. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Home Security (Miss Wilkinson)

I beg to move, in page 6, line 5, at the end, to insert: Where a husband and wife are qualified to be registered in respect of any business premises by virtue of the foregoing provisions of this section, the said application may be made by either of them on behalf of both of them. The position in regard to this matter was fully gone into in the previous discussion, and I do not think there is anything more to be said.

Mr. Ammon (Camberwell, North)

This Amendment cannot be allowed to pass without protest, because it is like the one which was defeated on the last occasion. The House will notice with what pertinacity our friends on the other side pursue every opportunity of entrenching themselves in a position of privilege. Unfortunately, the Home Secretary was absent through sickness last time, and did not see the exhibition we had here, when suddenly those benches filled up as the result of an organised plan to defeat the Government. It was only Members on this side who saved the Government from a heavy defeat. When Members on this side are deeply moved by great social and humanitarian questions, it is a very different matter from what it is when people in a privileged position are concerned. My right hon. Friend has gone out of his way to placate hon. Members opposite, which he has never done for hon. Members on this side.

Mr. H. Morrison

I have been doing exactly the same thing to-day on the Workmen's Compensation Bill. The continuity of the two Bills to-day is an amazing example of Parliamentary harmony.

Mr. Ammon

An amazing example of change of front on both sides since the matter was last discussed. There is only a slight alteration in this Amendment as compared with the other. They are now being given half of what they lost on the vote. It is specifically set down in the records of the House that what they asked for then was negatived on the voices. Now they are being—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

The hon. Member must not go further into what has happened. There is an Amendment on the Paper which has been moved. Perhaps he will address himself to that.

Mr. Ammon

My right hon. Friend has endeavoured to help the people on that side, and now we find ourselves in this position. I know that it is useless; otherwise, I would divide the House on the matter. This Amendment raises precisely the same question as was raised in the other. It is a question of whether people should make application for their votes, as the Committee decided that they should. The Government, after the promoters of that Amendment have been defeated, have gone out of their way to retain part of the privilege which the Committee thought they should not have. I make this protest, in order that it shall be on record that we object to such treatment, which, coming from such a source, we should not have expected.

Mr. H. Morrison

I do not quite follow my hon. Friend's grievance on the point. There was a difficult situation in the House the other day, and it is true that the Government would have been in difficulties had it not been for Labour and Liberal support in the Division Lobby. I appreciate that, although I am sure that the votes on both sides were given in conviction. It is true that the Government sometimes get saved the other way, as we were on the Workmen's Compensation Bill—although the revolt was not so great perhaps on that occasion. All that we have done to-day is that my hon. Friend has moved his Amendment and I in courteous terms have replied. There is nothing strange about that. That often happens in Parliament, but I do not think I should pursue this question. I gather that you are getting rather anxious, Mr. Deputy-Speaker.

Sir D. Gunton

I should just like to pour oil on the troubled waters between the Home Secretary and the Labour Party. The Under-Secretary said that he would accept the Amendment before the other Amendment was withdrawn. There is no question of the Government giving way to pressure.

Mr. Ammon

I want to get that technical point right.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Member cannot make a second speech.

Mr. Ammon

Surely I can correct a statement which is not accurate in regard to my speech.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

If it is just a matter of correction.

Mr. Ammon

The Amendment was not withdrawn last time; it was actually defeated on a vote.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. H. Morrison

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

I have to acquaint the House that His Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Bill, gives His Consent, as far as His Majesty's Prerogative is concerned, that this House may do therein as they shall think fit.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.