HC Deb 04 December 1945 vol 416 cc2215-24
Mr. Manningham-Buller

I beg to move, in page 5, line 2, leave out "area," and insert "polling district."

This Amendment, which appears to be a very simple one, raises a point of considerable importance. Under Clause 6 as it now stands any one who satisfies the registration officer that he no longer resides at the address in respect of which he is so registered, or at any other address within the same area, is entitled to have his name placed upon the absent voters' list. When one wishes to see what is meant by the words "within the same area" one must turn to Clause 20 of the Bill where one see that: …two addresses shall be deemed to be within the same area if they satisfy one of the following conditions that … they are both within the combined area of two contiguous metropolitan boroughs; '' they are both within the area of the same county borough; they are both within the area of the same non-county borough; they are both within the area of the same urban district; or '' they are both within the area of the same rural parish. It seems to me that that interpretation of the word "area" is bound to lead to a whole series of anomalies. A man may have just moved from one rural parish to another, and be living 50 yards away from his previous address. If he applies he will be entitled to vote by post.

9.15 p.m.

But a man who is living in Birmingham who will move from one end of Birmingham to the other may not acquire the facilities of postal voting. I would suggest that, instead of making this very complicated definition of area, the right place to draw the line in considering who should get the facilities of voting by post and of being put on the absent voters' list, and the right area to define is the polling district. If a man in a country constituency, when living in one polling district, moves his home to another polling district, it may be in the same constituency, and he may be many miles away from the place where he should exercise his right of voting. Therefore, I think that that gentleman should have the right of being put on the absent voters' list. The same would apply wherever you like to take the "situation, and surely the polling district is the right area, and no other. If a man moves out of the polling district in which he is registered, what is the argument against that man not being put on the absent voters' list, no matter whether he has moved from one contiguous borough to another one, or from one end of the borough to the far end of another which is contiguous? I ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider or state if he is in a position to do so, what valid arguments there are against the adoption of the polling district as the area instead of the definition. he has given in Clause 20.

Mr. Ede

I was rather surprised that the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Manningham-Buller), in dealing with this matter, dealt in the way he did with the question of rural voters, because I think the definition in the Bill of a rural parish is likely to be more advantageous to some rural voters than the words "polling district" because in my knowledge there are some constituencies in the country where more than one rural parish is included in a polling district and, quite frankly, I think this is a concession which is more necessary in rural areas than for movements inside boroughs where, as a rule, means of public transport are reasonably good and I should not be prepared, in any event, as far as rural voters arc concerned, to use the definition of "polling district" instead of "rural parish."

When it comes to the other areas, if I there accepted "polling district," one might be involved in having to register really a very large number of quite frivolous claims for a postal vote. In boroughs, as a rule, the ward, or a part of the ward, is the polling district. There are 14 wards in the borough of South Shields, which I represent, and the total acreage is under 3,000 acres. Some of the wards are very small indeed, and as the migration is as great as it is at the moment, I am sure we should be involved in a considerable amount of registration for postal voting if the "polling district" was taken as the appropriate phrase. I cannot think that, because a person moves from an area of 100 acres into another area of 100 acres adjoining it, it gives him a right to claim a postal vote, and that the returning officers should be put to all the difficulties which arise when a postal vote is registered.

It is true, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake) stated, that the words are not part of the Act, but it will be noted that Clause 6 has above it the heading in italics, "Temporary Provisions as to Voting by Post and by Proxy." This question of the appropriate area for the exercise of postal voting will be one of the matters which will be considered by the Committee on Electoral Registration of my hon. Friend. I hope that they will make some recommendations that will enable this question to be very closely examined by people—agents and others—who are on the Committee and who have considerable knowledge of these matters. I would therefore hope that we might be allowed to use the present definition, which is undoubtedly more helpful to rural voters in the most scattered parts of the country, than the definition given by the hon. Gentleman, and when we produce our permanent legislation we may hope that we shall have had the benefit of this expert advice and be able to put before the House something which will be generally acceptable.

Mr. E. P. Smith

In regard to Clause 20 defining the areas concerned, what is meant by "parish" in paragraph (e)? What do the words "rural parish" really mean? Is it an ecclesiastical parish or a parish council?

The Chairman (Major Milner)

The hon. Member cannot go into that definition now.

Mr. Ede

I will deal with it when I come to it.

Mr. E. P. Smith

With great respect, Clause 20 has been brought up in relation to this Amendment, and I submit that we are entitled to know what is meant by the phrase.

The Chairman

I understood that the hon. Gentleman asked for an explanation of something on Clause 20. It is not in Order to do so on a discussion of Clause 6.

Mr. Ede

We shall get to it in due course.

Mr. Manningham-Buller

In view of what has been said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment. Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Major Sir Basil Neven-Spence (Orkney and Shetland)

I beg to move, in line 5, at end, insert: (2) If any person, registered in a. civilian residence register as a parliamentary elector for any constituency, satisfies the registration officer on an application made within the period and in the manner prescribed by electoral registration regulations that he will probably be unable, without making a journey by sea or air, to proceed from the address in respect of which he is registered in that register to a polling place in order to vote in person at any parliamentary election for which that register will be used, the registration officer shall enter the name of that person in the absent voters list for the purposes of every parliamentary election for which that register is used. This Amendment is to enable people who would otherwise have to cross the sea to record their votes, to get over that difficulty. In this Bill we are enabling people who are physically incapacitated or blind to exercise their votes, and I think an equally strong case can be made for enabling people who are, as I might put it, geographically incapacitated. The situation is that in some of the island constituencies there are polling districts with more than one island in them, and the result has been that many of the electors in these areas, although theoretically enfranchised, have never in fact been able to record their votes because of the difficulty of getting to the polling place. It might be thought that this difficulty could be overcome by setting up more polling places, but I think we have gone as far along that road as is practicable. Sooner or later we will get a situation in which there is only a comparatively small number of people, and it is now becoming difficult in some of these rural areas to find people who are suitably qualified to preside at a polling booth. It is also difficult to get people to undertake a journey across, in one case 16 miles, and in another case 25 miles, with the possibility of not being able to get back for several days, and in some cases even for several weeks. The only practical way of getting over the difficulty is to allow those people to have their names on the absent voters' list, and to let them vote by post or by proxy.

Mr. Malcolm MacMillan (Western Isles)

I must confess to a great deal of sympathy for the Amendment. This is not altogether a new problem, but could have been solved years ago by hon. Gentlemen opposite when they were on this side of the House. They were then on the winning side and they were not interested very much in voters unless they favoured themselves. I am very glad, as a fellow Islander Member, to support a number of the suggestions made by the hon. and gallant Member who moved the Amendment. We must have regard to the less selfish implications of the Amendment, but the fact of the matter is simply stated; the hon. and gallant Member opposite and his Friends have for many years themselves disfranchised these people by neglecting to provide proper roads and means of communication. I suggest that they should now go all out to remedy these defects in our transport system and they should support us, who are endeavouring to help our electors to make more effective their theoretical franchise.

We have a genuine case, and the hon. and gallant Member has as genuine a case as anyone, and I welcome the Amendment. I have as many voters in my constituency as he has in his, who are disfranchised for geographical reasons. Many of the places where they live are cut off by miles of sea, by heavy seas and narrow sounds and it is sometimes almost impossible for them to cast their votes. There are not only isles but peninsulas from which electors have to go by sea, and they are just as cut off because they have no roads and they do not always manage to get away because of the bad weather by sea. It is suggested that they should be allowed to vote by post and the suggestion should certainly be considered favourably by my right hon. Friend.

There is one point on which I do not agree with the hon. and gallant Member, and that is when he says that we have gone far enough in the matter of supplying polling stations. I do not think that we have gone nearly far enough. There are places miles apart, with schools between them which could serve the purpose of polling stations, but the schools are neglected for this use and people have to go many miles from their homes to the polling stations and back. Polling facilities should be made as equitable as possible. I do not think that a person in the Shetlands, the Orkneys or the Western Isles should have to go to additional expense, discomfort and risk in exercising his right and his duty to register his vote. I ask my right hon. Friend to consider this matter very sympathetically, and if he feels he cannot accept it, and at the same time save face with the other side of the House, may I remind him that there are many of us on this side who are anxious that he should accept it and possibly save our faces at the same time as his own?

9.30 p.m.

Major McCallum (Argyll)

I support my hon. and gallant Friend in this Amendment. May I call attention to the fact that the hon. Member for the Western Isles (Mr. M. MacMillan) invariably opens his remarks with some reference to previous Tory Governments? May I point out to him that the Highlands and Islands of Scotland were almost the sole areas in Britain that returned only Conservative or Liberal National Members, and that that was true in all cases except that of the hon. Member himself? They showed their good sense. I would like to include under this Amendment not only island constituencies but certain places on the mainland of Scotland where people have difficulty in getting to the poll and can only do so by making long journeys by water. I know of a place where there are, I think, 11 or 12 voters who never go to the polls because they have to travel 10 or 15 miles by water. They are thereby to all intents and purposes disfranchised. I therefore submit that not only the people on the islands, but also those on the mainland who are geographically disabled, should be incorporated in the supplementary register. There are several areas in the Highlands of Scotland where the same thing applies.

In the constituency which I represent there was an island from which the voters had to make a very rough sea journey of 14 miles to vote, and my predecessor, at the time of the much-maligned Tory majority, was able to get a polling station placed there. In the smaller islands I am referring to it would be impracticable to set up polling stations, and in view of the difficult journeys the electors have to take, and the bad weather in which they might have to take them, they ought to be allowed to be put on the supplementary register.

Mr. Fraser

When I saw this Amendment on the Order Paper, I first made inquiry as to whether additional polling stations could be set up. I was advised that it was not practicable to set up polling stations in all these scattered islands, and that to do so would involve too great a risk, because on many occasions it might be impossible, because of the stress of weather, to collect the ballot boxes on polling day. I, therefore, inquired whether I could possibly accept this Amendment, and in view of the speeches to which we have just listened, and of the fact that there is a considerable consensus of opinion in favour of extending postal voting to the people of these islands, I think I should give way. I would, however, indicate to the Committee that we could not guarantee that in every case it would be possible to get the ballot paper delivered, again because of the weather conditions that sometimes prevail. I think however that many more people would be able to vote if we accepted the Amendment than would otherwise be the case, and I have therefore pleasure in accepting it.

Mr. C. Williams

I rise to thank the Government for accepting the Amendment. We have heard the Scottish case but not the English case, because the hon. Member who would have put that case is ill. I am not going to make a long political speech, as did the hon. Member for the Western Isles (Mr. M. Macmillan). I just want to say that I appreciate the effect of this change, which will enable the people of the Scilly Isles, who are the most hard working and industrious of the Islanders throughout Great Britain, to vote and to go on returning to Parliament good supporters of the Liberal Nationalists or of the Tory Party.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Ede

I beg to move, in page 5, line II, after "physically," insert "either by blindness or otherwise."

I think it would be convenient to deal also with the two Amendments in my name, in page 5, line 15, and page 5, line 17. These Amendments are largely of a drafting nature and are necessary in order that Subsection (2) may clearly specify the category of persons who are eligible for a postal vote by reason of physical incapacity. It will be found that the words I propose to insert bring in rather than exclude people. They define the matter rather more closely. I hope the Committee will be prepared to accept these Amendments as another instance of our effort to bring within the facilities for voting people who, through no fault of their own, but through serious physical disability, would be otherwise deprived of the franchise.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Peake

I beg to move, in page 5, line 12, leave out "parliamentary."

As the other five Amendments in my name on this Clause cover the same point, I think it would be convenient to deal with them together. The right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary has been in a conciliatory mood this evening, and as a result our business is proceeding most expeditiously. These Amendments raise a point which even those few hon. Members who have not followed closely the intricacies of the various Acts of Parliament and the Amendments on the Order Paper will be able to understand. Subsection (2) of this Clause provides for additional facilities for the physically incapacitated and the blind to cast their votes at a Parliamentary election. It does not seem unreasonable that similar facilities for the bedridden and the blind might be extended to local government elections. Why on earth this Amendment could or should be resisted, I cannot imagine. It would be quite illogical to give a bedridden or blind person postal voting facilities to enable him to cast his vote for a Member of Parliament, but to deny him those facilities in the case of the election of a local councillor.

Mr. Ede

I have every sympathy with this Amendment, and therefore, I very much regret that I cannot accept it because there is no machinery provided in the Bill by which postal voting at municipal elections could be operated. With regard to postal voting at Parliamentary elections, specific duties are placed upon returning officers and other people to ensure that the voting papers are sent out, that when they are returned they are treated in a certain way, and that they are then incorporated in the total votes to be counted, and become part of the voice of the electorate. The right hon. Gentleman will, I am sure, appreciate that there is no similar machinery for dealing with municipal elections. This part of the Bill is a temporary part, and this is one of the matters that I am going to ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to bring before his Committee, with a view to getting the appropriate recommendations made so that we can place a duty on returning officers in municipal elections to allow people who are incapacitated in this way to perform the duty of citizenship by recording their votes.

I think there is even more cause for allowing people in this position to record their votes than there is in the case of people who have left a constituency and moved to another. Such people have probably lost interest in the place from which they have gone, whereas these bedridden and blind people are often almost bound to remain in the place where they are, even against their wishes. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will realise that it is an entirely practical objection that I am taking to this Amendment, and that it is my hope and my intention that the permanent Measure shall include provisions whereby incapacitated people shall be able to vote at municipal elections. I hope that, when we get the permanent Measure in front of us, I shall have the right hon. Gentleman's support in carrying it through.

Mr. Peake

In view of the sympathetic response which the right hon. Gentleman has made, and the very real, practical difficulties, which I appreciate, of constructing machinery for a temporary period in relation to the casting of votes in this way at a local government election, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made:

In page 5, line 15, leave out from the first "that," to "he," in line 16, and insert: he is so incapacitated physically, either by blindness or otherwise, that.

In page 5, line 17, leave out from "by," to the first "the," in line 18.—[Mr. Ede.]

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.