HC Deb 01 November 1944 vol 404 cc921-30

5.59 P.m.

Mr. Hugh Lawson (Skipton)

I am very much obliged to my right hon. and gallant Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Air for coming here this evening and giving us half an hour of his time, but I make no apology to the House for having asked him to do this, because the subject about which I wish to speak is one which I am sure is of the very greatest importance to every man and (woman serving in the R.A.F.

It being Six o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Pym.]

Mr. Lawson

Exactly five weeks ago to-day I asked the Secretary of State for Air approximately what percentage of men and women of the Royal Air Force had, so far, registered themselves as Parliamentary electors. I was told that a review of the situation was being made, and that I would be told when it was completed. On that occasion I gave notice that I would raise this matter on the Adjournment, which may explain why, if the investigation has been completed, I have not been told. I do not think it is necessary to remind the House why I and other hon. Members have been rather persistent in questioning all the Service Ministers on this matter of registration. It is because we are quite sure that those in the Forces are in a disadvantageous position compared with the civilian population, because the civilian is registered automatically for his vote, whereas a man or woman in the Forces has to apply for a form and fill in that form. It is because this House has not been given any really satisfactory figures and information as to how far this process has gone on that I have raised this question.

The first question that I would like the right hon. and gallant Gentleman to answer is, What is now the approximate percentage of the men and women in the R.A.F. who have so far registered? Is it 50 per cent. or 75 per cent.? Personally I should be surprised to hear that it is as much as 75 per cent. Secondly, what method, if any, is being used to check up on the number of people who are registered? I have an idea that in many cases forms are being issued to Service personnel, and that when that has been done no more interest is taken. A man may or may not fill in his form. It may or may not get to its right destination. If the right hon. and gallant Gentleman can give any information on that I would be very much obliged.

I wish to turn to another question allied to the first. Suppose everything goes well, and 100 per cent. registration takes place—I am not suggesting that my right hon. Friend is not trying in his Department, to get that 100 per cent. registration. When every man and woman in the R.A.F. has had his or her name placed on the Service register, will that be a satisfactory way of enabling them to vote? The fact that this is a matter of very great importance is reinforced by what the Prime Minister said in this House yesterday. I do not think anyone could put this point better than he did: Nothing would be more shameful or more dishonourable than to deny the great mass of the soldiers, and Service men of the Air Force and of the Navy, a full opportunity of recording their votes. In my opinion they have more right to vote than anyone else in the country, and we shall all be ashamed if anything were done which prevented these men, to whom we owe almost everything, from taking their full part in deciding the immediate future of their country."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 31st Oct., 1944; Vol. 404, c. 664–5.] Suppose they are all registered. Will that condition be fulfilled? Personally I do not think it will, for this reason. Having been registered, a man or woman can then vote in three ways. First of all they can vote in person, if they happen to be at home on leave in their home town. Secondly, if they happen to be in this country and apply to the registration officer in time they can vote by post. Thirdly, they can vote by proxy, and in the registration there is provision for the appointment of proxies. I believe most people who are registering have appointed their proxies. I maintain that the larger proportion of people affected by this matter will be those who are over- seas at the time of the election, It is now pretty certain that the General Election will come before the end of the war in the Far East; so there will be Air Force personnel in the Far East, and in other theatres overseas, who will have to vote by proxy.

I want to consider under what circumstances proxy voting can be justified and can be really democratic. The first condition is that the proxy who casts the vote must know the wishes of the voter. Secondly, the proxy must be resorted to only when it has been found quite impossible and impracticable for the voter to vote himself. Are these conditions fulfilled by the present Regulations? First of all, will the proxy know the wishes of the voter? I think that for that condition to be fulfilled every voter would have to receive an election address from each candidate, and, having read the address, would have to write or cable in some way to the proxy. Unless that condition is fulfilled, I do not think that proxy voting really meets the desires of the country or of this House. I am sure that under the electoral Regulations contained in the Act that could not happen. It may be that as short a time as 15 days before polling day a list of Service voters will be published and made available to the candidates, and that there will be just 15 days for them to send out election addresses to the Far East and for the men in the Far East to get their wishes back to their proxies. It cannot be done in the time. Even if the period were extended to several weeks I do not think it could be done. So I maintain that proxy voting is not going to succeed.

Is it possible for men in the Forces overseas actually to vote in the election? To that question there is only one answer—Yes. This is not a matter of theory; it is a matter of fact. Let us turn to what has happened in the Dominions. I have mentioned this matter in the House before, and I shall go on mentioning it until I get a satisfactory reply: therefore, I am not going to apologise for running through, as briefly as I can, what has actually taken place. New Zealand had a general election last year. Returning officers from New Zealand went to the various theatres of war, and there tried to compile electoral rolls. In some places they succeeded. Where they did not suc- ceed, they gave instructions that voting should still take place. They got out maps, showing the constituencies for which people should vote. In addition to the Services, other people, including Y.M.C.A. personnel, voted too. Votes could be cast at any time between the receipt of the lists and polling day. All that happened was that the voter had to establish his identity, by producing his pay-book or something like that. There are quite a lot of details, to which I have referred before; so I will leave New Zealand and turn to Australia.

There a general election took place in 1943, and any Service man or woman over 21, or under 21 in the case of those who had been serving abroad, could vote. A referendum, on an attempt to amend the Constitution in Australia, took place in August this year. The procedure for the referendum was that immediately after the writ was issued the returning officer sent to each unit envelopes with a declaration printed on the outside, for the man to sign, showing his residence and so on. There were also a ballot paper and a pamphlet, explaining the issues at stake, giving facts about the amendment of the Constitution, the Government's case for it and the opposition case against it, and the voting process was simple. There was no question of an electoral roll. The man voted, put his paper in an envelope, and it was sent home.

Turning again to Canada, it is very probable that there will be a general election early next year, and two Canadian returning officers have already come to this country and established offices for the purpose of conducting this election. Every Canadian on war service, including war correspondents, Red Cross, and so on, will be able to vote, irrespective of age, and, in this case again, no register is needed. The procedure will be as follows. Immediately on nomination day the names and political designations of candidates will be cabled to the overseas returning officers, who will print lists and distribute them to the voting places. Voting will take place by the elector writing the name of his choice on the ballot paper, placing it in an envelope, on which he signs a declaration that he is a British subject and has not voted before, and giving his rank, name, number and home town. The envelope is sent to the returning officers, who sort them into districts, count them, and cable the figures back to Canada. The result of the poll in Canada will not be declared until these figures are added in.

This shows that provision has been made for people overseas to vote. Another example from Canada is provided by what is taking place now in the Provincial election for Saskatchewan, where provision was made for three members to be elected by the Forces serving overseas, one from the Central Mediterranean Force, one from the British theatre and one from the soldiers from Saskatchewan who are in other parts of Canada and could not get home to vote. I believe that in a few weeks' time the Canadian Forces from Saskatchewan will be electing one of their own number on their Provincial Council in this way.

There, in brief outline, are methods of ensuring that men in the Forces of a country serving overseas can vote on the spot, and it does get over this difficulty of the possibility of the voter informing his proxy what his wishes are, and, although I have not given all the real minutiae of detail, it does prove that, if this Government wishes to carry out this procedure, the information and experience of our Dominions are available, and I see no earthly reason why this should not be done.

The Secretary of State for Air does represent on the War Cabinet all these men and women who are in the R.A.F. and I think it is his duty to impress upon his Cabinet colleagues the necessity for altering the Parliament (Elections and Meetings) Act, which lays down this procedure. If he does not, it is quite certain that they will not all be able to vote. I think we have plenty of time, seven to nine months, before the election, to get this thing through. If they do not do it—

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member is talking about matters which require legislation, which is out of Order on the Adjournment.

Mr. Lawson

I apologise, Sir. My concern for this matter carries me away. I will not pursue that, but I am quite sure that the inference to be drawn from the facts I have given will not be lost sight of by any hon. Member. I will conclude by reminding them of another passage, towards the end, of the Prime Minister's speech yesterday, when he said: The foundation of all democracy is that the people have the right to vote. To deprive them of that right is to make a mockery of all the high-sounding phrases which are so often used."—[OFFICIAL. REPORT, 31st October, 1944; Vol. 404, c. 667.] If we just go through with the present scheme of trying to let the men overseas vote by proxy, we shall be making a mockery of democracy, and therefore I appeal to the right hon. and gallant Gentleman to give serious consideration to this matter.

6.16 p.m.

Mr. John Dugdale (West Bromwich)

I only want to ask three questions. The first is whether there is any record of the percentage of people who have registered in each district. In the case of the Army, we usually have it lumped together as a percentage of the entire Army. Is there a record of certain methods being used in certain places, such as the putting up of notices, pay parades or giving addresses to the men; and have the results been better in particular places where these methods have been used? Is any special commendation given to officers who have used any particular method? Are we impressing on them that they are doing an important piece of work and helping in a big way to see that we get democracy functioning properly in this particular respect?

6.17 p.m.

Mr. Bellenger (Bassetlaw)

I welcome my hon. Friend's introduction of this matter on the Adjournment, not that the Under-Secretary of State for Air can deal with a large part of the proposals he has put before the House, because that is obviously outside the province of the Air Ministry, or indeed of any of the Service Ministries. But I hope that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman, when he comes to reply, will at any rate tell us how far his Department is carrying out the obligation laid on each of the Service Ministries by Parliament when it passed the Act of Parliament last year to see that men are registered for their vote. I have never been in favour of the proxy method of voting, but that is part of the Statute which this House passed. We must have an undertaking from all Service Ministries, and especially from the right hon. and gallant Gentleman to-night, that they are carrying out their duty thoroughly.

6.18 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Air (Captain Harold Balfour)

I have no hesitation at all in giving my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) the undertaking for which he asks, and in the course of my few remarks, I hope to prove to his satisfaction that I give this undertaking with a solid backing. The hon. Member for Skipton (Mr. H. Lawson) who raised this matter asked me three questions, and I will run through what we have done in the Royal Air Force, and in so doing he will find the answer to those questions. The Parliament (Election and Meeting) Act, 1943, imposed upon us as on the other Service Departments an obligation to ensure that all persons who are qualified to register as Service voters are instructed as to the effect of the Act and given an effective opportunity of making a declaration as a Service voter and appointing a proxy. There is a definite distinction between giving an opportunity and instructing and making a man by compulson do something. We must keep that distinction clear in our minds. The Air Ministry have fully discharged their obligations under the Act. Full instructions were issued to every unit of the Royal Air Force in April and these have been supplemented from time to time by other instructions.

The purport of these instructions is to make it clear that while registration is not compulsory, it is, in the view of the Air Council, the civic duty of every adult whose home is in this country to see that his or her name is on the electoral register, and that it is the duty of the commanding officers of units to ensure that every member of the Service has had an effective opportunity of so doing. Arrangements were made to hold special pay parades at all units at a date not later than 1st August, at which the provisions of the Act were explained to all airmen and airwomen, and they were given an opportunity of completing the registration form. Special steps were taken to cover personnel who, at the time the pay parade was held, were absent on some detached duty, sick leave, or for any other reason, and also persons in transit from one unit to another.

In the light of the experience 'gathered then, and as a result of test checks held in July, and of discussion with a deputation of hon. Members of this House to the Government, instructions were issued for a further check up at all units during the months of October and November. Under these instructions all officers, airmen and airwomen are asked three questions. The first question is whether they have completed the form; the second whether they have decided not to do so; thirdly, whether they have had no opportunity of doing so. Any personnel who say they have had no opportunity of doing so, will be given an opportunity forthwith.

Mr. Bellenger

Does that include India?

Captain Balfour

Yes, Sir. These special checks were to be held, operations permitting—which hon. Members will appreciate—at all home units in October, and are being held, operations permitting, at all overseas units in the first half of November. The results of these checks are being notified to the Air Ministry. Commanders-in-Chief have been informed that the Air Council expect the percentage registered at each unit to be not less than 90 per cent., and that special reports should be called for by all units whose percentage is below 85. We shall not know the complete results of this check until later in the year, but the results so far from home units—we have not the results of overseas units—show that percentages of 90 and 95, and indeed one or two of 100 per cent. are being registered. I think, if my memory serves me right, that 45 per cent. of the checks of home units of the Royal Air Force so far have showed something over 90 per cent.

It must be admitted, however, that when these check results are known, it will undoubtedly be found that a certain percentage will not have registered. This percentage is accounted for in part by personnel who have no residential qualification in this country, such as Irishmen, Channel Islanders, Newfoundlanders, West Indians, and other citizens from the Colonies and non-British nationals. In addition, there will be a number of persons who, though they possess residential qualifications in this country, have definitely stated that they are not interested, or do not intend to complete the form. Voting is still voluntary and not compulsory. Possibly, when we have the perfect planned State, it will be an offence not to vote, but meanwhile, we are still outside the bars of the age of compulsory political expression. We can claim, how- ever, that every individual who is entitled to register, has been given an opportunity of registering and of appointing a proxy, and that all those who have not registered are either not qualified to register, or have definitely decided not to do so.

I cannot deal with the latter part of the speech of my hon. Friend, but I would remind him that the question of voting in the field on the lines adopted by the Dominions is a matter for the Home Secretary, who said in reply to a question by the hon. Member on 5th October, that he hoped to be able to make a statement at an early date. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Dugdale) asked me whether we have any percentage record by districts. No, we have not, because the Royal Air Force is organised functionally from the centre, and not geographically like the Army. For instance, Bomber Command has units spread throughout the country, all coming to the centre, with Fighter and Coastal Commands the same. We have not geographical commands like the South-Eastern Command or the Northern Command of the Army. He also asked whether we have any particular methods of making this matter known. Well, we have had articles in our Royal Air Force publications and we have taken other measures, and I think that from what I have said to-day the House can see that we are driving at this pretty hard. This is not a matter of party; it is a matter of the successful functioning of democracy, and we in the Air Ministry are as keen as anyone to see that every man shall have the opportunity of voting, and being shown that it is very desirable that he should exercise his civic right.

The hon. Gentleman also asked me whether there is any special commendation to officers who have been successful. No, there is not; we intend all our officers to be successful on all occasions. I hope that the percentage check figures I have given will be representative of the final results we shall get from overseas commands, which cannot be given yet. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said that he would never be in a position to tell the House the exact proportion, and that he could only make a check here and there. But if my hon. Friend wishes, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be able to say something later in the year as a result of the checks from overseas. I hope the maximum number of men and women will vote. You can lead a horse to a stream, but you cannot make it drink and there are some people whom we shall never be able to persuade to vote. If you want to compel them to vote another form of Act will have to be passed but Parliament, in its wisdom, passed this Act not to make it compulsory for a person to vote, but giving an opportunity to do so. I hope that what I have said to-day will show that we are very anxious to see that the task which has been imposed upon us by Parliament will be fulfilled.

Mr. Driberg (Maldon)

If I gave the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the name of a station where there is 98 per cent. registration would he investigate the special methods used at this station, and consider issuing an instruction, based on those methods, to stations which are most backward?

Captain Balfour

I should always be very glad to hear of any particular or novel method, but I do not think we are backward. From the figures I have given to-day, I do not think we can be accused of backwardness, and I do not think there are any units lagging behind others. We have called for special reports from units showing under 85 per cent. registration but, as I have said, I shall be glad to hear from my hon. Friend of any novel method which has been used.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-eight Minutes after Six o'Clock.