HC Deb 10 February 1944 vol 396 cc1912-5
Mr. H. Morrison

I am glad, Mr. Speaker, to be able to inform the House that you have now accepted the invitation of the Prime Minister to preside over the Conference on Electoral Reform and Redistribution of Seats. I know that I shall be expressing the unanimous view of the House as well as that of the Government when I thank you for undertaking this addition to your already heavy responsibilities.

As regards the terms of reference of the Conference, the Government have considered the suggestions which were made in the very useful Debate which took place last week, and, in view of the widely expressed desire that the Conference should be enabled to consider the question of the expenses of Parliamentary candidates and Members of Parliament in its wider aspects, they have decided to extend the terms of reference to cover this question. The terms of reference will accordingly be as follows: To examine and, if possible, submit agreed resolutions on the following matters:

  1. (a) Redistribution of seats.
  2. (b) Reform of franchise (both Parliamentary and local government).
  3. (c) Conduct and costs of Parliamentary elections, and expenses falling on candidates and Members of Parliament.
  4. (d) Methods of election."
The House will, I know, join with me in wishing the Conference well in the important task before it.

Mr. Shinwell

Arising from the decision of the House to set up a Speaker's Conference, may I ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether, in the selection of the personnel of that Conference, which we assume is entirely within your own discretion, representations will be made by the political parties in the House on the subject of personnel, and whether your selection will be exclusively confined to the representations made by those parties, or whether you will go outside those representations to select Members?

Mr. Speaker

This is a matter which has been left entirely in my own hands. Therefore, hon. Members can judge for themselves when I read out the list of Members who have accepted my invitation to serve on the Conference.

Mr. Maxton

The Home Secretary made some references to "agreed resolutions."

Hon. Members

"If possible".

Mr. Woodburn

Has the Home Secretary given any consideration to the question of the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act and to bringing that up to date as well as other election machinery; and in regard to local government, has he given any consideration to the bringing of the machinery of local elections up to date?

Mr. Morrison

With regard to corrupt and illegal practices, I should think that they might be covered by "the conduct and costs of Parliamentary elections." With regard to local government elections, I gave very careful consideration to the suggestion my hon. Friend has made, but I found that it would involve the Conference going over the whole field of local government elections. I thought that that would unduly burden the Conference, and that, perhaps, it ought to be considered in another way. Therefore, while I was sympathetic, I found that I could not pursue that in connection with the Speaker's Conference.

Mr. Rhys Davies

I notice in the terms of reference the words "expenses of Parliamentary candidates and Members of Parliament." Does the right hon. Gentleman not think that it would be better to divide the two, so that the Conference will be able to deal with the expenses of Parliamentary candidates separately from the expenses of Members of Parliament? I speak feelingly on the last subject, by the way.

Mr. Morrison

As far as I can see, there is nothing to prevent Mr. Speaker's Conference, if they are so minded, from considering them separately.

Mr. Craven-Ellis

With regard to the redistribution of seats, will that include an examination into those constituencies which have dual membership, such as Southampton?

Mr. Morrison

Yes, Sir, that is certainly within the terms of reference.

Earl Winterton

May I ask my right hon. Friend, though I doubt whether it should be addressed to him or to you, Mr. Speaker, a question on a point of procedure? In the case of a Select Committee affecting in any way the interests of Members of this House, I understand that Members have the right to ask to be heard before the Committee or to make a submission to it. Many of us are likely to be very greatly affected by decisions reached on the subject of the size of constituencies. I should like to know what machinery will exist to enable us to submit our views to your Conference, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I should say that is a matter for the Conference itself to decide after it has met. It is quite impossible for me to give an answer in advance upon that point. In any case I suggest that after the Conference has reported hon. Members will be able to express their views in a Debate.

Earl Winterton

I understand that nothing you have said, Mr. Speaker, would preclude any hon. or right hon. Member who wishes to make submissions to the Conference from doing so, though whether or not the Conference took any notice of them would be another matter. I suggest, with respect, that it should be open to us to make submissions to somebody before the Conference reports.

Mr. Speaker

There will be secretaries to the Conference and any hon. Member can write to them.

Mr. Quibell

Will it be competent for the Conference to consider the difficulties experienced in large rural divisions where, in many cases, as many as 20 villages have not a polling station, so that while the right to vote is given to the inhabitants the right to exercise their vote is denied to them? I hope that this Conference will be able to consider the provision of more voting facilities.

Mr. Morrison

As far as I can see, that question would be within its terms of reference if the Conference wished to consider it. On the other hand, I do not think it would require a change of law, because I think powers already exist with the Home Secretary and the local authorities to deal with that point.

Mr. A. Bevan

As you, Mr. Speaker, have the sole and exclusive right of selecting the members of this Conference, will you have regard to the fact that there are areas which have peculiar territorial claims to special consideration, such as Wales and Scotland; and will not the recommendations of the Conference be prejudiced unless those areas are adequately represented in the Conference? Furthermore, will it be entirely a coincidence if your selection of members of the Conference coincides with the lists put forward by the principal parties?

Viscountess Astor

Could we not wait for the Conference to meet, and stop all these nuisance questions? It is a waste of time.

Mr. McNeil

Do I understand from the reply which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary gave to the hon. Member for East Stirling (Mr. Woodburn) that the question of the reform of the local government franchise is being excluded from the scope of the Conference?

Mr. Morrison

The local government franchise as it is now has a relationship to the Parliamentary franchise in the light of the Parliamentary (Elections and Meeting) Act and it will be covered by "Reform of franchise (both Parliamentary and local government)". My hon. Friend the Member for East Stirling (Mr. Woodburn) referred to other aspects of local government elections.

Sir William Davison

Are you aware, Mr. Speaker. that the House would much prefer that you should select the members of the Conference rather than be dictated to by certain Members of this House?

Mr. Speaker

Perhaps I may inform the hon. Member that I have already sent out my invitations.

Mr. Mathers

Does the reference to the cost of elections include a consideration of the deposit which has to be made to the returning officer?

Mr. Morrison

Yes, Sir. That would come within the reference to the conduct and costs of Parliamentary elections, I should think.

Dr. Russell Thomas

May we have some assurance that when the Conference first meets and arranges its procedure it will consider the request made by the noble Lord the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton), because I think it deals with a matter of considerable importance?

Mr. Speaker

I think we had better let the Conference get on with its business.