HC Deb 17 January 1945 vol 407 cc236-43
Lieut.-Commander Hutchison (Edinburgh, West)

I beg to move, in page 13, line 30, leave out "beginning of the said month of March," and insert: Sixteenth day of April, nineteen hundred and forty-five. As this Clause stands, very little time is to be given to persons who may be qualified to use the business vote to send in applications to the registration officer to be included in the special business premises register. Statutory Rules and Orders 1944 No. 900 were approved by this House last autumn. Paragraph 6 refers to the fact that on the initiation of an election the registration officer has to publish a notice inviting applications for registration in the business premises register, and the Order goes on to say that this notice shall contain instructions as to the mode in which these applications should be made and the time limit within which they have to be made. In the time-table in the Second Schedule to the Statutory Rules and Orders, the last date on which applications can be received is the 14th day after the initiation of the election, while the business premises register is required to be published on the 36th day after the initiation of the election. In other words, there is an interval of 22 days between the final date on which an application can be lodged and the date of the publication of the register. That compares in the case of this Bill with a period of no less than 67 days. I cannot see the reason for this much longer interval. Therefore, I suggest that the last date for which applications for the business premises register can be received should be 16th April. I feel that this alteration is only fair to the men and women who will be involved; they are particularly busy; they are harassed because of shortage of staff in their businesses; and they have to deal with many other questionnaires, forms and so on. There will possibly be only two or three weeks to enable them to carry out the procedure laid down in Statutory Rules and Orders, because I do not see how this Bill will become an Act very much before 1st March, which is the qualifying date. I hope that in the interests of these people the Government will make some concession along the lines of my Amendment.

Mr. McKinlay (Dumbartonshire)

On a point of Order. I may be somewhat deaf, but I did not, Mr. Williams, hear you put the Question that Clause 12 stand part. I wanted to raise a matter on that Question which I cannot raise in any other way. I think you proceeded to Clause 13 without putting the Question on Clause 12.

The Deputy-Chairman (Mr. Charles Williams)

I am sure that I put the Question that Clause 12 stand part, and I have now gone on to Clause 13.

Major Neven-Spence (Orkney and Zetland)

I wish to support the Amendment, which will ensure that electors who may be qualified to use the business vote are given adequate time for lodging their applications to be included on the business premises register. The long period of 67 days will elapse between the last date on which applications can be made and the publication of the register, and that seems to be an unconscionable long time.

The Lord Advocate

This is undoubtedly a substantial point, because it is highly desirable that, if a franchise is to be conferred at all, there should be adequate opportunity for claiming one's rights. The only reason why I cannot promise to meet the point in the way suggested in the Amendment is a practical one of the time-table. It is true that nine weeks or more will elapse between the final date for claiming under this Bill and the publication of the register, and that a much shorter period was contemplated under the Regulations which are at present in force. The matter has been carefully examined from the practical point of view of what are the shortest periods that we can rely upon as being sufficient to enable returning officers and others to carry out their duties properly. We are satisfied that the periods under the existing Regulations are wholly inadequate for a General Election taking place in present circumstances of man-power difficulties, printing difficulties and all the other factors with which hon. Members are familiar.

We have looked into this matter to see what are the shortest periods that we feel it would be safe to put forward as adequate in present circumstances for a General Election. We think that it is necessary to allow a considerable number of days, possibly nearly a fortnight, for arranging the material once it is received and before it is sent to the printers. It must be arranged in order of streets, or whatever is the order adopted in a particular constituency. Printing is one of the major difficulties in this affair, and it would be unsafe to allow less than a fortnight for printing the initial lists.

The period for claims and objections under existing legislation is much too short to enable the necessary business to be done properly and adequately. We think that three weeks for claims and objections is about as short a time as will allow that rather difficult business—if there are many claims and objections—to be coped with satisfactorily. Finally, there is, of course, the final printing, before the register is made public.

Therefore we are advised that the period taken in the Bill, from 1st March to 7th May, is the shortest that we can safely say is adequate in present circumstances for the performance of those duties; but I think I can meet my hon. and gallant Friend in one way. He referred to the possibility that this Bill might not become an Act of Parliament until some date in February. If you could make your claim only after the Bill became law, then every day that the Royal assent to the Bill was postponed would mean a day less for claiming. We propose to make it clear that claims may be sent in any day in February, from the 1st to the 28th. That will give a full month for the submission of these claims. If the present law is not adequate to allow that, we shall see that it is put right before the Report stage. There are forms at present in circulation, and no doubt the publicity arising from this Amendment will bring it home to people that they should begin at once making their arrangements. If they have a full month in which to put in their claims we think that that will be adequate.

I would draw the attention of my hon. and gallant Friend to the fact that under the existing legislation there is only a fortnight for claims and that that period will now be increased to a month. If we make it clear that claims can be received at any time during February[...] I think we have really gone a very long way to meet what I agree is a substantial point.

Lieut.-Commander Hutchison

In view of the assurance just given by the Lord Advocate, for which I am grateful, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Solicitor-General

I beg to move, in page 13, line 30, after "and," insert: subject to the provisions of this Act as to making applications on a form of service declaration and to any electoral registration regulations extending these provisions to war workers abroad. It is intended in one of the new Clauses with regard to postal voting, to have another way of making application to be registered on the business premises register. Therefore one must at this stage mention the fact that there will, we hope, be further provisions, and that we shall be enacting mandatory provisions in regard to Clause 13.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: In line 38, after "and," insert "subject as aforesaid."—[The Solicitor-General.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill."

Captain Cobb

On a point of Order. Are you not calling my Amendment, Mr. Williams? It is, in page 13, line 34, at end, insert: The names of business premises electors comprised in the May, nineteen hundred and forty-five, register shall remain in the annual register for nineteen hundred and forty-five without further claim being made by such electors.

The Deputy-Chairman

No. I thought it was covered by an earlier Amendment. If the point has not been covered it can be raised on the Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

Captain Cobb

I wanted to raise the point about the requirement under the Bill for persons with business premises qualifications to register twice. As the Committee are aware, the Act of 1943 made it incumbent for the first time upon people with these qualifications to make a claim to be included in the register. Before 1943, no such requirement was made. The effect of the Bill will be to require business voters to go through the performance twice of getting a form and filling it up, in order to be included in the two 1945 registers. They will have to apply by 28th February and by 31st July. I sought, by means of the Amendment which I had on the Order Paper and which has not been called, to persuade the Government to do what is necessary to allow the application for the main register to suffice for inclusion in the 1946 register.

I should be very glad if the Solicitor-General would give some assurance to satisfy us that these very much overworked and understaffed persons will not be put to altogether unnecessary trouble about getting their names on the register. I know there is a difference of opinion as to whether people with these qualifications should be allowed to vote or not, but the fact is that they have that right under the existing law and everything possible should be done to ensure that they get on to the register and are enabled to exercise their rights.

The Solicitor-General

I think I can give my hon. and gallant Friend some assurance on this point. I do not think that the suggestion in his Amendment would be practicable. The qualifying date for the annual register is 30th June, and the fact that someone was on the register on 7th May would not, of course, be conclusive evidence that they were on the register on 30th June. In these times we cannot simply take it that the fact that someone has been on the register on 7th May is, ipso facto, an application for being on the annual register.

It is impossible, as my hon. and gallant Friend knows, to have the usual canvasses to which we were accustomed in the past. His point would be substantially met by administrative action in this way: we hope to ensure that registration officers will, in respect of the October business premises register, send a claim form to every person at his qualifying address on the main business premises register. No doubt my hon. and gallant Friend appreciates that everyone on the May register will get a claim form for the October register and should send it in. I hope he will consider that by that administrative action we are meeting the point; and I hope that the Committee will now let the Clause pass.

Mr. McKinlay (Dumbartonshire)

The point that I desire to raise concerns my own constituency, where houses have been requisitioned. The requisition compensation is based on the assessed rent, but the premises no longer exist, although the requisition compensation is being paid yearly as if the premises did exist. I want to know what is the position of my constituents who were evicted from the premises and who are being compensated on the basis of their rateable value. The Government refuse to de-requisition something which does not exist because the only way in which they can do so is to compensate the lot. I want to know whether those two or three dozen of my constituents who have been treated in this way will be electors in the county of Dumbarton or whether they will not.

The premises are requisitioned. In the eyes of the local authorities the premises still exist, but they are not there. I want to know whether, my constituents having been compulsorily removed from the area and their premises being gone, votes will be given so long as this requisition lasts for the premises which used to be on those sites? Not being a lawyer I do not suppose I should be able to answer the question, but the answer means a very great deal, if not to my constituents at least to those who represent them, and I should like the Lord Advocate to give us some enlightenment on the point. Some parts of my division are simply bristling with these difficulties and I am sure that other hon. Members, whose constituencies are in the same position, would like to have the position clarified.

The Lord Advocate

I think I understand what my hon. Friend has in mind. Let me see whether I can state it accurately. He will no doubt put me right if I have not got the position correct. It is the case of a person residing in a house which has become uninhabitable. That person has had to move away to some other constituency.

Mr. McKinlay

Perhaps the Lord Advocate will forgive me for interrupting. Let us get it right at the very beginning. The premises were habitable. As a matter of fact they were very desirable habitations. The military came along and requisitioned the premises. They fixed the compensation as payable yearly on the rateable value. The War Office did not requisition the premises for fun but to knock them down and drive a road through where the premises were situated. The requisition did not cover only dwelling-houses but lands contiguous to them, all the outbuildings and everything else. In one area at least 12 of my voters in Dumbartonshire have been compensated because of this qualification, on the basis of their rateable value, just as though the premises were still there. I want to know whether they are right in assuming that the registration officer will be as daft as the War Office by granting a vote for premises which do not exist.

The Lord Advocate

I appreciate that my hon. Friend is desirous that his constituents should get the votes that are available to them. I can answer his question in this way; there are two classes of vote—the residential vote and the business premises vote. So far as residence is concerned, if you are not there you do not get the vote, whether you went away because the Government requisitioned your house, or because the house was destroyed by enemy action, or for some private reason of your own. It does not matter. The fact that you are not there prevents you from having a residential vote. If my hon. Friend's constituents were relying upon getting a residential vote in Dumbartonshire, I am afraid that the answer is that if they have gone away, they cannot have it. So far as the business vote is concerned, I must confess that the point is a new one to me and I am not at all clear if one can be in occupation of business premises which no longer exist or which have been taken over by the War Office. There is very grave doubt that even the business vote would not be available, but I should like to be able to consider the point before I give an answer. I am quite sure that the residential vote is not available if the people had moved out before the qualifying date.

2.45 p.m.

Mr. McKinlay

Am I to take it that if the residential vote is no longer available, there is no prospect of another Government Department coming along and saying that as the rateable value has disappeared, so does the compensation? I admit that it is an absurd position. Members from North of the Tweed are bound to be confronted with this position. Suppose that those people pitched a camp in what was their garden and were waiting there until their premises are restored, how would they be ruled out? What I am really after is this. I hope this statement will make the Government see that they themselves have created anomalies from one end of the country to the other, and that they are the only ones who can remove them.

Question, "That Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.