HC Deb 15 June 1944 vol 400 cc2125-30
21. Mr. Bellenger

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he has prepared any electoral registration regulations for submission to Parliament; and when he proposes to lay them before the House.

26. Mr. Mander

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department when the new electoral register will be ready for use.

27. Sir Richard Acland

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department when he expects to be able to name the appointed day in relation to the Parliament (Elections and Meetings) Act, 1943.

Mr. H. Morrison

I propose to make a statement on this subject at the end of Questions.


Mr. H. Morrison

The regulations are in an advanced state of preparation, but it has been necessary to defer their completion because the electoral registration officers for Parliamentary counties in England and Wales have represented that, owing to shortage of staff and wartime difficulties, they will in many places be unable, in present circumstances, to produce electoral registers, unless the procedure prescribed by the Act of 1943 is simplified. The Act provides that the qualification for the civilian residence register shall be registration in the national register as residing continuously in a constituency for not less than two months before the qualifying date (i.e. the date on which the electoral records are frozen with a view to an impending election), and that, once a qualification has been acquired in one constituency, that qualification holds good until a qualification is acquired in another constituency. These provisions entail an intricate series of arrangements to ensure that newcomers to a constituency are not recorded as qualified for inclusion in the electoral register until each of them has had the requisite two months' continuous residence, and that persons leaving the constituency are not treated as disqualified until each of them has acquired a qualification elsewhere. The volume and complexity of the clerical operations required for these purposes would not present serious difficulty in normal times, but at the present time many electoral registration officers find that to recruit, train and supervise the necessary staff is beyond their resources and it must be remembered that failure in any one constituency to deal properly with arrivals and departures will affect the electoral records of all the constituencies from and to which such movements take place.

There will, I am sure, be general agreement that to postpone the introduction of the new system, with the result that by-elections must be fought on the obsolescent register of 1939, would be most undesirable: and after examining the position with care the Government have come to the conclusion that the only solution is to suspend for a time the provisions which complicate the registration arrangements. It is accordingly proposed to introduce at once a temporary Bill to substitute for the requirement of two months' residence a provision that a civilian shall be included in the electoral register if he is registered in the national register as residing in the constituency on the qualifying date, and to put back the qualifying date by one month, so as to ensure that newcomers to a constituency will have been, as a general rule, residing in the constituency for not less than a month before the date on which an election is initiated, i.e. the date on which a writ for a by-election is received, and therefore for not less than two-and-three quarter months before the date of the poll. The Bill will require the Secretary of State to bring this temporary scheme to an end as soon as he is satisfied that sufficient staff and facilities are available for the operation of the 1943 Act, and will provide that in any case it shall expire by 31st December, 1945, unless a Resolution is passed by each House of Parliament extending the date. The Bill will be available in the Vote Office to-day, and the Government hopes for the co-operation of the House in passing it into law without delay. I regret having to ask the House to amend an Act which was passed in November last, but I am satisfied that there is no other way of attaining the object we all desire, namely, a Register which shall be available at an early date and shall be as fully representative as possible.

Sir Hugh O'Neill

Can my right hon. Friend say why it is that, apparently, these difficulties have arisen in the counties but not in the boroughs, and can he also say whether his proposal is intended to apply only to by-elections?

Mr. Morrison

I do not know that it does not apply in the boroughs, but I agree that the representations I have had have come from the counties, as the situation is more serious there. Why that should be, I cannot be sure, except, perhaps, that the staffing arrangements of the counties are not so easy in solving this problem as in the cities and boroughs. I imagine that that is so. With regard to this Amendment, which will, I trust, only apply to by-elections, I hope that by the time a General Election comes in the offing—as to which I have no knowledge—the labour situation will be easier, in which case I will bring the Act to an end. I do not wish to make an absolutely final promise, but I can assure the House that I will bring this amending Act to an end as soon as it becomes practicable to do so.

Mr. Bellenger

As these complications have arisen, and the Home Secretary is introducing legislation mainly to deal with by-elections, may I ask if he is also aware that considerable complications have arisen in the Services; and, as the Services are interested in by-elections just as much as civilians, will he take steps to include in his amending Bill some simpler procedure so that Service electors can be registered more accurately than they have been before?

Mr. Morrison

This Bill will apply to civilian voters, and I am afraid I cannot extend its scope.

Mr. Mander

While recognising that it will depend on the passage of the Bill, can my right hon. Friend say the approximate date on which the new register will come into operation?

Mr. Morrison

Of course, it is dependent, as the hon. Member has indicated, on the day when the Bill reaches the Statute Book, but I should hope that the appointed day can be fixed on a date about two months after the date on which the Bill comes into operation.

Sir R. Acland

The Minister did not seem to me to answer Question No. 21. If regulations are to be made under the Bill which is to come before the House, will the right hon. Gentleman follow the practice which is usual on these matters now and consult hon. Members before the regulations are actually made public, as, by that time, the matter has gone past our control?

Mr. Morrison

I do not think we did on the occasion when the present regulations were made, but, if we did, I will certainly give the point consideration. I do not know whether any difficulty arises there, and, of course, I am anxious that there shall be no needless delay, but I will give the point consideration.

Sir Percy Harris

While I recognise the character of the problem before the right hon. Gentleman, does he realise that it tackles only this question of the civilian voter, and ignores the Service voter, and that that might give a false impression that the right hon. Gentleman is more interested in the one than the other? Will he consider introducing legislation to deal with the problem of the Service man?

Mr. Morrison

I think it would be undesirable to confuse the two things. This is, primarily, for by-elections, and, clearly, that issue does not arise there. [Interruption.] Well, I am not sure, but I do not think it is administratively practicable. However, that argument can be saved for another day. If I try to bring into this Bill whatever complications exist on the Service side, I shall only delay the Bill, but it has been arranged this morning that a deputation of all parties is to see the three Service Ministers and myself on the problems in the Services, about which hon. Members are anxious, and I think it will be better for that discussion to be continued at the next stage by that deputation.

Sir Ralph Glyn

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman a question, being unaware of any deputation going to see him? He must be aware that the dates fixed for the registration of Service people were at a time when it was quite impossible for the conditions to be carried out. In these circumstances, there is considerable feeling in the Services that the men will not be able to vote, as was intended, mainly owing to circumstances over which they and their commanding officers have no control?

Mr. Morrison

I must remind the House that I am not a Service Minister in this respect and that this is, primarily, a matter for the Service Ministers. But I am aware of the anxiety in the matter and that is why I wished to proceed. I think the matter had better proceed by deputation, and I will, with the Service Ministers, endeavour to get on as fast as we can.

Mr. Granville

In view of the fact that the Government appear to be planning a khaki coupon election, would it not simplify the matter, if the Government arranged for a national referendum upon the adult vote?

Mr. Morrison

I do not know anything about a coupon election. I am a member of the War Cabinet, but I did not know anything of that before.

Commander King-Hall

When the appointed day has been settled, will the Government see that the new register will be made available?

Mr. Morrison

As and when a by-election occurs, the register will be made available. It will not be available otherwise.

Commander King-Hall

Arising out of that reply, has the right hon. Gentleman taken steps to inquire the length of time it will take to prepare these copies; and will he inquire into it, because the same difficulties may arise in counties, where it may take up to three weeks to get the lists ready?

Mr. Morrison

These physical difficulties will exist just the same, but the object is to make the first copies of the register more quickly than would otherwise be the case. There is bound to be more serious delay between the issue of the writ and polling day than there was before.

Mr. Quintin Hogg

Having regard to the fact that the difficulty, apparently, is limited to some of the counties, why is it that the necessary labour force, which I calculate could not exceed 1,000, cannot be made available, instead of abolishing the residence qualification, to which some of us attach considerable importance?

Mr. Speaker

That is another question.

Mr. Driberg

In one of his supplementary answers just now, did the Home Secretary imply that, when the new register is in operation at by-elections, it will not be administratively possible for Servicemen who are constituents in the particular constituencies to vote?

Mr. Morrison

Perhaps I said more than I ought, or less than I ought—I am not quite sure—but I do not recollect precisely what the position of the Servicemen in a by-election is. Perhaps if that question is to be pursued, it had better be put down, when I shall really know what I am talking about.

Mr. McGovern

Is the Home Secretary aware that there may be contests in which the Service men and women will determine the result; and is it not the case that the Service men and women in these circumstances ought to be given the vote and ought he not to see that they get it?

Mr. Morrison

My hon. Friend has not any more enthusiasm for members of the Services than any other Member of the House. We are all absolutely united in wanting the Service people to have the maximum opportunity for expressing their views at elections.