HC Deb 17 January 1945 vol 407 cc323-8

For the purpose of any Parliamentary election initiated under this Act, Part I of the Second Schedule to the Representation of the People Act, 1918, shall be read and have effect as though in line 13 "thirty-seventh day" were substituted for "ninth day."—[Mr. Woodburn.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Woodburn

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

This Clause deals with an extension of time between nomination and polling day. On behalf of the Prime Minister a statement was made this morning which meets to some extent the point raised here, that is that His Majesty's Government are to give notice, as it were, of the date of the Proclamation, and that a further 21 days will be available as a warning that an election is to take place. But the point still remains—and I would like the Minister to consider this carefully, because it is important—that there ought to be some extra time allowed between nomination and polling day. During this war, and especially in the conditions likely to exist when an Election takes place, the question of labour in printing offices, and for nearly all the activities otherwise connected with an Election, will be very difficult. What can be accomplished in the normal nine days will not be capable of solution in the circumstances in which we are now living. I suggest to the Minister that he considers the possibility, within the notice and counting of the votes, of an extension by some days of the time between nomination and polling day. If the recommendations of the Speaker's Conference on another subject are accepted the registration officer will not be responsible for sending out polling cards. Ballot papers, polling cards, and other documents cannot be printed until nominations are actually the fact, and I ask whether the Government have really inquired into the possibility of this printing work being done in the normal time set apart for the election? If an election takes place this year or next the labour position cannot possibly be normal and, therefore, I hope something will be done along these lines.

There is also this difficulty, that halls will not be available in the normal way. Many are still cluttered up with all kinds of Civil Defence apparatus, and it may be that candidates will not have the chance of meeting all their constituents in that short time. It is true that they may desert their duties in Parliament during the 21 days of which notice has to be given and rush off to their constituencies, but I do not think that that would be advisable. The election itself ought to be confined to this time. Another recommendation of the Speaker's Conference is to restrict severely the amount of money to be spent on the election and with the rise of printing costs, etc., the time for and possibility of electioneering will be severely restricted. That may make for difficulties in regard to printing and the hire of halls. It will not be possible to hire extravagant picture houses in the middle of an election, and pay those who run them for excluding their audiences. Therefore, it may be difficult to fit in an election in the normal way. I put this matter forward seriously on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends. I think registration officers and those who are working in the election would welcome some extra days. It may not be possible to give them exactly in the terms of this Amendment, but I would ask the Minister to give the matter serious consideration before this Bill becomes law.

Mr. Turton

I hope the Lord Advocate will not be taken in too much by the persuasive argument of my hon. Friend the Member for East Stirling (Mr. Woodburn) who, I think, left out two very important factors. Do this Committee and people generally wish to have the business of the country dislocated for a longer period than the nine days allowed under the present law? The next election will take place at a very vital time when we are changing from the war against Germany to the war against Japan, and I think to extend the period between nomination and polling day would not be in the interests of the business of the country or the general welfare of the community. Further, and more important, I think it will be of interest to everybody in the Committee to keep down election expenses, to enable people without means, especially those who have served their country in this war, to stand for Parliament. If we add to the period within which money can be spent it will make it more difficult for the man without means to stand for Parliament.

7.0 p.m.

I think it would be a great disservice to the country if, when the Speaker's Conference recommended that election expenses should be cut down, we approved of a proposal which would add to the financial burden placed on every candidate. If you have a period between nomination and polling day of 30 days it is quite impossible in the average constituency, especially in rural constituencies, to keep within the prescribed limit of expenditure. I hope the Government will not entertain the suggestion which has been so persuasively put forward.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

I am inclined to agree that 30 days is rather too long, but I think my hon. Friend suggested that some shorter period might be considered. It is true that various committees have considered this, and registration officers to whom I have spoken are very much in favour of some addition to the number of days in order to give time to get printing done and for other purposes ancillary to a General Election. One point which was not made by my hon. Friend is that the additional number of days could be taken from the 21 which we are going to get in any case. It would not lengthen the election, but it would give more elbow room for registration officers and candidates than they will have under these proposals. A further argument in its favour is that possibly many candidates in the Forces who will fight the next election will be some distance from this country when the election comes and it would be unfair to them if the period is not as long as it should be in order to give them time to get home. I hope the Solicitor-General will look at this in a favourable light and see if something cannot be done to extend the period in view of all the difficulties that are likely to face us when the election comes.

Mr. Hugh Lawson

I think the arguments which have been put forward in favour of the new Clause are perfectly sound and I agree with them. I do not think that the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) made out his case that a longer election favours the rich man as against the poor. I know there is a longer time in which to spend money, but it seems to me that a person who is relying mainly on voluntary help, a person of limited resources, can make a better showing in a little longer time than one who is relying mainly on money and can make a big splash in a very short time. But my main reason for wishing to see an extension of time is to prevent a rush and a snap election such as took place in 1918. I have always regarded the seven and a half weeks' period as a very great safeguard to prevent an election taking place on some false issue arising after an armistice. While I welcome the statement that has been made by the Deputy Prime Minister, I see no reason why this should not be incorporated in the Bill. If we had a longer period it would be a safeguard against a snap election.

Mr. Woodburn

May I put a point to clear up a misunderstanding which, I am sure, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) has? The argument now is not to extend in any way the time when people know there will be an election. We have been told there will be a three weeks' warning. The only point is whether within that three weeks we are going to vary the date of nomination. We are not suggesting that there should be any lengthening of that period. The 21 days can be reduced to 14 or 17, or whatever may be possible, but a few extra days may make all the difference between success and failure in regard to printing and other practical work that has to be done.

The Solicitor-General

As I understood my hon. Friend the Member for East Stirling (Mr. Woodburn) there are really two points. One is whether there is sufficient time for electioneering, and the second is whether there is sufficient time for printing and the actual mechanics of preparation. With regard to the first point, I do not see how there can be any difficulty about starting the campaign if a person wants to do it. The practice is that after the notice of the proclamation for Dissolution, which has to be 21 days, there has usually been a period of Prorogation before the actual Dissolution date. I only heard the statement read by the Deputy Prime Minister, and I cannot be sure without reference to it whether that period of Prorogation could possibly take up part of the 21 days. I should not like to say without verifying it from the statement, but it does meet my hon. Friend's point because he was afraid of people being kept at their duties in this House up to the last minute. If there is a period of Prorogation they will not have to do that, and, if they like, they can start their election campaigns. That is really what was in the mind of my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), because he was afraid that the period might be too long and too expensive for those with short purses. As I understand the position, postulating that period of Prorogation, it will be a matter of choice, and whether nomination day has come or gone will not prevent anyone starting his campaign if he wants to do it. We will certainly bear the second point in mind. I am sure everyone in all quarters of the Committee will want to make this Bill succeed, and we shall do our utmost to consult, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, all sections of the printing industry to see that we have allowed enough time. I give my hon. Friend the assurance that we shall bear that point in mind.

Mr. Woodburn

With that assurance in mind, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the new Clause.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

First Schedule agreed to.