HC Deb 08 November 1944 vol 404 cc1499-508

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

7.0 p.m.

Sir Richard Acland (Barnstaple)

I would like to take the opportunity to ask the Government one or two questions, and perhaps to make some suggestions of my own on this issue of what steps can be taken, to make as sure as we can that serving soldiers overseas feel that they are participating, as fully as possible, in the General Election which we are promised will be held in seven or nine months' time, and, in particular, what steps are being taken to let them know the constituencies in which their proxies are voting, the issues before the electors, the candidates standing, and so forth. I reserve the right, of course, on future occasions to criticise the scheme as a whole but, for the purpose of this half-hour, I accept the general outlines of the scheme and I would like the Minister to tell us what is to be done within it. I am sure that the Minister will agree that the scheme, as it is, cannot achieve perfection. I will not say we are trying to make the best of a bad job but we are trying, within the scheme, to do the best we can, in a situation Which of itself rules out an absolutely perfect solution, to allow the soldier, sailor and airman to appoint a relative or friend as a proxy to vote in this country on his behalf when he is overseas. That is all very well as far as it goes, but even if there were to be 100 per cent. registration and 100 per cent. appointment of proxies we might find, if the Government took no very definite steps, that, in effect, what was happening was that the proxies were getting two votes and that the soldiers overseas were not really getting a vote at all.

I can see a situation in which soldiers stationed overseas, while certainly they will know a General Election is pending from such newspapers as trickle out to them and circulate in the different camps, and may know, in a general way, a certain amount as to what the election is about, will not know in what constituency their proxy has to vote, what candidates are standing, and will not necessarily have any correct knowledge of the issues being discussed in this country at the time.

I might leave it at that and ask if the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Ernest Brown) will tell us as much as he can but, having raised this issue, I think it is up to me to try to make one or two suggestions. I might preface them by saying that I am only too well aware they are very inadequate and do not meet the case. I would like to feel that other people will have suggestions to make, and that the Government has bigger and better ideas. Let us take the first question. The soldier serving overseas very often will not have any idea in what constituency he lives. Of course, if a man lives in Exeter, he know his vote is in Exeter, but a man who lives in Bristol may not know in which part of Bristol his proxy has to vote. A man who lives at Ottery St. Mary may not know whether he votes in the Tiverton or the Honiton division, and so on. I suggest to the Government that it would be a wise decision now to print and send out to the various theatres where soldiers, sailors and airmen are likely to be stationed, rather detailed constituency maps of this country, because I think that is the only way of doing it. A soldier can then go to the place where these maps are to be found and can say, "My proxy lives at such a place; please tell me in which constituency I live." We might not get 100 per cent. results but, in most cases, the soldier would know in what constituency he has to vote.

The next thing he might want to know is what candidates are standing. That, I appreciate, is a pretty difficult question, because nomination day comes so very near to polling day—I think there are only nine days between the two. To wait until nomination day is hopeless and, therefore, in this matter I am sure there will not be anywhere near 100 per cent. results. But I think a great deal can be done, because it seems that a reasonably long time before polling day, within a fortnight or so of the date when the General Election is initiated, a very large number of bona fide prospective candidates will be in the field. Their names will be announced, and it will be possible, within a fortnight of the initiation of the election, to telegraph, to the places where members of the Forces are stationed, a list of the candidates. The candidates might be charged £10 each for that service, and the receipt might be taken as part payment of their deposit, which they might only get back if they safeguarded their deposit.

As to the issues on which the election will be contested, the practical point seems to arise now that there are certain printing facilities in the various theatres of war where the "Eighth Army News," "Trunk Call," and various other newspapers are printed. These facilities could be used provided, of course, adequate supplies of paper were at hand when required. It would be no use granting facilities if steps were not taken to make sure that the necessary paper was at hand at the right time. I should have thought that it would be possible to cable out, from the representatives of the different political parties concerned, a rather full statement of what the issues of the election really were. Of course, the argument as to the allocation of space might come in here, and some independent Members of Parliament, for instance, the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher), myself, and the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) and his friends might not get so much. But I am not arguing on these grounds at all. In the same wav as there is an allocation of wireless time at an election, I think it would be possible to put before a considerable number of Service men and women a fair and balanced picture of the issues which were being discussed in the country at the time of the election.

If that were done there remains one last thing. The Serviceman abroad, having found out what constituency his proxy lived in and, with luck, the names of the candidates who were standing, then has to direct his proxy to which candidate his vote shall go. There needs to be thought out in advance the possibility of there being a heavy load on the cable, air mail and airgraph services just around the time of the election. I would like to think that the Government Departments concerned were making sure that they would not run the risk of communications being delayed, because it would be a great grievance if many proxies received instructions a week after the election had taken place. These are the ideas that have occurred to me. I am only too well aware of their inadequacy but I hope the Minister will be able to add to them, and I suggest that this aspect of the scheme is, possibly, a subject on which it would be useful to have discussions between the Ministers concerned, a number of interested Members of Parliament, and perhaps the agents or servants of the main political parties to see how the thing could best be handled so as to be sure that the intention of bringing these soldiers in as much as possible shall be fulfilled.

7.11 p.m.

Mr. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)

I do not feel that the hon. Baronet has got to the root of the trouble. It is something wider that we have to look at. I do not think Servicemen are satisfied that the system will be workable in the Election after the German war is over. I should like to ask how far the Government have made investigation into the system adopted by the Dominions After all, it is some time since the Government made their decision that voting was to be by proxy. There has been a great change in the situation and it looks as if it might be possible to improve matters, especially for troops serving on the North-West European front. I feel that we should give the serving man every opportunity of taking his part in what will be the decisive election after the German war. I fully share the hon. Baronet's view that the soldier should be told the names of the candidates, and it would help if the Service Departments would print a constituency map at an early date, because the more the soldier is made aware of the facts of the election the better will be the result achieved in securing the verdict of the democracy.

7.13 p.m.

Mr. John Dugdale (West Bromwich)

I think the hon. Member who has just spoken has made a very important point. I have been very worried about the whole system of proxy voting. It may turn out all right or it may not. It may be that a man will give his proxy a considerable time before the election and, when the election comes, he may have quite different ideas. I would suggest that we look not only at the system that they have in the Dominions but into the American system. I understand that during their election registration officers were dropped by parachute and they collected the votes, and in that way men actually serving in the front line, and isolated from the main body of troops, were able to record their votes. I think it is worth while looking into it to see if we could not get some system by which electors could register their votes directly instead of by proxy.

7.14 p.m.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Ernest Brown)

I think it will be agreed that the hon. Baronet has done a great service by raising this issue. It is one on which the House will be agreed as a whole, that members of the Forces, whether serving at home or abroad, should have not merely the fullest opportunity of making their vote effective in the first General Election after the war, but that they should take, as far as possible, a living and active part in that election. At the moment we rest do the Act of 1943. Those Members who look back upon the Debate on that Measure will realise that the atmosphere of a year ago was different from that which we have now. A year ago a General Election seemed to the House a very long way away, and my hon. Friend the Member for Barnstaple (Sir R. Acland) was much more concerned about incidental by-elections than about the long trend. I do not state that by way of complaint, but merely as a fact. It was clear in those Debates that the weight of argument in favour of that Measure was largely influenced by the fact that another system in the previous war did not seem to have achieved the best results for the troops. I have in mind a speech delivered by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) on that point. I cannot discuss alternatives save as they have been alternatives in the past, because any alterations in the Act of 1943 would require legislation.

I want to point out what the situation is. Under the Act of 1943 preparations are now going forward to make arrangements for Service voters, and they are going on in every theatre of operations. The various Service Departments, with great energy, and the Ministry of War Transport, which is responsible for merchant seamen, are doing their best to get two things in the simplest way. The first is as complete a registration of Service voters, both men and women, as can be got, and the second is the appointment of as definite proxies as can be obtained to vote for our Service men and women. That is being done with great energy, and the various returns that have been made in answer to questions by my right hon. colleagues will show the progress that has been made from time to time. My hon. Friend raised three separate issues and made certain constructive suggestions about them. I have noted that he reserves his right to challenge the whole basis of the Act of 1943. I have no doubt that he will do it or that other Members may care to imitate him, and that my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton, who took the other view in 1943, will doubtless do the same.

The other alternatives are a system such as we had last time, partly voting by post and partly by proxy, and a vote on the field, which, of course, is a very different thing. I would say a word about the American and Dominions arrangements, because I do not think that they should necessarily be taken as guides for us. Our Forces are scattered in literally thousands of units in many fields of operations, in a much more complicated and varied way than the forces of our Dominions; and our system of elections under the present law affecting 640 Members of the House means a much more complicated and difficult problem of distribution and arrangements than the problem set to our friends in the various Dominions.

I do not, of course, raise this in objection to any other form, but as pointing out two things. The first is that the problem they are set is not the same as ours, and that any solution wanted will be a solution which fits our particular set of circumstances. It is clear that, whatever we do to carry out the law of 1943, we want to make sure that it is effective, so that we get what everyone wants, the fullest participation by the Serviceman, in the great decision which is to be made at the end of the German war.

Having said that, I would not care to draw a comparison or a parallel with the American system, because its whole basis is so different from ours. The joining together of the election for the President and for representatives is so different, that I do not think we could usefully adapt it to our own needs; but it is very important—I agree with the hon. Baronet— that Servicemen, especially those abroad and afloat, should be able to keep abreast with the more important political and social developments at home. It is for that reason that, throughout the whole of the war, in contrast to what happened during the war in which some of us took part in 1914 to 1918, there has been a perpetual, factual system of education, on a scale never yet undertaken by those who have been responsible in this country for the Forces of the Crown. All those who have taken part in it will agree that every attempt has been made to be utterly fair and to be factual, and to give our friends the members of the Forces the basis of making up their minds on the principal issues of the day as these have been thrown up from time to time.

Sir R. Acland

That is exactly the trouble. It is because these lectures and the rest have been so fair and have been so careful not to offend either Left or the Right opinion that, so far from showing the issues involved in the Election, they have concealed them. For instance, there has never been a single leaflet containing a single argument in favour of Socialism.

Mr. E. Brown

My hon. Friend interrupts me a little too early. I was not dealing with the point he was making, but with my own statement that there had been a factual and fair attempt at providing all Servicemen and women with the basis for arriving at their own conclusions. My hon. Friend is rather inclined to underestimate the capacity for making up their minds on controversial issues of those who receive these factual leaflets. It is a little habit, and it may cause a great deal of amusement in the barrack-rooms of the troops. The second thing that has happened has been that we have done our best to facilitate to the troops, and with a great deal of success in North-Western Europe, the maximum distribution of our own national newspapers, so that they might get a clear idea of current affairs. I have no doubt whatever that when the German war ends and we get to that period where war is no longer peril, battle, valour and risk, but boredom, it may be possible to make a very great extension of those facilities.

The real issue is how far the Government themselves, in carrying out their own plans, can devise schemes for doing three things. The first is to make sure that the voter knows his own constituency. This is not as easy in detail as it sometimes seems in general, especially if he happens to be a voter in a very large city, where the lines of demarcation of the various divisions are not easy to be defined, even if one has lived in the city all one's life. The second is to see they get a fair representation of the candidates for whom votes are to be cast; and the third, that they get an idea of the actual issues on which the election is being fought. There is a great variety of fighting units, and the seven seas of the world to be covered—thousands of units and hundreds of ships. I will only say this to my hon. Friend. The Prime Minister has said: No one is more anxious than I am that every facility possible and practical, having regard to the fact that fighting is still going on on an increasing scale, should be given if possible to the troops, to understand what are the policies for which the opposing candidates stand and for recording their votes on the largest possible scale. That is our intention. It would be disgraceful if, through any lack of forethought on our part, these men … were deprived of their opportunity to do so. I say all this under the reservation which may be imposed by the force of physical events."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd October, 1944; Vol. 403; c. 742.] That is how the Prime Minister himself stated his outlook and the outlook of the Government. I promised my hon. Friends who have spoken in this Debate to-day that the detailed and constructive suggestions that have been made inside the present plan of the Act of 1943 will be conveyed not only to the Prime Minister, but to all the Departments concerned. There are many Departments concerned in this matter.

I can assure the House that the Government will do their best, when the time comes, to see that the objectives we all have are fully realised, so that those who have, by their valour, their sacrifice, and some of them with a long service overseas, won the right to a definite voice in the choice of who is to govern them in the period when the German war is over, and the first General Election takes place, shall feel that the scheme is an efficient scheme, that they have had a fair chance of participating in it.

Mr. Driberg (Maldon)

Could I ask the right hon. Gentleman a question on one point of detail? Could he say what happens in the case of a man who does not know which his constituency is, who has no domicile and who does not know where he will live after the war?

Mr. Brown

At present the system is that there is a buff card which is at the unit headquarters. Wherever the man may be it is presented to him. He is then asked to state his address.

Mr. Driberg

And if he has no address?

Mr. Brown

If he has not an address he is asked to say where he thinks he would have been living but for his service or other circumstances ancillary to his service. He has then a choice of stating what that address will be, so that his name can go on the register for that particular constituency, and of doing the second job at the same time on this little buff form, which is a very simple and clear one, of naming, if he so desires—there is no compulsion about it—the proxy he desires to act for him in the event of a General Election taking place.

Mr. David Eccles (Chippenham)

Surely the way to get this information to the troops is by wireless? Could I ask the Government to make sure that a real plan of broadcasting is laid on, and that all these units have receiving sets so that they can receive the information when the time comes?

Mr. Brown

There are two great differences between this war and the last to which I did not refer in my speech, but which have not been overlooked by the Government and those concerned. They are very great differences and very great advantages for the troops—

It being half an hour after the conclusion of Business exempted from the provisions of the Standing Order (Sittings of the House), Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order, as modified for this Session by the Order of the House of 25th November.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes after Seven o'Clock.