HC Deb 17 January 1945 vol 407 cc243-50
Mr. Hugh Lawson (Skipton)

I beg to move, in page 14, line 43, at end, add: (6) Every electoral register shall be printed on one side of the paper only and shall, wherever possible be arranged in street order and not alphabetically. This may seem a small point to bring up but we have had a great many detailed points raised, so I do not apologise for this, because it has quite far-reaching consequences. As hon. Members know, electoral registers are sometimes printed on both sides of the paper, sometimes on one side. I have never been able to find out on what basis that has been decided, but for the purposes of canvassing it is much more convenient to have the registers printed on one side only. One can then cut up a register and stick it in an exercise book. Then one has on one side the street and all the electors in it, and on the other side a blank for making notes. When the register is printed on both sides of the paper two registers have to be bought, which wastes a lot of paper and the money of the parties concerned. I think it would be a great convenience if it were laid down that all registers should be printed on one side of the paper only.

With regard to the question of the register being arranged alphabetically, it is the custom in cities and towns, where the houses are in streets, for registers to be arranged in street order, but in scattered country villages, where houses are not so arranged, the electors are arranged alphabetically, with their address after their names. One sometimes finds cases of quite big villages where the register is arranged alphabetically, which is a very great nuisance when one comes to canvass. I would like to see it laid down that wherever possible the arrangement should be by street order. There is another point. Under the Act of 1943 I believe it was recognised that the registers would not be printed but should be duplicated. Talking to one returning officer about this Act which we are now considering, I found he was under the impression that it would be possible, under this Act, to duplicate the May, 1945, register, and not have it printed. I want it to be stressed that these registers are to be printed and not duplicated.

Why should I waste the time of the Committee in asking for something to be put in the Bill just for the sake of making canvassing easier? It is for this reason: However well conducted a campaign may be, however eloquent the speakers concerned, speeches made in halls never reach more than 10 per cent. of the electorate. The other 90 per cent. can only be contacted by knocking on people's doors and talking to them. It seems to me that if democracy is to work at all we should make it as easy as possible for people to do that essential work of canvassing.

Mr. Oldfield

I wish to support the Amendment which has been moved by the hon. Member for Skipton (Mr. H. Lawson). From the point of view of saving work so far as the workers at elections are concerned, it is a step in the right direction. The hon. Member's point that the register should be arranged in street order is a good one. One knows as an election agent what one has to do if one has any persons coming into a division to help and one is asking them to go out on a certain street order. It would be much more easy if this system was adopted. I remember being concerned in a by-election, I think in Lancaster. In some of the villages there the register was issued in the order mentioned by the hon. Member for Skipton, and my first job was to get a typewriter and do it all over again to make the work easier. I say that the method proposed of compiling the register would, from the point of view of the country districts, be a much better one, and I support the hon. Member for Skipton.

The Solicitor-General

I appreciate very much the matters that are in the minds of both my hon. Friends in supporting this Amendment. Indeed they the in the minds of all of us who have had to deal with the practical side of electioneering. There is only one point I should like both my hon. Friends to remember. It is that electioneering varies very much with different kinds of constituencies, and therefore I think it is a good thing to keep the plans as flexible as possible and able to deal with these different constituencies and their circumstances. If we take the first point of my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton (Mr. Lawson), that is, the matter of printing on one side of the paper or both. That would be dealt with in the ordinary way by electoral registration regulations, but I do not want to burke the issue by putting it in that way, because I would like my hon. Friend to consider a further point. At present it is open to the registration officer to say whether the registers shall be printed on one side of the paper or on both. I should have thought—I ask my hon. Friend to consider it—that that would be the best way to deal with the matter. In that case the registration officer could let my hon. Friend—I take him for the example, but it would apply to anyone in the position he postulated, who wanted some copies for canvassing and pasting on in the way with which we are all familiar—could go to the registration officer and say he wanted a number for that purpose. Other copies printed on both sides might be capable of being used for other purposes. I suggest it is a matter which might be left by the regulations for the registration officer to decide.

I come to my hon. Friend's second point, with which both my hon. Friends have dealt, that is, street order or alphabetical order. There again it has been left by the regulations to the local authority, and it is interesting to note that the onus was placed differently, under the Act of 1918, in regard to country and urban districts. In regard to country districts the register was to be arranged in alphabetical order unless the local authority, having regard to the general character of the area, con- sidered its arrangement in street order to be possible and convenient. With regard to boroughs the register had to be in street order unless the local authority thought the other method was convenient. I would commend to both my hon. Friends that that is really a reasonable method of dealing with the matter, that the local authority should be left with this task and that we should not attempt over-centralisation in this field when we have found that devolution, in one case the registration officer, in the other the local authority, has worked well and substantially without complaint. Therefore, while sympathising with the point which both my hon. Friends have in mind, I would ask them, in view of what I have placed before them, not to press this Amendment.

Sir Edmund Findlay (Banff)

Would the hon. and learned Gentleman answer the second point put by the hon. Member for Skipton (Mr. Lawson) as to whether it will be legal to have these registers roneoed, because a roneoed register can look an awful mess after the first few copies have been made?

Mr. H. Morrison

It was a practical point in connection with the Act of 1943. The printing trade was disorganised, there were by-elections coming on, and there might be a by-election in a rural county division where there would be the greatest practical difficulty in printing the register. In such a case it was contemplated that we should have to multigraph the register. I hope we shall not have to do it as I agree that printing is better, but it is just conceivable that in some cases we may be driven to it. So far as the Home Office is concerned, our preference is definitely for printing, and we should only multigraph in cases in which we were driven to do so by practical considerations.

Mr. H. Lawson

The Solicitor-General has not met the point I made. He said that it is open for the candidate to ask the registration officer to print him some copies of the register on one side of the paper only. I think that is quite an impractical suggestion. These registers have to be made out at a certain time of the year, and a man may have no idea that he is to contest a particular constituency. Once the registers are printed, there is no question of a candidate making such a request and feeling he will get any satisfaction about special printing. I think that point has not been met. As regards the question of leaving the matter, it is now left to the convenience of local authorities. What is the test of convenience? As I understand it, these registers, even under this new Act we are passing, are to be made up from lists which are kept in the food office. The May, 1945, register will be made up from those lists.

Surely the most convenient thing for the local authorities to do is just to take these cards, which are kept in alphabetical order, and print a list. This Amendment makes it quite clear that, where this cannot be managed, the list will be printed alphabetically. I want further consideration to be given to this, and I do not propose to withdraw the Amendment.

3.0 p.m.

Mr. Pritt

I would like to ask the Minister, or Ministers, whether they would consider undertaking to circularise local authorities and to impress upon them the very great convenience that arises in most areas—not all, of course—from the arrangement of streets in walking order, or whatever one calls it. As has been pointed out by the hon. Member for Skipton (Mr. H. Lawson), local authorities are not all efficient; many of them will take the easiest course because they are not fighting the election—they are not suffering the trouble and bother. I do not want to pamper Members of Parliament, or even people who want to be Members, but it would make a tremendous difference in the work involved.

Mr. H. Morrison

The hon. Member for Skipton (Mr. Hugh Lawson) is obviously bursting for a Division, in which case there is no point in being conciliatory to him, but if it will meet his wish and that of the hon. and learned Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt) I will see whether there is anything the Home Office can do, by administrative action, to meet the point. The real trouble is that there are villages, as hon. Members will agree, where, quite frankly, one does not know whether it is a street or an accidental conglomeration of houses, and in those cases the alphabetical list would be the right one. Sometimes it is not easy to make a clear discrimination, but I have every sympathy, as has the Solicitor-General, with what the hon. Member for Skipton is getting at, and if he will leave it at that we will look into it and consider whether we can give such advice to registration officers, with a view to getting the maximum degree of sense into the matter, I will do that. I will certainly consider that and see what can be done, and I trust that, having said these reasonable words, my hon. Friend will not think it necessary to bother the Committee with a Division.

Mr. H. Lawson

I was not going to bother the Committee with a Division. In view of what the Home Secretary has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw my Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

Sir E. Findlay

I would like to ask the Home Secretary one or two questions in regard to multigraphing and printing the registers. The first is whether printers can only take on such a job with the staff they have available and whether, if they have staff available for such a rush job—which will take two or three months—it will presumably mean that they have had more men than they needed in the last few years. Furthermore, there is to be a considerably greater call up, and I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to make quite certain, before this Bill becomes law, that we are not leading the electorate up the garden path—to put it in a commonplace way—and that he can fulfil the promises which he is making in regard to the registers.

For example, the printing of a new register in Edinburgh and the surrounding constituencies requires a column 1,000 yards long. The only people who can set that type are expert type-setters, and they are not to-day with the printers. They have been directed to other jobs. I am under the impression—and I know the Home Secretary will correct me if I am wrong—that he has given a general direction that, where possible, men shall be returned from other war-time employment to printers for the few weeks or months required to print the registers. The difficulty is that they have been given no promise that they will go back to their original war-time job, which means that for a few weeks they will go from, say, the South of England, to printers in Edinburgh to do this job, after which they will be returned to the pool, and from the pool they may be sent to, say, Stockport. In such cases, they would have to move their families and make a new home for the rest of the war. I suggest that that is not going to get volunteers for the printing industry.

The other point is that when the Home Secretary was making his preliminary suggestion in regard to printing these registers, he proposed that they should be printed at ordinary rates. As 99 per cent. will be printed as overtime, it is surely reasonable that he should meet the employers and, if necessary, the employees' unions, to see that a fair rate is paid for work which is obviously of national importance. There will be enormous labour trouble unless the right hon. Gentleman clarifies the position at a very early date and makes certain, in his own mind, that the regulations which he will frame will give plenty of time for these registers to be printed with the limited staffs available.

Mr. H. Morrison

I do not disguise from the Committee that the physical problem of the printing of these registers is going to be very considerable. It will be very difficult, but I think we shall manage it all right. That is my first observation. My second is that we shall have to manage it all right. If there is an election, it must be conducted in a proper manner, and there must be registers for it. I agree it is going to be difficult owing to the unavoidable upset which has taken place in the printing industry throughout the length and breadth of the land. We have been in consultation with His Majesty's Stationery Office and also with the Master Printers' Federation, the printing trade unions, the Newspaper Proprietors' Association and the Newspaper Society, so that we have sought to get the co-operation of all the elements of the printing industry, including the newspaper people, and I think they are all willing to give us the greatest possible help.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Sir E. Findlay) that some trouble about wages, and so on, will arise. The Government's Fair Wages Clause ought to take care of it and, in any case, we will try to be fair about that, and I recognise that the registers may be more expensive to produce now than in peace time. With regard to the matter of a man coming back to print the registers and then going into the Ministry of Labour pool and being sent where he is required, I understand from my hon. Friend's point that he would like the man to be able to go back to the job from whence he immediately came. That, of course, is a Ministry of Labour point rather than a Home Office one, but I take notice of it and will raise it with the Ministry of Labour.

The Deputy-Chairman

I think I ought to have intervened before. We must not develop that point any further.

Mr. Morrison

In that case I can say no more, but I hope from what I have said that my hon. Friend will realise that I am conscious of his points and will do all I can to meet them.

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

Clauses 15 and 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.