§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Herbert Morrison)
I beg to move "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
As the House is aware, the purpose of this Bill is to provide an efficient and effective system of registration of electors, despite the difficulties which have been brought about by war-time conditions. I think that proposals made in this Measure will solve those difficulties mid give us perhaps an even more up-to-date register than we had in the period before the war. In view of the introduction of the Bill, opportunity is also being taken to modernise the law as to the direction and conveyance of Parliamentary Writs. On that there is, I think, no controversy. It is simply a matter of tidying up the somewhat chaotic state of the law at the present time.
The modern registration system dates from the Reform Act of 1832, and, as a matter of history, it is interesting to recall that before that Act things were very different. It was the case, I am advised, that the title to vote, if questioned, was actually decided at the poll itself by the returning officer, who often had in attendance a barrister to help him on legal and technical points. All this involved the keeping open of the poll for days and even weeks on end. In the absence of any register of voters, the returning officer in a borough might, for example, have to determine the claim of a person to vote as what was called a "pot-walloper," which was the term applied to one who "cooked his own diet at his own fireplace, in a room of his own." Indeed it appears to have been the case that the only time limit for a poll in those days was the length of the purses of the contending parties and that it was when these resources were at an end, that the poll was brought to an end. History also discloses the somewhat curious fact that as long ago as the reign of Henry VI there was trouble because of the great size of the electorate, for we find in the Preamble to a Statute passed in 1429–8, Hen. VI, Cap. 7—the significant remark that 59Elections of Knights of the Shire have now of late been made by a very great outrageous and excessive number of people dwelling within the same counties, of the which most part was of people of small substance and of no value.Accordingly, that Act of Henry VI confined the right of voting to resident freeholders of land to the value of 40s. a year, which sounds a pretty low qualification now but was probably much more serious in those days. The Reform Act of 1832 got rid of many abuses, but its registration provisions were almost as important as its provisions for getting rid of the rotten boroughs. They put an end to a chaotic state of affairs and established, once and for all, the principle that appearance on the register of electors is a condition precedent to the right to vote. Revising barristers were appointed, but I believe that the only way in which the correctness of the register could then be questioned, was by bringing the matter before a Committee of this House. There was a further Act in 1843, just 100 years ago, which repealed and re-enacted various statutory provisions with considerable amendments, and it is interesting to note that, in particular, the right of the House to decide questions as to the correctness of the register was, in spite of a vigorous protest by Lord John Russell, virtually displaced by making provision for an appeal on that point to the courts of law. After that time, there was virtually no change until the Representation of the People Act, 1918, which is the statutory provision at the present time.
The Representation of the People Act, 1918, was adapted to a relatively static population, a very different state of affairs from that which obtains now, when, owing to voluntary evacuation consequent on enemy bombardment in the early days of the war, the voluntary removal of people to various industrial centres in pursuit of war work, and the compulsory removal of people under directions of the Ministry of Labour, the population has become much more fluid, much more liable to change in its residence, even as far as the civil population is concerned, which is a rather new factor compared with the circumstances during and at the end of the last war. The provision in the Act of 1918 for registration is on the basis that there is a residence qualification of three months, namely, 1st April to 1st 60 June in each year. There is an officially-conducted canvass by the registration officer, through his staff, after 1st June. The preparation of the electors' lists then proceeds. Publication of the first list takes place on 15th July, and thereafter the publication of the register, as officially and finally approved, takes place on 15th October. We have an annual register, with the consequences that I have indicated.
This system of registration was suspended by the Local Elections and Registration of Electors (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1939, as renewed, and, therefore, the October, 1939, register is still in force in October, 1943. The register is four years out of date, notwithstanding the many population movements—and it is possible that there will be much further movement of the population in the years following the war. It may be some material period after the war before we can say that the population has probably reached a reasonable degree of finality as to residence. In addition to the movements of the civil population, we have the very considerable movements of millions of men and women in the Armed Forces of the Crown, both in this country and in the theatres of war abroad. That brings up another problem which it is desirable should be met, and which this Bill seeks to meet. A further complication is the large demand on man-power in the country, which is organised to a degree beyond anything previously known in our experience, and one of the consequences is that we cannot afford the amount of man-power that would be involved in making the usual annual register, with all the canvassing staff, which this would require, while we should be faced with a considerable printing problem if we had to compile an annual printed register.
It was because of these war-time difficulties that the Government decided to institute an inquiry into the matter, and that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I appointed the Departmental Committee on Electoral Machinery. We gave considerable thought to the composition of that Committee. We wanted Parliament to be in it; we wanted the technical people concerned with electoral registration, suitable electoral registration officers, to be in it; we wanted the State Departments, the Home Office and the Scottish Office, to 61 be in it; and we thought it right that those much-abused people, the principal or national agents of the various political parties, should be in it, because they have great technical knowledge of the problem. We appointed a Departmental Committee which gave fair representation to all these groups, and I think the composition of the Committee was admirable for the purpose. I am exceedingly grateful to them for the work they did. They presented the House and the country with an admirable and valuable Report. As the matter very much concerns movements of population, I thought it fortunate that we were able to get the services of the Registrar-General as Chairman of the Committee, and I am exceedingly grateful for the very valuable work he did. The Departmental Committee made various constructive proposals, and broadly speaking, I think it can be said that the proposals of the Committee are embodied in this Bill.
This is, indeed, a fortunate Departmental Committee. It was appointed not very long ago, it reported not very long ago, and now it sees the substance of its Report embodied in a Bill before Parliament, with every expectation of that Bill soon being passed. If every Committee could see such a rapid consummation of its labours, it would be fortunate. My friend Sidney Webb used to say that throughout English history the average period between the presentation of an agreed Report by a Royal Commission, which had received general popular agreement and was unanimous, and the implementation of that Report was about 20 years. In this case it looks like being about 12 months; and I am delighted to be the leader of such a minor revolution in British constitutional practice. The need for this Bill is considerable, as thugs are with regard to the present register. The Bill not only provides for by-elections but for the possibility of a Parliamentary General Election during the war and in the post-war period.
§ Mr. Morrison
I hope to know as early as possible, and to get ready for it, but I do not know at present. The point about a general election is this: Most of us—there is usually a minority of nine or to Members on the Prolongation of Parliament Bills—are agreed that it would not 62 be particularly creditable if we were driven to a General Election during the war, and that the issues would be difficult to shape anyway. Nevertheless, it is not right that for administrative, Neal, or practical reasons, it should be virtually not possible to have a General Election. All that balance of power between the House and the Executive cannot properly function without the possibility of a dissolution of Parliament, or if, owing to the state of the law or of practical difficulties about electors, we could not have a General Election, or if we did the electorate would be so unrepresentative that it could not be trusted to show the general mind of the nation. This Bill does not provide that a General Election shall take place. On the contrary, the next Bill which I shall produce will be rather in the other direction. But this Bill does provide that if the House could not live with the Government or if the Government could not live with the House, there would be nothing in the way of organisation to prevent a General Election taking place. I think that constitutionally, this is right.
The other point with which it deals is the making of it possible for by-elections to be contested with an up-to-date register. Quite a number of by-elections have been contested, notwithstanding the much discussed electoral truce between the parties, and in some cases we are bound to agree, the register has been in a shocking state and not creditable to the country. Therefore, we propose to make arrangements whereby the register can be brought up to date. The new scheme embodied in this Bill is based on the 'National Registration system. It was part of our war-time organisation that there should be a National Registration of the population of the country, kept up to date, and that National Registration system has been of the greatest value in arranging food rationing and in various other matters. If we had not had that system, this Bill would hardly have been possible. The system provided in this Bill can last only as long as national registration lasts. There must be preparation, after the Bill becomes an Act, for the new order of things. There is bound to be some delay between the passing of the Bill and its actual operation, but there is provision for me to fix an appointed day. That is provided in the Bill.
63 The other aspect that will take time is the registration of the members of the Forces, particularly those serving in overseas theatres of war. We took into account whether we should provide that the Bill should not be operative until all the Forces had been registered, or let it march, with the understanding that the Forces will be in a position to vote as and when they are registered and that elections may take place in which some of the Service people associated with a constituency will be able to vote because they have been registered, while others may not be able to do so because they have not been reached. In due course they will all be reached, and we thought it would not be right to hold up the operation of the Bill until all Service personnel had been registered. It will be possible on the appointed day to produce a register for any by-election, and at a later date, when things are easier, we hope it will be possible—indeed, it will have to be possible if there should be a General Election—to produce a register for the whole country simultaneously. Even if an election were to happen during the war, it would be highly inconvenient to have to produce a register all over the country, but we should have to find ways and means. With regard to by-elections, there will be no great difficulty, but it may be that the register will not be printed but will have to be multiplied by duplicating processes of one sort and another.
In the Bill the new register will be in three parts. There will be the civilian residence register. Here the qualification will be two months' residence before the qualifying date. There will be a business premises register, as is provided for under the present law—because in this Bill we are not making changes in the electoral system or the basis of registration of electors; that is a wider and more controversial issue of electoral reform. This Bill is based on the system as it is. The business premises register presents us with a difficulty. There can be no question of wholesale canvassing by the registration officers in order to make a register in the ordinary way, The scheme is based upon National Registration, and as the National Registration machinery is not able to distinguish between business electors and residential electors, it is obvious that the National Register cannot solve that particular problem. Therefore, the Commit- 64 tee recommended, and the Government have agreed, that in the first stage the obligation must be upon the potential business voter to apply to be registered as a business voter. It will then be for the electoral registration officer to check this up as far as he can and put the applicant on the register or not in accordance with the decision he reaches. There is nothing to prevent the party machine, or at any rate such party machines as are attached to the business voter, entering the lists with a view to the full registration of the business electors. But that has nothing to do with the Bill and has nothing to do with me, not at any rate as Secretary of State for the Home Department. At the second stage there will have to be an annual application, and the registration would then be effective for 12 months. The business electors, like the civilian residential electors, will have the two months' qualifying period.
Thirdly, there is the Service register. On this we have consulted with the Service Departments, and the Ministry of War Transport, in respect of the Mercantile Marine—the seamen—and I am glad to be able to say that we have come to an arrangement whereby the Service Departments and the Ministry of War Transport for the Mercantile Marine will co-operate with a view to securing, subject to any unintended errors, the full registration of Service personnel and seamen. In addition, we propose to register in this Service register civilians who are engaged in war work abroad. We shall provide for all these persons to be registered where they reside or where they would be residing but for their service. Ordinarily there will be proxy voting for men if they are overseas, but if they are in this country, they will have the option either to vote by post or in person. The difficulty with the Services, and indeed with the Mercantile Marine, is bound to be that they are here to-day and gone to-morrow, and no man can be certain whether, when an election takes place, he will be in this country or abroad. We have to be elastic, therefore, and have a system whereby they can vote by proxy, vote as absent voters by post or vote in person, in whatever way is convenient to them, but in such a way that there will be no duplicate voting. The existing law as to absent voters is retained.
I have referred to the qualifying date as to registration, up to which the two months period runs. The qualifying date 65 is to be the last day in the month before that in which an election is initiated. At that date the records will be frozen. The two months qualifying period will go backwards from that date. At that time, as the House will appreciate, in the case of a by-election, and still more if there were a General Election, an enormous amount of work will have to be done by the registration officers. They will have to bring into register form the material which is available to the National Registration officers. It will have to be typed out or printed, multiplied and so on. The publication of the register, therefore, is not to be expected earlier than 36 days after the initiation of the election. As the register is used for all kinds of purposes, in connection, for example, with the preparation of envelopes, canvassing by candidates and their supporters, and so on, clearly tire election cannot take place on the date on which the register becomes available. There must be a further period. We have gone, therefore, on the basis that the register should be ready 36 days after an election is initiated with a power to extend the 36 days to 42 in exceptional circumstances. The kind of exceptional circumstances we have in mind are those in some of the constituencies in the Highlands of Scotland, or the Western Isles, where, I can imagine, the poor registration officer will be faced with a really serious problem.
§ Sir Alfred Beit (St. Pancras, South-East)
Can the right hon. Gentleman say the date of the initiation of the election?
§ Mr. Morrison
I am coming to that. It is an important point. The date of the initiation of the election in the case of a Parliamentary General Election will be the date of the Royal Proclamation. In the case of a by-election it will be the date of the receipt of the Writ. They are definite times, and we thought that that was reasonable.
§ Colonel Arthur Evans (Cardiff, South)
Do I understand that if the local returning officer receives the Writ from Mr. Speaker he is not required up to 36 days in one case and 42 days in another to make the register available to political agents in the constituencies? If so, is that long enough for political candidates?
§ Mr. Morrison
That is as a period during which the election or polling may take place. My hon. and gallant Friend 66 is right. The political machine could not function if that were so, and I agree. We provide, therefore, for the minimum time between the initiation of the election and the actual polling being not 36 days or even 42 days but round about seven and a half weeks, allowing for everything. You must take into account not only the publication of the register and its availability to the candidates and their agents but also the giving of time for the preparation of envelopes and poll cards, if those luxuries can be provided nowadays. They are, however, a great blessing to some electors who almost have to be held by the hand and led into the polling booth to prevent them getting lost. And there is all the usual business of canvassing and the providing of lists at polling stations for the use of the clerks. So a longer period is required and under the Bill the period from the initiation of the election to the date of the poll will be about seven and a half weeks.
A nice point arises here. It is not very nice to contemplate the country without a Parliament for the whole period of seven and a half weeks. It is the custom that when His Majesty makes a Proclamation dissolving Parliament, Parliament is forthwith dissolved, and there is no Parliament until the meeting of the new Parliament, the date for which is also usually provided for in the Royal Proclamation. The interval is usually somewhere about three weeks or a month. There is nothing very shocking in being without a Parliament for that period in the ordinary way. Nevertheless, it would be open to constitutional objection if the country were left without a Parliament for a period not of three or four weeks but of seven and a half weeks. Some matter might arise which required urgent attention, and we propose to deal with that point by providing that the Royal Proclamation shall fix a future date for the dissolution of Parliament not later than the date when the register comes into force. That is to say, although a Proclamation might be issued to-day to dissolve Parliament, there would be a provision in it that Parliament would not actually be dissolved until the date upon which the register to be made came into force. Thereafter there would be about the usual period between the Dissolution and the meeting of the new Parliament. It may be suggested that even that period ought not to exist, that there should be no period in which there is no 67 Parliament. This is a matter for debate; it is eminently one for Parliament to decide. I am bound to say that my own bias is in favour of there being a clean break of a reasonable period. It is a fine point, but I do not like the idea of one of the candidates being a Member of Parliament throughout the election. It would be a little disadvantageous to the other fellow who cannot put "M.P." after his name.
A second point is that if Parliament exists during the whole election campaign power in the hands of a Government to exercise discrimination as to whether to bring that Parliament together again or not during the election campaign could be dangerous. They might even be able to call Parliament together to decide that there was to be no election after all, and that Parliament was to continue its life. That would be an awkward proposition. It might be accused of being afraid to meet the consequences of an election and extending its own life on this account. This is, I admit, rather imaginative. I shall propose an extension of Parliament later to-day though not for such an ulterior purpose. Nevertheless I do not like the idea. There ought to be a clean cut and no possibility of jiggery-pokery. Even the convening of Parliament for the purpose of a Debate might be of electoral significance one way or another. Taking it broadly, I think we have got on very well with that short break in which there is no Parliament, but it is our duty to see that that short break is not increased or at any rate not materially increased. Therefore, taken in conjunction with Clause 3, Clause 4 (3) (a) provides that when the Proclamation is issued Parliament is not to be dissolved until 36 days thereafter, with the result that there will be a gap in which there is no Parliament of round about 20 days, much the same as at present.
With regard to the machinery of continuous registration, it is clear that there will have to be close co-operation between the National Registration and the electoral registration officers. There are regulations under the National Registration Act, 1939, governing the duties of the National Registration officers, and we can make them do what we require under the Bill. There are to be regulations to be issued under the Bill as regards the work of the 68 electoral registration officers, and in order that the House may be as fully informed as possible as to our intentions while the Bill is under consideration, I have issued a draft proposed, set of regulations so that the House may have the regulations in front of them at the same time as the Bill. I thought it well not to wait until I got the Act of Parliament and then issue regulations. In order that there should be no question of buying a pig in a poke, I have put all my cards on the table at once and produced the regulations which the Bill gives me power to make, and I think the House will say that this is a piece of good conduct on my part and will give me a certificate of moral virtue and constitutional and Parliamentary integrity. There must be elasticity in that matter, and I think it is inevitable to deal with many matters by regulation. But, even so, constitutional propriety has been fully maintained by the fact that the electoral regulations themselves will not be effective until there has been an affirmative Resolution of Parliament upon them. The rights of the House are thus fully safeguarded in the matter.
As regards expenses, under the existing law the cost of preparing an electoral register was divided, I think equally, between the State and the local authorities, for the reason that part of the register is Parliamentary and part of it is local government. As none of this new register will be for local government, the cost of the registration will be made quite properly out of national funds. There are provisions for slight modifications in the application of the Bill to Scotland, which are to be found in Clause 22, and the question arises as to the applicability of the Bill to Northern Ireland. In the election of Members of the United Kingdom Parliament from Northern Ireland, this Bill will apply. The question whether the provisions of the Bill shall or shall not apply to the election arrangements for the Parliament of Northern Ireland is a matter for the Northern Ireland Parliament and we give them power in the Bill to adopt the Bill, if they so desire.
The Bill provides that the new system can only last as long as the National Registration Act lasts, unless Parliament takes further action about that Act. But we must have provision for a possible interim period, and, consequently, the 69 last register prepared under the new continuous registration system will remain temporarily in force until the new register comes into force, either under the Representation of the People Act, 1918, or under such new legislation as may be brought along between now and then. We considered that in this Bill we could do nothing about local government elections, for various reasons. We did not think it urgent that there should be local government elections; we thought they would involve a lot of trouble, work and disturbance, and on balance, although none of us has any love for the present system of co-option, we decided that there was not a strong case from that point of view. Another difficulty would be that just as the National Registration people cannot know anything about business and residential electors, so they cannot distinguish between Parliamentary electors based on a qualified residence and local government electors based on other qualifications, including the occupation of unfurnished premises with a minimum rent and so on. The only way to get a local government register would be by a full canvass, and we therefore decided not to deal with the local government franchise. If Parliament decided at any time that the franchise for the local government electorate should be the same as the franchise for the Parliamentary electorate, the question would not arise, but that again brings us into the field of electoral reform, which must await consideration by the members of Mr. Speaker's Conference.
I do not think I need say much about Parliamentary Writs except that the law on the subject is rather chaotic. The law works somehow, probably owing to the ingenuity of the authorities of Parliament and the Law Officers of the Crown. I am not quite sure why it should work, but it does. At any rate, we have decided to tidy it up, and the provisions in this respect are not controversial. They merely tidy up conflicting statutory provisions in many different Statutes dating from 1895. What we have tried to do is to consolidate and modernise them.
I think that the House will agree that the Government have moved with reasonable speed in a matter of considerable complication which has involved a lot of work, both for my Department and for Parliamentary Counsel. It is not my 70 business to decide who shall win elections but merely to provide machinery which is fair and equitable to all concerned and to hope that the best man or woman will win. I think these proposals are equitable, I think the machinery provided under the Bill will work, and I therefore commend the Measure to the favourable consideration of the House and trust that we shall get it through before the end of the present Session.
§ Mr. Ammon (Camberwell, North)
I think the whole House owes a debt of gratitude to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the clarity with which he has set forth the proposals of this Bill. I think we ought to join in congratulating him on his minor revolution in being able so quickly to implement the findings of a Departmental Committee. We trust that his example will be noted and followed by other Ministers and Departments in due course. There is very little one can criticise in the broad principles of this Bill. Everybody admits that it is a valuable and necessary improvement on the present situation. There is, however, one matter to which attention might be called, namely, the question not so much of what is in the Bill as of the possibilities that could emerge from it to the disadvantage of the community. At first glance the Bill appears to be a simple war-time Measure, but, as my right hon. Friend indicated in his concluding words, it is a little more than that. It can be carried over into the post-war period.
One regrets that the Minister could not go the whole way regarding reform of the municipal register. I hope that one day there will be no difference whatever between the municipal and national registers. One cannot be unmindful of a situation arising in the country as the war situation improves in which the desire for the brave new world after the war grows less. Indeed, indications are not wanting at the present time that there is a slackening of enthusiasm with regard to such things as the implementation of the Beveridge and Uthwatt Reports, housing, and the like. All this indicates that as we get further from the danger zone there is in some quarters—not in the Government, I hope—the desire that it would be as well if we returned to the status quo instead of looking forward to the new world we all want when hostilities cease.
71 This Bill would afford an excellent opportunity to raise the smoke screen of a khaki election immediately after the war as a means of ending all our good intentions. I hope that I am unduly suspicious about that and that I am wrong, but the fact is there nevertheless, and I think it just as well that it should be mentioned. Many of us have not forgotten the 1918 election, just prior to which the Representation of the People Act was rushed through. While that election achieved the immediate results of those who engineered it, it had disastrous repercussions a year or two later. I do not suppose the party on this side of the House need fear what might be the result of any election in that respect, but it would be a tragedy if a Bill which is a real improvement so far as registration is concerned should be indirectly the means of bringing upon us even greater disasters than the war itself. It is just because I visualise such a possibility of the Bill being used for such a purpose that I am hoping the mere mention of it will remove any fears of such a practical application later.
Some points will need clarification on the Committee stage. For instance, the Minister did not make it quite clear, although I think it is explicit in the Bill, that there will be no interregnum during which a voter will be without a vote, that he will not be removed from the old register until it is known that he is on the new register.
§ Major Owen (Carnarvon)
As one who served on the Departmental Committee, I naturally welcome this Bill. It has been my good fortune, or misfortune, to serve on many Departmental Committees during the time I have been a Member of this House, but this is the first occasion I can remember when recommendations have been implemented in a Bill. I gather that I am just about at the right period. I have been in the House of Commons for about 20 years, and here is my first chance of getting on to the Statute Book something which has been recommended by a Committee of which I was a member. On 72 behalf of the Liberal Party, I welcome this Bill, because it ensures that we shall have an up-to-date register for every Parliamentary election. That is a thing which is of the very greatest importance and significance. The register will be made up, as my right hon. Friend said, in three parts—civilian, business and Service registers. I remember very well what happened in the last war, when the General Election of 1918 took place. I was in the Army in those days, and there was no opportunity for me as a serving soldier to vote in that election. Hundreds of thousands of other Service men at that time were in the same position. I am very glad that provision is made in the Bill which will ensure that Service officers, as well as civilian officers, will see to it that everyone who is entitled, as a British-born subject of the age of 21 and over, shall be on the register.
§ Mr. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)
In what way do the provisions of the Bill differ from the Representation of the People Act, 1918?
§ Major Owen
All I can say is that in the 1918 election Service men were unable to vote in large numbers, but this register will be kept constantly up-to-date, and opportunities will be given to everyone to vote whether at by-elections or whether we have a General Election in the immediate post-war period.
There are one or two small points to which I should like to draw attention. With regard to the business premises register, I think a little more should be done than is provided. The business voter has to apply at the appropriate time to be put on the business register. What steps is he supposed to take to draw the attention of those who are entitled to that vote? It often happens that these things are announced, but as part of another long document. Can any specific method be adopted to advise business electors how to proceed, when to apply and on what grounds they are able to apply? With regard to the order of names on the register, the general custom is that in boroughs the register is made up by streets and in Parliamentary counties in alphabetical order. There is an option in the Bill, if it is inconvenient to arrange the register for boroughs in alphabetical order. There is also an option in Parliamentary counties to have the street order instead of the alphabetical order. I think it would 73 be a great convenience from the point of view of political agents and the candidate himself if a definite arrangement could be made in counties to have the street order, or perhaps better still the walking order. What I mean is this. The postal authorities in every rural area know exactly in what order to go round the houses and distribute letters. It often happens that in one and the same house there is a family whose members have different surnames. The result is that double work has to be gone through, whereas if you had it in a sort of walking order you could have all the literature pertaining to that household sent in one envelope, and polling cards and everything else, and it would help to avoid a great deal of hard, work.
I should like to have one point cleared up with regard to the second stage. Everyone understands that it is impossible to publish the register during the actual war period, owing to shortage of paper and lack of printing facilities, but in the second stage it is provided that the register shall be published. Is it going to be published annually and emandations made during the year? How often will the emandations be published—half-yearly, quarterly or monthly? New voters will be coming on the list every month. Will the register itself be published annually, or will there just be the one list with periodical additions every year? The right hon. Gentleman said the Bill will only apply so long as the National Registration Act, 1939, is in existence. There was a real feeling on the Committee that the system of continuous registration is of very great value, and I am wondering whether it will not be possible to devise a scheme when the National Registration Act comes to an end to enable the register to be a continuous register in the future. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on having been so quick off the mark in producing the Bill, and I feel certain that the House and the country as a whole will welcome a Bill of this kind, which enables every individual to have the right to take part in an election at whatever time it comes.
§ Colonel Arthur Evans (Cardiff, South)
I should like to join the two hon. Members who preceded me, one speaking on behalf of the Labour Party and the other on behalf of the Liberal Party, in welcoming the Measure and congratulat- 74 ing the right hon. Gentleman and the Government on its timely introduction. The right hon. Gentleman in his very interesting speech traced the history of the matter back to the time of Henry VI. I feel however it would be wise if the House bore in mind that this is strictly a temporary Measure to meet abnormal circumstances, and it is on that condition alone that I welcome its introduction at this time. Of course, the House realises and the country is conscious that this Parliament is about to enter into its ninth year of life and whilst it is true that the character of the Parliament elected in 1935 has little relation to the same Parliament as it is to-day; nearly a third of its Members have changed. Nevertheless the new Members who have come in since the last General Election have been elected on the same register, and no one can possibly contend that the register of 1939 in any constituency in the country is representative of the electors who should have the right to record their vote in 1943.
But I welcome the Measure because of its temporary character, largely because if it were permanent in character, constituents and constituencies throughout the country might be apt to lose their representative and basic character. Large blocks of the population have been shifted from one part of the country to another, and one finds in an agricultural constituency, for instance, as the result of the war, that voters ordinarily resident in that area are outweighed by a large representative body of electors who have been transferred from a strictly industrial area. Therefore, while they might be recording their vote under this Bill in strict accordance with their political convictions and their conscience, nevertheless it might well be that the fundamental interests of the constituency do not find proper representation, so I hope that as soon as may be after the conclusion of the war the Government of the day will introduce a Bill to bring this to an end and put the matter on a permanent basis.
The right hon. Gentleman drew attention to the fact that under these abnormal conditions the country is still liable to be without a Parliament for an approximate of three weeks to a month. He admitted that it was obviously undesirable at this time that the country should be without a Parliament for seven weeks, and that is why he took steps to see that the position under the original Act was 75 not altered. But I submit that the considerations which must have weighed with the right hon. Gentleman in regard to the period of seven weeks apply equally to a period of three weeks. It is not difficult for any of us to visualise circumstances where it would be essential, even after Parliament had been dissolved, for it to meet in order to give a direction to the Government or a general indication of thought to the people as a whole. Would it be possible for the Government to consider a suggestion, for instance, that instead of Parliament being dissolved, as suggested in the Bill, it would in fact not be dissolved until the date before the poll when the new Parliament would be elected? This would enable the old Parliament to be summoned if abnormal circumstances demanded such a course.
The only objection raised by the right hon. Gentleman was that it might be an unfair advantage for candidates who were Members of the old Parliament who would therefore be at liberty to describe themselves as Members of Parliament during the actual election campaign, but I cannot think it would be impossible to frame regulations which would enable the old Parliament if need were to be summoned up to the actual day the new Parliament was elected and to withhold the right from Members of the old Parliament to describe themselves as Members of Parliament for the purpose of forwarding their own interest during the election campaign. I have in mind not so much a by-election, because such a situation would not arise, but only the abnormal circumstances of an abnormal General Election at an abnormal time. Further, if that possibility was not largely in the mind of His Majesty's Government there would have been little urge to introduce such a Bill at this time. There is, of course, the case of the death of the monarch taking place during a period of that kind, and I think my memory serves me right in such an event it would be necessary to extend the old Parliament by a period of 6 months in spite of the fact that it had been dissolved by Proclamation. If I am correct in that assumption I feel that as this is a temporary Measure designed solely to meet an abnormal situation His Majesty's Government should give the matter some further thought.
76 Before I sit down, there are one or two minor matters to which I should like to refer. One concerns the registration of Service men, seamen and war workers abroad. Under the Bill a person is entitled to be registered in a Service register if, on the qualifying date, he is a member of the Forces or a seaman or a person registered in the National Register as engaged on war work abroad and has been residing at a place in the constituency or would be so residing but for his service as a member of the Forces or as a seaman or war worker abroad. But no person can be registered in the Service register unless there has been transmitted to the registration officer before the qualifying date a declaration signed by the person qualified as above declaring his qualifications, stating the address where he would be residing but for his service, and giving his service number, if any, and such other particulars of identity as may be prescribed. Further such a person who has made a declaration of this kind may—and these are the words which exercise my mind—"cancel it at any time and, if he so desires, make a declaration to some other place of residence."
I am not quite satisfied that it is not possible for there to be a group of Service men not serving abroad but resident in this country, numbering some hundreds, keenly politically-minded rightly taking an interest in the affairs of the country and the outcome of the by-elections to vote in them all as they occur. They would see that a vacancy had occurred somewhere and that a by-election was pending, and under this Bill they would have a perfect right to apply to the local registration officer to be included among the electors in that division. Shortly afterwards another by-election might occur in some other part of the country and then they could write to the registration officer there and apply to be placed on the register. Is there anything in the Regulations or in the Bill to prevent practice of that kind? I am not suggesting that it would be indulged in upon a large scale, but I am suggesting that there are certain circumstances in which a small number of keenly politically-minded people, ably inspired by certain hon. and talented gentlemen, would exercise a prerogative of that kind unless there is something in the Bill to prevent it.
77 The second point I wish to mention is that under the abnormal circumstances of the war a large and efficient body of part-time Civil Servants has been built up. I do not mean the ordinary Civil Service, but part-time civil workers such as air-raid wardens, fire-guards and special constables and the like. If I remember correctly, under the original Act servants of the Crown, who normally are full-time employees of the State, are not allowed to canvass electors if they are in uniform. It is obvious that by the valuable service which men and women have rendered to the country in the capacities I have indicated they have gained a unique position of influence in all localities, and I think we ought to take whatever steps are necessary to make it improper for those people to canvass while they are in uniform. It is a matter which would affect all parties in all parts of the country. Having raised these points I should like to say again, as a Conservative Member, how much I welcome this Bill and the opportunity which it will afford to electors, in this abnormal time, to record their votes at a by-election or a General Election and thus ensure that this House remains, as it always has been, thoroughly representative of the people as a whole.
§ Sir Harold Webbe (Westminster Abbey)
I should also like to join in congratulating my right hon. Friend upon finding a solution of a most difficult problem, one, indeed, which appeared almost intractable. If he had been here, I should have liked to add personal congratulations to him on the manner in which he acquitted himself in the unfamiliar rôle of one who takes no interest in the winning or losing of elections. I want to follow the hon. and gallant Member for Carnarvon (Major Owen) in appealing to the Minister to consider once again the arrangements proposed for the creation and maintenance of the business register. Provision for that register is made in Clause 6, which lays upon the individual business man the responsibility of making application for his name to be recorded in the register. It states that the application must be made in the manner prescribed and within the time prescribed under Regulations to be issued. By the courtesy of the Minister we have before us a draft of the Regulations in the form of a White Paper. This particular matter is dealt with in three places in the Regulations. In Section 8 78 (4) the obligation to make application for registration is repeated. In Section 31 (2) it is laid down that the application must be made to the registration officer by post. In the Second Schedule the prescribed time for carrying out these processes is fixed at to days from the initiation of the election.
Nothing is said, as the hon. and gallant Member pointed out, as to the machinery which is to be used to make it reasonably easy for business people who claim votes in respect of the occupation of business premises to carry through these steps and to make their title effective. I must assume, though nothing is provided, that at least some public notice will be given of the right of the business voter to have his name placed on the business register, but if that notice is to take the form merely of an official notification in the usual place, and an advertisement in the Press, I submit that in these days, when dozens of notices from Government Departments, local authorities, regional authorities and others are being issued, and when it is virtually impossible at town halls and other places to find what is the latest notice, that such type of notice is quite inadequate to give to the business community fair or proper warning that they must take certain steps to gain their right to vote. Furthermore, even when they understand the procedure they have to follow they will be involved in making a purpose journey to some place in the constituency to obtain a form, take that form away and send it to the registration officer by post. The Minister made it very clear that it was neither his intention nor his desire through this Measure to affect in any way the rights which Parliament has conferred upon individual citizens to have a voice in the selection of Parliament, but I submit that the procedure outlined for obtaining the business vote is of such a character as to create an entirely unfair, and I would go so far as to say an improper, discrimination against one section of the community.
§ Mr. S. O. Davies (Merthyr)
Does the hon. Member attempt to justify why the business vote should exist at all?
§ Sir H. Webbe
I should not attempt to argue that matter on this particular Bill, because I am certain that I should be ruled out of Order. I am not concerned 79 with the merits of the business vote. It has been granted by Parliament. It is a right given to business people, by virtue of the occupation of business premises, to record a vote in a Parliamentary election, and I am only following the Minister in saying that this particular Bill should not be allowed to alter the rights of any section of the community who take part in An election. I submit that this procedure does discriminate very strongly and very unfairly against this particular section of the community. It is even more obvious when one realises that under this Bill the residential voter is to get his right to vote without even the simple procedure which he is called upon to follow in existing conditions by filling in a form to claim his residential qualifications.
§ Mr. Mathers (Linlithgow)
The business voter will surely reside somewhere and have his residential vote, so that the claim which the hon. Member is making that an elector has a right to have a voice in the election of Parliament will still exist by reason of his residential vote.
§ Sir H. Webbe
I am afraid that if I attempted to answer that interjection, I should be coming very near the edge of being out of Order. I am concerned not only with the right of the business man to vote but with his right to determine in which constituency he will vote, and I repeat that the Minister has disclaimed any desire through this Bill to alter his rights. I suggest, although I am sure these matters have been fully explored, that it is not outside the bounds of administrative possibility that at least potential business voters should, as at present, have a copy of the form of application sent to them by the registration authority. I have been at pains to discuss this matter with registration officers with whom this particular problem always has been and still is a very serious one, and they see no administrative impossibility in what I ask for. It is fair to say that the Departmental Committee themselves, in making their recommendation that the residential vote should be based on the machinery of the National Registration, were influenced not by purely administrative considerations but by the serious difficulties which arise from the present abnormal and extensive movements of the civil population. That particular factor 80 is not a serious one in the case of a business voter. There is nothing like the same movement of businesses as there has been of private families.
I do therefore beg that this matter be reconsidered and that the Minister will look at it from the angle he himself has put of not desiring to upset in any way the relative rights of the different classes of citizens in the community. I apologise for making rather a lot of this particular Matter, but in the constituency which I have the honour to represent, in the 1939 register, out of a total electorate of 46,000 voters, no fewer than 14,000 had the right to vote in respect of business occupations, and these people were not of course the large industrial and commercial undertakings who have their business premises there. Those people for the main part are limited companies, who have no right to vote. The people of whom I am speaking consist largely of small shopkeepers, small traders and small business men, and I feel it my duty to ask that by the operation of this Bill these particular people, who are such a very large proportion of my constituents, should not be effectively robbed of the right to record their vote wherever they please.
§ Sir H. Webbe
I must refuse to be drawn into a discussion as to whether the business vote is right or wrong. I am quite prepared to discuss it at the proper time. Certainly that time, in my submission, is not now.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Charles Williams)
So as to be quite clear on this subject, I would say that I have been watching the hon. Member for some time, wondering how far he would go on those lines, and I must tell him that he would not be able to go any further and keep in Order.
§ Sir H. Webbe
I very gladly bow to your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. Interruptions were tending to lead me astray. I wish to base myself on the Minister's statement, and I make an appeal for serious consideration of this matter in justice to the many thousands of small business people who at present have the right to vote in the constituency which I have the honour to represent.
§ Mr. Pickthorn (Cambridge University)
I intend to speak for only two or three minutes. I should like to begin by saying that, like everyone else, I welcome the Bill on the whole. I should like to offer some support to the question put by the hon. and gallant Member for South Cardiff (Colonel A. Evans). It seems to me that there is something to be said for his view, though I do not feel strongly about it. I was interested to find a Minister, for almost the first time in my Parliamentary experience, taking the line he did, the line that you could not give the Government the right of reviving Parliament up to any moment short of the moment when the new Parliament has been elected, because, the Home Secretary says, that is far too great a power to trust any Government with. It is very entertaining to find him taking that attitude. Much more often the line taken by Ministers is that we have to assume that Ministers are neither crooks nor imbeciles, and of course they do naturally take that line, and often we have to. On this occasion he did rather take the opposite line. One other incidental point: I wonder whether on the analogy of the statutory woman, the woman who by Statute must be put on this or that Committee—we might not have a statutory Englishman, and arrange that in every Government office there should be one statutory Englishman, whose duty it should be to go through documents and explanatory memoranda and change all the "shalls" into "wills" and all the "wills" into "shalls". We are really getting to the point where our language is entirely losing that rather agreeable distinction.
The particular point on which I should like to address the House and the Front Bench specially—and I am sorry there is no Minister present at the moment—is that, I think entirely by inadvertence in the drafting of this very difficult and technical Bill—I am sure it was inadvertent—the effect of it is, on the best advice I can get, to make it much more difficult for university voters to vote by proxy than for voters in a geographical constituency to vote by proxy. That, I am sure, was not the intention of the Bill. I am sure that everyone, whether he approves or not of university constituencies, will agree that so long as they exist that would be an injustice, and rather a gross injustice, because, for example, my constituency is far younger and far more masculine than 82 any geographical constituency, and therefore a higher proportion of it likely to be overseas. Therefore there would be a higher proportion of them cut out if their proxy vote were impracticable. I would ask whether I could have an assurance, if necessary by some slight amendment of the Bill, and if that may not be necessary, that then under the Regulations which will be made in pursuance of this Bill, it can be made clear that that was not the intention and shall not be the effect.
§ Mr. S. O. Davies (Merthyr)
I wish to raise one point which I hope will be cleared up before we dispose of this Bill. I with my colleague who spoke from these benches welcome this Bill as far as it has got. My only regret is that it has not got far enough. We might have heard about the need of talking about university votes and business votes, but I cannot enlarge upon that now. I hope that that aspect will come along in the not too distant future. Could we get an explanation on this? A very considerable number of voters from many old industrial constituencies in this country are employed in areas not very far from their home but too far to travel to and from work every day, but most of them return to their home towns or villages, say, every weekend. Where will they be registered for their votes? Not that I am personally alarmed as to the effect of this on my constituency, and, may I say, on the overwhelming Labour vote that exists there, but one can speak best about what one knows, so let me illustrate it by my constituency. I know that numbers of ray people work away from home, but they have their home ties, and they realise that their work is temporary and continues while the emergency lasts, but home ties are sufficiently strong for them to return to their homes practically every week-end. Where will they be expected to register so far as this new register is concerned? [Interruption.] I cannot answer that interjection as to why they should not have the same privileges meted out to them as is meted out to the business man. I am not asking for that, and I am sure I should be ruled out of Order if I did, but this does apply to many thousands of voters in this country, particularly in the old industrialised constituencies, where insufficent work has been provided during the war to absorb 83 the labour of these people. If provisions are not made within this Bill for those people to vote where they obviously ought to, and desire to, vote—in their own constituency—I hope that will be done. It would be an extraordinarily anomalous position for those people to vote in constituencies where politically they have never taken any interest at all.
§ Mr. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)
I am sorry to mar the harmony on this occasion that has come about on the appearance of this Bill to-day. I would like to offer congratulations if I may on the speed of gestation. It has only taken 11 months to get from the Departmental Committee's Report to the Bill. Apart from that, I fear there are certain drawbacks to this Measure with regard to a large number of our people in this country. When it is passed, will it give an accurate presentation of the views of the people of this nation in a by-election or General Election? So far as the civilian voter is concerned, there is a large measure of agreement that it will actively represent what the civilian voters are thinking, but when you come to the Service voter, then a very different result in my view is to be obtained unless this Bill is radically changed in the course of its passage through this House.
Let me start by making certain admissions. Quite clearly it is no easy task to collect votes from men engaged against an enemy. You must not detract them from their main objective of annihilating the enemy by any form of electioneering. In so far as that is a difficulty, it must also surely be a difficulty affecting all voters who are on war service. They should not if possible be distracted by elections and electioneering. For this reason this House has wisely in the past, and will wisely to-day, try to avoid elections so that distraction shall not occur. When we do have an election let us see that the men in the Services get the same opportunity of voting as those engaged on war service.
The other admission I would like to make before dealing with my criticism of this Bill is that it will be said to me that this Bill repeats the provisions of the Representation of the People Act, 1918. I have been given in my hand a weapon for destroying that argument. The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for 84 Carnarvon (Major Owen), who spoke earlier and has left the House, sat on the Committee set up by Parliament to inquire into this question and himself admitted that the provisions of the 1918 Act at the end of the last war in what he called the khaki election were a complete failure. It is, I think, a reflection on the hon. and gallant Gentleman who is not now in his place that when sitting on that Committee he did not try to improve it. I think it is a reflection on Parliament now that we have not gone further than the 1918 Act.
Hon. Members will forgive me if I recall to them the history of the 1918 Act. That Measure when it was introduced provoked a storm in the House of Commons which lasted for the greater part of a year—unlike this Bill which, so far, seems to have elicited only two hours of felicitation from hon. Gentlemen. One of the major causes of the storm aroused by the previous Measure was that Members of all parties complained that the existing law did not enable serving men to vote at elections. In the result, the Government, I think on the Report Stage, got some Member to introduce a Clause allowing for proxy voting as an experiment. I have seen the working of proxies in this war and in my view they Nave been a complete failure. If you ask any Service man overseas, "Have you filled in the appointment of a proxy?" I think that in nine cases out of 10 the answer will be, "No." It was my duty at an earlier stage of the war to inquire into this problem, in one of our oversea Commands, and I found there, that it was quite hopeless to work out any plan based on proxy voting, because none of the soldiers engaged in the fighting had made their appointments.
Let me make four requests to the Government regarding Service voting in connection with this Bill. The first is that they should allow the Service voter to vote by post. Since 1918 there have been developments in the means of getting letters home or transmitting one's views to this country. There is the development of the air-mail service, the inauguration of the airgraph and great improvements in the cable service. Will the Government consider using one or all of these methods to allow the Service voter, if he so wishes, to record his vote by post? That is the first half of my first request. If the Government will not 85 agree to that I put this alternative to them. Will they allow the Service voter to vote in the held? I asked a Question of the Dominions Secretary to-day, as while conscious of the answer, I wished to have it on record. All four Dominions fighting with us in the various theatres of war have allowed voting in the field, It it not a mere business of proxy voting with them. They can record their votes and each man knows that at the election his vote will be counted. What Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa can do, we of the mother country can do. I think it surprising that the House has made no appeal for the adoption by this country of this improvement in the franchise. The proxy is not an efficient substitute. If the House has any doubt about that, let hon. Members go into the Army, the Navy or the Air Force and ask the men who are serving, whether they would rather vote either personally or by post, or whether they would be satisfied with proxy voting. There are many disadvantages in the proxy vote and however carefully you safeguard the system, it is open to abuse. It is also a fact of which some hon. Members may be aware that it is not always the case that one's wife holds the same political views as oneself; and it would be very awkward to appoint another woman as your proxy. I hope the Government will, at a later stage of the proceedings on this Bill, reconsider that matter.
My second request relates to the qualification of the Service voter. According to Clause 8 (1) he has to bea member of the forces or a seamanand—these are the words to which I draw attention—he must beresiding at a place in the constituency or would be so residing but for his service as a member of the forces or a seaman.Perhaps I am a stupid person or one whose brain has been vitiated by war service, but I suggest that this is difficult for the ordinary Service voter to work out, I depends on a hypothesis which, in some cases, would be very dicfficult to follow. Since this Bill was introduced I have had letters from Service men in the Middle East asking for help and guidance in the elucidation of this question. Let me give two concrete instances. Take the regular soldier, with 14 years' service, six years of which have been spent in the Middle East. How can you ask 86 that man in what constituency he would be residing if, 14 years ago, he had not joined the Forces? Or take the case of a man who joined the Militia in 1939, whose home has been blitzed and whose family has been killed. How can you ask that man in what constituency he would be residing if he had not joined the Forces? There are many men in the Forces overseas to whom this question will present difficulty.
I make two suggestions to the Parliamentary Secretary. One is that instead of this provision the address of the man's next of kin should be taken as his constituency, if he is not residing at that moment in any constituency. That suggestion was rejected in 1918, but I think it is the fairest qualification you can give the soldier. Or, if you like, why not give him a choice and allow him to select a constituency? No doubt if you did that you would have to take measures to prevent abuses by removing the power to cancel it at any time. If you gave that choice perhaps some Ministers might fear that it was a dangerous weapon in the hands of "browned off" warriors but personally, I think we should give great concessions in this matter. As a third alternative, you might provide that the man's qualification should be the place where he last resided in this country. That would be following the precedent of the Australian wartime election legislation.
My third request is this. I do not wish to enter into any wordy controversy with interlocutors on the other side, on the question of the business vote, but if there is to be a business vote why not let Servicemen who are qualified, have it? There are many men in the Forces who joined the Territorial Army in 1939 and who were owners of one-man businesses. They joined up while, perhaps, neighbours owning similar businesses, for various reasons, did not. The one man has now done four years of war service and at the moment has not got his business. The other has been carrying on his business all the time. Is it fair to give a business premises vote to that man and by this Bill to take it away from the man who joined up? I therefore ask the Under-Secretary to consider giving the Service man the right to claim a business premises vote, if he can satisfy the electoral officer that prior to joining 87 the Service he occupied business premises in the constituency and was qualified to vote in respect of them.
My last request is this. Why is it that we, unlike our Dominions, are not giving the vote of all those who are old enough to fight? It is true that in Clause 8 (2) dealing with the compilation of the Service register, we are allowing all Service men of whatever age to be registered. I hoped when I had read thus far in the Bill that we were recognising the right of all people who place their lives in jeopardy for the country to vote for this Parliament, but I then came to a later Clause—Clause 16—which takes away that right. Will the House bear in mind that the Dominions grant this right of voting to all men, of whatever age, who are serving the Dominion overseas? Surely what the Dominions have done we can also do? If you send a young man from this country to fight overseas, why deprive him of the vote because he is not 21? I ask the Under-Secretary to consider that point also—if a man is old enough to fight and to die, he is surely old enough to vote.
I make no apologies for breaking the harmony of the House by these criticisms. The House has an obligation to these men. The Army and the Navy and the Air Force of to-day are different from the Services as they were in past days. The older generation of Service men took no interest in politics, but politics are a very live issue to the men who are serving in the Forces to-day. Anyone who has seen them in the various theatres of war knows this to be a fact. These men are resolved that mistakes made by all parties in the past are not repeated and have a burning desire to take part in the post-war planning of this country. I hope that in the course of the proceedings on this Bill the House will discharge what I deem to be its duty and give these men the right to record their votes at any wartime Election.
§ Sir Richard Acland (Barnstaple)
I concur with a great deal of what the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) has said and at a later stage I wish to offer one or two comments upon it. Meanwhile, may I make one point to the powers-that-be on the Front Bench? I shall be obliged to ask some questions to which I should be grateful to have a Ministerial answer. "If it is possible, I 88 should like the Minister to hear those questions, the answers to which will determine the course of conduct to be followed on future occasions. I would, therefore, be happy if it could be arranged for the Minister to reply. But there is no hurry for five minutes or so, and meantime I can pay a tribute to the Minister in his absence without losing anything. Having been, as it were, an agitator on this subject for some months, I would like to say how much I appreciate the steps which the Home Secretary has taken. The Debate so far has certainly been conducted in an atmosphere which is glowing with personal friendship.
A little earlier I took occasion to point out to the Chair and to the Prime Minister that the occasion for controversy over which we sometimes waste time at Question Time, would soon have disappeared. I do not think that the Prime Minister appreciated that I was trying to help the Government—a thing which I do not, perhaps, very often do. The Prime Minister replied, rather sharply, by asking why I was making a fuss when the whole thing was almost over. I would reply to him that decent registers being almost in sight, I do not want to see the electors of one more constituency undergoing the monstrous injustice of having to vote on the registers which we have now. I think that the electors in every single constituency are important, and that their rights should be protected. May I comment on the business vote? I cannot argue my view that there should be no business vote at all; business voters do vote, and we must accept that; but it may strengthen the Government if they should feel that they cannot do very much without taking an awful lot of trouble if I say, in one sentence, why the business men are given this addition privilege, which other members of the community have not got. The reason given is that these men, being business men, have shown that they have a sense of responsibility.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
That matter has already been decided, and we cannot go into the question of why they should not have this vote.
§ Sir R. Acland
It will be enough for me to say that if these people are not prepared to take the little bit of trouble which this Bill requires them to take, as the Bill now stands, there is grave doubt whether they should have that extra pri- 89 vilege. I come to the question of the Forces—and here I speak from personal experience in recent by-elections. Even in recent by-elections there has been a theoretical possibility of getting on to the absent voters' register a soldier who is normally resident in the constituency. In cases where we have been fortunate in having a little bit of time, owing to the postponement of the moving of the Writ, it has been found that a soldier living in a house in the constituency is serving perhaps 100 miles away, and if he is sent the appropriate green card, and it is filled up and signed by his commanding officer, he will get a voting paper, which comes by post. I want the Home Office to be aware that this theoretical machinery works very creakily in practice. I am not making a general charge against the Army—how could anyone make a general charge against the Army in days like these? I am not saying that commanding officers and sergeant-majors do not want their men to think for themselves, but I am saying that some men rather wonder whether their commanding officers and sergeant-majors should be encouraged to believe that they are the sort of men who think for themselves. Therefore, if the initiative is left in the hands of the men, nothing much will happen. I want the Under-Secretary to remind the Home Secretary that he is the first Secretary of State, and I would ask him to turn to the Secretaries of State and others responsible for the Services and see that in the carrying out of this thing the initiative is not left with the men, because if it is they will be in many cases frightened of taking it. Do it this way. It is the responsibility of commanding officers of each unit to hold a parade, and to see that each man does the things that are necessary. Make the commanding officer, and not the man, responsible, and then you get it done. Do it the other way, and it may well be that time will be wasted and you will not get your result.
I agree with what the hon. Member for Thirsk and Molton said about the members of the Forces overseas. I will point out what happens now. They are being starved of political knowledge. I get letter after letter from these people, crying out, "Can we learn what is happening in our own country?" The journals which the Army authorities put before them simply do not give the faintest idea of the questions which are exercising the 90 minds of the citizens in the by-elections—in which, be it marked, the voting is not all or overwhelmingly in the Government's favour. If you want members of the Armed Forces to vote with a sense of responsibility in the next 12 months—and lots of them will have to vote before they get home—it is the bounden duty of the Government—and of the Secretary of State for War, who is the bottleneck—to let the political issues at home get through that bottleneck with the lid off. Let them have a speech from the hon. Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams), expressing his views flat out, with no pulling of the punches. Let all that sort of thing go to the Forces. Do not worry about the danger of confusing their minds. Men out there are thirsting for such information.
I regret that when I come to the really important point of my speech, the Home Secretary is not yet present. I am sure that the Under-Secretary, in consultation with his right hon. Friend, will give me the best answer he can. I may say, quite frankly, that what depends on it is whether I and my friends are going to do as much as we can, to raise as much trouble as we can, on the moving of every by-election Writ, for as many months as may be. I want to get the right answer, so that I shall not do the wrong thing.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peake)
It depends what the right answer is.
§ Sir R. Acland
When is the appointed day going to be? That is the real question. From an appointed day we shall start getting by-elections on this new register, which will not be perfect at first, but which will be better. I recognise the difficult fact that you will not get the Forces register right for months; but the Home Secretary himself has said that, faced with this issue of waiting until the Forces register is ready, or alternatively bringing the Bill into operation and getting the civilian register right, and doing the best he can with the Forces, he has chosen the second alternative. Therefore, in what I am going to put now no possible question about the Forces register can arise. It is hoped that the Government will do their best, and will achieve success as soon as possible, but no question of delay in achieving complete success can be justification for delaying anything else. I want to know precisely what, in 91 relation to the civilian register, prevents the appointed day from being one day after this Bill became law, at any rate so far as by-elections are concerned? I hope that the Government will believe that I entirely understand the difficulties in relation to a General Election, because in a General Election you would have to put 615 registers in order, and this would have to be done by a local man on the spot. The Home Office experts would not be able to attend to each constituency. I can quite understand if the Government say, "We cannot do this in relation to a General Election until we have had a couple of months to train local people in the work they are going to do, and we cannot have any mistakes, because mistakes would be serious." But that would not apply to by-elections. For by-elections it is quite possible to spare the services of one or two, or five or 10, Home Office experts, to make sure that the local officials understand the job that they have to do, and do it properly.
I understand that this job, once it begins, is done on the basis of certain raw material, and that it takes a certain time, estimated at 7½ weeks. I am not talking about anything which is to happen within those 7½ weeks. I understand—and here I would like to be corrected if I am wrong—that all the raw material on which this 7½ weeks would begin is available, or almost completely available, in almost every constituency, that the information in the possession of the National Registration officers is to-day sufficient, or almost sufficient, for the seven and a half weeks' work to begin. What about the words, "almost sufficient"? Let us in the next few by-elections which may happen extend that 7½ weeks to 9½ weeks, by tipping the wink to the party Whips concerned that they must not move Writs for a fortnight after the vacancy becomes known. If that fortnight has to be stretched to three or four weeks so be it. If the Home Secretary tells me that this information on which work will start is nearly but not quite complete, that it takes three or four months to get it complete over the whole country, I quite understand. But what is the work which has to be done between the situation as it is now and the situation as it needs to be in order for the 7½ weeks' work to start in each constituency in which a by-election occurs, which can 92 prevent the operation of this Bill, subject to what I said about moving the Writs at the appropriate time, from the date on which the Bill is passed?
If I can have a straight answer to the question of whether the precise difficulty can be clearly described by the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary, I shall be happy. If he cannot show us the difficulties in each isolated constituency which cannot be surmounted by the concentrated wisdom of the Home Secretary and of his whole Department, at the cost of perhaps adding about four weeks' work to the seven and a half weeks already stipulated, plus the expense perhaps of having to switch into that particular constituency half-a-dozen Home Office experts who really know all the ropes and will get the local officials to see that they do it in the right way, I shall not be happy about it. If he cannot, I shall be profoundly disturbed, because the Deputy Prime Minister, when asked a little while ago to-day why the Writ should not be postponed for an extra week or so when the particular constituency could be given the right to vote on a definite register instead of a rotten register, implied that there would have to be four weeks' work done not in general but in West Woolwich before the electors could be given a decent register.
As at present informed, I do not understand that position. If I am otherwise informed and am given a proper answer, I will receive it with great pleasure. If not, it would appear to me that the Deputy Prime Minister was in one way or another giving the House an impression which was not in accordance with the true situation. I do not put it higher than that. We cannot expect such men as the Deputy Prime Minister to be au fait with every little aspect of every matter. Why he was putting up that particular aspect, I do not know, but he was accusing me of being careless in the bargain. I want an answer. Unless we are shown how it is impossible, with an extra four weeks' work or so, to give each constituency a distinct register as from the passage of this Bill, then all the Writs that come before the House are going to be debated and, subject to Mr. Speaker's discretion, voted upon, and the Debate may not be brief, either. This has become an intolerable situation. I thank the Government, the Home Secretary and the Committee responsible for having recognised that it is intolerable, and I am glad that 93 they are moving towards it with very considerable dispatch. This distorted view of the case of by-elections cannot be substantiated unless it is shown that it cannot be done in that way, and I hope that the Government will give the real answer or will say that the appointed day shall be the day after.
§ Mr. Gallacher (Fife, West)
I want to say a few words in support of the proposition that the lads and lassies should get votes at 18 years of age. I cannot understand how the Home Secretary can, at a time like this, come forward with a Bill and avoid that very obvious implication of all the promises that have been made since the lads were called up. The lads and lassies are conscripted at 18 years of age in order to defend this country and in many cases to defend the property of Members opposite. The most lavish promises have been made in the course of the many appeals that have been sent out to these lads and lassies serving in the Forces. It is becoming obvious from the speeches we have heard recently that the promises are being discarded and that there is a tendency on the part of Members opposite to hold on to what they have and to pinch a little more if there is any chance of pinching. They are not going to give up anything that they possess, and if you suggest it the Prime Minister is presented before us to tell us that it is controversial and that we must not have anything that is controversial during the period of the National Government.
Here is a question that will determine whether the promises given have any meaning or not. Surely the lads and lassies who have been conscripted and used for all kinds of offensive and defensive action should be given the right to vote and to have a say in what is going to happen once the fighting is over. There are many of these lads who were called up at 18 and sent abroad at 19 who will not have the opportunity of voting; they are lying on some foreign battlefield; but those who come back should surely have the right to have a say in the future of this country. Come with me and see some of these lads of 18 and 19 years of age marching along the street. What a splendid demonstration they give of youth, keenness and enthusiasm and of a desire to live and progress. What a contrast it 94 is to the dreary demonstration of mental paralysis we see on the part of Members opposite. They have the vote, and they have not only the right to vote but the right to talk for the voters. The Home Secretary should look behind him, and he will see those who have no concern for anything but their own personal property and prestige and power; they have no concern for the masses of the people. They have the vote and through the use of all kinds of political devices and trickery, the right to speak for those they do not represent. If the Home Secretary would consider that, he would not hesitate to give these lads and lassies the opportunity to vote.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)
The hon. Member appears to be travelling beyond the terms of the Bill and is discussing a change in it which is out of Order. The question of a new electoral qualification is not within the Bill.
§ Mr. Gallacher
I am sorry, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, if you have that impression of what I said. It is to those on the other side that I am referring. There is a continuous appeal being made to young men in the mines to work harder than they have ever worked before. There is not a Member in this House who at one time or another has not made an appeal to them to work harder and produce all the coal that is necessary for the life of this country.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
If the hon. Member continues to proceed on those lines, I must ask him to resume his seat. He is quite outside the Bill.
§ Mr. Gallacher
I am discussing the Second Reading of the Bill and suggesting that the youth of the country should be brought into the Bill, and there will be Amendments coming in for the Committee stage of the Bill on this particular question. The other day the Secretary of State for Home Affairs, who at one time claimed to be a Socialist—I do not know whether he still adheres to that claim or not—stood at that Box and made a very strong case for a certain personage at 18 years of age occupying a very important position on what is called the Regency Council.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
If the hon. Member proposes to proceed on these lines, I cannot allow him to do so, but if he wishes to proceed on lines that come within the four corners of the Bill, he may do so.
§ Mr. Gallacher
I am in full support of the proposition already put before the House that the lads and lassies of this country should be given the vote at 18 years of age.
§ Mr. Gallacher
On a point of Order. An hon. Member opposite raised and discussed the question of the giving of the vote at 18 years of age, and I want to understand what is wrong in my following that up and why on the Second Reading of the Bill one cannot give reasons why the Bill should be changed in order to bring in lads and lassies of 18.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
Those separate points are irrelevant to this particular Bill, which deals with certain machinery. The matter of qualifications comes under another heading altogether. We are dealing with the existing franchise.
§ Mr. Gallacher
This is a Bill dealing with machinery that is going to decide the voting now and. when the war is ended, and it will determine whether or not the lads who are serving in the Army shall get the vote or not.
§ Mr. Turton
Mr. Deputy-Speaker, may I draw your attention to Clause 16 (Right of person registered to vote)? Surely, with great respect, if you confined your argument to a deletion of the proviso to Clause 16 it would not' be out of Order?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
That may or may not be so, but the question of new qualifications is certainly not within the purview of this Bill.
§ Mr. Guy (Poplar, South)
I desire to draw attention to the position of a certain section of the community who, I am sure all of us are well aware, have rendered excellent service to the country during this war. I refer to the nursing profession. The Bill seems to cater very well for the members of the Armed Forces, the Merchant Service and war workers, but I fail to see, unless they are covered under the civil population, that there is a safeguard for the nursing profession to register their 96 vote. I ask the Minister to say where the members of the nursing profession come in. I have received a letter from a nurse who is very keen about this business and very anxious to be assured that her position is to be safeguarded and that she will be able to register her vote at election times. I hope the Minister will give us an assurance that the nursing profession will be safeguarded. I should imagine that they will be able to register at the hospitals at which they are resident, but many are transferred within a few months to other hospitals, and I would like to know whether they are to carry with them the right to be included in the two months' provision.
§ Captain Duncan (Kensington, North)
I came to this House to-day not with the intention of speaking but with the expectation of listening to a Debate of some length on the subject of this Bill by the civilian Members of the House, not only on its civilian details but on its Service aspects. I rise now only because the Debate has taken such a short time and because I do not think the Services side has been adequately put. I can speak only from experience in the Army and not for arrangements made by the Air Council or the Admiralty, but I feel that the arrangements made in respect of the Service voter are not adequate. I want to support what my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) said in requesting the Government to answer specific questions. He raised the question of proxy for Service voters, and I, too, would like the Government to reconsider this matter. Unfortunately, my experience in the Army has so far only been at home, but the same principle applies to overseas Service voters. Soldiers, when they join the Army, although they take an interest in citizenship and national politics and read the papers which they can get at home and which they are getting in increasing quantities—
§ Captain Duncan
—are not so interested in politicians as to wish to vote for a particular candidate when he comes forward at the request of the Government, the request of the leader of a particular party or even at the request of the candidate himself. Secondly, I would like to raise the question of the business vote. 97 First of all, in regard to the civilian, I see on page six of this Bill that no civilian can be registered as a business premises voter unless he makes an application. Surely there must be sufficient information in the hands of the food and local government authorities, if in no others, to enable a fairly accurate estimate to be made of all business premises voters. This matter does not affect only the owner-occupier of the business premises; it affects also the wife or husband as the case may be. I would like to see that proviso taken out, so that local registration officers can accept business premises voters without application having to be made. As regards the Service voter, I cannot for the life of me see why a Service voter who was in business before he joined up cannot remain entitled to his business premises vote. Again, if he is not entitled to it, the wife or husband, as the case may be, is not entitled to it either. You cannot register the wife of the business premises voter unless the business premises voter himself is registered. So you are depriving the Service man or woman of his or her business vote.
Finally, I would like to say that the Army is not like it was in the last war. It is far more intelligent and more interested in these things, and its intelligence is being directed towards these things. I was reading to-day—I hope it is not secret—an Army Council Instruction, just issued, stating that three periods a week are to be allotted to various studies on citizenship. That is an indication of the interest that is being taken by the authorities at home. The Army is not only a first-class Fighting Force, it is an intelligent Force and should be given every opportunity to show that intelligence at the poll as and when the occasion arises.
§ Mr. Gallacher
On a point of Order. In Clause 8, which deals with members of the Forces, seamen and war-workers abroad, paragraph 2, Sub-section (b) states:Whether the declarant had, on the date of the declaration, attained the age of twenty-one years ….I want to ask you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, whether it is permissible to discuss that and whether it is permissible on the Committee stage to put down an Amendment which would alter it to:.… attained the age of eighteen years…
§ Sir A. Beit
Further to that point of Order. Is not this Clause and most of the Bill based on the Representation of the People Act, so that no Amendments could be introduced which would conflict with that Act?
§ Mr. Evelyn Walkden (Doncaster)
I want to raise one item which is, I think, of considerable importance and concerns something which is not in the Bill rather than what is in the Bill. We are setting up machinery which will enable us to compile a register; we are preparing means of enabling the average citizen and Service man to have a vote. I confess that I am disappointed that the Home Secretary, his advisers or the Government have not looked at what happened during the khaki election at the end of the last war and the possibilities after this war. I refer to the machinery which will enable Service men to make use of these facilities should Dissolution take place before those who are entitled to vote are brought home. As one of those who served abroad after the last war, I remember that we received literature weeks and months after the election had taken place. We did not get literature from the candidates we would have liked to have supported, because they expressed the point of view of the already disappointed soldiers at that time. If I were a soldier now, I should be discouraged unless I had the assurance that when Dissolution takes place, assuming there is a General Election immediately following the cessation of hostilities—and there will be—every man in the Armed Forces will know that he has the fullest possible facilities for registering his vote and having it counted. I know that a long time ago my vote in the Ince division of Lancashire, following which a very old family friend was returned as Member of this House for many years, was not counted in his favour. The facilities then were insufficient, and I am 99 still afraid that the facilities now provided Will be insufficient to give the necessary assurance to our men in the Fighting Services that they will be able to study the qualifications of the candidates, their manifestoes and to record their votes and have them counted. I would like to have the assurance that this Bill will mean all that we intend it to mean in the light of what I have said.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peake)
I am sure that my right hon. Friend has every reason to be gratified by the reception this Bill has received. It has, I think, been generally welcomed. I would like to refer to a few points which have been mentioned in the course of the Debate, and although some of them are points more properly of a Committee character I think that if I refer to them now it will contribute towards saving time and expedite the Committee stage. My hon. Friend the Member for North Camberwell (Mr. Ammon asked whether there would be an interregnum between the coming into force of the continuous register under this Bill and the termination of the existing register based on the year 1939. I can assure him that there will be no interregnum and that on the appointed day when the new registration comes into operation that will be the time when the 1939 register ceases to operate.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Carnarvon (Major Owen) and my hon. Friend the Member for the Abbey Division of Westminster (Sir H. Webbe), who are not in their places at the moment, raised the question of the business voter. It is perfectly clear that a system of registration based on national registration machinery is incompatible with a canvass by electoral registration officers in order to ascertain who are and who are not qualified as business voters. The whole purpose of the Bill is to avoid a canvass of that sort which would entail an enormous amount of labour, and the question therefore as far as the business premises rota is concerned, boils down to whether it is possible to give sufficient publicity to enable an application to be made for an entry in the business register. All necessary steps will be taken to ensure publicity in the matter, and the forms upon which the application is to be made will be made available to the agents of the political 100 parties in the constituencies so that they can act independently of any publicity and get in touch with persons who may be qualified as business persons.
The hon. and gallant Member for Carnarvon made a suggestion about the arrangements of the order of names in the county register that will certainly be looked at to see if it is feasible. He also asked how often the register would be published in the second stage. All I can say at present is that it will be printed when the second stage is reached and that amendments to it will be published month by month. The hon. and gallant Gentleman hoped that this continuous registration system might continue even after the expiration of the National Register.
On the other hand, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South Cardiff (Colonel A. Evans) said that what he liked about the Bill was its temporary character. I think that we shall have to see what our experience is when it comes into operation. It is clear that one if not two General Elections will be held under the system provided by the Bill, and we shall then be in a much better position to appreciate on the one hand the advantages of this system and on the other certain drawbacks which it has in comparison with the old system established by the Representation of the People Act, 1918.
Two hon. Members raised the question that a man on the Service register might declare under Clause 8 (3) for a change of residence and thereby secure a vote in a constituency where a by-election was pending. My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) went even further and suggested that a Serviceman might be given almost free option of constituency. I think that might have somewhat unfortunate results, not of course for my hon. Friend, whose long and gallant service in the Middle East would no doubt be rewarded by the receipt of the vote not only of his battalion but perhaps of his brigade or division—votes of which he is in no need whatever—while on the other hand an unpopular Minister or one who had done something that caused discontent in the Forces might be displaced by the whole of an army corps deciding to cast their votes against him. While I appreciate my hon. Friend's suggestion for improvement in Clause 8—and we will look at them carefully—I do not think that that particular 101 suggestion is one that is likely to commend itself certainly to the Government if not to the House.
§ Mr. Turton
I pointed out that some Ministers might be frightened as the result of my suggestion and therefore I made an alternative suggestion.
§ Mr. Peake
I can assure my hon. Friend that his forecast is perfectly correct.
The hon. Member for Cambridge University (Mr. Pickthorn) had a point about the university vote. Certainly it is not in our minds that anything should be done in this Bill to make it more difficult for a university voter to record his vote, and if my hon. Friend can show us that there is something that has that effect, we will take it carefully into consideration. The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton, who has evidently taken a great interest in the Bill, first of all said that in his view a Service voter should vote by post and not by proxy. What the Government have in mind is that members of the Forces should be given effective opportunities of exercising their right to vote, and if anyone can suggest better methods than those laid down in the Bill, they will be considered. At the same time I must make it clear that a Service voter if in this country can vote either in person or by post or by proxy. It is when the Service voter is overseas that the method of proxy is prescribed by the Bill. If we could make it certain that the Service voter would have a better or as good an opportunity of recording their vote by post when abroad there would be no objection to doing it. But under the Bill the register is published on the 36th day after the initiation of the election, and the election takes place 17 days later. From many parts of the world in which our Forces are serving it would therefore be quite out of the question that a postal communication could be received with any degree of certainty before the polling day, and it would not be the wish of anyone that the declaration of election results should be held up for weeks in order that votes from overseas sent by post might be received. I think there is a great difficulty about voting by post by overseas voters, and I am inclined to think, subject to anything my hon. Friend may say, that voting by proxy is the most effective means we can provide for members of His Majesty's Forces serving overseas.
102 My hon. Friend also asked whether a Service voter could not also have a business vote. There is nothing in the Bill that prohibits a Service voter having a business premises vote if he is qualified, but there are practical difficulties about the business voter in the Services overseas establishing his claim, and I do not see how they can be overcome. I do not think we could adopt my hon. Friend's suggestion of saying that a man who had at some time in the past been qualified as a business voter should therefore be considered as so entitled in the future. After all, many men and women who have been at some time in the past been qualified as ness premises vote would have ceased in the ordinary course of events to be qualified at present, and I hardly think it would be reasonable to accord the business premises vote simply because at some time the qualification had been held.
§ Lieut.-Commander Hutchison (Edinburgh, West)
Could not the wife of a soldier who formerly held a business vote claim it in the absence of her husband overseas?
§ Lieut.-Commander Hutchison
Would it not be possible for the previous holding of a business vote to be held to be an application for a renewal of the holding, subject to confirmation by the registration officer that the business is still there?
§ Mr. Peake
We will certainly look into that, but it is a very difficult and complex matter. In answer to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North Kensington (Captain Duncan), all the Sub-section says is that a person registered in the Service register shall be deemed to be registered in respect of a residence qualification. That does not mean that he cannot have a business vote as well. He may have two qualifications at the same time in two different constituencies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton raised a point with regard to the age at which the vote should be exercised. The question of age of course lies outside the scope of the Bill, which is only concerned with the compilation of a register.
§ Mr. Bowles (Nuneaton)
I understand that after the last war, in November and December, 1918, many men were left in Palestine, and they got the names of A, B and C, the candidates standing in their constituency, but no indication which party they represented. I was wondering if it was possible to think Out some method by which serving officers and men abroad would know whether to vote for Morrison, Peake or Webbe.
§ Mr. Peake
We are providing in the Bill for the Service man overseas to vote by proxy. He will not therefore indicate for whom he wants to vote but he will say to his next-of-kin, or his wife or his sweetheart, "When an election comes along cast your vote as you think I should have liked to cast it on my behalf."
§ Major Owen
A soldier may, if he is within reach of the Bill, vote in person. The name of the proxy is then crossed off, and he is not allowed to vote in respect of that man. In the case of a civilian, the same thing does not apply. According to Schedule 2, if a civilian has a proxy he is committing an offence if he votes otherwise than by proxy and he is liable to penalties. Why should there be any differentiation between the Service man and the civilian in that respect?
§ Mr. Peake
I will look into that point. The hon. Baronet the Member for Barnstaple (Sir R. Acland) breathed fire and brimstone upon the Treasury Bench and said that, if he did not get the right answer to his question, there would be serious trouble for the Government. All I can say is that in that respect His Majesty's Government is like the badger, which is a very naughty animal and, when it is attacked, defends itself; and if the hon. Member opens his campaign, we shall just have to see what means we have at our disposal to meet it. What concerned the hon. Member was how soon the appointed day under the Bill would come, because until then elections must be held on the 1939 register. He suggested that that period should be reduced to practically nothing, that the appointed day could be brought into operation immediately on the passage of this Bill. That is clearly impossible. A great deal of work has to be done after the passage of the Bill in order to enable the new continuous register to be built up.
104 Let it be observed that the new system of qualification is based upon residence for a two months' period. Immediately this Bill is passed National Registration officers will start passing to the electoral registration officers lists of names, and so forth, of persons who are resident in different constituencies. When the electoral registration officers receive this material they will have to sort it out and arrange it either by streets or, in some country districts, in alphabetical order. The hon. Member suggested a further alternative, arranging the names, in the county districts, in the order in which the postman circulates in a district. All this will give a great deal of work, and we estimate that in the slowest constituencies the period during which the electoral registration officer is arranging his material may be as long as eight weeks. In smaller constituencies it may be less, but we take eight weeks as the maximum period for this initial operation. In some constituencies it may be a month, in others six weeks, and in others the maximum of eight weeks.
At the end of that stage the electoral registration officer will have, we hope, a complete list of persons resident in the constituency, but he will not have any means of knowing whether these people have resided in the constituency for a period of two months. Therefore, it is only two months later that a register can be constructed. Some of the people on these initial lists will have come on to the list through only a day or two's residence, and it is clearly impossible, without altering the whole scheme of the Bill, which provides for two months' residence as the basis of qualification, to shorten the period of four months between the passage of the Bill and the appointed day by more than a week or two.
§ Sir R. Acland
I am completely mystified. I am sorry if I am stupid. It appears to me that when this machinery begins to work, within six weeks or so a register will be put into the hands of the returning officer, and that the returning officer will then have to wait another two months to see whether everybody has been there for two months. I understand the work has to be done in 7½ or eight weeks but what I do not understand is this: Assuming that, by a miracle, this Bill was passed and received the Royal Assent to-morrow, why should not the work of that 7½-week period begin in Woolwich 105 on the next day? What is the work which we now require to do upon the information which is at the moment available in order that, if the Bill were passed tomorrow, the proper authorities might not begin their seven or eight weeks' work at Woolwich by the end of this week? As that would be the first shot, the Government might perhaps oblige in that instance by extending the period from 7½ to 9½ weeks.
§ Mr. Peake
No. The 7½ weeks begin to run from the date when the register is frozen. It is quite a separate thing altogether. In order to compile the initial register, there has to be a period which will average six or seven weeks for the sorting and the arranging of the material. For the sake of greater accuracy I will read a passage from my notes:It will not, however, be practicable for the electoral registration officer, from the material supplied him during the first period, to ascertain when the qualifications of the persons included in that material will mature. But having got a complete record on the last day of the first period of the persons resident in the constituency on that day, the electoral registration officer will know that each of these persons who is still there two months later will be qualified to be registered.I think that is fairly clear to the House as a whole, though I am afraid it will not in any event satisfy my hon. Friend the Member for Barnstaple, and therefore we are quite prepared for the campaign upon which he will, no doubt, embark in due course.
The hon. Member for South Poplar (Mr. Guy) mentioned the nursing profession, and I think his point was that they were not qualified for inclusion in the Service register. I should like to look into that point. We certainly do not want to put the nursing profession at any disadvantage in exercising their votes, and we will look at the point between now and the Committee Stage. I thank the House for listening to my observations with such patience and thank them for the welcome they have given to the Bill.
§ Mr. E. Walkden
Will the right hon. Gentleman give as a straight answer to the question of the absent voter in the Services who is serving East of Suez? If there is a dissolution of Parliament there will be 1,000,000 people East of Suez, who, unless they have indicated that they wish to be on the voting register, will be disfranchised, and the right hon. Gentleman knows it.
§ Mr. Peake
I do not think my hon. Friend has studied the provisions of the Bill carefully. What is intended as regards the Service voter is that immediately the Bill is law facilities shall be given in the Services abroad for the completion of registration forms and proxy forms appointing proxies, so that the soldier can take part in any election which takes place at a future date. Under Clause 10 arrangements will be made for securing that every person appearing to be qualified to make a Service declaration shall have an effective opportunity of exercising the rights conferred upon him by this Measure. That is not merely a pious wish; there is a mandatory instruction to the Service authorities that they shall make it practicable and easy for every man in the Services to appoint a proxy to vote on his behalf.
§ Mr. Montague (Islington, West)
If a citizen in this country serving in the Far East has appointed a proxy, is the proxy bound to accept that proxy?
§ Mr. Loverseed (Eddisbury)
I must claim indulgence to deal with various points which the right hon. Gentleman has not answered arising out of the speech made by the hon. Member for Barnstaple (Sir R. Acland), I am referring to men and women in the Forces. When my hon. Friend was speaking a right hon. Gentleman opposite cut in at one point with the remark that that depended upon what is right. We hold the view that it must be right that if a man is good enough to fight and to die for his country he is good enough to vote for it, and that we should make every effort to bring him within the 107 electorate at by-elections. I have read with interest of the elections in Australia and New Zealand, particularly Australia, where ballot papers were delivered to men in the Forces by people who had to cut their way through jungles to get the ballot papers to them. We experienced a similar difficulty in Eddisbury, but the jungles we had to cut through to get the ballot papers to them were not natural physical jungles but jungles of red tape. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnstaple raised the question whether the initiative in the matter of getting men on the register or the issue of proxies should be with the men or with commanding officers. I raised this point with the Secretary of State for War some time ago, and he stated that a notice had been posted at every station in this country telling men of their duty as regards registering as absent voters and granting proxies. Since that time I have made exhaustive inquiries and at only one station have I found that men have seen that notice or that the notice had been exhibited.
My right hon. Friend stated recently that he would be glad to hear of any measures to facilitate voting by these men, and I would repeat a suggestion which I put forward when I questioned the Secretary of State for War. It is that all men on enlistment should be given a green card, among the other papers they receive, which they could fill in and they could be placed on the register; and if a man were posted overseas he should, at the same time as he is inoculated and has to submit to the other things that happen before going overseas, be given an opportunity of granting a proxy. That would be a simple procedure which would bring home to soldiers their responsibilities in the matter.
One further point concerns the question of men knowing for what they are voting. Within the limited time available between the moving of the Writ and nomination day and polling day there is, even under the new Bill, a very short time allowed for getting information over to these men. I feel that the men who are fighting today are the men on whom we must depend for the building of the future world, that they should be given every encouragement so that the fresh young minds they can bring to bear will carry 108 us through the difficult years that lie ahead. But I am rather alarmed, and I would like an answer on one point. I have found, and I have reason to believe, that much of the information, many of the booklets and leaflets we are putting over to men in the Forces, are not in fact reaching their destination to-day. If they are not reaching their destination at this time, when there is no urgency about it, I feel we have little guarantee that they will do so during the urgency of an election. I apologise for intervening at this stage on these points, but I feel that these points are very important, and I would like an answer to them.
§ Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for the next Sitting Day.—[Mr. Adamson.]